Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5779 (September 19, 2018)
Where were you on Yom Kippur day 45 years ago?
Of course, I know that some of you weren’t born yet, but for many of us who are old enough to remember, Yom Kippur day in 1973 was different from all other Yom Kippurs in our lives. For it was on Yom Kippur 1973, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, that Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked Israeli forces in a surprise attack. The war lasted for several weeks, amid concerns of escalation since the United States and the Soviet Union were also getting involved and were supporting opposite sides of the fighting. I was only 12 years old at the time, so I don’t remember it all that well. But what I do remember is anxiously listening to the news with my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins as we gathered at my grandmother’s house in Queens, New York for the holiday break-the-fast.
Israel suffered major losses in the first few days of the fighting but was soon able to regroup and turn the tide. However, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War Golda Meir was forced to resign as Prime Minister due to the scandal of Israel’s having been caught up unprepared.
Another major result of the Yom Kippur war was that many Israelis were disabused of any fanciful notion that they might have had that the strategic depth gained by the territorial conquests of the Six-Day War of 1967 would lead to the end of their security concerns.
On the secular calendar, we have just marked two other major anniversaries. Forty years ago this week, on September 17, 1978, the Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. And twenty-five years ago last week, on September 13, 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn. Many of us remember that famous tableau of President Bill Clinton standing in between Yitzchak Rabin and Yassir Arafat as the latter two shook hands and vowed no more war.
Those events seem so long ago. The existential dread of Yom Kippur 1973 and the buoyant hopes in which we still basked on Yom Kippur 1978 and Yom Kippur 1993 have morphed into a pessimistic stasis. Israel is strong and unlikely to be destroyed. But Israel is also stuck in an existential crisis to some extent caused by outside forces but also to some extent of its own making.
Last month I spent a couple of days in Washington, DC attending the annual AIPAC National Rabbinic Symposium on August 15th as well as a preliminary conference the previous day for rabbis of Reform congregations at the offices of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (known as the “RAC” for short). The bulk of the afternoon at the RAC was taken up by listening to Rabbi Eric Yoffie discuss his thoughts on the current situation. He subsequently published an article in Haaretz that repeated much of what he told us in private.
(As you may recall, Rabbi Yoffie was the President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 until he was succeeded by Rabbi Rick Jacobs in 2012.)
When Rabbi Yoffie met with the group of us in Washington last month he emphasized that it is up to Reform Jews and other liberal supporters of Israel “to represent the sensible center, at a time when that center is collapsing.”
He told us of his concern that the American Jewish community has lost the ability to construct a centrist narrative on Israel. However, he urged that this is a time for us to be thoughtful, creative and astute because otherwise American Jews will increasingly distance themselves from concern for and support of Israel.
Rabbi Yoffie finds that currently there are three main narratives about Israel that are dominating our discussion and that none of them are helpful.
One narrative, coming from the West Bank settlement movement is that Messianic redemption is at hand and so Israel must therefore resettle the Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria.
From the opposite end of the political spectrum, there is what he calls an “End the Occupation Now” narrative from groups like “If Not Now” and “Jewish Voice for Peace.” While these groups are admirable in some respects, the problem with them is that they are open to the possibility of not just the end of the occupation of the West Bank but also of the end of the State of Israel as a Jewish State. Rabbi Yoffie’s particular critique of these left-wing Jewish groups is that before ending the occupation, Israel needs to have a plan for what comes next. We should not simply be non-committal on the question of one state or two.
Finally, Rabbi Yoffie observes that there is another current narrative, which he calls the “Peace is Impossible” narrative, which has both a right-wing version and a left-wing version.
The right-wing version is that the Middle East in general is volatile and unstable. Look at Syria. Look at Iran. Look at Egypt. Look at Libya, etc…. In such a climate, Israel could not possibly ever feel secure enough to make territorial concessions. Thus, as Yoffie writes, “the occupation may be unfortunate, the hawks say, but there is no alternative to the status quo.”
Meanwhile, the left-wing version of the “Peace is Impossible” narrative is that Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank has passed a point of no return and that the “Peace Camp” in the Israeli political scene is too weak to do anything about it. And, moreover, the Trump administration’s uncritical support of the Netanyahu government has removed any pressure on Netanyahu to pursue peace.
But Rabbi Yoffie sees the Reform movement as being “the voice of the sensible center”. He says “Our love for Israel is unconditional but not uncritical.”
He says that there is a certain Don Quixote aspect to all of this but nevertheless “we have a dream of peace and we are not going to give up on it.”
And he reminded those of us who met with him in Washington last month that just six months before Sen. George Mitchell successfully negotiated the 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord Mitchell had described the situation there as hopeless.
So, in other words, things might not be as hopeless as they seem.
From my own perspective, there is a part of me that thinks that if only the Israeli electorate would simply vote out Netanyahu and his allies and vote in a left of center coalition, the peace process would get new life. It seems so clear to me that there is validity to both the Zionist narrative and the Palestinian nationalist narrative and so therefore we should have territorial compromise and two states living in peace side by side.
So why don’t the Israelis simply vote for a government that will stop expanding West Bank settlements and that will be more pro-active in negotiating with the Palestinians? The basic answer appears to be that they trust Netanyahu more than those to his political left regarding security issues. Indeed, Netanyahu’s major political challenges at the moment appear to be fending off the parties that are further to his right.
Later this afternoon we will have the Avodah Service that describes at length the procedures for purifying the Jerusalem Temple that were to be carried out each year on Yom Kippur. Of course we haven’t actually carried out those rituals in almost two thousand years. Instead, the experience of the Avodah liturgy in our machzor is an opportunity each year for us to consider how we can purify our hearts and our world at large.
Nevertheless, there is still something to be gained by retaining our focus on Jerusalem itself, the place, as it says in Psalm 122:
שֶׁשָּׁ֨ם עָל֪וּ שְׁבָטִ֡ים שִׁבְטֵי־יָ֭הּ
“[…]to which tribes would go up, the tribes of the Eternal, —as was enjoined upon Israel— to praise the name of the Eternal.
There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”
For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being;
for the sake of the house of the Eternal our God, I seek your good.”
Well, it was in Jerusalem where, exactly two months ago today, on July 19th, that the Knesset of the State of Israel passed the so-called “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.” Or in Hebrew: “Chok Yisod: Yisra’el – Medinah HaLe’um Shel Ha’am Hayehudi”
On Yom Kippur in the periods when the First and Second Temples stood in Jerusalem, the Kohen Gadol would be in charge of purifying it from spiritual contamination.
Today as Jews gather around the world to read of those ancient rituals, we have to be mindful of the danger of spiritual contamination caused by this new law, which was passed by a narrow margin --- 62 to 55, in the middle of the night.
In case you were not familiar with the particular details of the Nation State Law, here is what it says:
The first section of the law is entitled “Basic Principles”
[That sounds good to me.]
B. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.
[That sounds good to me as well]
C. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.
[Now that’s where it gets problematic. On one level, this is not controversial. The United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947 spoke of the establishment of a Jewish State. However, it also spoke of the creation of an Arab state alongside it. And that Arab state has never yet been established. So, to put this language in the new law, when there is not yet an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel in which Palestinian Arabs can fulfill their natural, cultural, religious and historical rights to self-determination, turns this new law into an unnecessary irritant.]
[Even more problematic is what is NOT included in this section of the law on “Basic Principles”. There is no reference to Democracy as a basic principle. There is no reference to Equality as a basic principle. Israel’s Declaration of Independence had famously declared: that the new state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” but we find no mention of those principles among the basic principles listed in the Nation-State Law.]
The second section of the law is entitled: “Symbols of the State”
A. The name of the state is “Israel.”
B. The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.
C. The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.
D. The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”
E. Details regarding state symbols will be determined by the law.
[All of that seems reasonable and straightforward to me, although over the years there has been discussion about how the words of Hatikvah refer only to Jewish identity and how this might make non-Jewish Israeli citizens, who comprise over 20% of the population, feel excluded.]
The third section of the law is entitled “Capital of the State”
Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.
[Now this is a deliberately provocative statement. No rational person can honestly believe that peace with the Palestinians will be achieved without at least part of the Eastern part of the city coming under Palestinian sovereignty. Even President Trump, who has gotten lots of flak abroad but lots of praise within Israel for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was careful to declare “"We are not taking a position on any of the final status issues including the final boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides." ]
The fourth section of the law is entitled “Language”
A. The state’s language is Hebrew.
B. The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.
C. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.
[One can easily see how part B causes unnecessary offense to the Arabic speaking portion of the population, even though part C makes clear that the change of Arabic from being an official language to being only a language with a “special status” has no practical effect.]
The fifth section of the law is entitled Ingathering of the Exiles
[This provision goes to the heart of Zionism. I agree with it wholeheartedly. Never again must any Jewish person anywhere in the world be at the mercy of anti-semitic persecution without the option to move to our ancient and revived homeland where Jews will always be welcome. This is further spelled out in…]
section six which is entitled: “Connection to the Jewish people” ]
A. The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.
B. The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.
[On the one hand, this sixth section of the bill is wonderful, reminding those of us Jews who live outside Israel that Israel will always look out for us all the same. But what has caused tremendous controversy is that the wording here limits the State of Israel’s concern about the Jewish people to Jews in the Diaspora and not in the State of Israel itself. That seems crazy, no? Earlier versions of the bill referred to Jews everywhere not just Jews in the Diaspora. However, the reason that the final version of the bill was changed so that it referred only to Jews in the Diaspora is because MK Uri Maklev of the Ultra Orthodox Political party United Torah Judaism did not want Israel to help Diaspora Jews advance religious pluralism in Israel in general and at the Western Wall in particular. ]
The seventh section of the law is entitled “Jewish Settlement”
A. The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.
[There are two problems with this section. First, it could be taken to mean that the State could establish towns and cities that legally bar non-Jewish citizens of Israel from living in them. Second, it could be taken to refer to the West Bank and not just Israel proper.]
The eighth section of the law is entitled “Official Calendar”
The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it the Gregorian calendar will be used as an official calendar. Use of the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will be determined by law.
[This seems reasonable to me.]
Section nine says concerns “Independence Day and Memorial Days”
A. Independence Day is the official national holiday of the state.
Section 10: “Days of Rest and Sabbath”
The Sabbath and the festivals of Israel are the established days of rest in the state; Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals; Details of this issue will be determined by law.
Finally, section 11 of the Nation-State Law, entitled “Immutability” says:
This Basic Law shall not be amended, unless by another Basic Law passed by a majority of Knesset members.
All in all, we can see that the law is mostly symbolic. It mostly spells out aspects of Israeli society that are already in place. However, in some respects it is polemical and hurtful.
Here’s some of what URJ President Rick Jacob had to say about it:
“This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.
“We will continue to fight back by promoting the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and by forging new ties between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. We will deepen our engagement with Israel, using every means possible to promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all. The Israel Reform Movement and the North American Reform Movement passionately oppose this new law because of the harmful effect on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, as well as its negative impact on the balance between the various core founding values of the State of Israel.” 
Why was this law passed now? One prominent commentator who spoke at the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium I attended suggested that the Nation State Law as it stands is mostly symbolic but, nevertheless, it still has the potential to be a real threat to Israel’s democracy. How so? Because if the Israeli political right goes ahead and achieves its goal of having Israel formally annex all or part of the West Bank, then this new Nation State Law would give justification for not extending voting rights to Palestinians who might be absorbed into a Greater Israel.
In the meantime, the law is a big slap in the face to the more than 20% of Israel’s citizens who are not Jewish. Massive demonstrations were held this summer in Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the passage of the Nation-State Law. One demonstration was organized by the Druze citizens of Israel. The other one by the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
They are hurt and frustrated by the tone of the new law, just as many Israeli Jews are.
As for us, we should all, as Rabbi Yoffie advises, be unconditional but not uncritical lovers of Israel.
Those of us who don’t live in Israel have, to be sure “less skin in the game.” But that does not prevent us from criticizing Israel when it needs to be criticized.
At the same time, I hope that each of you will defend Israel to those who challenge its right to exist.
We need Israel, and Israel needs us.
Israel is the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. It is the place where Judaism began and first developed. It is the place that we look to as a refuge for Jews facing anti-Semitic dangers anywhere in the world. It is the only place in the world where Jewish culture can flourish as a public, majority, national culture.
Our congregation, along with Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha, Wisconsin, will be going to Israel in late October of next year. There’s a discount if you register by October 1st of this year. Details are in the bulletin and TTW and posted here at Temple. I hope some of you will be able to join us.
In the meantime, let us wish for one another gmar chatimah tovah, that we and all Israel be sealed for a good year --- a year of health, happiness and prosperity and a year in which the prospect of peace for Israel and the Palestinians and for the world at large might be achieved. Im Tirtzu eyn zo agada – If you will it, it is no dream.
Gmar chatima tovah.
© Rabbi David Steinberg (Yom Kippur 2018/5779)
 For further critique of the Nation-State Bill see https://www.nif.org/news-media/press-releases/backgrounder-jews-nation-state-bill/