Monday, October 6, 2014

Yom Kippur Morning 5775 - It's Time to Put on our Israel Jerseys

           When I lived in Israel during my days in the seminary; aside from Ulpan, classes in Zionist history, Mishnah, liturgy, tiyyulim – trips throughout the countryside, I took time to participate in a burgeoning new fixation called Fantasy Football.
This took place in our computer lab, as Wi-Fi though in existence by then, was not widely available. Together my classmates and I gathered around that computer lab. We drafted our teams, and I actually won that first year, which was pretty amazing given the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. What I did know is that I was hooked.
Flash forward about a decade and I was invited to play in a rabbis-only league. One of the great things about his league is we all have about the same amount of time to devote to our teams, which is practically none. Now before you think this is strange, I would like to note that according to a Forbes Article, there are an estimated 32 million people in the US and Canada who play fantasy football, making up nearly 10% of the US population.[1]
            For some Fantasy Football is more than a hobby, it is an obsession. Thankfully, for me, it is about as low a priority as a hobby as you can get. For those of you not familiar, the basic tenants of Fantasy Football are that you participate in a league often made up of 10 to 14 owners. These owners hold a ‘draft’ where they draft players from every NFL team. They then ‘field’ this team based on a set number of positions like one quarterback, two running backs and the like. You then play your team against another owner every week. Points are based on things like receptions, yardage and of course touchdowns. The most well-known players tend to go first, with kickers going last. I will admit that I am a bit of a homer and I have consistently drafted Justin Tucker for just about every team I manage. There are playoffs, and if there was a fee for the league, usually the top two or two three teams end up winning money.
            One of the curious oddities about Fantasy Football is that, as an owner, you can find yourself rooting for teams you would never think you would root for simply because they have one or more of your players or are playing against your opponent. For example, it would not be unusual for a Baltimorean to have Ben Roethlisberger as his or her starting quarterback on their fantasy team despite their feelings about the Steelers.
            All of this can lead to strange emotions with feelings of divided loyalties. I, for example, like many of you, want the Ravens to win every week. However, this past week, I wanted the Ravens to win, but I also wanted the Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to have a stellar day, as he is one of my receivers on one of my fantasy teams. Thankfully Benjamin had a good game and the Ravens crushed the Panthers, so all was right with the world.
            But this notion of divided loyalties got me thinking to about issues relating to it in the broader world as well. In our history as Jews, our national loyalties have often been called into question. This was one of the consistent themes, especially in Europe in the 1920s and 30s. And the accusation has even cropped up in this country from time to time. Thankfully there has never been Federal action determined by such accusations as was made against the Japanese-Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But it is something we do keep an eye on.
            No, I was thinking in terms of divided loyalties with regards to our feelings about Israel. One of the most recent accusations that cropped up this summer is an old one that has taken new form. Israel is supposed to be the shining light in the sea of the Middle East. And whenever Israel reverts to acting like any other nation would, given the circumstances, it is emotionally troubling for some of us.
            For many, Israel is judged by a higher standard because it is a Jewish country. Somehow, we, the chosen people, are supposed to act, not as the rest of the world acts, but instead, we are supposed to do better.
            I think this is part of the reason for the argument against Israel’s so-called disproportionate response against Hamas. No matter how much Israel may have tried to minimize civilian casualties, She would always be still in the wrong. Never mind the fact that Israel spent millions with help from the US to build Iron Dome to protect her citizens and property from rocket attacks.
            The argument of disproportionate response is supposed to make us feel a sense of divided loyalty even if it is not true. For example, it was a common theme in the media who consistently reported that most of the victims in Gaza were innocent civilians. It was common knowledge that 72-82% of the victims were innocent because no one bothered to dig deeper and look at the numbers.
The reality is, Hamas employed a policy of deception. They did this by doing things like removing uniforms from soldiers making it seem like they were innocent victims. There are even videos of soldiers ‘playing dead,’ to make it seem like there were more victims than there actually were. According to recent analysis, it is much more likely that as many as 47% of those killed were combatants and/or terrorists, making a 1:1 ratio. Which though disturbing, is a much higher ratio given the nature of urban warfare.[2] And yet we feel divided.
            We also feel divided because we are not really familiar with what Hamas is. We know they are a terrorist organization that until recently was in control of Gaza, but we may not even be aware as to why they started attacking Israel. The answer lies, not with Gaza or Israel, but actually with Egypt.
            Hamas was founded in 1987 and was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.[3] The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and is a pan-national organization that is also Sunni. So you can imagine the excitement by Hamas when the Muslim Brotherhood won significant victories in the Egyptian elections in 2012 following the fall of Hosni Mubarek. The Brotherhood placed Mohammed Morsi as the first democratically elected president of Egypt, and opened the floodgates of support to Hamas through the tunnels at the Sinai Gaza border. According to some estimates, Hamas and Gaza received more than half of their income through the interactions taking place at these tunnels totaling at least $1 billion, over half of their annual budget.
            The problem for Hamas was on July 3, 2013, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by the Egyptian military. This coup placed a new government in power, one that was viciously against the Brotherhood, and also against Hamas. Hamas now found itself in political and economic no man’s land. So how did they react?
They could strike at Egypt, but how would that be perceived by the Arab world? So instead, they started by kidnapping three Jewish boys and then launching rockets into southern Israel. And yet, deep down, there are experts who believe Hamas did not want to start a war in this way. Instead by attacking Israel in a war they probably did not mean to start, they ultimately hurt themselves significantly with Israel’s destruction of numerous tunnels and the targeted killing of some of their most important leaders. Hamas in many ways was defeated. And most feel there will be a significant time of peace in the land. Whether that is one year or five or twenty, remains to be seen. But we ask ourselves, because we feel divided and conflicted, was it worth the cost?
            We are conflicted because of the loss of any innocent life. According to my colleague and new friend Rabbi Ben Goldstein, he “recently heard a story from Rabbi Alan Lucas. He said that one of his college students came to him this summer and asked him if he believed that the loss of a Palestinian child’s life was any less tragic than the loss of a young Israeli soldier’s life. He tried to figure out where she was coming from, and finally answered, “No and Yes. No – there is no difference between the loss of a Palestinian child and the loss of an Israeli child, they are equally tragic. And Yes – because, you see, this one is my son, and although equal in tragedy, I feel the pain so much more.” “But he in not your son!” His student yelled. He smiled at her and said simply, “That my dear, is where we disagree.” [4]
As Rabbi Goldstein goes on to explain, “The loss of innocent life is tragic, and the acknowledgment of that fact does not lessen the validity of the war that occurred. We know that Israel has every right to defend her citizens. We know that tunnels built from Gaza were created with the sole purpose of death and destruction. We know that the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers demanded a response from the Israeli government.”[5]
Could Israel have handled things differently? Perhaps before the war, but I am not sure what it could have done differently once it was attacked. This became even more pronounced when we witnessed the world’s responses to the Gaza War, which unlike it’s response to the Syrian Civil war where 100 times as many people have been killed so far, the world chose to attack Jewish communities, especially those in Europe. This new wave of so-called Anti-Zionism feels suspiciously like Anti-Semitism, probably because it is.
            Thankfully, for our brethren living in places like France, there is an option available for them that was not available for Jews in Europe 70 years ago, and that is to make aliyah, to immigrate to Israel.
            Fortunately, for most of us here, that is not something we need to seriously consider unless we feel passionate about living in Israel. But isn’t it nice to know that Israel is an option.
            That being said, the war this past summer has hurt Israel. It hurts Israel’s image abroad, and it hurt tourism. Though a number of my colleagues went on solidarity trips during and immediate following the cessation of hostilities, many other tour trips were cancelled.
            I mention this because I am sometimes asked: what can I do to help? One thing you can do is travel to Israel. We have a congregational trip planned for this upcoming December. We are scheduled to leave on December 7th and return on December 17th. It will be a whirlwind trip to visit some of the highlights of Israel like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And we may even make a trip down to Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city if there is enough interest. To be honest, we don’t have the numbers just yet, but we would love to make a go of it. That time of year is the perfect time to travel to Israel as it is neither too hot nor too cold. And we will even be there at the beginning of Chanukah, which means it is a great time to get in any last minute Chanukah shopping. We would love to have you join us. Feel free to speak with me or David Carp, and we will be happy to provide you with more information. All we need are twenty people, a double minyan if you will. And I can personally guarantee that Israel will be happy to see us.
            Another way we can help Israel is through the purchase of Israel bonds. I am now going to ask you to take am moment to look at the forms that are on our seat, and if you are so willing, to fill them out. Yes, I am giving you permission to ignore my words for the next few moments as you look over the forms.
As the Israel Bonds website explains, “From its launching in 1951 and continuing through the present day, Israel Bonds has played a unique role in Israel’s rapid progression from struggling agrarian nation to global economic powerhouse….
Proceeds realized through the sale of Israel bonds have helped cultivate the desert, build transportation networks, create new industries, resettle immigrants, and increase export capability. Today, investing in Israel bonds supports a nation of extraordinary innovation that continues to push the boundaries of modern technology.
Israel Bonds has been widely praised for its extraordinary legacy of achievement. In the words of President Shimon Peres, "The investment of Israel bonds in Israel's economy has reaped huge dividends."[6]
And unlike our ReJewVenate Campaign and our Share the Load Campaign, which are vital for Har Sinai Congregation, and I highly encourage you to participate in, Israel Bonds are an investment. You can give them as gifts, add them to your portfolio, and for those of you who make pledges to the Associated, you can make your annual gift through the purchase of an Israel Bond.
Our Har Sinai ARZA Committee coordinated this effort and will be collecting the cards at the exits when you leave the Sanctuary. So please consider participating in this program so vital for Israel’s continued economic future. And make sure to drop off your cards as you head out.
            The third thing we can all do is become more active as what I would call, ‘defenders of Israel.’ What I mean by this is that in some ways, this Gaza War was the first Facebook war with memes being shared across Social Media. I probably made more posts concerning Israel this summer than I have ever before. I did this to try to combat the rash of misinformation that abounded in Social Media circles.
            The traditional media likes to report the sensational. They like to base their stories on the angle of a David versus Goliath scenario, with Israel as Goliath. Though if you have read Malcom Gladwell’s most recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, one can come to appreciate the central problems with this metaphor. But that is a sermon for another day. What we do know is that Israel has so few friends out there; She needs help from as many circles as She can get.
            Another option is to join me at this year’s upcoming AIPAC Policy Conference in 2015. I had the chance to attend my first conference last march with Cantor and Graciela Gerber, David and Marilyn Carp and Stewart and Nadine Sachs. Though I had to leave early due to the snowstorm, it was great to be able to spend time with 13,000 lovers of Israel. There were Jews and Christians with a wide divergence of opinions, but they all were there to show their solidarity with Israel. They were also there to continue to work with our government and especially Congress, to encourage them to continue to build upon the mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
            This year I am planning on attending the entire conference, and I would love to have you join me as part of the larger Baltimore Jewish coalition. You will have the chance to hear from scholars, experts, politicians, Israeli leaders and so many more. And then you will be given the ability to go to Congress to advocate for Israel with our politicians including our very own Senator Ben Cardin who is also coming to speak at our Brotherhood Paid Up Dinner on Thursday November 16th at 6pm. So mark your calendars for the Dinner in November and the AIPAC Policy Conference coming March 1st – 3rd in Washington D.C., it is well worth it.
            Israel still faces many challenges. A nuclear Iran is one of the most pressing not just because of the imminent threat that would represent to Israel, but because it would also lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. And one thing I think we can agree on is that the world does not need more nuclear nations especially in such a volatile region.
            And this is not even to comment about ISIS or the Islamic State or ISIL, which is an important conversation, but one to have for another day. What I can say is that Israel continues to live in a very dangerous neighborhood. It would be nice if she could just move to someplace quieter, but that is not the reality.
            Israel is not a perfect State. She is a state governed by people, and people are, by definition, imperfect. And this imperfection can again lead to feelings of divided loyalty. I can say it is not divided loyalties if we are not 100% supportive of all of Israel’s policies. Heck, none of us agree on the policies of our government, so why should we always be in agreement with Israel? What I can say is that there is certainly a time and a place to challenge and criticize, just as there is also a time to show and demonstrate unwavering support of the only continually stable and vibrant democracy in the entirety of the Middle East.
            I started off by talking about Fantasy Football where one can sometimes feel mixed emotions because they find themselves rooting for players on opposing teams. However, for true fans, they’re loyalty as a fan is always unwavering. They are loyal to their team. To expand the metaphor once further, my team, like the Ravens, is Israel. I proudly wear their jersey loudly. And I know they can use my support. I encourage you to join me in supporting Israel by traveling their with us, buying Israel bonds, supporting causes relating to the liberal Jewish movements in Israel, and being an advocate. For as Rabbi Hillel said, “Im ein ani li mi li,” “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
            May this coming year be one where we work together as a community to show our support to the Land, to our Land of Israel. Whether we choose to travel there as a community, purchase bonds to show our solidarity, or simply to stand up for Israel even as we challenge many of her decisions, all of these are key and vital ways we can be part of demonstrating our love and support. For if we are not for Israel, who will be?

[5] Ibid.

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