Why Israel Matters
When I was seventeen years old, a long, long time gone, I moved to Israel to live on a socialist farm, Kibbutz Urim, where I worked as the assistant food manager. Basically, I helped prepare 500 meals three times a day and 300 snacks twice a day and I, alone, with my tractor, took out all the garbage. I grew up that year in so many ways. And for that experience alone I support the State of Israel. That year I passed through many of life’s challenges. In Israel, I found a place for myself to explore life in a safe, Jewish setting.
But there are more reasons to support Israel than as a cure for adolescent angst. We are a small people, around 13 million throughout the world. And almost half of us live in Israel. That, by itself, is enough to concern ourselves with the safety of Israel. All Jews and all Jewish communities are precious. I cannot say enough about the love I feel for our community at Shir Hadash. But how much more so for a community of almost half of all Jews.
And as we support Israel, Israel supports us, the other six to seven million Jews in the world. Israel plays an enormous role in our security. Unlike, the three and a half million Jews living in Poland on the eve of WWII who constituted 10% of the Polish population and perished, Israelis are armed in defense of the Jewish people. As Mao Tze Dung said, “Power comes from the end of a gun barrel.” Or as Max Weineich, the Yiddish scholar said with some sorrow when speaking of the lack of respect accorded Yiddish, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” It is good to have an army and powerful weapons on your side. Then your language, your culture and your lives gain respect.
On the night that Israel gained its independence, the father of Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, told his son how Polish children had treated him in school, stealing his pants and ridiculing him for being a Jew. Then, he said to his son: “Bullies may well bother you in the street or at school someday ... because you are a bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew. ... Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. Forever.”
But Israel’s role in our lives is so much deeper than the safety it provides world Jewry. The Jewish people are far more culturally richer because of Israel. It’s been more than 2,000 years since the birth language of millions of Jews was Hebrew. Hebrew literature, like what Amos Oz writes, once again matters. Jewish culture everywhere, always rich, expanded dramatically in the 20th century under the influence of Zionism. In the sciences and the arts Israelis and Jews everywhere contribute to world culture. We are no longer a remnant of an ancient people, Jews are a dynamic force for human goodness. We have Zionism to thank for this.
The story of Zionism itself, is a great gift to Jews and to world history. The idea of marshalling the Jewish people, in a period marked by Jewish weakness, the time of the Dreyfus affair, was genius. Jew were a bedraggled, impoverished minority occasionally experiencing violence, and sadly waiting, as we now know, for the ultimate pogrom. And Hertzl and others saw how Europe entered modernity though nationalism, as did Italy. He realized that somehow we too could take our rightful and equal place through a nation-state. Of course, unlike Italy, Land of Israel was both far away and bedraggled itself. Hertzl’s Vienna was distant from dusty Jerusalem and there was no Tel Aviv, just sand. Yes, there were people living in this Turkish backwater that became Israel, people who still today also need a homeland, but not that many people. Much of the Land of Israel was empty and much more was undeveloped. From Zionist shovels sand dunes rose into cities.
Yet, even more amazing in this dramatic story was the rise of utopian thinking among Zionist leaders in addition to Hertzl. Early Russian Zionists were communists, dogmatically dedicated to their vision of workers’ equality. In the early 1900’s while so many Jews fled the sorrows of Czarist Russia and Poland for western Europe and the United States, a few of the idealistic ones went to the Land of Israel. There, under their red banner, the Zionists of the second Aliya built economically viable communist farms, and a socialist health care system, and unions, and worker owned bus networks, and systems of national distribution for goods and services, and they built an army, the Haganah, which provided for the common defense and, when the time was right, the Hagana won Israel's war of Independance. In the Middle East, Labor Zionism, it build a nation, strong and viable, where one did not exist.
I support Israel for the sake of the Jewish people, for my own self interest and because the energy infusion that Zionism provided the Jewish people changed everything for Jews everywhere for all time. I can only speak for myself, but as an American I am overwhelmed by the rise of anti-Democratic and anti-Semitic movements in the States. Three armed neo-Nazis with automatic weapons menaced, from across the street, the Reform Synagogue in Charlottesville on Shabbat this August and the police refused to help. Thomas Jefferson’s university was essentially occupied by those who seek a white dictatorship. Yet I feel less afraid in a world in which Israel exists. We are better off in so many ways living in the age of Israel.
But there is a loss. Among the early Zionists, both the red left, as well as the smaller group of non-leftists, few saw themselves as religious. They felt very little for Judaism, what we are doing right now here in this room. Some were openly hostile toward Judaism. To the vast majority of the builders of the State of Israel, Judaism was something of the past, a passivity that actually held back the Jewish people. So today, Israel is the center of Jewish life in so many ways but not in religious life. In fact, the secular state, disinterested in religion, gave away the power that a religion can exercise to their natural enemy, the orthodox authorities that were so passive in Europe and from which the Zionists rebelled. Israeli state builders said to the orthodox authorities, “Be the bosses of Judaism. It is no concern of ours.” The Zionist leaders wrongly thought that religious Jews would die out.
And so Israel is powerful in so many ways, economically and politically, culturally and militarily, which are the great gifts of Zionism. And Israel is so very weak in modern creative Judaism. More than once, I have witnessed an Israeli ascend the bima at a bar mitzvah for an aliya, and quietly tell me that although they can, of course, read the words, they have never heard the Torah blessings before, that don’t know the melody, that they, in fact, have never been inside a synagogue. An extreme case, as many Israelis know something of Judaism. Yet the Judaism they mostly know is an dry orthodoxy from which they are alienated. Judaism is scorned by many, ignored by most or imposed by a few. Israelis don’t know the melody anymore.
But we, Reform Jews worldwide, do. And this is our role in the unfolding of Jewish history. Liberal, modern Judaism, another product of the 19th and 20th centuries along with Zionism, has something Israel needs. Liberal Judaism has something that world Jewry needs. Last year when I became aware of our efforts to organize Italian liberal Jews, for strength and to support our fellow Jews in Europe and Israel and the world, I was excited. We have something to offer. Prayer and song and belief and a vision of a Godly world for which we can work. I am not trying to lay a theology on anyone. Liberal Jews do wrestle with God’s existence and God’s relationship with us. Yet, it is in the wrestling, and the gathering and the passion we can feel in this room, which we bring to the Jewish world. I believe that when we meet to consider our soul’s journey on Yom Kippur or light shabbat candles or sing, we bring a presence of community and Godliness into our lives for goodness and blessing. Organizing Italian Reform Jews strengthens our ties to all liberal Jews and to Israel. Living in community allows us all to grow together.
I do not worry about Israel being destroyed. Israel is a strong country in so many ways. I do worry about Israel losing its Jewish character. A nation of Jews is not necessarily a Jewish nation.
When I had first arrived in Israel, a member of the kibbutz advised me to earn an extra day off, easy to do in the kitchen, and combine it with Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat and take a long weekend vacation. Not go to services, but travel somewhere in the country. That was in 1970.
A few years later I learned from another Israeli the secret of Israel’s victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. You may remember that the war had the opposite storyline of the Six Day War. In 1967, facing potential annihilation, Israel struck first in surprise and insured victory on three fronts. But in 1973, on Yom Kippur, the Israel’s Arab neighbors unleashed a surprise attack. Fortunately for Israel, the attack occurred on Yom Kippur. In those days Israelis, while not in synagogue, were in the habit of remaining close to home. The emergency military call up succeeded because most everyone was close to their reporting stations. But what was really fortunate was that the coordinated Arab attack did not occur on Rosh Hashanah when most Israelis go on vacation or to the beach. Every minute counted as the Arab armies overran Israel’s defensive positions. A nation on the beach could not have responded as well. And a nation on the beach is missing something. Something spiritual. Something we have and can share.
O God, a vast universe cannot contain You, yet one place holds Your Essence. Centuries passed while You waited for our return. We arrived, both idealistic and bedraggled. In the land of our ancestors we build a restored nation. Threads of old cloth became new garments. The desert became farm and forest. Sand dunes rose into cities. We did this. You did this.
The hope You instilled in our hearts for the land of Sarah and Abraham’s wandering moved heart and hand. Thank You for the dream and gratitude to those who did and do the work of our renewal. May those who live the Zionist vision find their reward in Israel’s prosperity.
Loving God strengthens us in our generation’s work in the Land of Israel. And we ask for Your Wisdom to help us to resolve what must be resolved. We share the land with people who feel dispossessed. May we come to appreciate their aspirations. We live with neighbors. May we find dialogue, respect and peace. We cherish our global mission. May Israel be a light to the nations. May that light also shine for us showing us our path into tomorrow’s tomorrow.
We are so blessed to live in the age of rebirth. Continue to bless us with your goodness and may the work of our hands honor You, our God of Peace. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We pray for the welfare of the State of Israel.