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Iran and the Negotiations Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, July 10, 2015

Visiting the Czech Republic this summer, I experienced in a much deeper way the history I had studied in school. In Prague, the memory of Neville Chamberlain’s well known “Peace in Our Time” speech and the failure of the western allies to honor their commitments is still painfully remembered.

Actually, Czechoslovakia felt abandoned by the west twice- once in the face of Hitler, and then again in 1968 at the time of the Prague Spring when Soviet tanks rolled into the city and Alexander Dubcek was forced to recant and then was removed. Some politicians whom we spoke with in the Czech Republic felt that this experience in part explains Czech support for the state of Israel, support which began with the sale of weapons in the early days of the state and continues until today.

Right now there is tremendous fear that Israel is in the position of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and the west will give in to a bully, Iran, for the sake of a short term solution that will not lead to a safer world.

Rick Jacobs, head of our Reform movement, wrote the following on his return from Israel last week:

“Perhaps the strongest message I received during my visit in Israel is that although members of the opposition may not agree with the prime minister’s negotiations and relationships with the U.S., the entirety of the State of Israel – left, right, and center – is united in the belief that the deal unfolding in Vienna will be difficult, if not impossible, for its citizens to support.”

But Rabbi Jacob also stated: “As nuclear negotiations with Iran continue in Vienna, the Religious Action Center recently hosted a conference call in which Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States updated Reform Movement leaders about last April’s framework agreement, the prospects for a final deal, and the implications for nuclear non-proliferation — for U.S. interests and for Israel’s security.

It is critically important to understand that the Reform Movement is committed to neither supporting nor opposing the deal until there is, in fact, a deal to consider. Even then, we are committed to studying the facts carefully, and to using the utmost integrity as part of a thoughtful process to arrive at our Reform Movement’s position.”

It is risky to prepare a sermon about the treaty with Iran when the situation is such a changing one, but perhaps I can shed some light by sharing a few of Judaism’s teachings with regard to war.

First, the emphasis in both the Bible and later tradition is on avoiding war and negotiating before going out to battle. We saw that even in the Haftarah portion two weeks ago. The Israelites chose Jepthah, the illegitimate and rejected son of a landowner to be their new commander, because he is a ruffian and a brigand and they need someone to lead them in battle. Even so he first sends a delegation to the Ammonites, and engages in protracted negotiations, before going out to war. It would be irresponsible and not in keeping with Jewish values not to do everything that one can to come to a negotiated arrangement for preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Second, thought there are successful leaders taking action outside of the law in the Bible and in Jewish history, our take on them is mixed. On the one hand the Bible seems to justify Simon and Levi’s revenge on the city of Shechem, by describing their sister, Dinah, as having been raped. On the other hand, Jacob is very critical of them at the time and then restates his criticism even more strongly on his deathbed.

Similarly with Pinchas in this week’s Torah portion. Is he a hero in taking action against sinners, absent Moses response? It might seem so in that he is granted “God’s Covenant of Peace”.  But wait a minute- a covenant of peace seems a strange thing to grant to a vigilante, unless you were trying to teach him something. Rabbi Nathan insists that what this is to teach is that  the road to peace is always better and more impressive than the road of fanaticism and war. Further, the Talmud teaches: ”If Pinchas had come to take counsel with us, we do not instruct him to do as he did.” In general our tradition is very critical of taking the law into one’s own hands and even goes after Moses for striking the taskmaster down without due process.

Further, later tradition has very mixed feelings about the leaders of the rebellion against Rome in the year 70, putting much of the blame for the destruction of the Temple on them. Bar Kochba, who led a later and disastrous rebellion, is also criticized and just as in the Bible where Pinchas is rejected in favor of Joshua, so too later generations side with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai in establishing Yavneh rather than with the Zealots or with Bar Kochba.

A military strike against Iran is not an option in the view of Israel’s military and security establishment. Their opposition to this has been consistent and longstanding, even to the point of several military commanders and members of the Mossad being pushed out of their jobs, rather than to give in to this plan of the Prime Minister’s. Past leaders of the Mossad, and 200 retired officers of the Israeli Defense Forces, all of whom held the rank of general, have spoken out against the military option.

It is very possible that there will be no deal with Iran, because the Iranians will not be willing to come far enough, or because of the actions of our own Congress. But if that is the case, that will not be a cause for celebrating, for boasting about the power of those who have opposed the negotiations all along. It will be a cause for mourning by all those who love Israel.

I have been invited to rallies in the Five Towns in Long Island, and at Times Square to celebrate defeating this treaty, yet to be drawn up. I fear that someday we will look at the leaders of these rallies- Brooklyn politician Dov Hilkind, and Morton Klein of the ZOA. Steven Emerson, an inflammatory speaker,  David Brog, a Christian Fundamentalist who sees himself as an Israel supporter,  and even Alan Dershowitz, who has thrown himself in with this crowd, and think of them as we think now of the Zealots who inflamed the people against Rome bringing disaster upon Israel.

We are now in the period of the three weeks, a somber time in Jewish history commemorating the interval between the time when the walls of Jerusalem were breached and when the Temple was destroyed.  It reminds us not to take the current state of Israel for granted. It reminds us too of the dangers of Jewish extremism and of failing to work with the powers of the time.

May we find the wisdom we need to meet the challenges that lay ahead.


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