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On Israel, Yom Kippur 5775

This past July the very liberal Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley, California wrote a piece that went viral in the Jewish press and much of the left leaning press: I’m Done Apologizing for Israel. In it, he reaffirmed his Zionism, liberal values and Jewish life, calling out much of the liberal world’s anti-Semitism, anti-Israelism and insane support of Hamas, an organization antithetical to anything liberal or progressive.

Well, this is my turn, I am Jewish, liberal and Zionist and here’s why.

I am Jewish. I was born that way. Jewish by descent was certainly a strong way in, especially being born in the Bronx in the 1950s. My parents were survivors from Vienna, and many of their friends were survivors or European-born Jews. Our temple in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan was a socialist Reform synagogue of immigrants, and of first and second generation German and Austrian Jews. I was a kid, but I remember Rabbi Margolies’ sermons on the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars. In part, I hope I am channeling his memory today.

The rhythms of Jewish life also enrich my life with sensitivities to time and season. Shabbat as a weekly respite, the holidays as they flow through the yearly cycle, and valuable ordinary days blooming with spiritual awareness.

There’s daily prayer and meditation, whether from traditional texts and vintage or of a more recent genesis, or, the extemporaneous ones I just come out with. And daily study, at least an hour, often more, usually in the morning and at lunchtime, devoted to TaNaKh, talmud, midrash, philosophy, halakhah, chassidut, or kabbalah.

And the music and foods, the tactile gifts of our heritage whether ancient or contemporary, Ashkenazi, Sepharadi or Mizrachi. Or even just plain American. All good.

Then there is our incredible history of resilience and accomplishment from religious, spiritual and ethical insights to the creation of amazing civilizations large and small, from destruction and exile to hope, survival, rebuilding and redemption. So for today, let us take stock and allow ourselves to wonder over the richly diverse communities our people live in now. Here in Baltimore we are blessed with a vibrant little Jewish world whose rainbow of difference but interwoven tapestry of relationships is an artful illustration of what positive Jewishness can be, from the secular to the yeshivish.

As for the spirituality of Judaism, I have to say that the path of struggling to discern meaning, purpose and goodness in life truly speaks to me. I guess that’s why the day job is as a hospital chaplain. For Israel, the God Wrestler, that’s the real-world, real-life spirituality of making for salvation in an imperfect, broken world through a life of tikkun, of repair, by faith, strength, kindness, justice, love, courage and understanding.

Jewish values, from the Torah onward, have been concerned with organizing society justly, righteously and compassionately. Care for the poor, fairness for the foreigner, provisions for the widow, concern for the orphan, all these and more have been at the heart of Jewish social welfare systems. Although some ancient laws seem rather sexist and harsh by our standards today, they were designed to protect women and to ensure their socio-economic dignity. Jewish law has also long recognized the propriety of abortion, for example, under certain circumstances. Environmentalism, and equity in economic distribution and power, these were the foundations for the Shmita laws of the sabbatical year, one which we have just started as I discussed on Rosh Hashanah. Education has always been a Jewish priority, and the Talmud stressed both Jewish and secular training. Throughout history Jews excelled in religious-spiritual disciplines as well as in philosophy, letters, science, law, and of course, business and the trades. Our values are life-affirming. One might even say, liberating.

Accordingly, liberal is not such a leap, and I am most assuredly liberal. But this is liberal in a classical sense: the idea that society must ensure the liberation of individuals and free associations of people. That the imposition of certain values by the community will not unduly inhibit or deprive one of life, liberty and property. This all gives life to Hillel’s teaching about loving your fellow as yourself: what is hateful to you do not do to anyone else. Liberalism wants to use government to place limits on the restrictive forces in society, and allow people the moral autonomy to be in this world as they deem appropriate but without coercing others to follow suit or to corrode society’s fabric. We can all debate and have disagreements over particular partisan policies, but liberals stand for the peaceful co-existence of people in mutual respectfulness.

All of which bring me to Zionist. Before the Nazis, Zionism referred to several possibilities, only one of which was the political nation-state concept we now think of when we say Zionism. But given the Holocaust, an internationally recognized country for the Jewish people made sense. And there can be no other place than the ancient homeland -- which has had a Jewish population for two millennia and a Hebrew population for at least a thousand years more -- Israel. The Zionist dream that came to fruition was that Israel should be a Jewish and democratic state, a liberal and liberating beacon of freedom in the Middle East. And so it has been and continues to be. We should stand with Israel.

The past two Gaza wars, and especially this summer’s however, have led numerous Liberal Zionists to express mea culpas in the press: notably there was Jonathan Chait, Roger Cohen, Richard Cohen, Thomas Friedman, and Antony Lerman among others. Basically, given Israel’s occupation and mistreatment of Arabs, when given the choice between Zionism and liberalism, which they now see as essentially irreconcilable, they choose liberalism. Incredibly, so too do many liberal rabbis in the Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform and yes, Conservative tents. 

As with Rabbi Creditor, I am done apologizing for Israel. Let me sing her praises! Let’s begin with the Occupation, and I want to focus on 1967 to 2000 when the Oslo process ended, when Yasir Arafat and Fatah revealed to all, definitively and conclusively, that they had no interest in governance, only in perpetual terrorist destruction and organizational corruption. Life for Palestinians since September 2000 has not been very good, generally speaking, and that sad state of affairs cannot be denied, but that’s their doing for continuing to enable and be coopted by the forces of rejectionism, hatefulness and victimhood.

In a well-researched essay over a decade ago, the Kings College London professor Efraim Karsh reminded the world what the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza did after Jordan and Egypt lost control over them in the Six Day War. Before 1967, Palestinian life expectancy was low; malnutrition, infectious diseases, and child mortality were widespread and high; and the level of education was very poor. Less than 60 percent of all men had jobs, with refugee unemployment running over 80 percent. But once Israel began to take responsibility, one could notice dramatic improvements there, catapulting the quality of life of Palestinians in the territories ahead of most of their Arab neighbors. You heard me correctly. The liberal, liberating, Zionist Israelis, Jews, breached through a history of enmity to make the lives of Palestinian Arabs better, even in the face of continued terrorism and pan-Arab violence and war.

There were no Palestinians working in Israel prior to 1967, but in less than twenty years there were almost 110,000. This accounted for 35 percent of the employed population of the West Bank and 45 percent of Gaza. Moreover, about 2,000 industrial plants, employing almost half of the work force, were established in the territories under Israeli rule, something Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians themselves failed to make happen during the first twenty years following the 1947 partition.

Incredibly, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world during the 1970s ranking them ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself. Palestinian per capita gross national product grew from a pittance of $165 in 1968 to $1,715 in 1991, high by international standards, surpassing those of Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia. By the time the Oslo process ended in 2000, Palestinian per-capita income was nearly double Syria's, more than four times Yemen's, and still ahead of Jordan's. Regionally, only the oil-rich Gulf states and Lebanon were more affluent than the Palestinian Territories.

Because of Israel, the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza improved dramatically. Mortality rates fell by more than two-thirds between 1970 and 1990, while life expectancy rose from 48 years in 1967 to 72 in 2000, exceeding the average life expectancy in the Middle East and North Africa by 4 years. Infant-mortality was 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 but only 15 in 2000, notably better than in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, or Syria. During this time, childhood diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were stamped out, again, due to Israel’s commitment to modern medical, humanitarian assistance.

In 1967 only 1 in 5 Palestinians had electricity 24/7, but when the First Intifadah broke out in 1987, that number was almost 93 percent, and that’s in the West Bank and Gaza! Similar gains over this time period were made with respect to running water, from 16 percent to 85 percent; and electric or gas ranges for cooking, from 4 percent to more than 80 percent. The same increases were seen regarding other amenities, indeed necessities, for modern life, like households with refrigerators, televisions, and cars.

During the first two decades of the Occupation, the number of schoolchildren and classes in the territories doubled, though the population itself had grown by only 28 percent. In 1967, not a single university existed in the territories. By the early 1990's, there were seven in Gaza and the West Bank, with over 16,000 students. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14 percent of Palestinian adults, compared with 69 percent in Morocco, 61 percent in Egypt, 45 percent in Tunisia, and 44 percent in Syria.

So much for Israeli occupation as genocide! The Oslo process in the 1990s was conceived to empower the Palestinians to take political responsibility and independence over their national life. Israel prepared them for and gave them that opportunity. But no, this is what the Palestinian Arabs threw away 14 years ago. I am Jewish, liberal and Zionist.

The obsession against Israel has been growing since at least the Lebanon War in the early 1980s if not before. The rioting and protesting this summer throughout the world and the US against Israel’s acts in Gaza have been alarming in their unabashed anti-Semitism and delusional views of reality. Many liberal Jews are thinking that Israel, and American Jewish support for Israel, are to blame.

Let me tell you something about this summer. Hamas foolishly and recklessly launched this war for propaganda reasons. Hamas was weak, virtually broke and its unpopularity was rising. So, as its leadership admitted, one of its cells kidnapped and murdered 3 Jewish teenage boys. Tensions rose, and the rockets started to fly as Israel tried limited incursions to hit Hamas targets.

When all is said and done about Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s conduct in the war was exemplary not barbaric. According to the IDF, the civilian casualty rate was only 50%, which given modern warfare in urban terrain is highly commendable. Even if Hamas statistics are to be believed, and they should not, the civilian casualty rate was between 70 and 75 percent. This is identical, yes identical, to the civilian casualty statistics over the period of the American led Iraq and Afghan wars. Especially when we consider that 75 to 80 percent of Gaza casualties were men, and most of them of military age between 16 and 35, while 20 to 25 percent were children and women, the IDF’s adherence to high ethical standards cannot be doubted. The militaries of the US, Britain and other Western countries could not have handled the situation any better, and recent articles in military journals are now lauding Israel’s ethical performance in the conflict.

Let us compare Israel’s comportment to the Palestinians’ led by Hamas. According to Hamas, it had dozens of Gazans summarily executed for collaborating with Israel. The Palestinian Authority objected that actually many or most of these were or had been Fatah supporters and were murdered for political reasons. Regardless, these Hamas killings of its own people were murder, outside international, and even local, law. The world was silent. No protests. No riots. No surprise.

But imagine if Israel had done this to Israeli-Jews, or worse, Israeli-Arabs? Yes, the world would storm over Israeli savagery. But my friends, we cannot imagine Israel doing this because Israel is not savage. Hamas Palestinians did do this, but the world winks.

Hamas launched over 4,200 rockets at Israel. Thank God their accuracy and range combined were abysmal. Of these, 30 were fired from UN facilities, 50 from hospitals, 50 from playgrounds, 85 from medical clinics, 330 from mosques, 260 from schools, and over 900 from other spaces for the public good including cemeteries, power plants, churches and amusement parks. All, of course, were indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets. By definition, each launch was a war crime. But it is Israel that is being investigated as the culprit of war crimes. It is not that the world has gone mad. The world in many respects has its sights set on eliminating Israel and again marginalizing Jews. Why is a question we can address some other time, though Natan Sharansky has offered an interesting perspective in an essay published days ago in the on-line Mosaic Magazine.

Now, I have found fault and disagreed with a good many of Israel’s policies and decisions over the years. But so what? The same can be said of my thoughts on the United States.

The problem is that the liberal world, really the leftist world, has concluded that Israel and the Jews are solely to blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict. And, moreover, that it is Israel which is the destabilizing factor for Middle East suffering. Insanity! In Syria alone, more people have died in its civil war these past 3 years than have in over a century of Jewish-Arab clashes and wars. Israel has nothing to do with the latest Suni-Shia conflagrations decimating the Arab world, much less the atrocities occurring daily in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The benefits of Israel’s presence in the Middle East, especially for Palestinians as I described earlier, the fact that the Occupation ended a long time ago, that Palestinians have had their own leaderships for years, that it was Hamas that diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in monies and stores of material from domestic infrastructure development and poverty eradication to the creation of an oppressive, terrorist warfare strip of tunnels and rockets – all this is simply too confusing for the left to grasp, as Leil Leibowitz of Tablet Magazine wrote in July.

You know, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College asked me when I was a student what I thought the difference was between a liberal and a leftist. I answered, I am a liberal. A leftist is a liberal whose brain has left.

But the same can be said of the right, with growing anti-Semitism especially in Europe emanating also from nationalist right-wing parties and organizations. And we all are painfully aware of the ignorance and hate towards Jews that has been generated very carefully in the Arab and Muslim world since the Second World War when the Jerusalem Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseiniin became well-schooled in the subject by the Nazis themselves, in case we want to forget that the Grand Mufti – a Palestinian Arab -- allied himself with the Third Reich, and disseminated modern anti-Semitism to other Arab leaders. It is a scary time to be Jewish.

To my rabbinic colleagues who are attacking Israel, supporting the BDS movement and tendering aid directly and or indirectly to the Palestinians at Israel’s expense, let me close with this. I know who you are. I know what you stand for. Many are members of my rabbinical association and closely involved with my rabbinical school. I pledge to be more vocal and involved. I atone for years of complacency. You can count me out of your crowd. You do not speak in my name.


I am Jewish, Liberal and Zionist. Now you know why. G’mar Tov.

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