Now More Than Ever: Why Israel Matters

Tags: Jewish Unity, Jewish Identity, Am Yisrael, Rosh Hashanah, Zionism, Israel Under Fire

By Rabbi Joseph R. Black

There is an assumption that every Jew should ultimately feel a strong connection to his or her people and the State of Israel; that there is something within every Jewish soul that pulls them to the Promised Land.

The emotional, historical, and spiritual ties that bound us to Israel in the past are slowly and steadily becoming unraveled in the present.

During the first few decades of Israeli independence, the vast majority of American and World Jewry saw the embattled Jewish State as a symbol of pride, national and spiritual identity. Zionism, and its message of self-sufficiency in a Jewish homeland, was a central component of Jewish identification. This, coupled with the recent memory of the Shoah and its horrors, caused us to see Israel as an extension of our Jewish selves.

We defended Israel's right to exist - holding our collective breaths during times of crisis and rejoicing in her miraculous victories. We demonstrated our support with our political clout and our pocketbooks, by making Aliyah, traveling on organized tours and sending our Children to study and experience the "Miracle on the Mediterranean."

Today, however, the word "Zionist" has become divisive. Israel's enemies have tried to co-opt the term by linking it with policies of oppression and racism.

Some of our Christian friends have used it to describe their love of Israel – and while I understand that this is done out a desire to show solidarity and support, this also can be seen by some as ignoring or redefining the essential element of Zionism as a natural outgrowth of Jewish identity in connection with the land of our people.

Over the past several decades, a great deal has changed. Instead of being the underdog, Israel, in the eyes of many, is now a pariah state. It has become de riguer to demonize Zionism as the source of numerous evils.

As riots continue to increase, I have no doubt that, in addition to Anti-Americanism, they will also be fueled by anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric.

Sadly, for many American Jews, Israel, instead of being a focal point of pride has become a source of discomfort or embarrassment.

I have colleagues who are afraid to even mention Israel from the pulpit – not because of their convictions, but because of the divisions and discord that doing so may create in their communities.

In addition, the more we talk about Israel's "survival" the less focused we are on the real mission of the modern State of Israel as the embodiment of Jewish values, vision and history.

For a growing group of individuals – Jews and non-Jews alike, the issue of whether or not to be openly supportive of the State of Israel goes beyond politics. There are those for whom the idea of a Sovereign Jewish State just feels wrong; for whom the concept of a separate country for the Jewish people is somehow backwards and inappropriate. Their logic goes something like this:

In olden days, it was the divisions between peoples that caused wars and hatred. The mere existence of a modern-day state that proudly and openly proclaims itself to be "Jewish" is contrary to 21st century values and understanding. Our shrinking, modern world with its inter-twined systems of commerce, currency and communication is multi-national and "post-ethnic."

Rather than focusing on the differences between nations, the western world needs to move beyond archaic and divisive ethnic, nationalist and religious distinctions and embrace a Universal ideal of all people united under the banner of a common truth and belief in the equality of all humankind.

Perhaps it was John Lennon who embodied this vision best with his lyrics:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

How many of us grew up singing this song? How many of us saw it as a plea for sanity, peace and harmony in a world that seemed to be daily descending into the depths of destruction? I know that I did.

John Lennon's anthem of Universal peace reflects a central leitmotif of much of modern Western thought. The concept of tearing down the walls that separate us has become so intertwined with our collective conscience that any talk of particularism goes against the grain of much of modern thinking.

Jewish tradition walks a fine line between Universalism and Particularism. Unlike other faiths, Judaism does not teach that it is only through living a Jewish life that one can achieve salvation. There are many pathways to holiness. We are not the only religion, nor do we see ourselves as the "best" religion.

The often mis-understood concept of "Chosenness" implies that the Jewish people have a unique role to play in the unfolding of history. But we were not chosen to be better. Rather, we were chosen to receive Torah and bring God's presence into the world.

Most of us are comfortable with the Universal ideals of our faith. To state that all humanity was created in the Divine image; to reinforce the concept that salvation is open to all humanity makes us feel good about ourselves and our faith. But there are times when speaking of specific Jewish values, privileges and responsibilities make some feel uncomfortable.

An example of this occurs every Shabbat morning when we celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah – especially when there are many non-Jewish guests present. One of our goals during this service is to make everyone feel as welcome as possible –and we do a pretty good job. And yet, there is a fascinating point in the beginning of the service – during the opening blessings - called Nissim b'chol yom.

These prayers speak of our awareness of God's presence in our lives – whether we know it or not. The blessings state appreciation for God's "everyday miracles." We thank God for rising of the sun, for clothing the naked and healing the sick. It's quite moving. But there is a point in the recitation of these blessings where they shift from Universal to Particularistic concerns and I can sometimes feel a sense of discomfort move over the congregation.

When we say: "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam – she asini Yisrael. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, for making me a Jew."  I can see people pause for a moment.

Should we be saying this? Is this right? Why are we saying a prayer that's so….. "Jewish?" It's OK to talk about Universal concepts like peace and harmony, fellowship and God's love for humanity…but thanking God for making me a Jew? That seems almost out of place…..

My friends, there is nothing wrong in a Jewish service about thanking God for the gift of our heritage. Yes, our non-Jewish friends and family may not feel included in these words, but that's ok….. they probably don't mind. They are here because they love and support us. If we go to a Christian service, there are lots of prayers that we don't or can't say. This prayer – thanking God for making us Jewish doesn't state that Judaism is better – but it does state that our heritage is a gift from God – and for that we are grateful.

The truth is – while we share so much in common with our non-Jewish friends, neighbors and relatives, we're not all the same. We don't pray the same way and we don't necessarily agree on everything. And that's a good thing. Diversity in an essential element for human interaction.

1. It is because we are different that we find ways to infuse our lives with understanding and growth through sharing our differences
2. It is because we are different that we can reach out and learn from one another.
3. It is because we are different that we can share, celebrate and, when necessary, overcome our differences - thereby enriching our lives in the process.

Of course, there are those who have no tolerance for differences – who see the world through a prism of perfection and fundamentalist triumphalism. It is fiery fundamentalist rhetoric that is fueling rioting in the streets around the globe. It is intolerance and bigotry that produced an amateurish film that was designed to insult an entire religion. This is not who we are. And this is not who we should be allowed to frame the perspective around our differences.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of who we are and what we stand for. And that goes double for the State of Israel.

When it comes to Israel, instead of being defensive, we have the right and responsibility to be proud of her successes.

No, Israel is not perfect. There are many serious issues that need to be confronted. But the Jewish State is not a pariah either.

Our task, on this Rosh HaShanah and every day following is to work to change the conversation: first in the American Jewish Community and then around the globe.

It's not enough to simply defend Israel's right to exist; we need to spend more time talking about the incredible gift we and the rest of the world have been given by the existence of the modern Jewish State of Israel.

In his recent book, The Promise of Israel, Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes about how we need to refocus our conversation about Israel to the values that the Jewish State provides – not only for the Jewish people, but for the entire world. Gordis writes:

What is at issue between Israel and the international community is whether ethnic and national diversity ought to be encouraged and promoted. Israel has something to say about the importance of human difference that is at odds with the prevailing attitudes in the world today. It is a country that insists that people thrive and flourish most when they live in societies in which their language, their culture, their history and their sense of purpose are situated at the very center of public life.

Gordis posits that Israel is unique because it is Jewish. Unlike the United States, or most other countries around the world, Israel was not designed to be a multi-national melting pot. If someday Israel were to have an Arab majority and elect a Muslim Prime Minister, it would be a catastrophe because the modern State of Israel was created for the purpose of providing a homeland for the Jewish people and to show the world what we, as Jews stand for and believe in. It is for this reason that the Two State Solution is a necessary step in creating peace in the Middle East.

The State of Israel is different than any other nation in the world today. Yes, it exists in order to ensure that the Jewish people will always have a homeland. But it also serves as an example of the power of a people to infuse 4,000 years of history and tradition into the building of a modern nation that embodies the highest aspirations towards which humanity can reach.

Out of the ashes of the Shoah the Jewish people created a vital and complex country that serves as a beacon of Democracy, intellect, artistic genius and economic success for the entire world to see.

Of course, there are problems. The specter of a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat. There is Civil War in Syria. The peace treaty with Egypt may be jeopardized with the new Islamist government. Hamas continues to shell rockets in the south…the list is long and frightening.

If we put these issues aside for a moment – and only for a moment - we also know that Israel is threatened – not only by external enemies – but by internal divisions as well - fueled by some of the same intolerance, bigotry and fundamentalist world views that plague its neighbors. But there is one difference: Jewish tradition teaches that we need to confront our differences – openly and honestly. To do otherwise would be a Chilul Hashem – a profaning of the Divine name.

How many of Israel's neighbors, in the aftermath of the recent anti-American and anti-Israel demonstrations, have gone through a Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh - soul searching? Where is the voice of the Imams and the teachers of the Muslim world who are condemning violence? If they are there – they have been silenced.

The world needs Israel because Israel has so much to teach. If, for example, instead of demonizing the Jewish state, Israel's enemies attempted to emulate her successes, think of what could be accomplished!

I feel very strongly about these issues. My convictions are deep because I am a Zionist. I have always been a Zionist. Ahavat Eretz V'Am Yisrael - a love of the land and people of Israel is central to understanding of who I am - as a Jew and as a human being. And I also believe that most of you feel the same way.

We are all Zionists because the State of Israel - the Land and People of Israel – warts and all - is central to our historical and spiritual birthright as Jews.

Throughout our history the land of Israel has been inexorably linked to our self-understanding.

When pray, we face Jerusalem. During Passover, at the end of our Seder, we pray: "L'Shanah Ha-Ba-ah B'yerushalayim - Next year in Jerusalem." In our prayer books, in our poetry and music, in every age, Jews have been spiritually and physically connected to this land. Zionism is a movement that is the natural outgrowth of that connectedness.

Our task, as we welcome this New Year, is to celebrate the State of Israel. We need to change the conversation about Israel and understand that we have the ability and the responsibility to be proud of what our people have created.

I also want to encourage you to find ways to travel to Israel. Whether it is your first trip or your 10th, there is no better way to truly understand your relationship with the Jewish State and the Jewish people.

May the coming year bring peace to Israel and the world. May all of us come to appreciate and share our love for the State of Israel and our faith.


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Tags: Jewish Unity, Jewish Identity, Am Yisrael, Rosh Hashanah, Zionism, Israel Under Fire