Yankel and Mendel, Israel and Palestine, and us -- Reflections for Rosh Hashanah 5778

Makom Shalom is proud to be a diverse community with a range of views in current affairs and matters of faith. The views I present on this blog are my own and not a statement on behalf of the Makom Shalom community. I encourage you to share your views here in the comment section on this blog. I welcome respectful and engaged dialog.                                                                                                            Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis 


Two Jews settle down on a park bench. They sit quietly for a while, side by side. Old friends. People pass by, walking their dogs, sipping coffee, talking on their phones. After a while, Yankel clears his throat.  He says: "Oy." 

A few minutes pass by in pleasant silence and then his buddy responds:  "Oy." 

Yankel turns to face his friend:   "Mendel...I thought we agreed we weren't going to talk about...Israel."

Yankel and Mendel didn't need to say another word to each other on the topic. This is an old joke but to this day nobody has a clue what Yankel or Mendel actually thought about Israel.

Not talking about charged issues can be wise. It gets many of us through those holiday dinners with extended family we only see a few times a year. But if we, in this holy congregation, want to continue to grow close to each other as we are, to be part of each other's lives, to know each other and be known for what we care about and who we are  - then polite restraint will only get us so far.

Since we, as a congregation, tend to adhere to Yankel and Mendel's laconic circumspection, I'm going to share with you what the person sitting next to you may be thinking when she hears the word "Israel". I'm also going to tell you a little of my own story about Israel.

But before we get into that, I want to acknowledge how our beliefs and opinions are not one liners or a statistic. Each of us has our own life story and experience that shapes what we hold dear and how we feel about our beliefs. 

In fact, we each have much more than one story. Our stories evolve as we go through life. We may not believe today what we believed 20 years ago. We are all on a journey.

Our tradition is wise to this. After all, the Torah opens with stories. The entire first Book of the Torah, long before Moses and the Ten Commandments is all stories. From Adam and Eve to Noah to the tower of Babel, the Matriarchs and the Patriarchs, Joseph, Egypt....

And the patriarchs' stories change over time. Jacob as a young man fighting for the birthright was a different person to the man who came to Pharoah with Joseph and his other sons. Sarah the mother of Isaac has a different story compared to the younger version of herself. The Torah validates all these stories by recording them and making them Holy Scripture.

Our stories are holy. Our journey is holy.

I hope you will allow me to be with you to broach the subject of Israel from a very Jewish perspective and introduce some information and questions along the way. 

So let's step back take a look at us. Where do we stand as a congregation on the subject of Israel? That question does not have a simple answer. Here's a sketch of just two positions that we hold.

Some of us believe that, as Jews, we are called to stand together against Israel's enemies. After all, we have only one Jewish State. We need a place in the world to feel safe and that place is Israel. Let's face it, criticism of Israel and opposition to Israel are often fueled by anti-Semitism. It is therefore our duty as Jews to speak up for the only democracy in the Middle East....
We will not stand idly by. 
We learned that, at least, from the Holocaust.

Others among us believe that that a state that sets out to be simultaneously Jewish and democratic is a logical impossibility. "Jewish and democratic" means democratic for the Jews, decidedly undemocratic for anybody else. Palestinians have been living for 70 years and more as strangers in their own land....


We will not stand idly by.
We learned that, at least, from the Holocaust.

To both of these, those two old wise yidden, Yankel and Mendel might say: Oy and Oy!

I will tell you that I have held both positions in my life. It's a journey. For me, a literal one. I grew up in Israel. During those 20 years in Israel I held one version or another of the first position. And I wouldn't be here with you today without the second. Both positions - and everything in between - are represented here, right now, in this holy prayer space. I know this because you have told me so. This is our congregation. Welcome to Makom Shalom! A diverse and open congregation. And I wouldn't have it any other way!

I gave you a similar message last High Holydays and we have been acting on that for the past year. We have started talking to each other about race and our relationship with Islam.

Today I hope to unpack one aspect of this conversation.  I doubt you will hear on other synagogues in Chicago or across the nation these High Holydays. But as we discussed last night, Makom Shalom started out as an innovator. Back in the early 90s, Makom took positions on Interfaith and joyful prayers that made many other Jews feel uncomfortable.

Let me add to that. Pushing against the established ways of being is not a luxury but a necessity. The Tanakh teaches us that through the words of the prophets. Words that were uncomfortable to hear. On Yom Kippur we hear how the Prophet Jonah warns the people of Nineveh of their impending doom. They don't want to hear it. For that matter, he doesn't want to even say it. It's natural to want to avoid discomfort but Judaism and faith call us to that place of discomfort and growth.

And today, we need it more than ever. Particularly on the subject of Israel there is a concerted effort to stymie the conversation.

A lot of the discomfort comes from Jewish solidarity in the face of anti-Semitism. This presents itself in the argument "Since Israel is our refuge from anti-Semitism, don't touch it."

Let me take you back 120 years to the first gathering of the the founders of what was to become the State of Israel. This was the brainchild and lifework of one man, Israel's Founding Father, Dr. Theodore Herzl.  His remains are buried at the center of Israel's national military cemetery next to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Israel's Arlington, if you like. His image is as iconic in Israel as George Washington is to us.

Theodore Herzl was a Hungarian Jew and eminent citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Elegantly dressed in top hat and tails with a long black beard to rival that of any modern day hipster he cut a dramatic figure. He was a hugely influential public intellectual. My grandparents also lived in Vienna. But it's highly unlikely that my mother's mutter and  fatter, Rosa and Dovid Schiffman ever met the family of Dr. Herzl. They moved in different circles. They may have lived in Vienna but they were certainly not Viennese; they were Eastern European immigrants. Their comfort food was not apfelstrudel -  but lokshen kugel!

Herzl was a visionary. In 1897, Herzl launched his life's grand project: the establishment of a Jewish State. First, he wrote a book called "Der Judenstaat", "The Jewish State". Then he gathered all the Jewish leaders he could find from across Europe and held a convention in Switzerland to kickstart a mass, political movement.

It worked.

When my other grandfather, of blessed memory, moved from Ukraine to Palestine almost 100 years ago, it was because the dream of Theodore Herzl to create a Jewish state was beginning to take form.

His goal was no less than to move all the world's Jews to Palestine

So, what was the great idea of moving to Zion? Why, when hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews were filling the boats crossing the Atlantic to Ellis Island were some Jews in Europe dreaming up a Jewish State in the Middle East?

Here's where we get to the anti-Semitism. Herzl was alarmed by the rise of Jew in, of all places, his hometown,  the refined city of Vienna renowned for its gemutlichkeit its gentleness. He witnessed the rise to power of an openly anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger. He watched with dismay as the old Kaiser, at first blocked the democratic election of Lueger, but then, was forced to bend to the will of the people.

Rabbi Moritz Gudemann, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, challenged Herzl. Rabbi Gudemann wrote to Herzl: "if anti-Semitism is your fear, then stay  here and fight it. Don't run away." 

Chief Rabbi Adler of Great Britain and the British Empire offered a plan for those Jews who did want to get out. He wrote: "Jews could better find refuge in England and America than in Palestine."

Zionism was not about seeking refuge from anti-Semitism.

British Chief Rabbi Adler got it.  Viennese Chief Rabbi Gudeman got it,
And Theodore Herzl knew it too.

The truth is that Herzl wasn't running away from anything. Herzl wanted to create something new. Herzl saw the scramble across the Austro-Hungarian empire to establish national identities and create the countries of Europe as we know them today. Herzl simply wanted what so many other ethnic groups in Europe were claiming for themselves: a state of their own. Herzl wanted in on this new game of European nationalism. What was good for the Romanian, Hungarians, Poles was good for the Jews too. Yes, he wanted Jews to be safe but his project was about a lot more than just that.

In fact, throughout 3,000 years of the Bible, the Talmud Jewish history, Jerusalem and Zion were never seen as places of refuge but always the site of future redemption and renaissance. That's what the prophets of Tanakh teach us. Isaiah glorifies Zion and Jerusalem not as fortresses against enemies but as a beacon of light. That's what the traditional prayerbook teaches: "May our eyes witness Your return to Zion where we will worship You as in ancient times!"

For anybody who holds the Bible as Sacred Scripture, "Zion" became the symbol for a place of redemption. Jewish and Christian groups identified their particular Zion all over the globe.

For the Hassidim of Eastern Europe, Zion was the sacred shrines where they buried their rebbes.

And not just Jews but hundreds of millions of Christians who hold the Tanakh as Holy Scripture. The Puritans identified New England as their Zion, the place where they could worship in freedom. England's national anthem is an ode to Jerusalem. It identifies Jerusalem with England's bucolic paradise escaping the miseries of industrialization; But for the Rastafarians, the homeland of their British overlords were the antithesis of Zion. Their Zion was rooted in Jamaica and Africa.

This continues to be true today. The modern State of Israel is not a place of refuge for Jews. If you want to escape the threat of physical violence against Jews, Israel is the last place in the world you want to be in. Over the last eight years since the 2009 war on Gaza, 100 Jews have been killed by Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank? And, I'd add here, over 3,000 Palestinians - 30 times that number -  have been killed by Israeli Jews in the same period.

How many Jews have been killed by non-Jews in America in the last eight years? How many in all of Europe? 

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Theodore Herzl's modern day movement of Zionism lives within this Jewish  - and Christian -  tradition of "Zion." For the secular Herzl "Zion"  was a European state for the Jews of Europe and any others who would join. For various reasons, Herzl ultimately turned to the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisroel, Palestin.

120 years after the launch of Zionism, Theodore Herzl's dream is a reality. There is a Jewish State. Although it is located in the Middle East it is part of the Western world. When I was an Israeli I watched The Simpsons and Northern Exposures, MASH and L.A. Law. We listened to American music. U.S. politics was  - and is - front page news. 

Although over three quarters of the population is Middle Eastern or from other Arab cultures, Israel is thoroughly westernized. It is far easier for a US citizen to travel in Israel than in some European countries. You don't need to know Hebrew to tour, drive and interact. Signage, official and commercial is in English. Israelis are plugged into American culture. You can talk to them about U.S. politics, music, TV shows and movies. OTOH, in Rome, I had to get help just to communicate with the cab driver. Israel participates in the Eurovision song contest, where all Europe unites around love or hatred of popular music. Sports too. Israel plays basketball in the European championships. The Giro d'Italia, Italy's version of the Tour de France starts in Israel next year.

This is by design. Even after Israel has peace treaties with all its Arab neighbors and has resolved the Palestinian crisis, it will continue to claim its place in Europe.

That was Theodore Herzl's dream: a national "European" home for the Jews. His Zion was a European Zion. For better or for worse this is the reality today.

The question for me is. What's next? What is our vision for Zion?

This is an urgent conversation since the current situation is intolerable on so many levels. 

Sadly, the government at state and federal levels is determined to shut down this conversation. Our right to freely debate the issues is under threat. This anti-democratic legislation has come in many forms. The most recent and most severe form of this attack on our freedom to have this conversation is a bill that is making its way through both houses of congress. Senate Bill 720 comes perilously close to criminalizing the solidarity work I  - and hundreds of thousands of others - do to bring peace and justice to Israel and Palestine. The bill has since passed its second reading. It is an astonishing piece of legislation. Quote: "Violations would be subject to a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $ 1 million and 20 years in prison."

This bill is only one of a raft of similar laws that have been passed in state legislatures including here in Illinois. In order to do business with the state or find employment with the state, U.S. citizens are required to sign statements of allegiance to the State of Israel. Failure to swear allegiance to a foreign power results in a loss of livelihood. 

The ACLU and other national organizations have protested. The ACLU writes:
"This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely  because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies."

And:  "we assert that the government cannot, consistent with the
First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs."

I think this final sentence is most crucial:

"We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter. However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs."

Having the conversation does not mean endorsing a particular opinion.

And yes, some of Israel's critics have expressed anti-Semitic views.

And by the same token, some of Israel's admirers are White Supremacists such as Richard Spencer or tinged with Christian anti-Semitism such as leaders of the tens of millions of Christian fundamentalist Zionists in our country.

We will continue to claim the public domain and to resist that and other attacks on our freedom.

To conclude, let me share with you my story of Israel and my vision for Zion:

I first became familiar with Israel when my family moved  there in the late 1970s. Israel was still in a formal state of war with its Arab neighbors on all its borders with occasional flare-up on its northern border with the Palestinians in Lebanon. The Palestinian population within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza was docile. As a child, I remember my parents and I driving through the streets of Gaza City stopping to buy tomatoes from a roadside hut without a care in the world. 

Israel had just one TV channel that broadcast a few of hours a day in the evening. My hometown of Jerusalem was a small town with a commercial center clustered around two intersecting streets. The socialism of the Founding generation was still an ideal upheld through the kibbutz movement. The political elite of the country was dominated by Ashkenazi Jewish men born in Eastern Europe: Shimon Peres, Menahem Begin, Yizhak Shamir.

Today, Israel has peace with its two major Arab neighbors and along most of its borders from Jordan to the east and Egypt to the south.  The only border Israel still can't figure out is the internal one with its Palestinian population.

But the fundamentals are still the same, even amplified. Benjamin Netanyahu, the son of an Eastern European Jew has been the country's leader for almost all of the past two decades. Theodore Herzl's image still looks out over the parliament and the country. For better or worse, the country' retail and pop culture is thoroughly Americanized. McDonalds' golden arches loom over ubiquitous shopping malls. There are more cable channels than you could ever watch.

And now a wall runs right through the middle of the land dividing Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship from the millions who don't. This wall hold the Middle East at bay. It allows the Westernized Israeli Jews to nurture the fantasy of a European Israel that is not really in the Middle East.

It is almost a perfect reversal of traditional Jewish thinking. Jews lived in shtetls in desperate conditions but lived in a headspace of Zion. When they held the etrog on Sukkot they could smell the sun and the freedom of Zion.  Today, Israelis live in the Middle East but, have created a modern day shtetl where they imagine that they are in Europe and America.

Over the last two decades I have watched as Israel has gone deeper and deeper into its Jewish-only world. At the same time I have been on my own journey here in the U.S. As I discussed last night, this journey has taken me into the world of Interfaith. Back in Israel, all my friends were Jews. Now I have Christian friends and Moslem friends. I have Palestinian friends. And I relate to a much broader history of the Land of Israel than before. I now understand my Jewish story in a bigger context. And I am grateful for that. My life is richer. 

I believe that this Jewish story of our connection to Israel is actually a part of our bigger journey as citizens of this country and citizens of the world. It is part of our heritage not just as Jews but as human beings. 

I now see that bigger picture as my new Jewish story, as a Jew, as a rabbi. That is the root of my work on Israel. It's exciting.

My vision for Zion is as American as McDonalds and triple digit cable channels, only more so. My vision of Zion is justice for all under the law. And that means talking a lot more about the 50% of the population that we rarely mention in Jewish settings - the Palestinians along the 25% or so of Jews who originated in the Arab world.

And yes seeing Israel also through the eyes of Palestinians means giving up some Jewish comfort. It can be challenging. That is the price I pay for expanding my world.  That is the joy of embracing others.

So my final question to you is: What is your vision for Zion?
What does God, the Divine source of goodness want us to do?
Thank you for walking with me today on a part of this journey. 
I look forward to hearing your story and learning about your journey.

Shana Tova!