Rod’fei Shalom—Pursuers of Peace-Rosh Hashanah Inspiration

by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, Rosh HaShanah 5775

September 25, 2014

 Rosh Hashanah Inspiration. The cycle of the tradition brings our attention to those things we are responsible for in the past year for which we seek forgiveness. We are tasked with seeking out those we have wronged–or that we fear we have wronged–and to request to be granted forgiveness. At a minimum, we are asked to confront the reality that we have erred in this past year. There is an underlying understanding that no matter how hard we may have tried, we have all made some mistakes. We are led by the tradition to understand that since we cannot be sure of the righteousness of our actions, they all deserve to be examined.  And we are tasked with seriously considering how we can contribute to righting the wrongs of the world community.

This year is particularly troubling; this year there are so many crises to which we need to attend.  The new year begins, but in many ways it is, in the classic parlance of the late Yogi Berra, “deja-vu all over again.”  With rising Anti-Semitism throughout the world, menacing epidemic in Africa, global climate change, and multiple immense tensions in the Middle East, it might be easy to play ostrich, turn off the news, and call it a day.  But, though issues may be moved to the back burner, they can still burn us.  In fact, things heat up every time we turn our back on an issue that requires us to face it.  The world does not go into hiding, when we shut our eyes.  As Henry Kissinger once said, “Competing pressures tempt one to believe an issue differed is a problem avoided; more often, however, it is a crisis invited.

So permit me to share my thoughts and concerns regarding one situation that remains front and center in my heart—-Israel.  How complex the issues are, and how challenging it is to even bring the subjects up for discussion.

Many of you know that I was on a Mission this summer with the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America.  Initially it was a mission to see how our partners, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee, were doing in Greece and in Israel, and, indeed, I did observe, first-hand, how they are helping, and I’m happy to report that our monies are well-spent.  But the tenor of the trip changed drastically, two days into the trip, when I found myself searching the basement of the hotel in Tel Aviv for the bomb shelter, during one of several air raids I experienced during my two weeks in Aretz.  I was smack in the middle of “Operation Protective Edge,” and what an eye-opener it was.  Observing the efficacy of the Iron Dome, or as it is known in Israel, Kippat haBarzell/the Iron Yarmulke, I know that thousands of lives were saved in Israel.  Yes, it’s true that Israel did lose over sixty lives during this conflagration, and, yes, it’s true, that Israel did not retaliate for the over 1800 missiles that had been launched into her sovereign territory over the months preceding the war until the horrible kidnappings of the three Israeli teenagers and the brutal murder of the Palestinian teen.  Yet, as we saw over the weeks that followed, over 2,000 Gazans perished in the Operation, and, sadly, all too many of them were civilians.  I was in Israel; I certainly felt the threat of the bombs being lobbed at us.  Baruch HaShem, for the Iron Dome defense system.  And, while I understand how the barrage could not go unchecked, how I wish we could have avoided war…And the seven weeks of Operation Protective Edge was, indeed, a war.  But, let me be clear, this war was not between the Israelis and the Palestinian people.  It was a war between Israel and Hamas, whose charter calls for the eradication of Israel…and in fact, all Jews.   At the point at which Operation Protective Edge began, after months of random mortars being lobbed into Israel from Gaza, most, but not all, of Israelis felt that it was a war which had to take place.  On the other hand, some, but not all, felt it was a war that could have been avoided through earlier negotiations, cut off when Hamas had been accepted into the P.A., PLO, Fatah coalition.  But no one feels that it was a war that anyone won…unless, of course, you were the deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who, as recently as last Thursday, proclaimed that Hamas won the war, oblivious to the obvious military setbacks.  Does Hamas care more for the destruction of Israel than it does for the betterment of the Palestinians of Gaza?  (Witness the amount of money and effort it put into those terrorism tunnels, built with materials that were supposed to be for homes, schools, and hospitals.)  Hamas seems to have no interest in building the economy, supporting its people, yet it said it was fighting to open up the embargo and get more open trade routes.  Oy!

Here at home and all over Europe, demonstrations and rallies were held.  I called in from Israel to a pro-Israel rally that was taking place at the Adelson Center.  And I participated in one shortly after I returned to Vegas in mid-August, but some of the rallies here and elsewhere where very much anti-Israel, and, as we know, turned violently anti-Jewish in Paris and elsewhere.  In Brussels, earlier this month, a Jewish woman was refused medical care by a physician who told her to go to Gaza to get rid of her pain!  Incidents of stores refusing to sell to Jews have emerged in Brussels, Holland, and France.  Ironically, Germany and Germany’s Angela Merkle has come forward publicly to squelch anti-Semitic stirrings in Germany.  It is clear that the rise of anti-Zionism is intrinsically linking itself to a rise in anti-Semitism.

Some of us are blinded by fear.  My manicurist, for instance, cannot discuss current events because she refuses to read the newspapers or watch the news.  She feels she cannot handle the stress, and, “anyway,” she says, shrugging, “I can’t do anything about anything.”

I can understand her fears and I can understand her sense of impotence to affect change, but I do not agree with it.  There is always something we can do. As we begin this new year, it is incumbent on all of us to look in the mirror and ask if we have done all we can to seek peace wherever it may lie. Have we made a commitment to work for peace? Are we true rodefei shalom/pursuers of peace?

In a recent article in the “Israel Times”, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute in Israel, confessed that his resolution this New Year is to be a “Peaceaholic.” This, he explains:

“reminds us that we are obligated to not fall prey to self-righteousness and a perpetual, self-exonerating blame game, which frees us from responsibility, because, ‘It’s not our fault,’ ‘They started it,’ ‘There is nothing that we can do.’ As one commanded to seek peace and pursue it, it is forbidden for me to do anything which undermines the possibility of its actualization under the protection of the argument that peace will never happen in any event, and therefore my actions are of no consequence.”

Many of us are struggling with how we feel about Israel.  Even those of us who are unequivocally Zionists to the core, who are deeply committed to the security and safety of Israel, are still struggling with how to achieve that security.

Alan Elsner, former Reuters reporter and vocal peace activist, comments on the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, saying:  “The casualty toll in Gaza was very painful…whil3 45% of the victims were terrorists, that means that 55% were civilians.”  He, too, asked whether military action can accomplish lasting peace?  He, too, noted the neither side scored a clear-cut victory.  “We had hoped that this war would produce a moment of choice,” he sighed, “rather than return to the awful status quo.”  But, I can remember a briefing by an Israeli government spokesman, when we were in the midst of the war, who said, “All we want is to return to the status quo.”  But, perhaps he was looking at the status quo not as a lull between wars, but as an opportunity for negotiations for a two-state solution.

In my heart of hearts I believe that there’s got to be a better way than war.  Is there not a better way?

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a Senior Fellow of KLAL, founder of leader of Panim, and author of the best-seller, Jewish Megatrends, notes that we Jews are not united in our responses to Israel’s actions.  I agree. There is diversity in our demographic…and that is how it should be.  And I realize that what I say today may not be universally accepted nor agreed with; but I’m o.k. with that.  I belong to both AIPAC and J-Street, you know. as I have a great personal need to look at the matzav, the situation through as many lenses as I can, and I hope that each of you does as well.  And you should know that both AIPAC and J-Street do care for the viability of Israel.  In fact, they stood lock-step in support of the Iron Dome, Baruch HaShem.

So I look at the issues and ask myself questions:

The United Nations General Assembly is now in session.  Might this be an opportunity for any kind of reassessment of strategy?  Both Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will be there.  With the pressure each leader has from his constituents, I ask myself, can there ever be realistic negotiations or are we doomed to more distressing violence?  How much influence does Abbas actually have on Hama now?  If we could enter negotiations, with whom do we negotiate?  Who is actually in charge of Hamas?  Marzouk may be a deputy leader of Hamas, but he lives in Egypt.  And he is deputy to Khaled Mishawl, but it’s not clear if he’s really the head of Hamas.  it’s certainly confusing:  the leadership doesn’t even live in Gaza; the funding for Hamas seems to be coming  from Qatar, with whom could Israel actually negotiate in good faith?  Khaled Mishawl and Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, are not about to be back-slapping buddies… So why did the PA have a political reconciliation with Hamas?  I think it was less to form a unity government and more likely to be a technocratic move to form a common polity.

It seems to me that Abbas has gained some stature this summer, and perhaps there is hope…I deeply hope that there is hope…in peace through negotiating with Abbas.  I cannot imagine that Israel can sustain war every few years.

Another issue:  The ongoing lack of parity between the various Jewish denominations in Israel belies its own declaration of independence, wherein it guaranteed freedom of religion for all.  The recent establishment of an egalitarian pavilion where men and women can pray at the Western Wall through whatever denominational prayers they wish has taken over 25 years to achieve by the Nashim haKotel/the Women of the Wall.  And now they are pursuing equal rights for all in Israel.

And yet, another issue: the recent establishment of yet another new settlement in Israel good, in the long run, for Israel, or is it being perceived as further provocation for distrust?  Our government does not approve; the world media does not approve?  Was this necessary, poor timing, or what?  We are left to sort it out for ourselves.

It is clear that Israel is central to world Judaism.  With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, there has been a 300% rise of French Jews emigrating from France to Israel.  In Greece, I stood on the tracks in Thessalonika, that had witnessed 80% of the Jews of Greece being taken to the camps of the Shoah, never to return.  As hard as the JDC and local Jewish leadership is working to provide for the Greek Jewish community, I do not see much of a future there.  Israel continues to be a refuge for persecuted Jewry.  So its existence is essential.

But, clearly, not everyone sees that.

We see that reflected on yet another warfront…that of the media.  Maddy Rosenberg , of Tablet magazine, points out that there is a marked imbalance of press coverage. At a time when there have been human rights abuses in Syria and the Congo, the focus, up until this week with the US response to ISIS/ISIL in Seria, has been primarily on Israel, continually putting Israel in a spotlight.

How can we have nuanced conversations about Israel, when we are so polarized? How can we honor each other’s opinions when so many of us are taking sides, and our sides become justifications for trying to prove something.  That is no longer a conversation, but more a debate…and rarely is it nuanced.

Only if we contextualize critique within a framework of love for Israel, true desire for peace, and the best of Zionism’s aspirations, as so beautifully described in its declaration of Statehood, can we hope to be the voices of conscience, as well as the voices of hope.

How is it that Ari Shavitt’s book, My Promised Land, often so critical of Israel, has been so well-received?  Because, interspersed with his critical analysis is his clear love for the State of Israel.  I, too, am duty-bound to frame and contextualize critique with the best of Zionism:  So, I worry about the upcoming human rights investigation by the United Nations.  If Israel doesn’t cooperate will we be in for another Goldstone debacle?  If Israel does cooperate will there be another U.N. display of anti-Israel sentiment?  Is the recent settler expansion a disregard of world opinion or is it a legitimate answer to a legitimate need?  Can Israel continue to count on the U.S. to defend it from pariah status?  What will be the conversations on campuses this year?  How can we have honest conversations, nuanced conversations, when the topic seems to be so divisive within the Jewish community?

Rabbi Toba Spitzer, the spiritual leader of Dor’shei Zedek of Newton, Massachusetts, and past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, speaks of the incredible pain and difficulty she has in talking about Israel, finding that once sides become justification for trying to prove something, the hope of conversation is dashed….it becomes a staking out of positions.  She fears that the communal narrative is fraying.

So how can we create a new narrative?

Let me make a few suggestions:

  1. Through compassion.  There’s truth to the justice narrative, and there’s truth in the existential narrative.  We need one another.  What would it mean to have compassion for everyone involved and learn from one another?
  2. Through giving up a personal need to be right and to be open to opposing or perhaps even conflicting realities, allowing them to sit next to each other and inviting us to go deeper.
  3. Through understanding that we can’t make change from the place of being a victim.  We need to be in the conversation.  My mentor and rebbe, the late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to say “The only way to get it together is…together.”

And, if we look closely, as JJ Goldberg, wrote in a recent editorial in The Forward newspaper, we can actually see hopeful sign in the war’s wake.  The most dramatic development, he points out, is that Israel and Hamas are talking to each other.  “Israel, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has signed an open-ended agreement with a Palestinian coalition that he’d vowed never to do business with, headed by Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, but including Hamas and Islamic Jihad as constituent parties.  Bibi’s also agreed, according to reports from the Egyptian capital, to continue negotiating in Cairo starting next month.”

“As for Hamas,” continues Goldberg, “it has accepted, at least for now, its new role as a junior partner in a Palestinian government that recognizes Israel.  It’s agreed to suspend attacks on Israel indefinitely.  Abbas’s troops will take control of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and, by some reports, the Gaza side of the crossing into Israel, as well.  Numerous reports out of Cairo say that this is intended as a first step toward reestablishing Abbas’s authority in Gaza, though it is not clear whether Hamas will see it that way.”

So, where do we, the Jewish people, stand?  We are not responding monolithically, that much is clear.  Klal Yisrael is like a  family and, like any family, we have our disagreements; we have our individual points of view.  Some of us are only casually engaged, registering our complaints about right-wing Israeli antics and then not sticking around to hear whether our protest has succeeded.  And then there are those of us, especially in the Diaspora, who view war through the lens of Vietnam or Iraq, and not Beaufort or Sderot.  We are squeamish in the face of bloodshed, and cannot understand the reality of life in Israel…or, conversely, we understand the reality of life in Israel too well…as reflected in the widespread reaction to the horrific Palestinian death toll in Gaza this past summer.  There are even some who, like British scholar, Antony Lerman, wrote in a  New York times essay will always look to discredit Jewish nationalism.  He used the Gaza war as an “I told you so moment.”

Ultimately, I believe that most of us will remain liberal and most of us will continue to care about Israel, because we are Jews and because Israel is the Jewish state.  We won’t always understand it; and sometimes the Israeli perspective will grate on us and sometimes it will stimulate us.

But, as the late Leonard “Leibel” Fein, wrote, “those of us who count ourselves as chov’vei  tziyon, lovers of Zion, know not merely how profound our love is…but how complicated.

In this new year of 5775, if we are to truly be Rod’fei Shalom u-P’nai Tikvah, we must pay attention; we must educate ourselves; and we must be voices of conscience as well as faces of hope.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’teichateimu.  May we be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

Rosh HaShanah 5775

September 25, 2014