By DENISE L. EGER
As many of you know I spent the month of my sabbatical this summer in Israel. For the last number of years I have spent some time each summer there. It keeps me grounded and connected in a different way to the ancient stories of our people when I can walk the streets of Jerusalem and feel the bustle of Tel Aviv. Israel is more than just the modern State of Israel born in 1948. Its tendrils reach out to us from ancient times.
I imagine myself as I walk in Jerusalem in the footsteps of the people when the Temple stood so beautifully on Mt. Moriah. I imagine even further when Jacob and his family had to bury his beloved Rachel on the road as they traveled and I visit her tomb just outside Bethlehem. I imagine Abraham schlepping Isaac up the mountain to that strange encounter when God’s love and compassion kept Abraham from destroying his child, his dream and his future and ours.
This image in my mind however is the fantasy of the past. The romanticization of our history. But it is this history of our people played out on the cobblestones and hills of Israel that reminds me I am part of something so much bigger than just the rabbi of West Hollywood or just Denise Eger. It links me eternally to a bigger family. It reminds me I am not alone. We are part of the Jewish people and that land is our heritage and birthright.
So too the pioneer myths of those that came in the 1920s to build up the land of Israel. You know the stories of the halutzim – the pioneers that founded the first kibbutz, Degania in the Galilee. They worked day and night – these European peasants and intellectuals that escaped pogroms of Eastern Europe. Their calloused hands drained the swamps. Planted trees and out of nothing built a country. By the sweat of their brow and the backbreaking work, the image of the pre-state of Israel – that we once called Palestine – during the time of the British mandate following World War I was also a romantic image of black and white newsreels. It was these images and the blue boxes of the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Palestine/Israel that helped create generations of Zionists. Then not a dirty word.
And of course the ever present threats against this group of Jews and in truth all Jews around the world. Arabs marauders who would attack in the dead of night. Riots in Jaffa/Tel Aviv in the 1920s that killed some of the youngest and brightest whose graves are still marked in Tel Aviv today. And of course over the last 60 years – the image of the IDF Soldier – small Israel fending off attack after attack of the strong Arab states – from the War of Independence to the Yom Kippur war in 1973. This image of small Israel against the world fueled our Zionism. Fueled our connection and caring about Israel and shaped our Jewish identities. Israel was a place to be proud of.
The height of course, in a blossoming romantic relationship with Israel being the Six Day War in June of 1967. This is when Israel came into its own – and we American Jews took notice in a new way. Our pride, our identities as Jews became entwined with the modern State of Israel in an important way that shaped us and shaped Israelis. Because Israel had new respect in the world. Because we Jews were strong after being decimated by the Shoah. Because we Jews in America in the late 1960s were involved in the struggle for African-American civil rights and emerging liberty and justice and Israel’s win against all odds, the underdog overcoming the mighty many was symbolic on so many levels.
But today our relationship as an American Jewish community is very different than this. And it is very troubling. Most of American Jews are disengaged from Israel. Perhaps you are one of them. Among liberal Jews this is most acute. And our young people – those in their twenties and thirties – too young to remember the Six Day War, or the Yom Kippur War or even understand the images of Holocaust refugees and survivors rebuilding their lives in an ancient land – are more disengaged from Israel than ever before.
Even though Birthright – the organization in the Jewish community that offers a nearly free trip to Israel for young people ages 18-26 – has surpassed more than 100,000 young people going to Israel, young Jews are disinterested and even hostile to Israel. And in truth so are many of us.
We believe the slanted news reports of CNN and others. We haven’t ever visited and are scared to do so by images we see on screen. And so we are disconnected from a place that is your birthright. A holy place even when the policy of the government isn’t so holy.
We don’t understand or we don’t have a connection to that sacred place. We don’t see it as a place that speaks to us. It might be a place to visit along side our list of other exotic locales but Israel is no longer for most American Jews of any age a holy place.
We don’t understand how Israel can behave the way it does on the world stage at times. It doesn’t make sense to us. And we can’t understand as liberal Jews a chief Rabbinate that represents religious and spiritual values so different than our own!
In a radical and controversial article that appeared in the New York Review of Books, Peter Bienart, Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York, blasted the American Jewish establishment for its handling of the relationships between American Jewish college students and Israel. He described the findings of in-depth research conducted to assess the relationship of young Jews to Israel. And here is the heart of the findings. I quote from his article:
"Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead."
Bienart correctly describes the frustration of young American liberal Jews and in truth many of us. Our progressive Jewish values seem to clash with the Jewish state. Why can’t there be peace with the Palestinians? Why isn’t there religious freedom for liberal Jews? And why are women not allowed to read Torah at the wall? All important questions to be asked and important questions that need answers.
But instead of engaging when we disagree with Israeli policy we Liberal Jews have checked out – we are disengaged with Israel. Too many of us no longer see it as part of our birthright, our heritage, our concern. We have become as hostile to Israel as her enemies. And in the LGBT community the hostility to Israel is deep even when Israel is the only country in the Middle East where gay men and lesbians live in relative peace and equality.
And this morning of Rosh Hashana I want to challenge you to remember that indeed Israel is not just some place over there. But yours and mine. Israel is ours. We might not live there. But we have an important stake in Israel’s success and survival and Israel’s success and survival with Jewish values. A Jewish, democratic Israel.
This summer as I studied in Israel a group of women rabbis from the U.S. who were studying with me at the Hartman Institute decided to join for Rosh Chodesh prayers, the prayers welcoming the new month, the group known as Women at the Wall. Women at the Wall, led by former Jerusalem city councilwoman Anat Hoffman who is now the head of our Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center there.
Each month this group gathers at the Western Wall on the women’s side to pray together to welcome the new month. It was this group that sued the Chief Rabbinate in the Israeli Supreme Court for equal rights for women to pray aloud at the Wall and to read Torah. You see, the Rosh Chodesh morning service includes a Torah reading.
The chief Rabbinate of Israel refuses to let women read from the Torah not just there but especially there. They lost their court battle – kind of. They were allowed to pray but not loudly and they were allowed to wear their tallitot but more like scarves wrapped around their necks and they were allowed to read Torah – but not at the Kotel plaza in front of the Wall but down away from the Plaza in a separate area far away from the main part of the Kotel.
In July the group was a large group who had gathered that morning because there were also a lot of tourists that joined in. And so we were 150 women singing the morning worship. All the while the Jerusalem police were asking us to sing quieter. I had the privilege of standing next to Anat and we prayed together sharing a siddur. Anat always comes to speak to Kol Ami groups when we are visiting Israel.
The curses from the other side of the screen grew in volume and intensity as our prayers grew louder. The police kept asking us to move to the back of the women’s section because we kept inching forward to make room for all the women who joined us as the davening went on. The police weren’t impolite, but they were getting upset as our sense of community emboldened our prayers. On the men’s side were some of the husbands, sons, and friends of Women of the Wall praying with us and protecting us in case stones should suddenly fly over the screen. Leading us in prayer was a young Conservative Jewish medical student, Nofrat Frankel, who had been arrested last November for leading the prayers at the monthly Rosh Chodesh gathering in too loud a voice.
When we came to the Torah service Anat moved to the back of the gathering to get the Torah which was transported in a large canvas zipped bag. She felt emboldened by the music, and prayer and sheer numbers who came to take it out and carry it properly away from the wall toward spot we would read it. The group sang Torah songs much like on Simchat Torah, never stopping singing. As we exited the plaza through the turnstiles near the Dung gate the police appeared and began to jostle us – and Anat. I was standing next to her. And they started to surround her and grabbing at the Torah to remove it from her arms. In Hebrew she kept saying it is my Torah, it is our Torah (the Torah had been commissioned and written for Women of the Wall by the Women of Reform Judaism at a URJ Biennial).
They whooshed her and the Torah into a waiting police jeep. And drove her off in front of me and us to the police station at the Jaffa Gate. The Torah and Anat were arrested. Or at least detained. We all walked to the police station…finished the service singing outside the police compound. Anat and the Torah were released an hour later. With a slap on the wrist – saying she was banned from the Kotel plaza for 30 days. So she would miss Rosh Chodesh Elul. But the next day she appeared before the Knesset committee on Women and Equality, describing the outrage of what had happened. Many of us were with her there, too.
But because of what happened to Anat, to the Torah, and to us liberal Jews should we walk away? Should we stand with her? And stand our ground because we know when there has been an injustice. Or should we stand to ensure a Jewish democratic state – that needs us, that is crying out for a liberal, Jewish and spiritual life.
But let’s be honest, there is also so much we don’t understand because Israel is so complex. It is Western and Middle Eastern at the same time. It is a country that participates in the world with Developed nations while surrounded by third world countries and economies. It is a country trying to figure out what it means to be a Jewish democratic state. And fulfill a vision that we Americans can only partially relate to because we separate our faith, our religion from our politics. We here do it so naturally. And for we Jews it has been an important part of our success in this country ensuring the separation of Church and State.
But unlike here – in Israel Jews are a majority. The calendar is a Jewish calendar. Imagine there’s hardly a Christmas carol within earshot in December! And so we American liberal Jews have a hard time understanding the unique blending of Jewish culture and the state that is critical to the fabric of Israel.
Israel is still the only democracy in that region. It is a thriving country. In the recent Newsweek article about the best countries to live in Israel ranked Number 22 out of 100. Israel’s economy is one of the strongest in the world. Israel’s technology sector created everything from your cell phone to the technology that created instant messaging, programs that created comparative shopping programs like eBay and biotechnology like drip irrigation that has changed the way agriculture is done. Israel has incredible equality in the area of gay and lesbian rights, including the right to serve in the military and adoptions and the recognition of marriages performed in other jurisdictions. Israel has nine Nobel Prize winners, including the most recent last year in Chemistry!
When you go to Israel and spend some time there you also gain a different perspective on what it means to be surrounded by hostile nations. The threats against Israel are greater than ever. With Iran’s nuclear program about to power up in a new way and Hezbollah and Hamas having longer range missiles that can cover the entire country – Israel is more vulnerable to attack than ever. And this changes many equations in the balance of power.
But even as Israel struggles with these questions of national security and protection – Israel has been caught in its success of the Six Day War and the ways in which the Arab nations abandoned the Palestinians. On the one hand, the Arab nations use the Palestinian cause as a rallying cry but they do little to support the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian homeland or a governing infrastructure. In fact, Palestinians have few rights in neighboring countries of Jordan and Lebanon and Syria. Did you know that in Lebanese-Palestinians – born in Lebanon but of Palestinian descent – cannot become doctors? Certain professions in Lebanon are only for born Lebanese. It was only in late August that Lebanon gave limited employment rights to Palestinian refugees
. And in Jordan, where 50 percent of the population is of Palestinian descent, they also do not have rights. In fact, in February the Human Rights Watch reported
the Jordan has been systematically removing citizenship rights from Palestinians. In recent months more than 3,000 Palestinians born in Jordan have had their Jordanian citizenship rights removed as Jordan worries about a Palestinian majority taking over their country. And yet Israel when it worries about a Palestinian or Arab majority changing the Jewish nature of the state of Israel we are called racists by the world.
And so even as the Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to sit down to direct negotiations in recent weeks many questions remain.
We won’t solve the problems as complex as they are. But as Jews living in the 21st century we have to assert our historic and spiritual right to the sacred land that was given to Abraham our ancestor.
And we have to encourage Israel to live up to its highest spiritual ideal of our tradition to treat the Israeli Arab citizens with equality and dignity. To allow a diversity of Religious Jewish expressions. And to sit down with her neighbors as Israel is doing again to talk about peace. But not to abandon Israel to the world’s anti Israel and anti Semitic rhetoric fueled by a mischaracterization and lies about what Israel is and what Israel stands for.
This New Year Israel needs you. Needs you to get Engaged. I invite you to join me in a series of Conversations about Israel. From the left and the right that will open our hearts to this sacred holy place, that is our birthright. So that our Jewish values of dignity and respect for people and our vision of Jewish life for the 21st Century is expressed fully and embraced in the Jewish state.
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA, and a Hartman Institute Senior Rabbinic Fellow.