Michael S. Friedman | September 29, 2008
The 60th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel was observed just a few months ago. The occasion was marked in this congregation and in many other Jewish communities by a host of celebrations and tributes, of parties and festivals. We are justifiably proud of the Jewish state and the progress it has made. We admire her technological innovation, her boisterous democracy, her restless Jewish energy, and her refusal to back down in the face of mortal enemies. All these are truly cause for rejoicing. To paraphrase the medieval poet Judah Halevi, our hearts are surely in the East even as we live far to the West. But in my mind those same celebrations and tributes, those parties and festivals, were tinged with the slightest hint of sadness as well because, my friends, even today we live in a world where the survival of Israel is still at stake.
The liturgy of this High Holiday season bids us to consider the fragility of our own existence. Sadly, we might extend these words and images to refer to the State of Israel. Make no mistake: As we sit here today, Israel’s mortal enemies number her days in a variety of ways: by wielding the sword of terrorism and the plague of kidnapping, by firing rockets at her cities and towns, by strangling her of international support, by starving her hunger for peace and her thirst for potable water. These are trying times for Israel, and sadly we are forced once again to wonder what is written for her future in the great Book of Life.
Iran’s leadership continues in its quest to develop nuclear weapons while explicitly threatening Israel and spewing violent anti-Semitic hatred. Iran also combines with an increasingly belligerent Syria to fund paramilitary proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, which daily threaten the safety of Israeli soldiers and civilians. A credible Palestinian peace partner still has yet to emerge while Gaza has devolved chaos. And soon Israel will have a new prime minister who, at best, will have a support of only a small portion of the electorate. Meanwhile Israel receives precious little support or backing from other Western nations, leaving the United States as its sole ally.
Fortunately for us, the community of Central Synagogue, there is no question that we support Israel through all these difficulties. There is no doubt in my mind that we want to see Israel continue to prosper and her citizens to be able to live without fear while the Jewish State itself becomes a beacon of hope, truth and justice for all humankind. So while our goal in this time of peril is clear, the path we might take to get there has rarely been harder to discern. For instance, we would all agree that Iran poses a real and serious threat to Israel’s security. But should that threat be combated with sanctions or with military action, and if so by whom? Was it best to support or oppose this summer’s prisoner exchange with Hezbollah? Should the next step in our relations with the Palestinians come through unilateral Israeli action, as we took in disengaging from Gaza, or should we continue the status quo? Here in America, should we accept or reject the newly-prominent Evangelical Zionist movement? And does our support of one Presidential candidate or the other matter for Israel, or is American policy towards Israel secure enough that it is likely to remain unchanged regardless of who is in the White House?
Unfortunately, while the numerous questions may be simple to express clearly, I wonder if the answers to those questions have ever been more ambiguous or more complex. Today knowledgeable, well-intentioned, caring Zionists are very likely to agree on the end goals of developing, supporting and protecting the State of Israel, but to disagree on the best method of achieving those goals. In short, within our own community there is serious disagreement over how best to support Israel in this precarious time. We are caught in a number of difficult dilemmas. Principles are opposed by practicalities. Short-term gains are often at odds with long-term outcomes. All the while, an existential threat hovers on the horizon.
Israel’s recent prisoner exchange with Hezbollah provides a perfect example of our need, both as Jews and as Zionists, to balance dearly-held principles against real-world practicalities. We all witnessed the heart-wrenching scene at the Lebanese border this summer. On one side IDF personnel somberly received two black coffins containing the lifeless remains of murdered Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev captured two years ago. On the other side, Hezbollah supporters rejoiced as they received five live individuals, known terrorists who had been held by Israel for as long as 29 years.
We did not win anything as a result of this exchange. As a matter of fact, it made many of us sick to our stomachs. We are dismayed because Israel’s enemies claim the trade as confirmation of their victory in the Second Lebanon War, dismayed because we know those very terrorists whom we released are likely to strike at us again, and dismayed because we fear that the price to redeem Gilad Shalit—our brother who still sits in captivity, held by Hamas somewhere in Gaza—will undoubtedly be even higher.
Daniel Gordis expressed the ambiguity many of us feel about the exchange when he compared it to the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza: “In strategic terms, it was probably a mistake. But sometimes mistakes are worth making [because it] proved, once and for all, that the enemies we face have no interest in a state of their own. They just want to destroy ours.” 1
The exchange was in keeping with our convictions. The long-established Jewish principle of pidyon shvuyim, redemption of the captive, assures each Israeli soldier—not to mention each Israeli mother or father—that he or she will be brought home. Those brave soldiers deserved a proper burial. Their families deserved to be given the hope that they can begin to live their lives again. And the next generation of Israeli youth deserved to know that they now can defend the Jewish State with confidence and surety, both because a nation that lives out its principles is worth fighting for, and because they know that—God forbid—if anything happens to them they will be brought back home.
Yes, for us principles and practicalities are often pitted against one another. We would not want to be members of a people who did not have strong principles upon which to stand. As the saying goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” But we also know that we would not have survived this long without an acute sense of the practical realities of the world, as harsh as they may often be.
Another problem for us as caring, knowledgeable Zionists is that short-term gains are often at odds with long-term outcomes, especially when some of those long-term outcomes may be unforeseen or unintended. An example is provided in the form of Evangelical Christian Zionism, which has hit the mainstream in the past year. Believe it or not, there are now millions of Evangelicals across the United States for whom the doctrine of Jewish restoration to the Land of Israel is central to their theology and support of the State of Israel is central to their Christian practice. Indeed, one of the newest, fastest-growing and now most influential Evangelical groups has been Christians United for Israel which, in just the two and a half years since its founding, has sent millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to the Jewish state and created a major player in the political arena where none previously existed. For the first time, Evangelicals can and will affect the United States government’s policies toward the State of Israel.
Now, nothing would make me happier than people of all faith communities—Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Buddhist—coming together in support of Israel. And indeed Evangelical Zionists present very good reasons why Christians should be pro-Israel. Among them: support for Israel as a free Middle Eastern democracy, Christianity’s deep roots in Judaism, a desire to atone for the horrific atrocities committed in Jesus’ name over the centuries, and the profound Christian value of unconditional love. As a result, there are many in our community who have been willing to partner with Evangelical Zionists. In dangerous times such as these, they argue, why wouldn’t we accept the pro-Israel political and financial—and perhaps spiritual—support of millions of Evangelical Christians? AIPAC, for example, has decided to work with Christians United for Israel under the reasoning that Evangelical Zionists are going to enter the political arena whether we like it or not, so we might as well communicate with them, work with them, and perhaps as we build relationship and dialogue we will be able to ensure that their efforts on behalf of the State of Israel are in line with Israel’s true long-term best interests. In fact, this strategy seems to have worked to some degree.
But is our need for friendship so great that we are willing to accept anyone’s hand? Most of us know that the relationship between American Jews and American Evangelicals has often been a difficult one. We have opposed one another on social issues and differed on our view of the appropriate separation between church and state. I wonder: Is this the time to be joining forces with them just because they are pro-Israel? There are those who might answer yes, citing the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, who recently wrote that, “we live in an imperfect world; and in this imperfect world, we enter into coalitions all the time, often with those with whom we profoundly disagree.”2 And indeed it is true. The Catholic Church does not recognize gay rights, and yet we work with them on issues of war and peace; some Protestant denominations promote divestment from Israel, and yet we join with them in matters of social justice. So, one might argue, perhaps it is a good idea to partner with Evangelical Zionists in some areas despite our disagreements in other areas.
On the other hand, Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg asserts that there are many on the Evangelical Zionist spectrum who are not really Zionists at all, but instead see Jews as “actors in a Christian drama leading toward the End of Days,” the time when Jews will gather again in Israel and Jesus will return to earth, ultimately converting all non-believers to Christianity.”3 These Rapture-focused Evangelicals are dangerous to us and to Israel because they see Israel as a tool to hasten the second coming. Thus, while we may be appreciative of the short-term benefit they provide to Israel, we must ask whether an alliance that is beneficial in the short term will ultimately be detrimental down the road. Furthermore, if we disregard their eschatology because we believe it to be false or just plain irrelevant, as some have proposed, I believe that we risk losing all our integrity as religious community.
Amidst all the uncertainty surrounding this new group on our horizon, only one thing is for certain. The population of committed Evangelical Zionists numbers in the tens of millions and they are not just going to disappear, so we’re going to have to deal with them, and to do that we’re going to have to come to know them. I can tell you that I’ve been talking and meeting with Evangelical Zionists to try to learn what they truly believe and where their Christianity and their Zionism intersect, where the interface or overlap between their political activism and their eschatology lies. And I have found that, as with most groups, Evangelical Zionists cannot simply be lumped together. Rather, they exist on a wide spectrum. Some Evangelicals are Zionist for very good reasons while others, unfortunately, see Israel as a means to their own theological end. So, perhaps, let us cautiously accept the support of some Evangelical Zionists today, at least those whom we come to know and trust. At the same time, let us keep our eyes wide open to any possible ulterior motive or dangerous theology that may exist within the Evangelical Zionist spectrum, for that may turn out to be the unforeseen and unintended consequence that we may have to deal with somewhere down the road.
And speaking of long-term interests, let us not forget the existential threat that hovers on the horizon. It has become clear in the past year that Iran poses the greatest single threat to Israel’s very existence. Couple Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear capabilities with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s explicit anti-Semitism and you have a very scary situation indeed. But how exactly should Israel deal with this existential threat? And what role can those of us sitting here play as knowledgeable, committed Zionists in countering the Iranian threat?
First, when we speak of military action, there is no doubt in my mind that Israel will strike at Iran if and when it identifies a proper target—and Israel is completely justified in doing so. But that is a decision that we know and that Israelis know will be made at the highest levels of Israel’s military and intelligence communities.
As for us, here in America, the options are often ambiguous. Should our national leaders enter into a conversation with the Iranian leadership, and if so at what level? Should we support a more stringent and wide-reaching embargo than the one that has been in place? There is no easy answer. As in other aspects of life, this is a situation fraught with gray areas. For example, from my perspective it seemed right last year to defend Columbia University’s right to invite Ahmadinejad to speak. I believe that an institution of higher learning is precisely the right forum for someone like him because of its commitment to rigorous scrutiny and examination of even the most reprehensible of ideas. He faces absolutely no such cross-examination in his own nation and precious little anywhere else in the world. However, just last week we protested Ahmadinejad’s appearance before the General Assembly of the U.N. That speech, unchallenged and unopposed, can only have served to legitimize him and his violently anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic government in the eyes of important world leaders.
Friends, Jewish history is not something that happens to other people. No, we have been around for 100 generations, and in each generation the fate of the Jewish people has been in our hands. So regardless of which way you think we ought to deal with Iran, regardless of your opinion on Evangelical Zionism, regardless of how you view the prisoner exchange, and regardless of which candidate you plan to vote for in November, this is the time when your voice and your action on behalf of the State of Israel are needed. With such huge questions and challenges facing Israel, no single answer or solution can suffice.
Let me be clear: No one owns a monopoly on Zionism. A few years ago the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel joined together to launch a public relations campaign whose goal was to make secular Israelis more open to the possibilities that Reform and Conservative Judaism offer. Their slogan was: “There’s more than one way to be Jewish.” Well, today we might say: There is more than one way to be Zionist.
As soon as we begin to think that all Zionists must think alike, that there is only one way to be Zionist, we enter dangerous territory. We risk eliminating valuable voices from the conversation. We risk alienating those who hold alternate views. We risk silencing the intellectual and spiritual give and take that has always been so essential to our own well-being. And we risk creating a monolithic Jewish community in which only one kind of speech, only one kind of thinking is acceptable.
I am reminded of the explanation our wise men of old came up with for the catastrophic destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. Our holiest site, they concluded, was brought to ruin because of rampant sinat chinam—needless and unwarranted hatred—among Jews of the time.4 Let us not repeat that mistake. Knowledgeable, well-intentioned, caring supporters of Israel can and will disagree, and that’s okay. The Talmud is perhaps our most “Jewish” work of literature because it is filled with voices from across the spectrum, arguing, debating, countering. Rarely do those voices agree, but they are never silent; on every page they remain in conversation with one another even today. So in that spirit, let healthy dialogue permeate our community, ever weighing principles against practicalities and short-term gains against long-term outcomes.
I want to conclude with a story5 about two of our greatest sages. Their names were Hillel and Shammai, and they famously opposed one another in almost every argument. In fact, for three long years a bitter dispute raged between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai, each side claiming that their side and only their side owned the correct interpretation of Jewish law. Then one day, we are told, the quarrel was ended when a voice issued a proclamation directly from heaven, saying: “The teachings of both sides are the words of the living God. But the law is in agreement with Rabbi Hillel.” Now, if both sides can claim that they have the words of the living God, why should the law have been decided according to Hillel’s rulings rather than Shammai’s? Because of the way Hillel and his followers went about arguing. We are told that they were kindly and humble, that they studied not only their own teachings but that of the other side as well, and that they even mentioned Shammai’s teachings before presenting their own.
Friends, let us begin this new year with the knowledge that our—well, not our arguments—but our conversations and our differences of opinion about how best to support Israel in these trying times are all l’shem shamayim. They are all for the sake of a holy endeavor that is far greater than any of us individually. The official prayer for the State of Israel asks God, the Rock of Israel, to protect and defend the State of Israel, to bless her leaders with wisdom, and to spread over her the canopy of eternal peace. Indeed that is our prayer on this Rosh Hashanah. But more so: let us continue to be partners with God, doing our own share to support and protect the State of Israel in every way possible, both in this her 60th year of existence and far into the bright future.
Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.
4. BT Yoma 9b
5. BT Eruvin 13b
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