Rosh HaShanah 5778, Friday AM, September 22, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
When Theodor Herzl began his quixotic campaign for a Jewish state, he wrote these famous words, Im tirzu ayn zo aggadah. This has been translated and turned into song as “If you will it, it is no dream”.
100 years ago, almost exactly 100 years ago from this day, 11 years after Herzl died with his dream unfulfilled, that dream inched closer.
The Zionist movement had been founded to create a national home for the Jews, secured by international law. That purpose was embodied in the resolutions of the first Zionist congress. Theodor Herzl had tried to secure a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the consent of the Ottoman Empire and the German Kaiser. He was rebuffed in both cases. But in 1917, with British designs on overtaking the Ottoman empire, the idea of restoring the Jews to their ancient homeland had gained ground. Partly it was real politik, a desire for a Jewish Palestine to protect the Suez canal route; partly it was for sentimental reasons as Mark Sykes, the British politician, professed an interest “to liberate the 'downtrodden people of the world'; and partly because some believed the canard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that the Jews wielded enormous influence in world affairs and wanted to win them over lest the Turks and Germans get to them first.
Chaim Weizman, a Russian Zionist, who had settled in England in 1904 to pursue a career in chemistry, had gained influence with the British government by 1917 due to his talents producing the solvent acetone which was needed for the war effort. Weizman had also become a leader in the World Zionist movement.
Weizman’s attempts to get the British government to support a proposal for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, under British suzerainty were met by many challenges. First, the British were promising many things to many peoples, including Arab groups to increase support and leverage in the Middle East. Secondly, many British Jews especially those in Parliament, such as Edward Montagu, were the most vociferous critics to the Zionist cause, fearful that their hard fought rights as English citizens would be endangered by a movement that suggested the Jews belonged in Palestine. In addition the Zionist movement, no surprise, had many factions and ideologies and little agreement as to how the Zionist program should proceed.
However by October 1917 the British parliament after numerous revisions agreed on a declaration promising a Jewish national home. Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour sent a letter to Lord Rothschild:
“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet:
His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a nation home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object…”
Weizmann was waiting impatiently outside the cabinet meeting as the declaration was being written. As soon as it was completed, Mark Sykes brought him the document, “Dr. Weizmann, it’s a boy!”
With that, Chaim Weizmann, the successor to Theodor Herzl, achieved what Herzl could not, the beginning of the realization of the Zionist dream.
50 years later, the State of Israel was a fledgling state, the survivor of two difficult wars, a rag tag hodgepodge of survivors of the Holocaust, Arab expulsions and idealistic dreamers. That summer of 1967, the forces of Arab nations, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were unifying in a great coalition that would annihilate the infidel Jewish nation. Gamel Abdul Nasser, the dictator of Egypt, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and demanded that UN forces which had patrolled the Sinai peninsula since the war of 1956 be removed. Egyptian forces flooded into Sinai. And the world did nothing. The palpable sense that what Hitler had failed to do, the Arabs would complete terrified Jews in Israel and around the world. On the eve of the war, with Israel facing the threat of destruction from hostile neighboring states, Abraham Joshua Heschel, questioned whether the Jewish people was facing yet again “another Auschwitz?” He was not alone.
And then the miraculous occurred. Instead of waiting to be attacked, Israel took the initiative and in less than 6 days incapacitated the enemy forces, enlarged their territory and most importantly saw the opportunity to retake the old city of Jerusalem and return Jewish sovereignty to the holiest site in the Jewish world.
Since 1948 the city had been divided in half. The western portion of Jerusalem under Israeli control, had been rebuilt as the capital of modern Israel and the eastern portion with the old city in its center was under Jordanian control. But on June 7 1967 Israeli troops had fortified their hold around Jerusalem but had not yet entered the old city. The decision was made to enter the city. In a radio message to his battalion commanders, General Motti Gur said, “We occupy the heights overlooking the Old City. In a little while we will enter it. The ancient city of Jerusalem which for generations we have dreamt of and striven for -- we will be the first to enter it. The Jewish nation is awaiting our victory. Israel awaits this historic hour. Be proud. Good luck.” Heavy fighting ensued. The Jewish army was inching closer to entering the gates of the old city. Soon Gur was sitting next to Sergeant Ben Tsur, a heavy set bus driver in civilian life, as he drove a half track military vehicle. Ben Tsur drove toward the Lions Gate and veered for the center of the gate. The half track slammed hard and the left door of the gate toppled backwards, the right door swinging open. They were inside the Old City. Ben Tsur powered ahead and passed through the Tribes Gate into the Temple compound. The great golden dome rose above the trees and Ben Tsur halted the truck. The Israelis leapt out and ran up the steps, Gur in the lead. Gur called across the radio one more time. “The Temple Mount is in our hands. Repeat the Temple Mount is in our hands.”
The Temple Mount, the site where tradition tells us Isaac, Abraham’s beloved son, was bound as an offering; the site where the Jewish people palpably felt the Presence of God; the holy space where atonement was granted to the people on Yom Kippur had now come home to the Jewish people. The dream of millennia had become reality.
Langston Hughes, the poet, writes in his famous poem ‘Harlem’:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
….Or does it explode?
For Hughes a dream deferred causes inner distress and visible outbursts. But what happens to a dreamed achieved? Does it bring joy and jubilation or dissatisfaction and disappointment?
I think it would be fair to say that in the achievement of the Zionist dream, it is both. There is no greater event in the history of the Jewish people with the exception of the Exodus from Egypt and the Sinai Revelation, than the birth of the Jewish state in the 20th Century. The creation of Israel and the triumph of political Zionism brought the Jewish people quite literally out of the gallows following the decimation of European Jewry. Israel is a refuge for Jews from numerous world communities – millions of Jews from every Arab country, from the former Soviet Union nations, from Ethiopia. The victory in 1967 brought a new sense of pride and confidence to world Jewry. The reality of Israel today, a modern Jewish nation rooted to our past is the most powerful way to inspire and connect Western Jews, young and old. The Birthright program proves that.
But the after-effects of the Six Day war, 50 years later, also implanted seeds that would spoil and spread rot throughout the euphoric harvest of victory.
For the first time in 2000 years the Jewish people were not only sovereign over the holiest geography in our world, but had jumped from being victims to oppressors in the blink of an eye. Millions of Palestinians, whose own nationalist visions had begun to develop soon after the Zionist vision, were now under the control of Israel. And Israel did not know what to do. Ethnic cleansing was immoral, but returning these recently won lands was unthinkable for security reasons and for heritage. And so it festered. And today young Jews barely out of their teens, like my nephew Mati, dress in full battle gear to oversee security checks as Palestinians attempt to cross through areas of the West Bank and into Israel proper. Is that what Chaim Weizmann imagined for his descendants?
But beyond the very complicated situation of how should Israel deal with millions of Palestinians who do not want to live under Israeli sovereignty, Israel is a modern state, vulnerable to the same corruptions of influence that any sovereign nation might be vulnerable. There is a famous witticism by the great Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, who said, ''We will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.'' Well Israel has surpassed normality. But did even Bialik think that Israel would be on the cusp of indicting its second Prime Minister in a row for corruption and bribery and jailed a former President for rape? Really, does Israel have to be that normal?
As a democracy Israel is forced to live within democracy’s limitations and the fickleness of its citizenry. And its version of Parliamentary democracy means that minority groups that vote as blocks have far more political power than their numbers might deserve.
This became ever more bitterly clear when earlier this year Prime Minister Netanyahu’s succumbed to the ultra-Orthodox demand to cancel a decision to create a space at the Kotel in Jerusalem where men and women can pray together and non-Orthodox rituals can be practiced.
The agreement for the new egalitarian prayer space was adopted more than a year ago by the government after years of negotiations with Jewish leaders and was supposed to restore harmony at the ancient site. Insult compounded injury when the Netanyahu government sent talking points to its foreign service diplomats to blame liberal Jews for the failure of the compromise. Notably the diplomats refused.
Chemi Shalev a columnist for Haaretz newspaper wrote recently that the backtracking on the Kotel deal, which was seen as symbolically important for American Jews, most being liberal and egalitarian, broke a dam which had been sagging under the stress between American Jews and Israel for a number of years.
“Mainstream American Jews have stopped denying what they’ve been sensing for the past few years:
That Israel has gone off the rails; that it no longer reflects values that American Jews can identify with; that most of its leaders and lawmakers are uncouth and often ignorant oafs; that it sometimes seems to be run by fundamentalist fanatics who are just as zealous than those in Riyadh and Tehran; and that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between Israel and other anti-liberal right-wing governments and movements, from the alt-right to Eastern Europe, where the (son of Benjamin) Netanyahu’s cartoon featuring George Soros, lizard beings, freemasons and Jews mesmerized by money could surely win first prize in a contest of anti-Semitic cartoons.” Shalev summarized the attitude that many American Jews have for Israel under this government that was simply unthinkable 40 years ago: “Contempt”.
And I can only add that as a Jew who believes deeply in the beauty of the Zionist dream; who recognizes the moral grandeur and mentschlikeit of so many Israelis and acknowledges the greatness of so much of what Israel has accomplished in the face of tremendous hatred and bigotry, it is so, so sad to see the Zionist dream come to this.
And yet, let us revisit Herzl’s famous dictum, Im tirzu ain zo aggadah. An aggadah is not a dream. An aggadah is a story, a fable, a metaphor. If you wish it, if you want it, the idea of a Jewish sovereign nation is not a nice story or a fable or a metaphor that exists in the air but can become a reality. What you make of the reality, well, that depends on your vision. The vision is uplifting and sacrosanct. Not the reality. If the reality does not cohere to your vision, do what is necessary to change your reality to steer closer to your vision.
Every person in this room knows that to be true in our own lives. We make plans and have goals for our future. And they don’t turn out the way we expect them too. We can live with regret or we can use our original vision as a beacon to assist us to return. Is that not the theme of this very holiday?
We Americans know this to be true as well. Something has gone very wrong in our country. A nation of immigrants, we now seek to deport and destroy families. A nation based on the credo ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and our legislators are still trying to take healthcare away from millions of Americans; we pass bills or make rules to discriminate against transgender and gay individuals even as we had begun to remove those very shackles of prejudice. White supremacists are legitimated. Something is wrong - but our vision of what America can be is true. We have a heritage of overcoming the most heinous acts of bigotry. We know the pathway to get back on track.
And we have to believe the same is true for Israel. The Zionist dream of a return to our homeland, a revitalization of our ancient language, to know the land and its beauty, a unification of the dispersed of Israel, to create a spiritual center that would serve as a light to the nations of the world and to live in harmony with neighbors, that dream is not a wisp of fantasy, a bed time story, it is a sacred purpose.
So how can we American Jews assist our brothers and sisters who hold this sacred trust? First we all should make plans to visit Israel. The Federation is planning an outstanding trip for this coming spring which includes a visit to our partnership region, the city of Akko and its region. When Lizzie and I went on the partnership mission last year, I fell in love with Israel all over again. The tzedakah work that is being done in Akko, a city where Druze, Christians, Muslims and Jews live in harmony is inspiring. The Akko Center for Arts and Technology is a vocational center that brings Jewish and Arab students together to develop skills needed for good employment. An urban kibbutz run by Israeli members of Habonim Dror educate the youth of Akko in mixed ethnic settings. Garin Ometz, an organization run by former members of West Bank settlements who became disenchanted with that lifestyle and want to do good in impoverished areas of Israel provides hundreds of Shabbat meals for Jews and non Jews alike. Join the Federation’s terrific trip or plan your own. If my son Ilan were here he would insist that you also visit the West Bank, because context is important.
And one more thing we can do. The Masorti movement in Israel is associated with Conservative Judaism in North America. Not only is Masorti egalitarian and supportive of pluralistic Judaism, it is also committed to the kind of Tikkun Olam work that makes us proud. Their work with disabled youngsters called ‘Bar/Bat Mitzvah for the Special Child’, brings the opportunity to celebrate becoming bar/bat mitzvah to kids in special education schools around the country. They publish a special needs siddur accessible to kids with moderate (not just mild) verbal and cognitive disabilities.
Kibbutz Hannaton is a Masorti Kibbutz in Northern Israel not far from our partnership region. They sponsor a range of programs on the kibbutz that would make any liberal Jew proud: seminars that host groups of young Jews from around the world addressing Jewish identity in today’s complex world. A year-long Mechina, a pre-army preparation program for young Israelis who learn to work together through social service work and study.
Another Masorti congregation provides holiday packages and financial assistance to scores of lone soldiers. A “lone soldier” is a soldier in the IDF with no family in Israel to support him or her: a new immigrant, a volunteer from abroad, an orphan or an individual from a broken home. Lizzie and I are very proud of our two nephews who are lone soldiers and this type of support is essential in a country where family is key to young soldiers facing the stress of army service. The fastest-growing constituency for this Masorti congregation is not among olim but rather haredi guys who've joined the army—and been booted out of their homes, families, and communities.
The youth organization of Masorti called NOAM has done outstanding work with Jewish youth from Ethiopia.
Masorti also supports legal efforts for Jews around the world, like Venezuela and Uganda, whom the Orthodox rabbanut refuses to recognize, to come to Israel and gain citizenship. Did you even know that there were Jews living in those countries?
And by supporting Masorti, we support our very own Nicole Martin, Laurie and Alex’s daughter, who lives and studies in Jerusalem. She recently began an egalitarian minyan. Her group was given a space to worship and a Torah by the Masorti movement.
If we want an Israel to match our highest hopes than we need to support these elements in Israel.
I conclude with a dream – that this year our congregation raise $10,000 dollars for Masorti to grow Israel into an Israel we can be proud of, that we not have, as Chemi Shalev described it, contempt for Israel, God forbid. But How do we raise so much money when we have needs in the congregation and our Jewish community and South Bend community need to be supported? Let me suggest that any dollars you send to Israel – maybe you buy a tree for JNF or maybe you purchase Israel bonds, not as an investment but as a tzedakah – don’t do it. Don’t give if the money ends up in an Israeli Government entity. Give the money to Masorti. Every year I contribute but this year Lizzie and I will give $1000. So we are already 10% there. If you want to be part of fulfilling this mitzvah make the check out to the Rabbi’s Discretionary fund with Masorti in the memo or make it out directly to Masorti Olami. I will keep a tally and keep the congregation up to date on what we have sent.
This is a way of sending a message to Israel that we American Jews are not going to accept the status quo any more. We have a dream for the State of Israel too. Im tirzu ain zo aggadah. If we will it, it will become reality.