Israel – the Land, the State, the People – is largely responsible for my becoming the person I am today. As I think about the twists and turns my life has taken, there is no doubt in my mind that the year I spent living in Israel as a college student on a Reform movement program set the tone for much of what followed. I went with a bit of college-level Hebrew and came back with the makings of a Jewish Studies major. I went home with a passing interest in Middle East politics and came back with a passion for Middle East peace. I went because Israel seemed as good as anyplace else to go and study (even during the early months of the first intifada, when I was making my application), and I came back knowing that Israel was my home. The path to the Rabbinate from my year on Kibbutz Tzora wasn’t inevitable, but had I not spent that year, it is unlikely that I would have found my way to this calling.
As I wrote in this month’s bulletin, I’m reflecting quite a bit on my Israel experience these days, both because I am at the point in my life when exactly half of it was lived before that year and half has been lived since, and also because of a flurry of renewed friendships with fellow travelers as we get ready for our twentieth reunion. Near the foreground of my memories is the way in which my view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was shaped during that year. We lived on a kibbutz, established by South African Palmachniks in 1948. Like most kibbutzim, Tzora leaned to the left. As the intifada changed the landscape of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the country held elections, I learned Hebrew from the bumper stickers that covered everything in my sight: Rak Hama’arach, “Only the (Labor) Coalition.” Shamir, Rak B’marak,: “Shamir, only in the soup” (Former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir having the bad fortune to possess a last name that means “dillweed”). And of course, Day Lakibush, “Stop the Occupation.”
“Stop the Occupation” was my belief then, and remains so now. I came to believe in a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine as soon as I began to think seriously about the Middle East, and that belief has never wavered. Attending conferences that year in Jerusalem and hearing panelists speak of a two-state solution, I was convinced. I heard Palestinians like Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi in dialogue with moderate Israelis, offering creative, win-win solutions to the most intractable problems: Jerusalem, the Right of Return, final borders, and more. I realized then, and still believe now, that the answer is obvious. Within a few square kilometers, we know what a two-state solution will look like. Israel cannot rule over millions of Palestinian people while maintaining any legitimacy as a state – and certainly not a Jewish one. I know this with every fiber of my being.
I also know that Israel has every right to defend herself, and that the current state of affairs is very different than the one we lived with in 1988 and 1989. The popular uprising in the territories brought Arafat home, and then Arafat failed to deliver in the very worst way. Rotten to the core, he could not set down the revolutionary’s pistol and grasp the olive branch with both hands. Yes, Israel failed in the Oslo period too, by allowing the settlers to continue their land grab in Palestine, and by failing to build trust as she might have. But again and again, territory from which Israel withdrew – Jericho, Nablus, eventually all of Gaza – became fertile ground for those Palestinians who reject all compromise with Israel. On Arafat’s watch, and with his blessing, suicide bombers terrorized Israel. Now, from a Gaza Strip evacuated by Israel, rockets rain down on Sderot and will soon reach even further, to Be’er Sheva and perhaps Tel Aviv. I have spoken from the pulpit of my belief that Israel’s security barrier – the “fence,” the “wall,” whatever you choose to call it – is a necessary, and God-willing, a temporary, response to Palestinians’ human smart-bombs.
I believe in the security barrier, but I believe with no less intensity in the need for Israel to make distinctions between terrorists and ordinary folks. I believe that even a security barrier must be built with a sense of human decency, and that checkpoints and patrols must be carried out with an eye toward building up a sense of possibility and hope among the Palestinian people. And I believe that when Israel’s government and her military fail to achieve those goals, the moral voice of our tradition needs to call them to account.
For these reasons, I am a rabbinic chaver of Rabbis for Human Rights. RHR is a group composed of Israeli rabbis from across the religious spectrum – Orthodox to Reform – and of varying viewpoints regarding the political situation as well, who are united in their belief that Israelis and Palestinians have certain inalienable human rights. Their North American chaverim – several hundred of us, on the way to 1,000 – support their work financially with gifts from our own pockets and from our Discretionary funds, and with encouragement from our pens, our pulpits and our classrooms.
RHR launched a campaign called “Planting Justice: Two Trees” on Wednesday, with an ad in the New York Times. “Two trees” refers to the two peoples who must, ultimately, live together and share a promised land. This campaign is raising money to plant trees in Palestinian groves which have been uprooted for no good reason (we make a distinction between those which were uprooted because they provided cover for Palestinian terrorists and those which were uprooted as a form of collective punishment). At the same time, we are planting trees to create green spaces in disadvantaged neighborhoods within Israel. All people have human rights.
I began these remarks with a reminiscence about the way in which my first year in Israel shaped me. Earlier this week, Alanna and I had dinner with an old friend from that year-in-Israel. Julie has been active in Israel-Palestine peace activities since our time on CAY, and as we talked about those activities it occurred to me – actually, it hit me like a ton of bricks – that I’ve not been public and vocal enough about my own activities in this regard. As a lover of Israel who brings people over whenever possible, I may inadvertently give the impression that I’m “pro-Israel” in the way that the word is misused here in America. That dinner conversation was really the catalyst for this talk. I want you to know that your Rabbi is a Rabbinic Chaver of RHR North America. Be proud, be ashamed, be happy, be mad, put more money in my Discretionary Fund, never give it another dime…it’s up to you. But you at least ought to know that I am a whole-hearted supporter of their sometimes controversial but always important work.
I hope you will go online after Shabbat and learn more about Rabbis for Human Rights. I hope you’ll see, as I do, that whatever the worldly political situation, Jews cannot and must not cease to dream of and work for a “State of Israel based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” And I hope you’ll join me in contributing to the cause.