Monday, October 2, 2017

Yom Kippur Morning 5778 - Towards a New Progressive Zionism

Eichmann Trial Judges
Moshe Landau, Benjamin Halevi, and Yitzhak Raveh
On May 11, 1960, a man took a bus home from his job at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Argentina. The stop was a couple hundred meters away from his home. While walking past a disabled car on his route home, a driver of another car switched on his headlights, effectively blinding this man. It was then that Peter Malkin, a hand-combat specialist … jumped him. While they struggled the man emitted “the primal scream of a cornered animal.” This man was bundled into one of the cars and taken to a safe house. Using a code, the captors sent a word to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that Eichmann was in their hands.[1]
There are multiple renditions of this story, this is one adapted from Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s book: The Eichmann Trial. As Professor Lipstadt went on to write, “Unbeknownst to the Israelis, the operation had not been the total success that they assumed. The Argentinian secret police were apparently aware of Eichmann’s identity and had been keeping close tabs on him. On the night of the kidnapping, an undercover agent was tailing him. He saw three men grab, subdue, and bundle Eichmann into a car. The police agents followed the car to the safe house where he was held. The secret police were also aware that, a few days before the kidnapping, a contingent of Israelis had arrived in the country and were engaged in some sort of surreptitious activity. Apparently, this much-touted secret action was anything but a secret. If the Argentines were indeed aware one has to wonder why they did not abort the operation. Could they have been relieved that he was being taken off their hands?”[2]
It is a story many of us know, or at least know pieces of. The world responded in typical fashion. Argentina, once the matter became public, demanded explanations, “especially the nationalists who were livid at the breach of their country’s sovereignty…”[3] As Daniel Gordis wrote in his book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn: “The UN Security Council demanded reparations passed Resolution 132, “stating that Israel had violated Argentina’s sovereignty and warned that future similar actions could undermine international peace. The United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union all joined in condemning Israel.”[4]
For those of us familiar with Israel’s history, none of us are really all that surprised. Even when striving to do what is right, Israel has a tendency to become the world’s punching bag.
What is unfortunate to learn however is how the Jewish world and Israel turned on each other over this issue. In particular the fight became quite vicious between the American Jewish Committee and its head on one side, and David Ben-Gurion on the other. The core of the disagreement, if you will, was the issue of whether or not Israel is the central address for world Jewry.
In the words of Gordis, “The American Jewish Committee believed that the Eichmann trial should not be held in Israel; some of its members even met with Golda Meir to emphasize their displeasure at the prospect. Infuriating Israeli officials, AJC leaders charged that trying Eichmann in Jerusalem would undermine the fact that he had committed ‘unspeakable crimes against humanity, not only against Jews.”[5]
Ben-Gurion was incensed by this criticism. He was angry not just with the AJC but also “at American Jews at large, whom he now accused of downplaying Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. The ‘Judaism of Jews of the United States is losing all meaning and only a blind man can fail to see the day of its extinction,’ he said. Those Jews who did not live in Israel faced the ‘kiss of death and the slow … decline into the abyss of assimilation.’ Rhetoric such as this constituted a flagrant violation of the spirit of the Blaustein agreement just ten years earlier….
It was ironically the capture of a Nazi that drove a further wedge into the relationship between the Jews of Israel and those of the United States.”[6]
As we can see from this one incident, the relationship between Israeli Jews and American Jews can be summed up in a simple statement, “it’s complicated.” This relationship, has been further strained as of late when Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and the Knessest decided to freeze the Kotel Agreement this past June.
As a refresher, in 2013 when Prime Minister Netanyahu tasked the Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky to come up with a compromise which would finally enable diverse Jewish practice at the Kotel.
“This kicked off several years of very intense negotiations. It involved the Jewish Agency, The Jewish Federations of North America, Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, the rabbi of the Kotel, and representatives of the Israeli government. It also involved archeological authorities, the Waqf (Muslim religious authorities) and even the Jordanian government. As you can see, all invested and interested parties were invited to the table to participate in the negotiations.
An agreement was reached to upgrade and in essence create an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s arch, which is an underdeveloped section along the southern end of the Western Wall. The Knesset approved this agreement in January 2016.”[7]
Thus when the Israeli government went back on its word, it managed to do something not seen in recent memory, it managed to unify almost all Jews around the world. In response to the Israeli government backing out of the deal, many of you reached out to the Israeli embassy and consulates. We were part of a much larger campaign to remind the Israeli government of the centrality and vitality of the American Jewish and Israeli relationships.
However, this latest action by the Israeli government also left us in a dilemma. The question being: if Israel does not accept nor represent my branch of Judaism, why should I even be engaged with Israel? I have even had colleagues state that they are done with Israel and encouraging their congregants to disengage as well.
That would be a mistake. First and foremost, Israel is a democracy residing in a very dangerous neighborhood. Now this is not a sermon about the dangers of a potentially nuclear Iran nor about Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the south, and the continued Civil War in Syria. Though those should always be in the back of our minds.
Nor is it a sermon condemning the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Though that too is a pernicious and serious challenge to be dealt with. Nor is this a sermon about the peace process or really lack there of. Though as one commentator described it, “the choices in the region are not between good and bad political realities but between tolerable dissatisfactions and precarious arrangements on the one hand, and full-scale calamities on the other.”[8] Status quo is most likely the best outcome we can hope for, at least for the short term. Long term … it remains to be seen.
Nor is it a sermon about the incredible innovations coming out of the State of Israel. Nor is it a sermon about Israel’s greatest export to date, Gal Gadot.
No, today, I wanted to talk with you about what we, as American Jews can do to help Israel become the embodiment of a vision of a new progressive Zionism. This sermon is not intended to come off as paternalistic towards Israel, as she is now a fully established nation at nearly 70 years old. Instead we are simply hoping to offer opportunities and pathways for what we as a congregation and we as Jews can do to support Israel becoming the embodiment of the Zionist ideals we so desperately wish to see it live up to.
Zionism continues to get a bad rap in today’s culture. But lest we forget, in the words of Daniel Gordis, “After centuries of Jews languishing in exile, Zionism was about restoring the Jewish people to the cultural richness that a people has when it lives in its ancestral homeland, speaks its own language, charts the course of its own future. If the Jews had been scattered to what their liturgy called the ‘four corners of the earth,’ Zionism hoped to gather them back together once again. If millennia of exile had reduced Hebrew, once spoken and vibrant, to a language used only for sacred liturgical texts, Zionism would breathe new life into that ancient tongue. The Jewish people would produce music, art, literature, and poetry like all other peoples. There would be high culture and popular culture.”[9]
Where Zionism has failed, at least for us, is that though it was secular in its origins, it has now become ultra-religious. Forgetting that there are many different ways we Jews can choose to express our Judaism. Zionism has become infused with religious fervor to the neglect of liberal Judaism. The main reason for this is the growth of the ultra-Orthodox base voting blocs.
The easiest way to challenge political realities is to grow the non-Orthodox base. Now of course the simple answer is that every single Progressive Jews makes Aliyah. If the two and a half million of us did that, the population would shift dramatically, and politics is all a numbers game, in order to get a seat at the table.
But assuming that we are not all going to make Aliyah, because we aren’t, let’s talk about ways that we can educate ourselves and still work to have important impacts on Israel.
As I spoke about in my sermon last year, I am a proud supporter of AIPAC. I still believe in the importance of continuing to make Israel a bi-partisan issue. But as I have also experienced there are other voices out there.
This past May I had the opportunity to attend the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington D.C. Yes, that very same organization that fought with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion over the fate of Eichmann.
However, the AJC of the 1960s is significantly different than the one today. What I found there was an amazing cross-section of individuals, Jews and non-Jews alike who are interested not only in promoting and supporting Israel, but are also very interested in promoting and supporting a progressive Israel. Unlike AIPAC, which has a very different mission, AJC will also challenge Israel when it feels Israel has gone against its core principles like going back on the Kotel Agreement.[10]
The AJC mission is also about promoting a pro-Israel, pro-Judaism vision in the world through the performance of mitzvoth. For example, the “AJC (American Jewish Committee) is (also) partnering with IsraAID, the Israeli humanitarian relief organization, to provide urgent emergency assistance to Puerto Rico … devastated by Hurricane Maria.”[11]
This year the Global Forum will be taking place in Israel in the spring of 2018, in honor of Israel’s 70th Anniversary. And given that we are striving to take a congregational trip to Israel at the end of April, we’ll agree perhaps to attend their next Global Forum in Washington D.C. in 2019. Partnering and supporting the work of the American Jewish Committee is one way we can help.
Secondly, I have been touch with Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the head of the Association for Reform Zionists of America, better known as ARZA. ARZA, whose local office is based in New York City. ARZA is the arm of the Reform movement that supports the legal, advocacy arm of the Israel Religious Action Center, the IMPJ (the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism). It is my hope that we can become a congregation more involved in, and supportive of the work that ARZA does. As we can find in their mission statement, “ARZA is part of an international network of like-minded, progressive Jewish voices, working in unison, to build a better Israel.”
This is a mission we can all get behind. And we will be looking to them to help us perhaps create an ARZA committee, and find ways for our Reform Temple of Rockland to help support the vision and mission of ARZA. Look for more information in the upcoming weeks and months.
As I mentioned briefly, the Reform Temple of Rockland is also going to Israel. We have eleven people already committed to the trip. We only need nine more. If you are even remotely interested let us know. We’ll also be holding a parlor meeting with those who are interested to learn more about the trip.
And speaking of which, during this trip we will in dialogue with Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and head of the Women of the Wall. When we meet with her, she will be talking to us about the be Challenges and Triumphs of Religious Pluralism and Social Justice in Israel. And we will be celebrating Shabbat with Rabbi Miri Gold at Kibbutz Gezer, the first Reform Rabbi to be formally supported by the State for her work on behalf of progressive Judaism. Yes, we will be visiting many of the ancient sites of Israel, and we will also be visiting some of the important Christian and B’hai sites as well, but most importantly, we will be conducting this trip through the lens of the impacts and needs of progressive Judaism in Israel.
We are also looking to bring in alternative voices and presenters when it comes to Israel. Now I’ll be honest, I do not have any interest in bringing in anti-Israel voices. I do not think that helps us nor further our conversations about Israel. But I do feel it is worthwhile to bring in alternative voices like those of scholars like Rabbi Michael Lerner. Rabbi Lerner will be joining us on the weekend of October 20th. He will be speaking at Shabbat evening services and leading Torah study the following morning. This whole program is possible because of the generosity of our congregant Leonard Kurz and the hard work of the Adult Ed Committee and our staff.
Rabbi Lerner will be speaking about “Israel and Palestine: Can we heal the Post-Traumatic Stress disorder Afflicting both Sides?” Rabbi Lerner takes an even-handed approach to this topic which I am sure will enlighten some and infuriate others. There will be a paid dinner before hand and a luncheon that Saturday at the CEJJES Institute in Pomona. This luncheon will also represent a unique initiation into better Black-Jewish relations in Rockland County. More details will be forthcoming and please plan on joining us for this event. It is not to be missed.
Each time we discuss Israel, one of the most important points we can take away that it is up to us to get more involved. Israel is dynamic. It is also frustrating. It can uplift your spirit, and it has the capacity to demoralize. This is in part because it is the Jewish State. And as such it represents our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. And when it fails to live up to those, it can be all the more saddening.
But we should not disengage. We should encourage our children to go to Israel on NFTY trips and Birthright. We should become more involved with organizations like ARZA and the AJC and the IRAC, and IMPJ among others. You name it and there is an organization affiliated within Judaism that represents your thoughts on Israel.
In the words of Daniel Gordis, “The Zionist movement had made the Jewish people a variety of promises. Some had come to fruition, others had not. In the Jewish State, Theodor Herzl asserted that if the Jews had a state of their own, anti-Semitism in Europe would wither. That prediction has proven sadly na├»ve; European anti-Semitism is growing at an alarming rate, French Jews are fleeing Europe, and all across the continent Jews are watching anti-Semitic parties on both the radical left and the fascist right with increased wariness.
In ways that Herzl would not have anticipated, however, the Jewish state has had a profound effect on the Jews of the Diaspora. Though Judaism is about much more than Israel, it is Israel that galvanizes Diaspora Jews more than any other issue. It is only Israel that gets Jews across the globe to join rallies and marches in huge numbers. Most other dimensions of Jewish life have been relegated to the realm of the private, and between denominations, differences in practice are so wide that varying Jewish communities often have little common ground. Where they do come together, and where Judaism leaves the private sphere and enters the public square, is when Diaspora Jews think about – and argue about – what is happening in the Jewish state … so Herzl was not entirely wrong; the Jewish state has, indeed, transformed Jewish life in the Diaspora.”[12]
To add on to this sentiment, just as Israel has transformed Jewish life in the Diaspora, we, in the Diaspora, also have the capacity to continue to work to transform Jewish life in Israel as well.
Cayn Yehi Ratzon, Be This God’s will

[1] Lipstadt, Deborah, The Eichmann Trial, Schocken Books, 2011, pg. 16
[2] Ibid., pgs. 16-17
[3] Ibid. pg. 21
[4] Gordis, Daniel, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, pgs. 240-241.
[5] Ibid. pg. 251
[6] Ibid. pg. 252
[7] JFNA Background: Israel Government Decision Regarding the Kotel

[9] Gordis, Daniel, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, pg. 6
[12] Gordis, Daniel, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, pgs. 419-420

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