Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thoughts about Israel

.מחשבות על ישראל

A lot has happened in the three and a half weeks since I last posted. My semester ended, I visited the United States for two weeks, and I attended the Wexner Winter Institute, where we focused on learning about exercising leadership with Marty Linsky. I've returned to Israel and started a new semester, and tonight, Jessica and I accepted a spontaneous invitation to a shiva (period of mourning) dinner at a synagogue near HUC. I'd love to write about any and all of these topics, and perhaps soon I will, but tonight, my mind is on Israel once again. In this post, I hope to address three primary topics: 1) Reflections on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza; 2) My relationship with the Land, People, and State of Israel; and 3) My thoughts about what ought to be the relationship of a Reform rabbi to Israel.

Operation Cast Lead

As were most people, I was enormously relieved when Israel pulled out of Gaza. I was in the U.S. at time and was glad that I would be returning to a country that was no longer actively engaged in warfare. As each day passes, people I hear from become calmer, and reflections about the war are quickly turning into election prediction and analysis. Israel is holding general elections next Tuesday (February 10), where the right-wing Likud party is expected to win, resulting in Benjamin Netanyahu assuming his second term as Prime Minister. Although Netanyahu and Obama don't see eye-to-eye, hopefully they will be able to work together to hammer out some kind of peaceful situation. Unfortunately, I believe that Tzipi Livni would have a better working relationship with President Obama and would therefore better be able to deliver peace to the region.

My recent post on the necessity to call for peace even when violence seems unavoidable and justifiable generated significant debate on this blog as well as within my personal conversations with others and with myself. I maintain that the cycle of violence must come to an end - we do still need peace. I will not judge those who engaged in Operation Cast Lead, as it's not my place to do so, but all I can say is let there be no more violence. My prayer for peace is renewed with the inauguration of President Obama, and I hope that Israel's own politicians will reflect this vision as well.

Of course, the catalyst of Operation Cast Lead and the monkey wrench in the peace plan was and will likely continue to be the radical leadership of Palestinian terrorist organizations, specifically and primarily Hamas. As long as Hamas is dedicated to the annihilation of Israel and as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza, establishing peace with the Palestinian people is a distant dream. So, one of those factors needs to be changed. Either the leadership of Hamas should be engaged to reevaluate its position on the existence of Israel, or the people of the Gaza Strip need to be engaged to assert new representative leadership.

Examples of such leadership may be able to be found in the surrounding Arab world. There was a surprising lack of condemnation from Arab countries around Israel during Operation Cast Lead, and this reveals the hesitancy of modern Arab leaders to declare their solidarity with radical threats to their stability. It is becoming more clear that it is in the best interest of Arab nations to pressure for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to generate stability in the region, and hopefully these forward-thinking Arab leaders will offer their guidance and support in an initiative for peace.

Was Operation Cast Lead justified? It's extremely hard for me to answer that question, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for Israelis as well. I can say that I wish the situation hadn't been so dire as to encourage Israeli leadership to turn to force as a solution. I can even say that I wish the operation had never been launched. But it was launched, and my prayer now is that somehow it will help pave the way to peace. I'll be sure to write more on this as time goes by, but that's enough on this topic for now.

My relationship with the Land, People, and State of Israel

In a week, I'll reach the 7-month mark of living in Israel, and my perspectives on Israel have certainly changed over the last half-year. Here's a summary of where I was before I arrived:

Land - My two trips here in 2005 and 2007 were very special to me, and I had felt a special connection to the land. This is where all that history happened and therefore became to me an example of what Mircea Eliade calls a "sacred center."

People - Even moreso than the land, I am connected intrinsically to the Jewish people. This was powerfully felt the first time I was at the Western Wall; it was much more significant to me to be at a place thought about and prayed toward by Jews for thousands of years than were the stones themselves.

State of Israel - The State of Israel was to preserve the Land and People, and therefore I had no strong feelings or connections to the State qua State.

Here's what I'm thinking now. These are rough thoughts, so I look forward to challenging them and having them challenged in the near and developing future.

Land - The Land of Israel is much less magical for me now than it was a couple years ago. I do still find it significant that biblical events took place here, but the theological significance of that fact is less than it was. On the other hand, when our class examined pre-State approaches to Zionism, I was ambivalent about initiatives to locate Jews in a land other than Palestine. While for me personally, the Land doesn't hold theological value, I recognize that this land is traditionally very important to Jews and that there are millions of Jews today who do view the land as theologically significant. For our People, then, I support the existence of Israel here even though for me, the Land itself has marginal spiritual value.

People - I am still committed to the People of Israel, though I reject the notion that a Jew is superior to a non-Jew. I do believe that there are ethical values of Judaism that have shined through the ages in a more easily accessible fashion than some other traditions and therefore that the Jewish religion has made and will continue to make significant contributions to the development of humankind. The Jewish people, bound together by (but not only by) this religion are a diverse and opinionated family, with all the blessings and challenges that come along with that. I feel an innate bond to other Jews, and I am devoting my life to the values and people of Judaism. I am excited by the prospect of learning more about what, exactly, the Jewish People is and how it manifests itself in communities. I am very interested in communities, and I want to learn more about them and how one is and can be a member and a change agent of them. Of the three categories I'm examining now, my dedication to the Jewish People is the strongest.

State - I've been struggling the most with the State of Israel this year on a number of levels. First of all, there's the security issue. Does the Jewish State have an imperative to be more ethical than a non-Jewish state? No. However, personally, I expect more from the Jewish State than from other states because of the long ethical tradition that I mentioned earlier. There's a lot riding on Israel, and I believe that it can be a terrific model of Middle Eastern democracy. Let's live up to the highest ethical standard and wage a peace campaign like the world has never seen.

On another level, I've been struggling with the religion/state dichotomy (or lack thereof) in this country. Spend some time here, and you'll find that the religious intolerance in this country is absolutely shocking and appalling, at least from an American perspective. Freedom of religion simply doesn't exist here, and that is such a hard concept for me to internalize. People get up in arms when they hear that the practice of non-Islam religions is banned in certain Arab countries, but no one (except the Progressive Jews) says anything about the anti-Jewish (as defined by the ultra-orthodox) discrimination that occurs in this country. It's a shandah, and it's one of my biggest problems with the State.

Of course, the question of whether to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) has been on my mind the whole time that I've been here, and I seriously don't think it's in the cards for me. The above two issues are enormous elephants that I'm not sure I can get over, and I lack the vision and courage to combat them here. I seriously admire those who do make aliyah in order to help Reform Israel, and I remain committed to Israel's continued progress because of my Jewish connection to the People that live here, but submitting myself to a country that will draft my daughter into an army wherein she won't be able to speak at her own wedding ceremony is too much for me to swallow right now.

So suffice it to say that my personal relationship with the State of Israel is in a somewhat rocky place right now, though I refused to turn my back on the State and leave it to its own devices. I may not approve of everything that it does, but I approve of what it aspires to be, and (like in America), I will work as I can to help realize the (my) Jewish dream for Israel as a land of pluralism, peace, and morality.

My thoughts about what ought to be the relationship of a Reform rabbi to Israel

So then we come to what I think about others' relationship to Israel. Although I find it very difficult to determine what others might believe or advocate personally, perhaps if I approach this from an institutional level, I can come up with some cogent thoughts. In general, what kind of relationship should a Reform rabbi have toward Israel?

I think I'll echo the director of our Israel Seminar, Dave Mendelsson, who told me that one of his goals for our Israel education program is that students will have a complex and deep relationship with Israel. It doesn't have to be positive (mine isn't purely positive, that's for sure!), but the realities of our communities are that many American Jews are keenly aware of and interested in Israel, and if for no other reason, engaging our community on their deeply held convictions is necessary for effective rabbis.

I also believe that Israel has a lot to gain from Progressive Judaism, and I would hope that Reform rabbis will perceive the street of impact as two-way. Of course Israeli issues and concerns will impact the way American Jews think about their People and faith, but the People and faith of Diaspora Jews should also impact Israelis. Progressive Judaism can offer a focus on pluralism, a commitment to ethics, and a renewed spirituality that I think could be beautifully received and enacted in Israel. I hope that Reform rabbis recognize their own worth with relation to Israel and don't give in to the extant pressures of Diaspora Judaism to bend to the will of Israel.

Overall, I hope that my rabbinic colleagues will join me in supporting Israel by hoping for its continued progress toward peace and pluralism. We should also challenge ourselves to break out of our west-centered mentality and remember that when we say "Jews," we include over 6 million Israelis in our parlance. Let's stop assuming that Jewish = eats bagels and recognize that our communities are not entirely (or shouldn't be entirely) bifurcated. Just as we should feel free to offer words of encouragement and criticism to Israel, so should we be open to similar words from the other side of the sea.

Of course, these are all very general and very similar to my own perspective. But it's worth keeping these thoughts in mind as I head into my future years of rabbinical school. Will it be hard readjusting to life in America? Will I continue to think about Israel on a frequent basis when I'm back in the States? How will Israel affect my rabbinate? These are important questions for me to keep alive, and I hope that my colleagues will continue to challenge me as I hope to challenge them.

I think that's enough for now. Now that I'm back at school and readjusting to the swing of things, I hope to be able to get some more thoughts down in the blog. It's good to be back. Here's to a great semester!


Nanette Goodman said...

You mention that you are uncomfortable with "submitting myself to a country that will draft my daughter into an army wherein she won't be able to speak at her own wedding ceremony."

When exactly are you going to have that daughter?

Jessica said...

ah - here it is. I don't think he's read your snarky comment yet, but I'll be sure to point him to it.