Israel Reflections 2011

April 15, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath prior to Pesach. Its focus is the verse predicting messianic times by the Prophet Malachi, when the hearts of parents and children are at one with each other. Tonight is certainly symbolic of that reality for one family. Another aspect of messianic times is our link to the land of Israel. On Monday we will lift our cup of Elijah in expectation of that promise and conclude our seder with “Next year in Jerusalem.” As opposed to next year, this evening I will focus upon “last week in Jerusalem and Israel.”

As many of you know I am fresh from my most recent Israel sojourn with the New Orleans Kehillah Community Mission, organized by our Jewish Federation, and there is so much to share. Combine that with some of the major addresses I heard at the CCAR Convention the week before my departure, and we could be here all night. But out of great compassion for the Jewish people, who have been known to be long suffering, I will strive to limit myself this evening to a few points.

As always when speaking of Israel, the first focus is the peace process and issues of security. I look forward to the day when that will not be the case. Between the CCAR and the trip, I learned from a variety of experts. Everyone has an opinion and no one can really know what comes next. In recent days we have witnessed regime change in Egypt and Tunisia, civil war in Libya, rioting in Syria, demonstrations in Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen, possible Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon and who knows what in Iran. The whole region is one big question mark. Could this have been anticipated? Former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Daniel Kertzer explained it as if all the hard drives of experts have crashed. No one saw this coming in this way. Hindsight can now analyze why it is happening, but still not predict what comes next. Kertzer cautions lest we lump all the countries together, as they have very different histories and societal structure. He is most optimistic on Egypt’s prospects of emerging with democracy and progress, but doubtful that this will be the case elsewhere.

Many argue that this is the optimum time for Israel to offer a bold peace initiative, but the ongoing reality of unstable partners on the other side of the negotiating table results in grave doubts of success. Voices on the left argue that the continuing occupation of the West Bank undermines Israel’s ability to live according to its own basic Jewish, moral and democratic values. Voices on the right argue that security is the only issue. All else is secondary. Previous negotiations provide a blueprint for peace, but finding the political will to execute the plans is another matter.

One looming issue on the horizon will be the attempt to declare an independent Palestinian state unilaterally with the blessing of the U.N. General Assembly in September. It is a foregone conclusion that they have the majority of votes with all the Islamic and third world nations to pass. However this does not mean that they will have the support of the powerful nations of the world. Israel’s diplomatic goal will be to assemble a significant group of nations, who will not support the resolution, thus weakening its impact. The U.S. will play a pivotal role.

I’ve noticed that every time I am in Israel, there are a number of significant news stories or events that emerge. I do not take it personally, but recognize it as a function of the fact that Israel is always in the news. The first major topic on this occasion was the recanting by Judge Richard Goldstone, who was part of a U.N. Committee evaluating Israel’s conduct in Gaza last year. His report charged Israel with purposely targeting civilian populations. Goldstone, a South African Jewish jurist, previously affirmed that report, but now believes it was erroneous. Unfortunately the damage is done and there will be numerous diplomatic hoops to be jumped if it is to be reversed. Like most retractions, it will appear on the back pages of the news and not the front.

Sadly, attacks from Gaza’s militants and counter-attacks by Israel are ongoing. Israel targeted Hamas bomb makers. Then an Israeli school bus was hit with an anti-tank missile, killing at least one student. Israel responded with pin point attacks in Gaza. Hamas continued to launch rockets and mortars into southern parts of Israel, for which Israel’s new anti-missile defense shield was effectively used for the first time. Perhaps this feels like ping pong, but this is no game and lives are at stake. Sadly, I see no end in sight on this front.

My words are ominous, but at the same time, let me share that at no time did I feel unsafe or vulnerable while travelling. In fact, it was just the opposite. The reality of living in Israel is similar to our own, when we wake up each morning to news of a shooting in the 9th Ward or a murder in Marrero. These are all horrible, but we still feel secure, unless we find ourselves in these embattled areas.

Let me shift my focus now a bit, as I bring news that will likely not upset you too much. You will no longer be able to purchase that God awful, sickly sweet, imported, Carmel wine for your Passover seders. If that is your taste, you can still buy domestic. The good news is that Carmel and other Israeli wineries are now producing top quality, international award winning vintages for our seder and year round pleasure. Our group sampled a wide variety providing many a spiritual high.

Let me also tell you that the Israel national bird is no longer the chicken, as in chicken soup. Rather it is the Crane, as in building cranes all over the country. Israel’s economy is booming. Whether in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, Ashdod or our sister city of Rosh Ha’ayin, wherever we were, we witnessed significant economic development. In particular, it seemed as though each community had a high tech industrial zone with all the worldwide labels represented. In the past Israel was known for its produce, especially those Jaffa oranges. Now the oranges come from Spain and the rest of the world is the beneficiary of Israeli creativity and intellect.

One of Israel’s original goals was to be a homeland for the oppressed of our people. We had the opportunity to visit a number of programs, devoted to absorption of new immigrants, funded in part by our donations to Jewish Federation. Historically, Israel has brought in literally millions of Jews from the Arab world and the former Soviet Union. The most recent group adapting to Israeli life are the Ethiopians with 125,000 in the land and approximately 8,700 awaiting rescue. In candor it will require at least a generation before this group will be fully integrated into Israeli life. These programs help to prepare for that eventuality, while providing assistance and support. One cannot expect people to move from rural villages, with no education, modern skills or even exposure to 21st century life and then immediately become part of high tech modern society. Talk about culture shock, especially for those over the age of 40! Still, we can already discern that the children of the immigrants are successfully making the leap. If we reflect upon the Eastern European Jews who came to America from the shtetls in the beginning of the 20th century, we realize the same pattern can be discerned.

In addition to Ethiopia, we were exposed to the trickle of Jews arriving from Venezuela, Argentina, Iran, Turkey and Morocco, as well as the significant numbers coming from France. As anti-Semitism increases in France, so do the numbers of immigrants.

Friends, this was my 9th or 10th trip to Israel with my first visit being for my initial academic year training for the rabbinate in 1972-73. Much has changed in Israel since then. The euphoria of the Six Day War victory, followed by the triumph in 1973 has given way to a political and military stalemate that has ensued for almost 40 years. From an American perspective, Israelis were often known for their arrogance, their attitude that if you do not live in Israel, then you are no longer a real Jew.  To be a Zionist, one had to be totally committed to living in the Jewish State, or short of that being fully supportive of everything that Israel does. During this Israel trip in particular, I sensed a major shift in the thinking of Israelis regarding themselves, their relationship to the rest of the Jewish world and even to history.

Emblematic of that development is a name change. On the campus of Tel Aviv University, you can tour a museum called Bet Hatefutsot, what used to be called, The Diaspora Museum. Its exhibits provide a history of the experience of Jews who have been scattered throughout the world over the centuries. But its subliminal message had always been: “this is where we were; these are the problems we experienced and now the diaspora is over for us. We have Israel,” essentially negating 2000 years of Jewish life.

The institution is still called “Bet Hatefutsot” in Hebrew, but its English name is “The Museum of the Jewish People.” This reflects a greater sense of partnership between Israel’s Jews and world Jewry and diminished superiority and triumphalism. One might conclude that since the name was only changed in the English and not the Hebrew, that there is one message for internal consumption and another for external, but I do not believe that to be the case. Rather there is a greater message of real partnership and mutual respect that has grown between Israel and world Jewry. In addition, there is recognition that many Israelis really do not understand North American Jews. An article in the Jerusalem Post described the establishment of a new committee of the Knesset dedicated to helping members gain a fuller appreciation of the realities of North American Jewish life. Hopefully, this will reduce or eliminate insulting legislation emanating from the Knesset, relating to Jewish status and a greater respect for religious pluralism, which continues to be a bothersome issue.

This was the shortest time I have spent in Israel. But as you can see, even in seven days, there was much to be learned and appreciated. Keep in mind I did not even mention digging for archaeological remnants from the period of the Maccabees, riding all terrain vehicles in the blessed rain in the Galilee or bicycles along the Mediterranean, eating more good food than should be allowed to any human being, remembering the Shoah at Yad Vashem, worshipping at the Western Wall, experiencing Shabbat in Jerusalem, shopping at Kippah Man on Ben Yehuda St. where I restocked my kippah collection, and much more. The bottom line is that I will just have to go back and I hope that many of you will do the same, perhaps travelling with me or another experience.

Friends, I do not view Israel uncritically, but I do look through a prism of  love. It is a struggling democracy with real security issues and numerous challenges. The quality of education has decreased. There are issues regarding the numbers of eligible men and women participating in the work force and troubling gaps in the social fabric between rich and poor; serious identity issues as the younger generation struggles with religious and Zionist identity and problematic divisions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Maybe we have lessons to teach on that subject. At the same time it has in fact fulfilled the dreams of the earliest Zionists to embrace the oppressed of the Jewish people and to be a cultural and spiritual center for world Jewry. We are not living in messianic times yet, but perhaps we are a little closer than in the past.


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