Thursday, October 20, 2011


Congregation Albert
Erev Yom Kippur 5772
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld

My parents told me to never discuss politics or religion with people I hardly know. See how well I listened to that advice? Unfortunately, they did not teach me that the same applies to giving a sermon about Israel. It is the most dangerous sermon a rabbi can give. On the other hand, I would not have taken that piece of advice if it had been offered. 

There is a Chasidic proverb: One who looks for a friend without faults will have no friends.

In 1971, I left for a high school semester in Israel. Coming from a lower middle class family, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. My host family was an upper class Israeli family living in Ramat Gan, just outside Tel Aviv. Unlike 90% of Israelis at that time, they owned a single family house with a yard, two cars and two telephone lines. By Israeli standards, and mine, they were rich. I went with my Israeli brother to an elite school in Ramat Aviv, an even richer suburb of Tel Aviv than Ramat Gan. Like my classmates, in addition to phys. ed I took גדנה pre-army training. 1971 saw Israel in the midst of the war of attrition. Surrounding my elite high school was an 8 foot wall to protect us from terrorists. Of course what was the first thing they taught us in pre-army training? How to scale that wall. 16 years old, living in the lap of luxury, going to a school where the grades did not count toward my high school GPA, so… whenever the mood struck, that is, whenever I didn’t feel like going to class, over the wall I went to the nice little café across the street from the school.
One day, after spending an hour or so in the café and not being ready to return for my classes, I began to wander the streets of this rich suburb, Ramat Aviv. To this day I can remember the route I took. From school, I walked past the Tel Aviv museum, past what in Israel were mansions and then I literally and figuratively turned a corner that has shaped my relationship and understanding of Israel to this day. There, in the heart of this luxurious upper class Israeli neighborhood, stood tin roofed shacks with half naked children in torn clothing, malnourished animals and outhouses. Hearing Hebrew all around me I had stumbled into the Israel few outsiders ever see. Half way through my six month sojourn, I saw the Israel no one had ever described to me. Thus began my complex relationship with Israel.

My next trip to Israel was for Rabbinic school. I left 2 days after the raid on Entebbe and my plane followed the same route as the hijacked plane. Arriving in Israel I, like rabbinic students before me became friends with an Old City Palestinian merchant, Abed. That year my friends and I spent many an afternoon drinking tea, people watching, discussing the world and the complexities of Israel/Palestinian relations. Ever since, until he sold his store to his nephews, on my every trip to Jerusalem I found myself on a languid Jerusalem afternoon enjoying Abed’s hospitality and sharing our lives. Through the years, I have listened to his stories about his family’s land being taken to build a West Bank settlement, the struggles his children have had in Israeli universities and the restrictions he faces as a citizen of no country. Not an Israeli, not a Jordanian; with no country to call his own. My complex relationship with Israel continued and deepened.

In 2006, I visited hospitals in northern Israel struck by Hezbollah’s missiles. I met with Holocaust survivors in Haifa who in the aftermath of Hezbollah’s missiles were suffering flashbacks of being bombed in Europe. I saw stacks of thousands of Hamas rockets collected from the fields and school yards of Sderot. Who could not be moved?

The only police who tried to beat and arrest me during a protest march? Israeli. The only people who have tried to blow me up? Palestinians. How could my relationship with Israel be 2 dimensional black and white? How could it be any less than an elaborate tapestry woven from a thousand shades of hundreds of colors?

Make no mistake. I am, without question or hesitation, an unabashed supporter of Israel. In back of the sanctuary and in the lobby you will find cards forms to fill out to join me as an investor in Israel by purchasing Israel bonds. For nearly 20 years I have been active on the national level of federation to do what I can to support collecting tzedakah for Israel. At the same time, I fervently believe that when it comes to Israel, absolutist jingoism is not the way. AIPAC and JStreet and of course Israel’s enemies all preach their truths in the easy two dimensions of black and white. True support of Israel requires an acceptance and understanding of her subtleties, the internal and external challenges she faces. Just as with our closest family and friends,  the beauty of the relationship exists in getting past the surface black and white and knowing the ever shifting grays and seeing the dullest as well as the brightest hues.

The world holds Israel to a higher standard than any other country. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Robert Bernstein, the former president and Charman of Random House and the current chair of the group “Advancing Human Rights” wrote: 

Human Rights Watch, which I founded 33 years ago, continues to attack many of Israel’s defensive measures during war, yet it says nothing about hate speech and incitement to genocide. To cite just one example, the speaker of the Hamas parliament, Ahmad Bahr, called in April 2007 for the murder of Jews, ‘down to the very last one.’ Imagine what leading human rights groups would say if this same speech and incitement were coming from Israel, aimed at the Palestinians.
“Human rights groups, which could be highlighting the crimes of Arab dictatorships against Israel and each other, have instead chosen to focus primarily on Israel. They continually discount the extraordinary steps Israel takes to protect civilians on both sides — steps approved by military experts, such as using pamphlets, phone calls and even noise bombs to scare people away from a location before a bombing — while whitewashing Hamas’s desire to eliminate a whole country as just bluster and meaningless words. One would think that, of all organizations in the world, human rights groups would particularly believe that words matter. Words inform intent and influence action. Words and actions need to be taken seriously, especially when they are sponsored by governments.”

Mr. Bernstein is absolutely correct. However, we should hold Israel to a higher standard just as we should hold ourselves. Hopefully the difference between the double standard we hold verses that held by others is manifested in the intent behind the differing standards. Just as we expect more out of our parents, our children, our families because we love and care about them we expect more out of Israel because her people are our family.

During these Days of Awe we strive to search the deepest recesses of our selves with brutal honesty. Hopefully, we focus on our successes as well as where we need to improve. Without defensiveness or hubris but rather with gratitude and humility we find the complexity of our lives and learn the truth of who we are and where we need to grow and improve. If we look inward and see only the good we do not know ourselves. If we look inward and see only the bad, we cannot help ourselves. In either case we cannot really love ourselves.

The same is true in our relationship with Israel. To love, support, care for Israel and her people, we need to open our eyes and see it all, the good and the bad, the beauty and the ugliness. Just as we would do for ourselves and our families, we need to stand proud and defend Israel against those who wish to destroy her while we resist those in our community who condemn all who disagree with their one true vision of Israel right or wrong. Only then can we say we are אוהבי ישראל – lovers of Israel.

There is a Chasidic proverb: One who looks for a friend without faults will have no friends.

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