JULY 6, 2007
Friends, there is so much to tell you about Israel that it will take four weeks and more. I won’t force you to hear everything tonight. By touring the length and breadth of the land it is apparent to all that the economy is booming for many. That is not to say there is not a significant problem of poverty, there is. Still construction is constant in all the cities with cranes all over, and apartment buildings soaring into the sky. The tourists are back, not as many as before 2000, but they are back, especially busloads of Birthright young people.
Tonight, I will limit myself to a review of the major news stories, but from the Israeli perspective. Let me share what we heard from others and read in the daily papers. It makes a big difference in view when you are in the middle of the story, as we well know.
As we left the States, Civil War in Gaza was the major issue. Hamas and Fatah fighting for power is nothing new. The so called unity government between Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Haniyeh of Hammas was a sham. Each side was literally attempting to kill the other. Fatah had a superior force militarily and with armaments, but when challenged by Hamas, Fatah officers fled and their soldiers followed. Massacres of Fatah soldiers ensued with disgusting barbarity. This was Palestinians killing Palestinians.
According to the Israeli newspapers, Hamas is as surprised as anyone to be in the position of power in Gaza. They never expected this result, but now have to deal with the responsibility. Essentially we have two Palestinian entities, one in Gaza and the other on the West Bank. Abbas claims both, but his words are empty.
Israeli policy continues to be a mess. The hope of the Gaza pull-out is now in shambles. The goal was that if they unilaterally withdrew, the Palestinians would leave Israel alone. It did not happen. Instead it emboldened Hamas and the foes of Israel.
The newspapers kept referring to the reality of Hamastan, a radical Islamic Taliban style religious government now on Israel’s border, a source of great fear and consternation. There is a recognition that the Palestinian have no unified leadership, not even in Hamas with a variety of factions and militias taking action. While in Israel, we daily read of the the British journalist, Alan Johnston of the BBC, being held captive by what was believed to be a group linked to Al Queda. He was released this week. There seems to be another group holding kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, whose story continues in Israel’s news daily along with those held in Lebanon. While in Israel Hamas leaders released a tape of Shalit asking to be free, claiming that he was not well. This was timed to take away the focus of Arab leaders meeting with Prime Minister Olmert in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. We know that Shalit is alive. There are serious doubts about those captured by Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, as a result of the civil war there are starving people in Gaza who need supplies that have to come from and through Israel. Here is the irony. Hamas wants the end of Israel, takes over Gaza, but Israel is criticized for not getting supplies to them fast enough. And still the Kassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot. Damage and death are light; terror and trauma are constant. The community is being strangled. Citizens never know when the next rocket will fall and if it will be deadly. You can imagine the stress.
Following the civil war, the United States has called for support of Abbas, the opening of funds and training his troops, now that his government is no longer linked to Hamas. Ehud Olmert is on board, though many question this policy. The fear is that the same inept, corrupt government that could not rule Gaza will not be any better in the West Bank. Hamas will wind up with the weaponry, just as it now has in Gaza. Newspapers reported that if a vote were taken today in the West Bank, Hamas would still win. Palestinians do not trust Fatah based on decades of arrogance and missed opportunities. They may not support Hamas in its violent positions, but they believe that Hamas can improve their lives more than Fatah.
Israel continues to be living in dangerous times in what seems like a no-win situation. If they retake Gaza, then what? Our guide suggested that for every Kassam rocket fired into Israel, shut off electricity, which Israel supplies for 3 hours…. Do something!!! All of a sudden Fatah is Israel’s friend? (in comparison to Hamas), but Fatah’s track record is not much better.
We know one thing- whatever Israel does to protect its citizens, it will be criticized by the world as wrong; it’s all Israel’s fault! The latest insult came while we were there. Britain’s University and College Union voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, in spite of attempts to thwart the move by ADL and others. Israel is depicted as the South Africa of the 21st century; of course it is hard for us to see it that way. David Forman, who spoke at Gates of Prayer two years ago and with our group, penned a column in the Jerusalem Post. He points to the hypocrisy of singling out Israel for being an oppressor, for having blood on its hands. As if the United States and the British are not occupying Iraq at this time; as if the division fence in Baghdad and along the Mexican border are somehow different from the defensive fence that Israel has been forced to build; as if the Palestinian Authority is a benevolent haven for academic freedom, while not considering suicide bombers, kidnappings and threats to destroy the country.
Forman is a realist, but also a liberal, part of Rabbis for Human Rights. The world is hypocritical, but he notes a grain of truth. Arabs in the West Bank do not have real democracy, though they are better off than many other Arabs, but we have higher expectations. In the name of security Arabs experience checkpoints, arrests and detention without trial, a security fence in some areas that makes no sense, but creates great hardship and numerous other injustices. Forman expects more of Israel, a society based on prophetic social justice. He does not believe Israel’s critics are justified, but concludes: “We have created a moral morass- and if it takes the hypocritical self-righteousness of some foreign pseudo-intellectuals and pig-headed unionists to open our eyes and alter this unacceptable reality, then something positive will ultimately be served.” We can agree or disagree with him. There is no doubt that similar words will not appear in the Palestinian newspapers or for that matter in most Arab countries.
Israel is a free and open democracy. The new/old leader of the Labor Party was elected- Ehud Barak, now Israel’s Minister of Defense. Ehud Olmert is in big political trouble with very low ratings in opinion polls. If elections were held today, Bibi Netanyahu would probably be the next Prime Minister. It was pointed out to us that a problem of Israel’s political system is that it recycles old leaders and limits upward mobility. We see the same people over and over again.
Shimon Peres finally wins a prestige position, but not Prime Minister, rather the Presidency of Israel- a role of honor, but not much power. He was elected to follow Moshe Katsav, drummed out of office for sexual harassment and charges of rape. Now the controversy is over the lightness of his sentence. Can you imagine a government leader receiving preferential treatment?
One last area arose in the news, which is dear to us as Reform Jews. The Jewish Agency for Israel was meeting in our hotel during our stay. They deal with many issues regarding programs and funding of cultural and humanitarian activities. Leaders from ARZA, including our own Bill Hess, were very much involved. A resolution calling for the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, followed by an editorial in the Jerusalem Post calling for a severing of the link between the Orthodox political and religious parties from the State became a significant news story. It is one thing for this call to come from Reform and Conservative leaders, another from the Head of the Jewish Agency and others. There is a growing recognition in Israel by so-called secularists, even some religious, that there is a value for non-Orthodox Judaism in the land, that the restrictions upon recognition of our conversions in Israel, (particularly as concerns Russian and Ethiopian Jews) as well as other limitations is ultimately not in the best interest of Israel. We are few in number, but our influence is growing. We can see this by the popularity of the few Reform/Progressive synagogues that are operating in Israel. Parenthetically, one Reform rabbi shared that while we Reform Jews rightfully feel discrimination, there is a certain oppression of the observant by the secularists that is also felt.
Friends, I am glad to be home. I love New Orleans and this country, even with all the flaws of which we are aware. At the same time, as a Jew I have a special link to the land of Israel. We all do. As Yehuda Halevi, the Sephardic Jewish poet of the Golden Age of Spain, put it: “My heart is in the east, while I am in the west.”