Arthur Slepian, Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, speaks about acknowledging and loving the complicated reality of Israel. This sermon was given at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco on Yom Kippur day, 2014 – 5775.
Shabbat shalom and L’shana tovah. When Rabbi Angel first invited me to speak today about Israel, I had several thoughts: The first was: What an amazing honor and challenge, and of course I accept. My second thought followed shortly thereafter: Has any High Holy Day sermon at Sha’ar Zahav about Israel ever gone well? And third: This is the holiest day of the year, a time when we are asked to be in deep personal reflection. How do I speak about this topic, in a way that is truly authentic for me, without disturbing the peace of the day for someone? I imagine that some of you may already be uncomfortable, and I want to acknowledge that I am uncomfortable too.
I worry that the world is being overrun by extremists, by fanatics who are completely certain that there is one right answer and that they possess it. I worry about it as it relates to the Middle East in general, to Israel in particular, to how Israelis think about their own condition, to how we as Jews in the Diaspora think about Israel, and how the world thinks about Israel and the Jews. I worry about extremism on the right and on the left. I worry about religious extremism. That’s a lot to worry about. I invite you to worry about it with me.
There is a story in the Talmud that for three years there was a dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. Each side claimed that their interpretation of Jewish law was correct. And then the Talmud says, a bat kol, a voice from God, came forth and said “eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim,” meaning “both these and these are the words of the living God.”
More recently, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Our Western logical minds are not accustomed to the idea that two opposing ideas can both be true. But Israel can be much better understood when looked at through this lens. And it is a perspective that can steer us away from extremism. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim. Both these and these.
“Israel is in so many ways a miracle and a blessing….but there is another story.”
The modern history of Israel’s creation is filled with stories of courage and bravery, deep determination and passion. People who understood that there really was no future for the Jewish people in the lands that had been their homes, people who came to Eretz Yisrael and against all odds, built a nation. Israel’s history over the past 66 years is filled with great leaders, brilliant scientists, academics and artists who have made enormous contributions to the betterment of the human condition. People who built and sustained democratic institutions that have led to peaceful transitions of power and leadership. Israel is in so many ways a miracle and a blessing.
But there is another story. There is a darker side to the history of Zionism — Israel’s creation included massive dislocation, death, and war. No nation, including our own, has ever been born solely by a succession of good deeds, with no painful choices. In the decades leading up to 1948, Arabs massacred Jews and Jews massacred Arabs. The Palestinian people have a story too, and they, too, love the land.
This has been a summer of astonishing violence in the Middle East. In Iraq, in Syria, in Israel, and in Gaza. What do we do with that today?
On Yom Kippur, one of our traditions is to read names: I would like to offer the following names for us to hold in our hearts today:
• Eyal Yifrach, 19 years old, Naftali Fraenkel, 16 years old, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16 years old kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank.
• And Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16, who was brutally murdered in a forest of Jerusalem.
• Daniel Tragerman, a 4 year-old boy, who was killed near his home on Kibbutz Nahal Oz and Kamal Ahmed al-Bakri and Aseel Muhammad al-Bakri, four year-old children, killed in Gaza City.
Israeli and Palestinian. Both these and these.
What I want to tell you today is as simple as realizing that two opposing ideas can be true, and it is also this: acknowledging that there are two stories does not mean that we need to be ambivalent, paralyzed, or to turn away. I know the two stories, and knowing that these are both complicated, messy stories, I choose to love Israel.
“I choose to love Israel… because this is my story, the story of our people.”
I choose to love Israel, and I choose to be a Zionist, in part because this is my story, the story of our people. Our beloved teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote: “The Jewish People… forced to leave their ancient country, have never abandoned, never forsaken, the Holy Land; the Jewish People have never ceased to be passionate about Zion. It has always lived in a dialogue with the Holy Land.”
Over the last 66 years, Israel has become home to half the world’s Jewish population. More than 3 million Jews have immigrated to Israel since the state was created in 1948. More than 650,000 from Poland, Romania, and other European countries …….and if only some of the 6 million had made it there. More than three quarters of a million people from Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya and other countries of the Middle East and Africa. More than 100,000 Jews from Ethiopia. And more than 1.2 million people from the former Soviet Union. I cannot imagine where else these three million Jews would have gone.
“Israel is the umbrella for the Jewish people of the world against the dark rains of anti-Semitism, an ugliness that seems to only fade away but never to disappear.”
And this summer, with a certain degree of irony, as rockets were raining down across Israel, thousands of European Jews chose to make Aliyah. Why did they choose the rockets? Because violence against Jews and a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric is once again being reported all over the world, but most especially in Europe. In May four people were murdered in an attack at the Jewish museum in Brussels. A synagogue in Wuppertal Germany was firebombed in July. Two synagogues were attacked in Paris in July, as protestors chanted “Death to the Jews.” On social media, one can find long threads under the hashtag “Hitler was right.” I choose to love Israel because it is the umbrella for the Jewish people of the world against the dark rains of anti-Semitism, an ugliness that seems to only fade away but never to disappear.
My love for Israel is not only about Israel as our historic homeland, or as a safe haven for our people. There is more. I leave for Israel in exactly two weeks. This is the fourth annual LGBT trip to Israel that I have led since I founded A Wider Bridge in 2010. Our participants include people of all ages, from all over the U.S., people of all genders and colors and with a diversity of religious practices. Most are coming to Israel for the first time. We will meet Zehorit Sorek, an Orthodox lesbian Jew from a Morrocan family. Zehorit made history in 2011, when her son became a Bar Mitzvah at an orthodox synagogue in Tel Aviv, and she and her partner Limor were both openly acknowledged as the parents of the Bar Mitzvah boy. We will meet Elisha Alexander. Elisha is one of Israel’s leading transgender activists. He runs a leadership development program for young Israeli trans people, and he was one of the leaders this year of a broad coalition that secured important changes to the Israeli regulations that govern the procedures for sex reassignment surgeries.
“…more and more young gay and lesbian Jews from around the world are making Aliyah”
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in the past year that more and more young gay and lesbian Jews from around the world are making Aliyah. When asked why, many of said they came because they felt it would be easier for them to find a Jewish partner in Israel. And they knew they would be safe there and that they could be out there. In most of the Middle East today, it is not safe to be a Jew, not safe to be an LGBT person, not safe to be a Christian, a Kurd, or a Yazidi. In some places it is not safe to be a Sunni Muslim; in some places it is not safe to be a Shiite Muslim. In many places it is not safe to be a woman. Yet Israel, even with the recent ugly rise in anti-Arab racism, even with all of its social divides, still provides more safety and equality for minorities, for women, for LGBT people, than most countries of the world.
I love waking up in a place that is Jewish, a place where I can listen to Hebrew on the streets, a place that quiets down on Shabbat. If we were in Israel today, on Yom Kippur, we would know it was Yom Kippur just by stepping outside into the air. Something special happens when a place becomes our home. We surely know that here at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.
And yet, I know there is another story. And that story helps me to see that there are also things about Israel that I do not love. This other story helps me to understand that for Israel to survive, for Zionism to survive, the land must be divided.
I can sometimes feel the temptations of extremism. When someone says to me “well, the Palestinians should all just move to Jordan” or someone else says “Israel is attempting genocide on the Palestinians” I can feel my centrist, two-story approach evaporating, and my inner extremist wants to force his way out. You’re not exactly the life of the party when you say: “Well, actually the situation is more complicated than that.”
“Anti-Semitism is no less ugly when it comes in a pink wrapper.”
As a progressive queer Jew, I am especially disturbed by the extremist anti-Israel vitriol that comes from some on the far left. I have heard too often from young queer Jews who love Israel that they feel much safer being queer in a Jewish community than they do being Jewish in a queer community. Anti-Semitism is no less ugly when it comes in a pink wrapper.
In so many ways we live in a bubble here in northern California. For the most part, we do not send our children into the army, we have not had the experience of rockets raining down upon our cities, our enemies are not building tunnels underneath our communities. Israelis know that while their country may be the size of New Jersey, they are not in New Jersey, and they are surely not in California.
Ari Shavit, the author of the acclaimed book “My Promised Land” offers stern warnings to Israelis on the right that “there is no future for living by our sword alone.” But, Shavit writes, “The liberals among us must also understand that we’re not a superpower. We’re a tiny minority-nation under attack. … Despite the Zionist revolution and Israeli sovereignty, we are still Jews.” “As Jews we must defend ourselves, and as Jews we must stand for justice.” Eilu v’eilu. Both these and these.
I have offered you my perspective, but I am “of a certain generation”, the child of grandparents who escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe, of parents with deep memories of the Holocaust, who took great pride in the birth of the tiny nation of Israel in 1948. I was 12 years old in 1967, and I remember being glued to the television, watching reports of what seemed like a miracle. Israel, a small country outnumbered by enemies on all sides aiming for its destruction, emerged victorious in a war that lasted only six days. To a 12 year old boy in Brooklyn, it all seemed very simple: the good guys had won. We had won.
But what of today’s younger generation, who are being raised with news reports about Israel that are not so simple?
As I prepared to speak with you today, I took some time to talk with two young adult members of our congregation. I called Amman Jordan to talk with Elijah Jatovsky. Elijah grew up at Sha’ar Zahav. He is the son of our long-time member and current Va’ad member Ron Lezell, and had his Bar Mitzvah at CSZ in 2006. Elijah is now a junior at Georgetown University, majoring in international politics. He is spending this semester in Jordan, studying Middle Eastern Diplomacy at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy, studying Arabic, and volunteering with several organizations that provide aid and education to Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Jordan.
“…there is absolutely a way to love and support Israel while being consistent with our progressive values.”
Elijah told me he feels fortunate that both his parents instilled in him a deep connection to Israel from a very early age. He has been there numerous times and had the chance to live there with his mom for six months when he was 12, attending an Arab-Jewish bilingual school in the North near Karmiel. So that even as he has come to learn that the story and history of Israel is much more “nuanced” (as he put it) than he was taught throughout his 12 years of Jewish day school education, it did not cause him to lose interest or turn away, but rather to want to work for serious change. Elijah is one of the leaders of the J Street U chapter at Georgetown, and is deeply committed to a two state solution to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with all of the difficult compromises that that would entail. As Elijah put it to me, it’s not that the two-state solution is the best solution, it’s really the only solution. He has a strong commitment to the idea of the Jewish people as a nation, and the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish, democratic state, while being unequivocally opposed to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. Elijah told me that if he could be here today speaking with you, his message to us and to the Jews of his generation is that there is absolutely a way to love and support Israel while being consistent with our progressive values. Ari Shavit writes, “There is no Zionist solution for Israel that is not a liberal one, and no liberal solution for Israel that is not a Zionist one. Elijah and I agreed that that summed things up pretty well.
“What motivates a bright 18 year old from San Francisco… to serve as a lone soldier in the IDF?”
My second conversation was with Max Malakoff, a member of our congregation and the son of Merle Malakoff, our past Treasurer, and Gina Surber. Max had his Bar Mitzvah at CSZ in 2008. Max is here today, having just returned from Israel a few weeks ago, completing a stay of close to two years. Max arrived in Israel in October 2012, and after several months of preparation and intensive Hebrew language study, he spent 14 months as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, serving in the Tzanchanim brigade, a paratrooper brigade that receives five times more applicants than it can accept. While some army units are referred to as “boots on the ground,” the Tzanchanim are known as “boots in the air.” The work of this unit is arduous, dangerous, with always the possibility that it will be life-threatening.
What motivates a bright 18 year old from San Francisco, raised in a family where Israel was not particularly a focus, to choose to travel to a country more than 7,000 miles away, where he knows little of the language, to serve as a lone soldier in a combat division of the army? I asked Max this, and he said first that it was a “gut feeling” he had in his stomach, and then that “he was following his heart”. Every fiber of his being told him that this was something he needed to do and wanted to do. Why? Because when he visited Israel when he was 16 he had fallen in love with the land and the spirit of its people. When he learned on that trip that there were lone soldiers from other countries who served in the Israel Defense Forces, he knew that he wanted to be one of them.
“I feel like I have more than 300 mothers back in Israel,” Max said, recalling countless families who reached out and extended their arms around him.”
What was the experience like? One of the things Max recalled most was the amazing gratitude that so many Israelis showed toward him. Israelis understand that their very survival is being threatened, and they are overwhelmed when they see young men and women from other countries, choosing of their own free will to serve in Israel’s defense. Max told me, “If I was in the supermarket in my uniform, speaking my not very good Hebrew, as soon as people realized I was a lone soldier I was invited to their home for dinner.” “I feel like I have more than 300 mothers back in Israel,” Max said, recalling countless families who reached out and extended their arms around him.
While Max was in Israel, another lone soldier, Max Steinberg, was killed while in combat in Gaza. Max Steinberg was 24 years old and from Los Angeles, and a friend of our Max. On August 4, Max went to Max Steinberg’s funeral in Jerusalem, along with 30,000 other Israelis, almost all of whom did not know Max Steinberg personally, but who were grateful for his service and mourning his loss.
I asked Max if it was hard to come home to San Francisco. It wasn’t hard to come home he said, but it was hard to leave Israel. Max came home more mature than when he left two years ago, having had a range of experiences most of his friends here could not imagine. “Growth,” Max said to me, comes as a result of being put in uncomfortable positions and finding a way to succeed.”
These are two remarkable young men: Elijah and Max. I am so honored to have gotten to know both of them. Each of them has forged their own unique, independent, and very personal relationship with Israel. Relationships based on integrity, on deeply held values, on a commitment to action and to a love of the Jewish people. And I am so proud that our congregation has played a role in nurturing and educating each of them.
“I invite you to engage with Israel in all of its truths…”
In the coming year, I invite you to engage with Israel in all of its truths, come experience it, find your place in it, work to make it a better, more just and pluralistic nation, and work to ensure that it survives. Both these and these. Because it is part of our story, part of our heritage, part of our future, and we are all responsible for one another.