Israel at 60: The Role of the Rabbi
This year is the first year that I hear Israelis remark that the State may be a temporary phenomenon: "I am happy to live in a Jewish state, to be alive at a time when Jews have a state. But the last state we had, the Maccabean one, two thousand years ago, lasted a hundred years, and this one will probably be shortlived, as well. We don't know how to be an autonomous people and live in a larger world. We are always overtaken by fanaticism," one Israeli told me.
We have waited some two thousand years for the restoration of national autonomy and we can truly rejoice that we are alive when Israel is a flourishing independent nation. We can marvel at the successful absorption of millions of Jewish immigrants from around the world, at the revival of the Hebrew language, its transformation into a vibrant engine of fiction and poetry - not to say, the instrument of daily communication - and the creation of a dynamic economy - at the moment the Shekel is more stable than the dollar. Like so many other Jews, when I am in Israel I feel at home. Again, like so many others, though I live in the diaspora I am nurtured by Israeli culture and society: I read Israeli authors, follow news from Israel assiduously, and delight in running into Israelis and engaging them in intimate conversation as if they were long lost distant cousins. I despair that I will always speak Hebrew with an American accent, am enchanted when I hear sabra Hebrew. There is a kind of Israeli who combines European sophistication, Jewish wisdom and Mediterranean friendliness and ease all tempered by the realities of experience -service in the army, the scramble to make a living - who is absolutely enchanting, not to say, sexy. I can always feel my heart pounding as my vehicle ascends the last hill on the road to Jerusalem and the city, in all golden hues, comes into view.
Yet there is also another reality. We never imagined, when we dreamed the dream of return, that we would come to dominate another people, that where they could move, when they could renovate their homes, whether they could open a business would be dependant on our decision making. Five hundred road blocks control their daily movements, our military courts -run by the rules of military justice - judge whether they are to be free or jailed, and our colonels decide whether to break into their houses at night.
We now build roads on which only Jews can drive, impose zoning laws which favor Jewish landowners and homeowners. Arabs applying for jobs and housing routinely suffer discrimination even if they are residents of the State, let alone those in the occupied territories. State funding for housing and education favor Jewish citizens over Arabs.
Settlers feel free to throw stones at Arab farmers trying to harvest their fields and the army frequently stands by. Arab owned olive trees, which take years to grow and which are the economic support of many Arabs, are uprooted. The laws of logic become lopsided: Jews feel free to claim any land occupied by Jews before '48 as theirs, while Arabs must not return to any of their pre'48 lands.
Everything is justified in the name of self-defense. Anyone in the diaspora who dwells on what is happening is called an enemy of the State. Organizations which raise these issues are marginalized and silenced.
During the twentieth century, beginning with the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States through the decades of fascist and communist persecution of the Jews in Europe, rabbis took up the cause of Jewish self-defense and used the pulpit and the public forum to rally support. In mid-century, the Jewish community in America was galvanized by Israel, even more so in the days leading up to the Six Day War and in the celebratory atmosphere thereafter than it had been at the time of the establishment of the State. Fundraising for Israel and trips there became important synagogal activities. Israeli victories were celebrated from the bimah, and tragic events publicly mourned. The fate of Israel and the fate of Judaism were seen as identical.
But history has not been kind to religions tied to national politics: usually the joining of the two has proved lethal. States need independent religious institutions that can offer alternative values to those of immediate political necessity. America's religious life is thought to be vibrant precisely because of the separation of church and state.
One of the most memorable biblical scenes is the confrontation of King David by Nathan, the prophet. David has taken the beautiful Bathsheba and arranged the death of her husband, Uri the Hittite. Presumably the cover up has worked; no public voices are raised against the King - perhaps out of fear, perhaps because Uri is not himself a Jew, perhaps because the machinations of the King have been so deft. It is only Nathan, the prophet, who steps forward and confronts the power of the King. David is publicly embarrassed, recognizes his error and regrets what he has done.
Is Nathan a model for the contemporary rabbinate? Is it not the rabbinic tradition that the rabbis have inherited the mantle of prophecy? Not the power to foretell the future, but the ability to speak the truth. Alfred Jospe, a rabbi who had been ordained in Germany once said to me, "The difference between a rabbi and a friend is that the rabbi is charged with upbraiding you when you are misbehaving; the friend can let it go in the name of friendship - the rabbi can't."
But note that Nathan does not confront David directly: he constructs a parable and David is the one who condemns the powerful man who has overstepped himself. How are rabbis in congregations to do the same? How can they raise questions regarding the human rights record of the State of Israel in a way that makes their congregants understand that this is a problem that needs to be addressed?
Several decades ago, in 1971, when I was a Hillel Director at the University of Illinois, I received a letter from the National Office of Hillel, as did all Hillel Directors, calling upon us to organize students to oppose the Rogers Plan, a proposal by the then Secretary of State William P. Rogers for Israel to pull back in the Sinai and for a no man's land to be created between Israel and Egypt. I replied that I was in favor of the Rogers Plan and received back a curt letter telling me that in a time of crisis for the Jewish people like the present, people like myself were not needed. Two years later the Yom Kippur War broke out, a war in which Israel was in danger of being overrun. Later, Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, said that it was the Israeli rejection of the Rogers Plan which convinced him that war, not negotiation, was the only way to get back the Sinai.
The strength of Jews and Judaism, indeed the strength of the State, itself, depends on our upholding the values which are the heart of who we are - the teaching that every human being is created in the image of God. The defense of that principle is the best self-defense we have; it is the reason for our existence. The Israeli Declaration of Independence is a ringing exclamation of that principle: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."
The rabbinic duty is to call us back to these core values which animated our dream from the beginning. We must find a way.