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On Israel - Kol Nidrei 5775

(Kol Nidrei 5775/2014)

In the book of Amos we read: If a shofar sounds in a city, do the people not tremble? (3:6) In Amos’s day, the sentries guarding a city would alert residents to danger with the blast of a shofar.  A colleague, David Steinberg, with whom I spent time in several different safety shelters in Tel Aviv this summer—reminded me recently how well this quote fits our summer experiences. In the two-week period I was there, quite a few of my dinners, walks, conversations, and even showers in the city of Tel Aviv were interrupted—not by a shofar—but by the “azaka”—the warning siren letting us know a missile had been launched in our direction. As another prophet, Kohelet, said: There is nothing new under the sun.

Just about two months ago, some of us gathered in this sanctuary for Tisha B’av to mourn the ancient losses in Jerusalem, and to struggle with the contemporary challenges in Israel. Tonight, the immediate threat from Hamas in Gaza has lifted, and on both sides of the Green Line, lives are resuming with little change. Certainly, many lives were lost, families were torn apart, homes were destroyed, as well as many terrorist tunnels, and any marginal sense of security has been shattered. But at the core, the underlying challenges for Israelis and Palestinians remain the same. And sadly, they are essentially the same as they were just a year ago, when I spoke about Israel, and even more sadly, I could probably recycle several Kol Nidre sermons because the situation has been slow to change. I say this not from a place of pessimism, but rather to underscore that this is a very long, slow, journey.

Israel still faces very real threats to its citizens and to its very existence. The reach of Hamas has become far greater and the Palestinian Authority has yet to become a reliable partner in peace. The instability in Egypt and Syria translate into more pressure on Israel, and Iran’s nuclear capabilities destabilize the entire region. With the progress of ISIS through Iraq and Syria, a new global threat has been added to the mix. On top of all of this, public opinion about Israel, especially in Europe, has plummeted in the wake of this summer’s war.

While there seems to be very little improvement in Israel’s security situation, there is certainly no lack of opinions from just about every quarter. This summer’s conflict has led to more polarizing and heated conversations than ever before. It has also fortified many people’s support of Israel while at the same time causing others to question their own loyalty. Of great concern is that younger Jewish generations who did not witness the 1967 or 1973 victories of Israel—and certainly not its miraculous birth in 1948—are beginning to question why they should even care. This is a tough time for Israel’s supporters and we need to keep engaging with the country and with one another—as difficult as that may become.

So tonight I want to talk about where I think we are on this journey and the tools we, who live outside of Israel, might use along the way. When I talk about the tools along the way, I am not referring to military or diplomatic strategy. I am not qualified to make those kinds of suggestions. All I can do is give you my opinion and offer different ways—based in Jewish traditions of conflict and dialogue--for all of us to think and talk about what is happening.

I went to Israel this summer as part of a delegation of 30 rabbis from the Reconstructionist movement. The purpose of our trip was for mifgash—meaningful encounters—with a wide range of people and constituent groups. We were there specifically to meet with some of the people who were working hard to create their vision of a sustainable Israel. In our 2-weeks-worth of meetings we heard from close to 85 different people. Some were members of Knesset, and some were leaders of the pluralist religious movements. We met with Arab-Israeli teenagers and Tel Aviv graffiti artists. We also met with residents at the oldest Jewish settlement in the West Bank and pioneers who are trying to revive the kibbutz movement.  Quite simply, we wanted to see and hear what was going on in Israel—or as much as we could in a two-week trip.

Our itinerary was definitely influenced by the fact that we were a group of liberal rabbis—male and female—but it would be wrong to say that we were all of one mind about most things, and especially not about Israel. Two people on our trip had children doing active duty in Gaza while we were there. Several do Jewish-Muslim dialogue work in the US and in Israel, and more than a few of us are members of Rabbis for Human Rights.  We were all over the spectrum, representing the diversity and complexity of opinions about Israel in most Jewish communities. However, we all agreed that the time had come to listen, talk, and witness.

Some of the most productive moments we had were with people whose stories were painful to hear. We met with Jewish Israelis—settlers—who felt betrayed and endangered by movements, that many of us supported, to dismantle existing settlements or halt new construction. Many of my colleagues and I struggled to listen to what they were saying without jumping in to defend our position or point out where we thought their reasoning was wrong or counter-productive. Similarly, we met with Palestinians who told us stories about having their homes demolished, or being thrown in jail—most of whom harbored deep anger towards Israel and Jewish Israelis. Their stories sometimes broke our hearts while at the same time they angered us. Our dedication to Israel made us want to argue with them, defending or correcting the parts of their stories we felt were inaccurate.

We heard all of this against the backdrop of the sirens—both figuratively and literally--which helped me realize how automatic it is to drown these voices out. A shofar blast, whether from a ram’s horn or a digitized alarm, is meant to drive us to shelter. But it is also meant as a call to action, to jolt us out of our complacency. However, there’s a certain complacency that comes when the siren goes off so many times in a day—and when this is just another chapter in a long history of alarms. The thousands of rockets launched from Gaza, the countless hours spent in bomb shelters, the waiting for soldiers to return safely, and the mourning of the dead, only reinforce what is has been a way of life for many exhausting years. As the journalist Yossi Klein Halevy told us in a meeting, the Israeli people are traumatized. He describes the trauma as an archaeological tel—layers upon layers of tragedy and disappointment, compressing and crumbling under endlessly added pressure.

Sirens and seeking shelter, self-defense and bracing for trauma, have become such a natural way of life in Israel that most people I met were either perpetually on edge or perpetually in denial. I know that I never felt more Israeli than the morning I heard a siren go off while I was in the shower and I thought: I’m not getting out. I’m as safe here as anywhere. Probably if I were closer to the Gaza border I would have had a different reaction, but in Tel Aviv, I was not the only person who listened for the “boom” of Iron Dome but didn’t always move to a shelter.

The other effect of sirens though, is that it drowns out the voices of those who challenge or critique Israel and those whose lives are negatively impacted or threatened by its policies. The sirens are used as proof that real danger exists and anything and everything must be done to protect the people and the nation.

Some of the most difficult conversations of this summer, between rabbis and between Jews, have been about what it means to say that you are pro-Israel and/or Zionist. There are those who insist that any kind of criticism of Israel puts you immediately in the “anti” camp, while others insist just as strongly that not being critical of Israel means abdicating your moral responsibility.

To paraphrase Yossi Klein Halevi one more time—there is a divide among Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. One side says: “you must destroy Amalek” referring to the biblical injunction to wipe out any enemies, no matter what they are doing, because ultimately they seek to destroy you. As Jews, we know all too well our history of people trying to destroy us—especially Arabs in recent generations.

The other says: “do not oppress the stranger because you were a stranger in Egypt”, referring to the biblical injunction to treat those who are weak, oppressed, or “other” with justice—because as Jews we know the brutal effects of oppression and we, of all people, should not be participating in it. Halevi critiques the one as prone to being so motivated by defense that they are unable to consider the possibility that Israel has any responsibility for the situation. The other is so focused on a mixture of compassion and guilt that they have a hard time acknowledging that anyone but Israel has a responsibility.

This divide has been at the heart of so many of the disagreements about Israel this summer in the press, on social media, and in personal conversations. It is a divide that has become so deeply engrained from hearing the same shofar blasts over and over for years. As a result, we are shutting one another down, dismissing the real concerns being expressed, and causing people to shut down and distance themselves from the conversation and from Israel itself. This is too bad. A place as important as Israel, and a conflict as complex as the Palestinian one, deserves many nuanced conversations.

 A recent article in the New York Times revealed a conflict that rabbis have been dealing with for years: how do we talk about Israel from the bimah when we know that, on this topic, what we say has the power to alienate our congregants. This has been going on for years, but this summer, several rabbis were very publicly criticized—either for being too liberal or too conservative in their views. Each side of the divide is demanding 100% loyalty or the sirens of criticism begin to sound.

Let me say very clearly that I am pro-Israel and I am Zionist. I believe in the legitimacy of the country and the need for a Jewish State. Being pro-Israel and Zionist are not necessarily the same thing. Being pro-Israel, means that I believe in both the rights and responsibilities of the country. Israel not only has a right to exist, it has a right to thrive, it has a responsibility to protect and nurture its citizens, and it has a right to respond to threats and attacks. Being Zionist means that I believe in the necessity and promise of Israel as a place where Jews can live secure, fully-realized Jewish lives—religiously, culturally, socially, civically, and in all ways.

I think the existence of Israel is a necessity and I support it being right where it is. I say this not because I think the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis confers a binding legal title, but because this little swath of the Middle East (and I’m purposely not talking about precise boundaries) has historically and universally been identified with the Jewish people. There has never been a time in recorded history that Jews have not lived somewhere in the land, or have not focused on return to the land in one form or another. And that connection has historically been recognized not just by Jews but by Christians and Muslims and others in the Western, and Eastern civilizations.

But with the rights to national determination and to the land come responsibilities. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, those in the position of power have made many decisions to protect the present and future existence of the Jewish people. What did not happen in the beginning, is a consideration that other people ALSO have legitimate rights and claims in this land, including a safe place to live and their own historic connections. In 1947, an Arab coalition that no longer exists didn’t accept what was, in reality, an untenable partition solution. However, that does not mean that future generations don’t still have the right for national determination and a secure existence.

By not consistently recognizing this, and not working for a cooperative solution, even as threats to the existence of Israel continue, I do not think the state is living up to its responsibilities to its Jewish citizens, and certainly not to its Arab Israeli citizens. Israel cannot ensure long-term security for any of its citizens by systematically cutting off and withholding the rights of those they see as the enemy.

I am primarily thinking about the ways in which the Israeli government, by its policies and responses, has contributed to, and perpetuated, a condition of Arab hopelessness that is then expressed in violence. Continued expansion in existing and new settlements, while Arab, Bedouin and Druse homes are being demolished, does not ensure security, it disrupts it and puts all citizens at risk.

I also believe Israel has the responsibility to maintain social systems that recognize all of its citizens as equal. By educating Arab Israelis separately, by not allowing them to serve their country, and by limiting their ability to thrive socially and economically, they are maintaining a large segment of the population that is necessarily second-class and at a disadvantage. This can only lead to dissent at best, violence at worst. This is something that we, in the United States, should understand very well.

Similarly, by allowing the religious right free rein over both religious AND civic matters such as marriage, divorce, and public worship, they are maintaining a system of gender inequality that has already bred so much resentment and violence that many secular Jewish Israelis don’t like to identify as Jews or consider leaving, because to them, a Jewish state can only mean a religious state. These social issues, along with a host of other economic, racial, and institutional abuses, destabilize citizens and add to the sense of trauma and insecurity that we mistakenly believe only comes from the Palestinian threat.

I say all of this because I care about Israel and to its existence. While I do lean to the side of the “do not oppress” divide, I do not want to minimize the very real threat of terrorist entities and of some Palestinian authority policies and leaders. My trip this summer is not the first time I have had to seek shelter or fear attacks. At least this time there were sirens to warn us, not just the suspicion that the person sitting next to us in a café might blow himself up.

I think many entities are failing in their rights and responsibilities to a lasting, peaceful, and just resolution. It is not up to Israel alone to make that happen. The PA, Hamas, and the Palestinian people globally, need to live up to their responsibilities as well. But I am focusing on Israel because it is the home of my heart. It is the land and the people to which I am most deeply connected.

So with all of these critiques, how can I still say I support Israel? What’s the alternative? After fewer than seven decades, should we walk away before anyone else is killed? Declare the whole thing a failed experiment? As citizens of a country that is still trying to get it right after more than 200 years, surely we understand that criticism can be loving and an ideal can be fought for. Despite the rockets and the trauma and the despair this summer, I encountered people doing amazing work in Israel. Not just people gathering for dialogues about peace but also those working for civil rights. And there are the innovative businesses and industries that have indeed grown up out of the desert, fueled by the pioneering, tenacious spirit that can be found in a young nation, struggling to survive.

All of this exists side by side, because Israel is anything but black and white—right and wrong. The contrasts and contradictions fuel it, just as they bog it down. We have to be able to acknowledge it all—celebrate and nurture what we can, while at the same time speak about and work to change the rest.

So what can we do? I can't say what I think Israelis or Palestinians should do--I can tell you what I think I--what we here in the diaspora--can do. We need to make room for another kind of shofar—or siren—blast. One that allows for acknowledgement and recognition, if not full agreement. On Erev Rosh Hashana, I made reference to the concept of argument for the sake of heaven—an argument for an important cause, in which respectful disagreement can lead to greater wisdom. The expression, and the primary example of this, comes from a Talmudic story about an iconic debate between the rabbinic academies of Hillel and Shammai.

“For three years the Academy of Shammai and the Academy of Hillel debated a matter of ritual purity. One said, “The law is according to our position,” and the other said, “The law is according to our position.” A divine voice came and said, “These and those are the words of the living God, but the law is according to the House of Hillel.” But if these and these are both the words of the living God, why was the law set according to the Academy of Hillel? Because they (Hillel) were gentle and humble and they taught both their own words and the words of the Academy of Shammai. And not only this, but they taught the words of the Shammai before their own. (Talmud Eruvin 13b)

This is the paradigm for the structure of all the Talmudic debates: both majority AND minority opinions are given expression and preserved for the record. The rabbis often disagree, raise objections, and offer counter-arguments, but contradictory positions are both acknowledged AND recorded, in recognition of their value, if only to those who hold the positions. In this way, they are witnessing the presence and humanity of the opposing side.

Through all of my encounters this summer, but especially in those that were the most upsetting and uncomfortable, I feel that I gained a better understanding of what compels these different groups of people—compels them in a literal sense—what moves them to action. Because these weren’t opportunities to listen for the sake of argument, they were opportunities to listen for the sake of witnessing. Now when I do argue I can also, like Hillel, present the opposing position of Shammai—even if I don’t agree with it.


And this is what we need to be able to do to support Israel: we need to hear and we need to witness. We need to listen in a way that allows our opponents to be heard—not just their words, but the deeply held convictions behind them, and the actions that are motivated by those words and convictions. We need to listen in a way that says: “These AND those are the words of God.” 

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