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A Time for Dialogue and A Time for Advocacy

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron 

September 13, 2015

I know the sermon that I am supposed to preach this year.
It’s about “eilu ve eilu divrei Elohim chayim - both these and those are the words of the living God”. Being able to see the element of God’s truth on both sides of any debate has helped sustain Jewish life and taught us to respect those with whom we disagree. That’s a very good Jewish message and an important sermon after a summer of discord and intemperate speech.

I could also preach on Shalom Bayit, Family peace, the Jewish teaching which goes back to the book of Genesis, where God lies to Abraham about Sarah’s snarky remark. Of course, Sarah wasn’t suggesting that her husband was too old to produce progeny, only that she was too old to become a mother. Through the generations the need for family or community solidarity and peace has lead people to reign in their remarks even to the point of shading the truth. Isn’t it Shalom Bayit that we need today as we worry about what will happen to the Jewish community, to the Federation world, to bipartisan support for Israel, after certain boundaries have been crossed, and organizations which were designed to represent the entire community, are now perceived as partisan.

Many of my colleagues are giving sermons this year on sinat chinam- groundless hatred. This is the term used for hatred within the Jewish community which was, according to the Talmud, the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and the two thousand year Exile. As the Talmud tells the story it’s about an ungracious host, and a guest who, when shamed in front of his community, took personal revenge without a thought to the consequences for the community. In his anger at the rabbis who sat by and allowed him to be embarrassed without speaking up on his behalf, the guest convinces the Romans to send a blemished animal to be offered up in the Temple. When this gift is predictably rejected, it is interpreted as an insult to the Emperor and ultimately war results.

But I looked into the history of that period a little more closely and I read the story a little differently. The Zealots, the extremists of their time, wanted a revolt, and when the people were more cautious, the Zealots burned their food, poured out their water reserves, and even attacked fellow Jews, in order to stir up the rebellion they sought. Besieged by the Romans, they spent their energy killing off other Jews, rather than banding together to defend Jerusalem. What they did reflected their own goals and not the will of the people. And the rabbis,

the same guys who tell us to hear God’s voice in opposing viewpoints and to keep peace in the Jewish family, vociferously rejected these Zealots and all they represented so completely, that the rabbis ended up rewriting the story of Hanukah, and renouncing the struggle for political independence for almost two thousand years.

There is a time for dialogue, for listening, for suspending our disbelief and entering into the world view of the other. Listening is a very powerful tool, and when we fail to listen we are in trouble.  Within our county’s American Leadership Forum, I helped initiate a program of dialogue training and I have spent many years encouraging dialogue between Jews and other communities, African Americans, Arabs and Muslims, as well as with our Christian neighbors. In Israel this past winter during my sabbatical, I was privileged to be part of a very special dialogue which included Jewish, Christian and Muslim women, including the family of the head of the Arab List for the Knesset.

But dialogue is not the right tool for every situation. There is also a time for advocacy, for speaking up and forcefully working for that which one understands to be the right and the just.

The section of Genesis that we read as our Torah portion this morning, a section I think of as one of the most Jewish texts in the entire Torah, presents Abraham as a hero, a model to emulate. In holding God to a higher standard of justice and right, he denounces the view that the right is whatever God does, or the nation. Abraham and God are described as friends, and that is exactly why Abraham felt compelled to speak out.

It is the nature of moderates to be more moderate, but that puts us at a disadvantage some times. We have been aware of immoderation within the Jewish world, certainly from the time of the Rabin assassination, and even before.  We have, within the Jewish community today, our own Zealots who do not care if they bring down the entire country, say by blowing up the Dome of the Rock, so sure are they of their fanatical truth.  Things were so bad at the end of this summer, that Naftali Bennet, the Israeli Education Minister from the Jewish Home Party, a right wing party, instituted a special two week program of tolerance education to prevent racism in the Israeli public schools. The American equivalent- imagine the English Only folk, right after a really nasty attack on immigrants, promoting Caesar Chavez’s birthday as a national holiday.

When there is Muslim terrorism anywhere in the world, we look to our local Muslim community to denounce it immediately and to separate themselves completely from any ties with any group at all associated, no matter what other philanthropic good they might be pursuing.  Have we done the same?

Despite the moving words of Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin after each of the many recent attacks on the property of Churches and Mosque in Israel, and ultimately on human life, the number of arrests is paltry.  And we in the United States are also guilty of not speaking forcefully against the centers of Jewish terrorism in the territories, lest we disturb the comity and feelings of unity of our communities. At the very civil discourse which our JCRC held on the Iran Agreement, a week ago Wednesday night at Congregation Sinai, one of the things that both speakers, Nobel Laureate Burt Richter and Hoover Institute Fellow Abe Sofaer agreed upon was the danger that the settlements pose to Israel’s future. Even the British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis was quoted this past weekend confronting Prime Minister Natanyanu  over the expansion of Settlements, echoing the approach of his predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks. Let’s talk for a moment about the settlements, not in geo-political terms, in relation to peace with the Palestinians and in the region, nor in terms of Israel’s standing in the community of nations, but with a more limited focus on what the settlements are doing to Israel itself.

In talking about the settlers movement, what we are talking about is a movement of Zealots, of price tag vigilante attacks, of disregard for democracy and the rule of law, and advocacy of apartheid, (the accusation against which I defend Israel against regularly in speaking at churches and universities). We are talking about a movement that sees itself outside the law, that has attacked the Israeli army as well as Arabs, that grows and gets stronger as Israeli politicians use the settlements for their own political purposes. I am not a purist on the 67 borders. I understand that Hadassah Hospital and the land on which my dorm on Mt Scopus was built, was part of Jewish Jerusalem until 1948 and then part of Jordan from 48-67. Everyone has spoken about border realignment.

I know that some of you think of me as a fiery radical, but really I am a very good citizen. I play well with others, I support existing structures, I even won one of the Kiddush cup challenge prizes from Federation this year. I have been to Israel more than a dozen times, bringing my family even during the worst months of the second intifada. The changes I have advocated have been very incremental. Under Jon Friedenberg, our Federation allowed us to designate the overseas portion of our gifts for pluralism and tolerance. On our regular Temple trips to Israel we have stood with Women at the Wall, and visited the recently vandalized Yad be Yad dual language School.  

Recently CRAGSJ hosted Arik Asherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, and this spring we are planning an evening with an inspiring youth music project that brings together talented Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Israeli teens and young adults.

But my friends this is not enough.  The fanatics do not withdraw when they notice someone getting a little uncomfortable, they obscure their real goals and conceal with whom they are aligned. Do we want to support them with our money or our silence? Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet, warns that we have allowed radical groups to set the tone for mainstream religious Zionism and to put pressure on Israel’s security establishment. When parties in the Israeli government tell us that democracy is not that important, then in our role as a caring friend we cannot be silent. When the President says he is no longer speaking to Netanyanu—it was in the headlines late last week and I’m talking about the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own party and an opponent of Oslo, who has received death threats recently like those against Yitzchak Rabin, then we know that my concerns are not those of a radical American minority, but of all those who hold with basic Jewish values of the humanity of all people and our need to respect that image of God within.

If we really care about that beautiful, innocent, idealistic 16 year old girl Shira who went to stand with her friends at the Jerusalem Pride parade and ended up dead, if we truly mourn 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabsha  and his parents, killed in the arson fire, for which no one has yet been arrested, then we have to do better.

There were hopeful signs when I was in Israel this winter, the number of Arab Israelis at the universities and in professional positions as physicians, pharmacists and engineers, the emergence of a community of non-Orthodox Jews interested in their own religious and spiritual traditions and demanding a say in the Judaism of the state of Israel, the way each of the parties in the last election across the political spectrum felt compelled to say something about the increasing inequality of Israeli society and the fraying of the safety net. The current coalition holds together by 1 vote, it is wrong to conclude that it represents the overwhelming views of the people of Israel.

I know that there are people my age and older, who are not happy to have me focus on what is wrong, rather than what is right in Israeli society, but that is not our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is the turning away from Israel of those younger than me, generation X and those who are my children’s age, the millennials.

If Israel is not a democracy, if the State of Israel is not victorious over the attempt to create a theocracy of Judea, then no amount of praise for start-up nation or Israel’s amazing work on desalination will win them over. That Israel is no worse than other countries is not a compelling argument. The next generation will come to care deeply and passionately only by the vision of an Israel that lives up to its dream.

Our community will continue to have different views on Israel’s security and the best ways to move forward, but we need to be completely clear that there is a line across which we will not go. Israel is our Jewish homeland and it must also remain a democratic state with civil liberties for all its citizens.  We need to insist that the American Jewish Community support Israelis in fighting Jewish extremism. Working towards the fulfillment of the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is a vision that I believe the younger generation can embrace:

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……….

WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel.

Our Service continued with the Prayer for the State of Israel sung by our choir- Avinu Shebashamayim.


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