This week’s Parsha is Balak, from Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers. Balak, king of Moab, has seen how, while journeying to the Promised Land, the People of Israel defeated the Amorites. In defense, he sends messengers to Bilaam, a pagan prophet, to curse the Israelites.
God forestalls this curse, but in ways that confuse Bilaam, using hidden angels and a talking ass. Eventually, things become clear. Bilaam sees all Israel camped tribe-by-tribe, the spirit of God comes upon him, and he recites “Mah tovu, ohalecha Ya'acov, mishk'notecha Yisrael - How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! ” Strife and confusion yield to peace and clarity.
So, how can Jews in a liberal community think about Israel? The simple answer: “any way we wish”; the reality, like that initially facing Bilaam, is complex. How can we, like Bilaam, reach peace and clarity?
Gary and I explore this in detail in [the Temple’s online journal] Open Space, and we hope you will read it. Despite our differing views, this project has strengthened our common ground as fast friends and fellow Jews. It is a vivid example of how our Temple can thrive with differing views on hard issues
This evening, I will touch on a few themes.
Can you be a Jew and not a Zionist? Of course, although this places one outside Jewish mainstreams and guiding principles of Reform. An even deeper test is to answer this question, echoing a famous Haggadah passage: is Israel “we” or “they”?
Of course, even as we identify with Israel, other Jews will judge the impact of our actions on our tribe, a term many of us use tongue in cheek, or with scorn, but which captures who we are. We are a people in covenant with God and each other, with Israel our eternal homeland.
So, where does this leave us? There truly is a wide range of “inside the tent” positions within our Jewish community on Israeli actions. What these share is a commitment to Israel as a Jewish state and homeland. Israel is “we.” I have many close friends who shade well left of my views on Mideast issues, while being deeply and vocally committed to Israel
Certainly, Israelis have always had a wide range of views; though such debates are within the “family.” For American Jews, I suggest that responses to Israeli actions should be more restrained. This view troubles and even offends many, but Diaspora critiques of Israel can reinforce broader attacks on its legitimacy. They can strengthen Israel’s adversaries, and those who serve their purposes.
And make no mistake; Israel is at war, with mortal enemies, no less so than the Moabites. And, like Balak, these enemies use others, including those of good heart, like Bilaam, to seek Israel’s defeat.
Many Mideast activists use the Occupation as the rationale to criticize Israel, arguing that without occupation, there would be peace, Israel would be secure, and terror would end. These arguments ring true to many Jews, for whom the notion of Jews as occupiers is repugnant.
My reading of history is that this view on the role of the occupation, held by many on the Left and not a few Jews, is wrong and, deeply harmful, in its effect, to Israel. It leads to a fundamentally unbalanced stance that makes Israel’s action, or inactions, the sole driver of current hostilities.
Arab hostility to Israel long predates the Occupation, and extends far deeper. And the Occupation itself emerged from Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six Days War, a war of self-defense against Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Moreover, the West Bank is the historic heartland of Israel. It is Hebron, not Tel Aviv, that has had a central role in Jewish religion and history over millennia.
So, though I favor a two-state solution, with Israel leaving Gaza and much of the West Bank, Jewish presence in the West Bank is neither illegitimate nor to be given up lightly. In calling for evacuation of settlements, we must do so with a heavy heart and not ease. Finally, we must be mindful that, to military experts, the 1967 Green Line is not a defensible border.
The writer Yossi Klein Halevi has crystallized our internal tensions and how they must be resolved. He argues that the “right, has won the argument over the true nature of Palestinian society, but the left has won the argument over the disaster of occupation” and that “left and right have to listen to the warnings of each other.” He reminds us that “[t]he twin teachings of our past are ‘Beware of Amelek’ -- those who are out to destroy the nation of Israel -- and 'Remember you were once strangers.” Halevi’s point is that, while “the ideas that we have real enemies and that we must treat others justly are on the surface contradictory,” it is that very “paradox our history and tradition forces us to wrestle with.”
Closer to home, we need to reframe the “dissent” issue, which Gary discusses so well, whose latest incarnation dates back three years to the effort to bring Israeli Refusers to our Temple.
Much that has been called dissent, by “both” sides, is really not. Disagreement is not always dissent; it is often simply disagreement, freely expressed. Moreover, when Temple leadership does not agree with or act on the views of some congregants, or communicate those views through Temple channels, it is not chilling dissent; it is simply agreeing to disagree and acting on formal mandates for leadership.
Of course, no member should be ostracized or penalized for holding or expressing specific views – opposing the Sharon government, agreeing on dividing Jerusalem, opposing single payor health care, even voting Republican. But life does not guarantee comfort and these are serious matters. The freedom to disagree with others implies their freedom to disagree with you.
Our recent Scholar-in-Residence, Zohar Raviv addressed this tension between two essentials: community norms and individual viewpoints. Zohar emphasizes the importance of a “commitment to the communal aspect of Judaism: understanding that one’s view – as cherished as it is – is exactly that: one view. It is therefore essential to come to dialogue with other views, even if risking one’s own preconceived assumptions.” He emphasized that we can simultaneously maintain community norms and values, properly arrived at, while encouraging learned, and informed free expression.
We must also be open to the fact that profound insights come from unexpected places, just as a pagan prophet is the surprising source for one of our most famous prayers, Mah Tovu.
Together, we must build the internal connections and common identity that can foster shared norms and weather inevitable, and indeed, indispensable, disagreements. With these connections, we need not fear losing a friend or congregant because of our views . . . or theirs. Shared worship, in this Sanctuary, is one powerful way to build those connections, but that is a topic for another time.
To close; in approaching Israel-related issues as a community, we should be intentional, acting consistent with our mission statement’s call for support for Israel. In this regard, let me draw on the latest Reform Judaism magazine, which has excellent essays on Zionism.
Two essays are especially on point. One author, finding herself estranged from Israel for reasons familiar to many of us, reports growing up in a deeply Zionist home and then, as an adult, joining a Reform synagogue characterized by critiques of Israel and a focus on Israel's negative treatment of Reform. She asks, “how is one to feel ‘spiritual closeness’ with Israel amid the swirl of critiques and contentiousness.” How indeed?
Building on this theme, ARZA’s President notes in that same issue the “difficulty of communicating liberal Zionism to a richly diverse American Reform constituency [born after the 1967 and 1973 wars] and those who were not born into Jewish families.”
In considering, therefore, how we approach Israel as a synagogue and community, we must recognize that, to paraphrase Kohelet, we reap what we sow. So, let us take care that our congregation acts in ways that sow love of Israel in the hearts of our children and our members.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.