ISRAEL AT 75: FACING OUR CONFLICTS
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5784
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
The United States of America ratified the Constitution in 1787. The Civil War began in 1861. If you do the math that is 74 years.
The Soviet Union was born in the Russian revolution in 1917. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. If you do the math that is 74 years.
The unified kingdom of Ancient Israel began under King David in about 1004 BCE. Ancient Israel broke into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judea in the South, after the reign of David’s son Solomon, who died circa 930 BCE. If you do the math, that is 74 years.
As Zionist think and writer David Hazony writes: “I’m no expert in the rise and fall of empires, but there may be something intuitive here: Nations, especially those founded on an idyllic vision of the future, begin with a generation of founders⏤charismatic warriors and ideologues. These founders are revered by a second generation⏤that of the builders, who infuse the vision with power, wealth, and a sense of permanence. But then comes a third generation, born well after the founding and having come of age just as the last of the founders have left the stage. Yes, they are grateful for the sacrifices of the first two generations. But many are also disillusioned. They are ready to rebel, to correct course, to right the perceived wrongs of the founding. They are out of patience. Their turn has come.”
Hazony concludes, “In the third generation, the ship of state sails into a storm so violent, it may not survive. Israel, too, has reached a breaking point in its 75th year. Our situation is different, though. We have neither the geographical expanse to allow for secession, like the Americans, nor could we survive, physically, the collapse of the state like the Soviets.”
Those are sobering words. Back in the spring, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrated Israel’s 75th birthday as we should. But we also talked about what was happening in Israel on this milestone occasion. And we need to talk about it some more. The stakes are just too high. When I though about what I would talk about at the High Holidays, at least one sermon on Israel was a must. I even thought about devoting all my sermons to Israel. But of course, we have some issues here at home too.
When I talk about Israel its always personal. That’s because I spent six years there, was a student there, got married there, served in the army there, and served as a Reform rabbi there. It’s personal because as dual citizens my family of five carries ten passports. Its’ personal because Debby’s entire family continues to live there. And its personal because, well, as our tradition teaches, kal Yisrael aravin zeh b’zeh⏤every Jew is connected to one another, and so Jews every where are one big mishpacha⏤family!
I’m a proud Zionist, and I hope you are too. With all its challenges I kvell at what Israel has achieved in less than a century. The revival of the ancient Jewish homeland; the revival of the ancient Jewish language; the rebuilding of Jerusalem; the blooming of the desert; the world-class city of Tel Aviv; the world-class Israeli Army; even the world-class felafel.
The ingathering of the exiles; Operation Ezra that brought the Jews from Iraq; Operation Magic Carpet that brought the Jews from Yemen; Operations Moses and Solomon that brough the Jews from Ethiopia; Operation Exodus that brought the Jews from the Former Soviet Union.
On the battlefield: The Six Day War; the Yom Kippur War; the Entebbe Rescue; the Mossad. Off the battlefield: The Start-Up nation; the Technion; the Hebrew University.
I could go on, but as I said, my purpose today, is to talk about what is happening right now; with the third generation, 75 years after Israel’s founding; with the state of Israel’s union, with the problems that we should all be worried about; with the conflicts that should be keeping us up at night.
Let’s face it, Israel has taken a hard turn to the right. On the one hand, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s actually been unfolding since the late 70’s, when Menachem Begin stunned the world to become prime minister, and his Likud party bested the entrenched Labor party. The second Israel, the Sephardic and Mizrachi working class voters had begun flexing their muscle.
Now Israel is majority Sephardic-Mizrachi; the ultra-Orthodox are the fastest growing segment of the population; the ultra-nationalists are the third leading block; and the ultra-conservative immigrants from the Former Soviet Union number a million and a half. With all that internally, and with the Iranian menace like an octopus with terrorist tentacles everywhere, and with the Palestinian leadership, old, corrupt, and hapless… is it any wonder that the left has been decimated; the right has triumphed?
The old fault lines that have run through Israeli society from the beginning are more apparent than ever. They are three in number: the secular-religious divide; the have-have not divide; and the Jewish-Arab divide. These fault lines are religious, economic, and ethnic. They breed the politics of resentment. That’s always dangerous
They foster disunity. That too is dangerous. Democracies need consensus. Yet there is no agreement on basic questions like: Who is a Jew? What is authentic Judaism? How Jewish should the Jewish state be? There is no consensus on what should be its borders? What should be done about the territories? What should be done about the Palestinians?
And there is no Constitution. Yes, you heard correctly. Israel has a Declaration of Independence, some Basic Laws, and a Supreme Court, but no ultimate Law of the Land.#@#_WA_-_CURSOR_-_POINT_#@# To cobble together his present coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu invited in the far-right ultra- nationalist fringe, which is no longer fringe, along with the ultra- orthodox. The resulting agenda included Judicial reform that would severely weaken the independence and power of the Supreme Court. That got all the attention and sparked the unprecedented street protests last spring and summer.
What got less attention, but is equally concerning to many Jews in Israel and around the world: changes to the Law of Return that would restrict who can become a citizen; changes to the education system that would denigrate non-orthodox Judaism; changes to the status of West Bank settlements that would put a two -state solution out of reach.
It comes as a surprise to many diaspora Jews that because Israel does not have a constitution there are no guarantees regarding the separation of powers; the separation of religion and state; or the granting of basic rights to all regardless of race, religion, or gender.
It comes as a surprise to many diaspora Jews that you cannot legally be married in Israel by a Reform rabbi. Or buried. Or converted.
It comes as a surprise to many diaspora Jews that there are separate and unequal schools and social services for Israeli Arabs, who at two million strong constitute 20% of Israel’s population… and that is not including the two and a half million Palestinians in the West Bank.
Seventy-five years in, and no constitution? No inclusion? No pluralism? No equality?
These are the realities that we must face with Israel at 75 even as we celebrate her remarkable accomplishments.
Where does this leave us? Well, I can only say where it leaves me.
I remain a proud Zionist. I love Israel but I want better for Israel.
In that regard, here is where I stand looking forward:
I stand with those who say it is time for Israel to write a constitution.
I stand with those who say it is time for Israel to recognize all the denominations of modern Judaism.
I stand with those say it is time for Israel to recognize a Palestinian State and hammer out a two-state solution.
Let’s call these the big three. Democracy, pluralism, and peace.
I stand with those who advocate for an independent judiciary.
I stand with those who advocate mandatory national service for all citizens.
I stand with those who advocate for educational and economic reform.
Let’s call these the next big three: More democracy; unity; equality.
Can Israel do it? I think so. I believe in Israel. Israel is strong. Israel is determined. Israel is miraculous.
Israel can defy the odds, avert the worst, and summon the best.
I look forward to celebrating all this with you, in twenty-five years, at Israel’s 100th!