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On Israel, Rosh Hashanah 2014

(Rosh Hashanah 2014/5775)

            As you all know, we have just come through another war in Israel, the third in Gaza over the last few years.  I must tell you that I can not support the strategy of the current government in Israel.  Mr. Netanyahu may say he is in favor of a two-state solution but his actions and his statements belie that.  Simple example.  Two years ago, Mr. Netanyahu was saying we can’t possibly make a deal with the Palestinian Authority because it doesn’t include all the Palestinians.  As soon as the PA reached an agreement with Hamas and thereby did represent the entire Palestinian community, Netanyahu’s argument became ‘how can we make a deal with the PA, it includes terrorists.’  Mr. Netanyahu is part of a movement in Israeli politics that goes back at least eighty years and essentially sees no difference between establishing settlements in the west bank and establishing settlements outside of Tel Aviv.  As I’ve unfortunately said before, the dictum of Abba Even that «they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity» now applies to the government of the State of Israel. 

That’s strategy.  But let’s discuss tactics for a minute.  Throughout it’s history, Hamas has consistently targeted Jewish civilians.  They can’t claim they don’t know where Israeli military facilities are located because of that great Jewish invention - Google maps.  Not only do they deliberately target Israeli civilians in the hopes of creating morale problems, they deliberately locate their military facilities in such a way that their own civilians become targets.  When you were watching videos of Palestinians being treated in Shifa hospital in Gaza City, the reporters neglected to tell you that Hamas operational headquarters are in its basement.  When you were shown shots of destroyed mosques or UN schools, the same reporters didn’t tell you that these buildings were used for storing rockets and providing camouflage for the entrances to the infamous tunnels that Hamas built instead of building bomb shelters for their own people like Israel does.  These reporters have a perverted way of doing math.  Because the government of Israel builds shelters and defense systems to protect its people and Hamas uses its people to shelter its leadership, there are far more casualties in Gaza than there are in Israel.  But when you listen to the news, the consensus seems to be that that somehow makes Israel the aggressor.

I can speak to you of Israeli military policy in this area because I was there and working with my organization, Beit Morasha, which runs educational programs on military ethics for the IDF.  Those of you who are members of our congregation have even received some of the material in translation since we send it out for the holidays.  I won’t go into a lot of detail but I do want to bring up one point that I have not seen covered in any news media.  When you warn your enemy where and when you are going to attack, you know that you are increasing the risk that your soldiers will suffer higher casualties. The element of surprise has the opposite effect - it lowers your death rate.  That is why the only army in the world to do so is the IDF - not the Americans, not the British, certainly not the Russians - the only army in the world that knowingly increases the risk to its own soldiers in order to reduce enemy civilian casualties is the Israeli Army.

Another thing not mentioned in the media was that, of the Israeli brigades that fought in this war, one was commanded by an Orthodox Jew and another was commanded by an Israeli Arab.  Yes, there is discrimination in Israel and we should condemn it.  But, ironically, Arabs have more rights in Israel - the right to vote in free elections, the right to live under the rule of law, the right to seek redress for your grievances through the courts - more rights in Israel than their brethren do in the dictatorships that surround it.  One more thing about the recent war and indeed, about Israel in general.  Every few years somebody writes an article saying that Israel is losing its old spirit, that people are only interested in themselves. But every time there’s a war, public opinion polls in Israel consistently show that people understand that this is the price they have to pay to preserve the country.  That may sound logical and simple, but it’s no simple thing when it’s your own children who are called upon to do the fighting and risking life and limb.

            But what else is going on in Israel?  Despite the war, the economy continues to grow with its main problem being that it is in relatively such good shape that the high value of the Shekel is hurting exports.  They’re actually happy when they can get the shekel to lose a few cents in value against the dollar.  Wherever you go in Israel, roads are being improved, new rail lines are being built and they can’t keep up with the need for offices and housing.  If you want a job, learn Hebrew and move to Israel.  They’re also actually doing something about their societal problems.  The person who headed up the Israeli equivalent of Occupy Wall Street Movement now sits in the Knesset.  They’ve made a good start on laws to limit the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few families.  With all its wars and terrorism, your life expectancy in Israel is higher than it is in the United States.  They have a problem with corruption in politics but in Israel people actually go to jail for it.  Meanwhile, in this country we’re still waiting for somebody - somebody to go to jail for all the cheating that led to the great recession.  In Israel’s last election, the main issue was not the peace process.

Things were going so well that Israelis were much more concerned about the economic inequities in society and the power of the ultra-orthodox.  That power has been seriously weakened.  We’re a long way from totally solving the problem, but we’ve made a good start.  On my last trip to Israel I visited an IDF training base as part of a Beit Morasha program.  Most of our programs are aimed at the officer corps with the idea that they in turn will teach their subordinates.  But this particular program was for ultra-orthodox recruits.  This year, there were 11,000 ultra-orthodox soldiers serving in the IDF, the equivalent of over half a division.  This particular group was young men who had volunteered to become combat soldiers but there are more and more ultra-orthodox serving throughout the army.  It’s kind of weird to see soldiers with army haircuts and paios, but that’s another story.  They were inspiring but I have to tell you, some of them were really frightening.  In order to allow them to speak freely, the understanding we had with them was that whatever they said would not be repeated to their officers nor were they allowed to quote each other. One time while we were all taking a break, a few of them started a discussion of whether or not non-Jews have a soul.  The frightening thing is that the consensus was that they don’t. 

            The greatest danger and simultaneously the greatest opportunity confronting Israeli society today is the split between the ultra-orthodox and everybody else.  To a lesser degree, this is also a problem with people from the former Soviet Union or the Arab countries because they also have no tradition of democracy.  But that will pass as a younger generation goes to Israeli schools and intermarries with everyone else.  So how is this an opportunity?  In that more and more of the ultra-orthodox are serving in the IDF, the great integrator of Israeli society.  On average, the ultra-orthodox are having smaller families, many of the men are privately saying they want to learn a trade so that they can adequately support their families.  There are even reports of televisions and computers being smuggled into their homes.  In short, the power of the rebbes is becoming a little less absolute.  The fact that we have thousands of their young men serving means we have the opportunity to educate them in democracy, give them skills that can allow them to support their families, teach them that they are participants in a larger society that includes both non-Orthodox Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Given the financial success of Israel, the question arises of why we American Jews should financially support it.  After all, in many cases, Israelis are leading more prosperous lives than their American cousins.  In addition to the fact that Jewish tradition requires us to live the dictum kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh - all of Israel is responsible for one another - I would suggest that you should contribute to programs that will make Israeli society what you want it to be - a society where everyone shares the burdens and the rewards, where everyone lives in mutual respect for one another.  

            Meanwhile, Israel is surrounded by chaos.  It’s surreal.  You visit the birds in the nature preserves in the Hulah Valley and, less than the distance from here to Manhattan, people are beheading each other, helicopters are dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods.  Other than Israel, the entire region is either in a brutal war of total destruction or, in the alternative, people live under repressive regimes where their greatest fear is the agents of their own government.

             When I compare Israel with America, the thing that always strikes me is the political paralysis in this country.  When I am in Israel, because of my organizational involvement, I occasionally get to meet Israeli politicians - many of whom I do NOT agree with.  That being said, I can still have a civil conversation with them and discuss policy with them because we all operate off of the same set of facts.  We may disagree on what conclusions those facts lead us to, but we don’t have different versions of reality.  Therefore, despite Israel’s rough and tumble political system, the government invests in infrastructure, in education, in health care, in educating skilled workers, in programs to help business.  In short, it functions.

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