Monday, March 22, 2010

The Situation in Israel -- this week's sermon

The following is NOT easy to read (and not just for its length!) -- it was NOT easy to write! But it needed to be said. In fact -- MORE needs to be said -- I hate that I had to stop, having gone on too long as it was, without reaching a point to offer an action plan as an alternative to the status quo. The sad truth is that there may not be one available at the moment. For those of you who do not subscribe to Ha'aretz (the Israeli newspaper) on-line (available through facebook among other ways) -- it is remarkable that every time Ha'aretz puts something up on their blog -- whether critical of the government or not -- 60+% of the comments it gets in facebook are from Israel-haters -- more of whom are starting to sound like Tea Partiers -- now THERE is a scary marriage to contemplate!

The Little Aleph and the Tolling Bell -- Sermon for Parshat Vayiqra
March 19, 2010 -- Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

The clocks have been set forward – soon it will still be light as we begin services. People have dressed in green, and been a little bit silly. Obviously spring is about to arrive – and it does, this weekend.

But for me, the two BEST proofs that spring is here are the hints we have this Shabbat. The first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, with wall-to-wall big games on television, and results that will alternately make us scream for joy and wallow in self pity as an unimaginable loss suffered by a team we would never be caught dead rooting for destroys our brackets , is one of those signs. To which I can only say – with millions of other Americans tonight – Go Georgetown!

The second, and far more serious, of those Shabbat signs is that we begin the reading of the book of Leviticus – tomorrow, with our Bar Mitzvah and his family. Most of us are no longer very well connected to the natural rhythms of either nature’s agricultural seasons or the annual cycle of Torah readings, so we probably haven’t noticed this before. But with the arrival of Spring, the rebirth of the Earth, and the start of the growing season, our tradition has us studying the laws of the sacrifices and the Priesthood that administered the system.

This may be insignificant to us, or appear coincidental. But I believe this was both deliberate, and extremely telling, at least in its time. Therefore, the challenge for us, as modern Reform Jews, like it is for so much of the rest of this book of Torah, is to read it carefully, not with glazed over eyes at incredibly mundane details that we would no longer practice, many of us, even if they were forced upon us. But rather, in keeping with the ideals of our Reform Jewish tradition, we need to read these chapters and verses carefully, trying to understand their significance in that earlier time, and then seeking ways, if not by following the letter of these laws, then certainly by following their spirit, to achieve similar results in our own lives.

For me, this linking of Leviticus and Spring is easy to interpret. As our ancestors returned most, if not all of their attention and energy to the land, as was needed for their economic and physical survival, the text is reminding them, and us as well, that our survival as Jews requires more than mere physical sustenance. It is a message reinforced in the early chapters of Deuteronomy, where we are taught that it is “not by bread alone” that we are sustained in life, but by “anything that issues from God’s (proverbial) mouth.”

At exactly the time that our ancestors were being drawn back to the land, our text tradition reminds us that doing so is NOT an end in itself. We are sustained fully in life ONLY if that action is joined to an increased awareness of God’s role in our daily lives. Working the fields and tending the flocks are essential, but so too is an awareness that whatever bounty results for us is only partially the work of our hands. It is, in truth, the embodiment of the beneficence of our Creator and Nurturer, Who created these animals and crops, Who filled us with the wisdom to become good farmers and herders, and Who gave us this land to work.

So how do we – no longer farmers and shepherds – demonstrate our awareness of God’s presence in our daily lives in something approaching the same way? Well, our ancestors were obligated to bring the firsts and the bests of their efforts to God as sacrificial offerings. What do we find ourselves obligated to bring to God’s House as part of our worship of God?

Do we bring the best and first of ourselves? If that were true, we’d need a bigger sanctuary – not just at High Holy Days, or when the Rabbi’s kids are celebrating b’nai mitzvah, but every Shabbat and holy day. How many of us make the decision between Temple and someplace else in the Temple’s favor more than half of the time? How many of us are satisfied simply to make it to services, or to be on time for programs and classes; and how many allow ourselves the time to prepare properly, and make the effort to make our time here special? Even an event as enjoyable as this weekend’s SOCIAL fundraiser is undersubscribed. We have allowed our physical participation to become optional in our lives – far too many of us. And that dodges the deeper question of the quality of our participation when we ARE here – one which we would do well to explore as well!

Do we bring the best and first of the work of our hands? The Torah calls for a tithe of 10%. Our dues and other fees, even for that family with 3 kids in the religious school, hardly ever reaches as much as 5% -- for most it is far less. But that doesn’t stop us from kvetching about how much we HAVE TO pay (even though, as we have noted, that sense of obligation is otherwise gone)! Even for something like tomorrow evening’s casino night and silent auction, how many of us have contributed something tangible to the auction, or sponsored a table? How many of us, despite the significant urging, brought a prospective member family to Shabbat Across America this year, to help us increase our numbers, and hold down that percentage for each of us? The answer is fewer than we’d like!

Clearly, in this area, we have much improvement to strive for! But we are far from alone in this shortcoming. Because it seems clear that the other major way of achieving the ends desired by the Torah and our tradition require of us, collectively, not merely a solid physical connection to the land given by God to Abraham and his descendants, but a connection to Israel that is rooted in the spiritual and ethical as well.

Sadly, on this Shabbat, as American Jews, we have much to lament in the handling of affairs in the modern State of Israel by BOTH the Israeli and American governments. Clearly, we count on the Israeli government to properly handle our people’s physical attachment to the land, and to maintain order – both within their own state, and with their neighbors. That is what governments do. We have, from the moment of Israel’s birth, counted on the American government to do what was right in supporting Israel as an ally. And even in the worst of times – Richard Nixon comes to mind – that support has been there. Sometimes stronger and more obvious, sometimes less so. And sometimes we may have disagreed with the particular route to that end being taken at a given moment.

Sometimes, our dual identity interferes with our vision, or our willingness to call for action. As Americans, we fear being accused of having “dual loyalties,” we worry that our perspective, because we are talking about Israel, is skewed. As those who lived through the ‘60’s in America, we are careful in raising criticism, remembering the depths of the internal conflict over Viet Nam. Tonight, however, I cannot remain cautiously silent any longer.

I cannot recall a time when BOTH the public actions of the Israeli government, and the apparent motivations of America’s elected leaders have been as off-key as they have appeared to be in the last two weeks. The public embarrassment suffered by Vice-President Biden at the incredibly stupid timing of the Israeli announcement about building 1600 luxury apartments in East Jerusalem while Biden was FINALLY in the region, trying to move the stalled peace process forward, is NOT the first time the Israelis have so burned an American leader. But it is assuredly the worst-timed example of short-sighted, politically motivated decision making by a Likud government in embarrassing America at a time when America needs to be actively involved and positively disposed to the peace process -- for Israel’s sake.

However, if it sounds like I am blaming the Israelis – in majority part, or in whole – for the current “crisis,” (and I do not believe that word is hyperbole here), rest assured – I am not! One does not ascend to crisis status unilaterally – it takes a colossal misreading of circumstances far beyond the control of just one party! And there is PLENTY of blame to be shared quite widely!

For we need to ask ourselves another probing question – Why was Vice-President Biden sent to Israel – for the first time -- NOW? Why is the administration sending precious resources overseas, while in the heat of the battle for a health care victory at home? The answer, surprisingly, is far worse than the presumptive “Wag the Dog” scenario of trying to distract attention from the health care mess and the utter failure to create a single substantive change in 14 months in office.

No, apparently the answer is far darker. And no, I am NOT taking up camp with the “Birthers,” questioning Obama’s religious and sentimental leanings in this conflict on the basis of his middle name, even after he failed to visit Israel last year as he toured her Arab neighbors. Nor am I agreeing with Charles Krauthammer, who ALMOST got it right in the Post today, before he came up short and lapsed into useless partisanship.

For while I agreed with most of Krauthammer’s analysis, I recognized last year, and agree still, that Obama’s trip was made necessary by his predecessor’s near lock-step support for Israeli policies for 8 years, without regard to the impact on an eventual peace process. Any hope of lasting and meaningful success, whether justified or not, DID require reassuring potential allies and peace partners that America COULD still be seen as an “honest broker” in any serious peace effort.

So then why DID Joe Biden find himself in Jerusalem at exactly the wrong moment? Sadly, it was because no less than General Petraeus (and yes, it is taking ALL of my restraint to avoid repeating the deliberate mispronunciation of his name that I objected to so vehemently several years ago when it was done by others who thought he was selling out the interests of American soldiers!) showed up at a Pentagon briefing, and made the claim that unless the Administration got the Israeli-Palestinian situation moving towards peace again, that conflict would not only continue to fester, but would serve as fodder for those we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and embolden the Iranians as well.

The problem with this evaluation is not its inaccuracy – for sadly, he is correct. The problem is both in its incompleteness, and in the way it was interpreted by others after he said it. The sad truth is that Israel’s EXISTENCE, as a geo-political fact, is enough of an irritant to put our troops at additional risk where they are; that if this particular truth didn’t exist for our enemies to use to motivate them against us, they would find another, or invent one if they had to. After all, they have done this for over 35 years now!

Let us remember that the second intifada was not REALLY a response to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount – it occurred too soon after his visit NOT to have been in the planning for months, just waiting for an excuse to justify its launch. If it hadn’t been Sharon’s actions that day, it would have been something else shortly thereafter. The Taliban and al-Qaeda will continue to use the existence of Israel, the perceived abuse by Israel of the Palestinians in Gaza, and the perception of Israel’s close ties to America, as a rallying piece for new recruits and new missions against US. Neither 1600 new apartment buildings in East Jerusalem, nor a reversal by the Israelis, just because this is not ethically justifiable in the face of calls to make sincere peace, will NOT themselves inflame behavior against America to new heights. Neither will the continuation of Israel’s legitimate policy of not compromising fundamental security concerns merely to get a viable peace partner to come to the table. Sadly, it needs to be made clear that neither will, it should only happen, a successful peace being found!

But worse, was the internal American reaction. I doubt highly that Petraeus is the first American military leader to make this statement and back it up. I am fairly certain he is the first whose utterance led directly to an attempt to do what he was asking, and clearly one undertaken in a rush, without thinking through all the potential outcomes. Friends, for better or worse, diplomacy is a chess game, and apparently no one looked ahead a few moves to see what could – and would --happen here!

And, if the REAL analysis ended here, we would have an example of a well-meaning but misguided decision by the White House that they firmly believed was in our country’s best interests, turning out not to be so. And probably one in which the White House might be subject to charges that intelligence reports may have been deliberately manipulated to justify a desired military response. But then, this is not the first time we have heard that accusation, is it!? And one which, quite ironically, l’havdil, when we acknowledge reality, makes us no better than the Taliban and al-Qaeda in how we are willing to manipulate facts for our own ends!

But there is MUCH more at work here as well. Why did the Israelis feel the need to make this decision regarding these apartments at all, much less to announce it at this moment and risk embarrassing Biden and the Americans? Part of the blame here is internal, part is external. To start, we need to remind ourselves of just who is in charge in Israel these days and why.

Bibi Netanyahu, who spent more of his adult life as a Republican in Pennsylvania than he did living in Israel, was re-elected as Prime Minister after several years in political limbo, despite his first term having ended in the disgrace of a conviction for personal fiscal malfeasance. This happened after the “peace middle” of the Israeli political scene broke down in large part because of the failures in Gaza and against Hizbollah, pushing the Israeli electorate to the right, making them vote for their own short-term protection. Bibi, in turn, rather than forming the unity government of strength to continue Israel on the middle path that seemed to be indicated by the election results, instead chose to form a slim minority government, far too dependent on the whims of political partners like the ultra-Orthodox Shas, who, history has shown, despite their religious convictions, are far more motivated by personal gain than desire for the peace of Israel.

Two possibilities arise here, because the announcement about the apartments actually was NOT made by official government spokespeople, but by a leader of Shas. Either, as Bibi claims, this was not of his doing, and he was equally surprised and embarrassed by Shas. In which case his ruling majority is even less tenable than anyone realized, when his own partners are willing to embarrass him for their own gain! Or, this was all a deliberate move on the government’s part, to maintain distance from the top, because they KNEW they would be embarrassing Biden by the timing, in which case we need to try and figure out what legitimate sounding motive they might have had for such a dangerous move, likely to blow up in their faces, as indeed, it seems to have done.

And for that, we need to look at the Arab side of the equation! At the same moment that there was some slight progress back towards discussions with Fatah leaders from the West Bank, the situation with Hamas, in Gaza, appears to be getting worse. Not, this time, because of Hamas, themselves. But rather, because Israel’s efforts to weaken Hamas are working, and Hamas is now being threatened by even MORE radical elements, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper of record on military events, Ha’aretz, this week. And at exactly the moment that a viable Fatah should be in a position both to regain control AND move a peace process forward, they are failing to make an effort on the first, and being as ineffectual as ever on the second. In fact, according to a separate report in Ha’aretz, Hizbollah has sent 1000 “soldiers,” uninvited, into the West Bank, where they can ONLY be seen as a threat against Fatah.

So here is what we are left with. At BEST, the Arab terror groups, the Palestinians, the Israeli government, and the White House and Pentagon have all simultaneously misread the current reality, with results that might be comedic if they weren’t so deadly serious. As a result, the first serious effort of the Obama administration towards negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace was delivered late, and apparently DOA.

At WORST, the American military, the Israelis and the Fatah leadership are all now painfully aware that, unless something dramatic and positive happens, and happens very soon, the intolerable Hamas may soon be gone from the scene, and we will miss their moderation – something they have NEVER been accused of – as the situation spirals even further out of control. And Fatah themselves may find themselves fighting for their political, and physical, survival as well. And we will have no one to blame but each other – because none of the parties will look in the mirror and blame themselves!

For the first time in my adult life, the worst case scenario is actually the more plausible, in part because I have been given no reason to have ANY faith in either the Netanyahu or Obama governments’ ability to accurately read and address such a situation. I sure hope that I am wrong – that the events of the last two weeks are, in fact, a diplomatic smokescreen, all carefully choreographed by the parties working together, designed to allow progress to happen below the surface. But even a closet conspiracy theorist like me is having great trouble with that reading of the situation!

This is why I can no longer remain quiet. As the modern British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, made so clear – sometimes not to act is, in fact, to act. Action is needed, and needed fast. Not action rushed into too quickly as a reaction to growing concerns. But action carefully crafted and thought through, properly prepared for on and by all sides, designed to move forward, with as little risk, and as much likelihood of success as is humanly possible and predictable.

The fact that the last item from Israel this week was the response to a Hamas-sponsored “Day of Rage” to protest the status quo that led to armed riots, in which close to 100 Palestinian protestors were injured, reinforces the danger in waiting too long, and doesn’t make it any easier for me to be optimistic. But I pray that I am wrong, and ask you to join me in that prayer, even as we pledge to work together to make Leviticus more positively meaningful as a force in our own lives closer to home. KYR

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