Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sermon on The Recent Elections in Israel

Below is my sermon from Friday March 27th:

Let me start off by stating that I am happy to discuss this conversation on AIPAC and the recent elections in Israel following our service this evening. I will be right here happy to speak with you after we finish our worship service. Secondly, I am working with what information we know for the moment, but as the political landscape continues to shift and change, much of what I offer may have already changed even before our service is over. And thirdly, there are many pundits and experts who can speak to the tachlis, the details of the various personalities and parties involved in the election. Rather than dive into all of those details, I am pursuing a broader approach to look at some general themes and possible outcomes as a result of these most recent elections.
All that being said, one of the most partisan, vicious, and difficult elections in Israel’s history, if not THE most partisan election in Israel’s history, something curious happened Wednesday March 18th, absolutely nothing. People went to work. Netanyahu began the process of attempting to form a coalition government. People, being either happy or unhappy with the election results, continued to demonstrate their love of the only enduring democracy in the Middle East. There were no riots. There was no coup. Life kept moving ever forward. This is what democracies do, especially when an estimated 72.3% of the electorate[1] (nearly three quarters of all available voters) showed up at the polls.
Israel, lest we forget is only sixty-six years old (sixty-seven this coming May). When the United States was sixty-six years old John Tyler was president, following the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler, among other things while in office, worked to annex the then sovereign nation of Texas, angering abolitionists. Himself, an ardent supporter of Southern rights and slavery, Tyler helped to sow the seeds for what would become the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, the Civil War.
            I mention all of this because, as difficult as this election was, Israel is not on the precipice of a Civil War, so I would encourage everyone to take a deep breath.
            So here is what we know. First off, I actually lived in Israel in 1999, which was the last time Benyamin Netanyahu lost an election. I remember the sense of jubilation when Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak. That being said, in many ways Bibi is Israel’s first true politician. He is part of that second generation, who were not instrumental in the founding of Israel or in securing the nation from the precipice of destruction. He will also soon be the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, assuming he is able to form a coalition government. In this sense Netanyahu represents a different type of politician for a different type of Israel.
Netanyahu’s main focus for the past decade has been Iran and Iran’s nuclear program. That has been his singular focus. That was the main topic of conversation at AIPAC and at his two speeches a few weeks ago here in the United States.
With regards to AIPAC, as I mentioned in a blog post, “it was wonderful to gather together with 16,000 lovers of Israel across all sorts of spectrums be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Christian, Evangelical, Republican, Conservative, and even a few independents. Also, as great as it was to see that there were over 500 hundred rabbis in attendance, even more exciting were the over 3,000 high school and college students, fighting the fight for Israel on the ground of our academic institutions.
However there were two central themes that dominated the experience: Iran and Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, both of which I will admit, I am conflicted about.
With regards to Netanyahu’s speech, there are those who accuse him of acting for purely political reasons. I do not believe this is an entirely fair accusation. Netanyahu has made it a singular focus of his political career to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability. He has spoken out at the UN and just about anywhere else to make this point. He has focused on it so much that many Israelis are frustrated because they feel like he has ignored internal Israeli challenges like the dominant issue of the affordable housing crises. At the same time, Netanyahu spoke at Congress during the middle of the day, which is prime time viewing in Israel. His speech may have been focused on Iran, but it was also very much a campaign speech, he is a politician after all.
I also believe that there are many in the House and Senate, on both sides, who are very much concerned with the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and they very much wanted to hear from Netanyahu. At the same time, by giving him a platform, they were lobbing a direct insult against the President, which in turn has created a mini-political firestorm in Washington. The President is the head of the Democratic Party, and many in Congress chose to forgo this speech in public because they support their leader. This in turn is simply bad news for Israel and AIPAC, as the goal of AIPAC is to garner bipartisan support for Israel. A divided Congress when it comes to the question of Israel is never a good sign.
The President for his part has also handled this badly as well. Israel is a true ally of the United States, and that partnership should be unshakable. All criticisms should be done quietly and behind the scenes. I am sure there were ways to better handle this speech, but instead it became not just a battle, but it is a distraction to the greater issue, which is a potential nuclear Iran.
Obama and Netanyahu have to very different approaches to solving this problem. Obama’s administration is working to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, whereas Netanyahu wants to eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a bomb all together. Now I am not saying which one is the right approach, as I am not a diplomat, or even which one would work, but my wish is that the two of them could sit down and figure it out. Partners talk to one another and not at each other. I believe all sides, including the players in Congress are to blame for making this central security issue into a political one.
North Korea has taught us that any nation that is truly determined to acquire a nuclear weapon can do so. Sanctions will not prevent it. North Korea is the most isolated nation in the world, and yet, it has a nuclear bomb.
So the real question is: why is Iran pursuing nuclear ambitions? As far as I can tell, is once you have nuclear capability, you are treated differently by the rest of the world. Iran wants to be the dominant country in the region. It funds terror as a means to undermine its enemies and further its stature in the Muslim world. By getting rid of Saddam Hussein, we effectively curbed a regional ability to counterbalance Iran’s growing ambitions. Iran wants to be on the biggest stage and wants to have a seat at the table, and it wants to be taken seriously. This does not mean we have to take it seriously. In order to defeat Iran’s nuclear ambitions, we have to understand them.
The other problem is that by framing the nuclear issue around Israel, which many in the world already hate, there are many who do not understand that a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Saudi Arabia, a major rival to Iran, will most likely begin to pursue their own nuclear program, along with many other countries in the region. This is not Israel’s problem alone; this is a problem for the whole Middle East, and by extension, the whole world.”[2]
            All that being said, a nuclear Iran is one of many issues that came up during this latest election. There were also a great number of social issues, many relating to the growing economic disparity in Israel as well as the lack of affordable housing and economic opportunities for young people that helped fuel the large voter turnout.
            Here is what else we know: Netanyhu won what appears to be a decisive victory. But when you add up the number of seats in the Knesset, he actually only won one from the left. All the other additional seats he picked up from parties further to the right than his own. And yet, he remains in power for a few critical demographic reasons. The first is the growing numbers in the Ultra-Orthodox world. They are growing at a rate of over 5% whereas the general “secular” population is growing at a rate less than half that.[3] So simply in terms of numbers there are more people voting on the right. Secondly, remember that large influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union? They tend to also vote against anything they perceive as left leaning.
A third factor in all of this is that as Israel feels increasing pressure from the larger world, especially Europe, its most significant trading partner, and as Israel feels more isolated, the electorate tends to rally around the government rather than for the opposition as a sign of strength and solidarity.
We also know that Netanyahu in several desperate attempts to get his voters to the polls made two statements that angered many. The first is that he stated there would be no Two-State solution. He has since retracted part of his statement, but the damage has been done. Many of his critics rightly or wrongly in Israel, Europe and even among Americans feel that Netanyahu has no interest in peace with the Palestinians.
The cardinal sin Netanyahu committed was to express either an outright unwillingness to engage in negotiations or a general reluctance depending upon how you read his words. I think we can agree that finding a partner in negotiations is a difficult if not impossible prospect to say the least. Abbas has been in power well past his allotted term as head of the P.A. Yet, Israel always, always has to be interested in the possibility, no matter whether it works or not. Politics is 90% perception 10% results. If Israel does not look willing or eager, it only emboldens her enemies and her critics.
Also Netanyahu warned his people of the surge in Israeli-Arab votes. I am reluctant to read this as racism, as some have, but by calling out a specific group in the electorate, Netanyahu certainly has many fences to mend.
And then there is the potential changing nature of US-Israel relationship. Now let’s not kid ourselves, Truman, was known to on occasion offer up an anti-Semitic slur or two. Kissinger during negotiations threatened to change the relationship with Israel, and even Reagan condemned and called out Israel for some of her actions. Needless to say, Obama is not the first president, nor will he be the last who is going to be frustrated with this strategic ally.
However we should also note that Obama is the first president, other than maybe George W. Bush, for whom 1967 is not part of his collective memory and experience. He, like so many Generation X-ers and millienials and so on, only remember Israel when she is strong and not when she was fighting for her existence.
So what does this mean for Israel? Well first off, lest we forget, it was not the doves who have made peace, it was the hawks like Begin and Sharon. So no matter what Netanyahu might say, he might be, and I stress, might be, the man to ultimately offer up a true and enduring peace. But of course he needs a partner to dance with.
Secondly, it means we need, in the words of our Reform leaders, “continue to work with all those who share our commitment to an Israel in which the government does not dictate religious practices and offers a pluralistic and open approach to religious expression … as we continue to work to prevent a nuclear Iran, the Israeli government will need more than ever to focus on restored relations with the United States. The threat Iran poses to Israel, to American interests, and to global stability must remain at the top of our agenda… we also (must) recognize the work ahead of us in reaching out to those, especially younger Jews, who are more critical of Israeli politics, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.”[4]
But what can we do? Well first off, if you like the way the elections turned out, keep supporting Israel. There are great causes like AIPAC, Israel Bonds, and FIDF that can continue to use your generosity. If you are upset by the results you can give to groups like J-Street and Rabbis without borders.
And in either case, I also encourage you to support the Israel Religious Action Center which fights for causes related to religious pluralism in Israel and groups like the Women of the Wall. And of course, please vote in the World Zionist Congress Elections. The greater number of us who vote, the greater say we have in how money is distributed in the land we all care so deeply about. There are many links to these various organizations in our Shabbat Supplement.
I also encourage you to join us this Sunday at 9:30 for our Annual Brotherhood-ARZA breakfast where Sophie Felder, Director of Regional Affairs from the Embassy of Israel will be speaking to us more about the current geopolitical landscape in which Israel currently resides.
            When people ask me my thoughts on the recent elections, my straightforward, al regal achat response is, it’s complicated. It is continuing to play out. Yet it is also a single moment in time. Parties in power do not remain in power forever, and that is even more true of those individuals in power. Yet at the end of the day, it was a fair and open democratic election in an area devoid of any sense of human rights or equality. Israel lives in an increasingly dangerous and unsettled region to say the least. Sometimes we may even be tempted to ask, why does the media focus so much on in Israel when there are so many more important events transpiring in the region like in Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and of course in Iran.
            Yet Israel is the only true democracy. And because of it we do have higher expectations of her, rightly or wrongly. There is much work to be done in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. I know some of you are heartened by the results and some of you are disheartened by the results, and yet, as Jews we are commanded to always have hope. Continue to support those causes that give you hope as we all strive to help Israel fulfill the destiny we have all dreamed for her since the days of her inception. Amen.


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