Yom Kippur Morning – Israel and the US today 2015

Yom Kippur Morning – Israel and the US today 2015

An overarching theme in the Bible is a directive: “Be not afraid and be of good courage”

This past summer, while on maternity leave, I went to visit the Space and Rocket Center.  Under the Saturn V rocket they have a wonderful exhibit on the history of the space program in Huntsville.  They also have a bridge that was built to connect between the tower and the rocket.  The bridge they have there is #8.  When I saw that, I understood it to mean that there were seven bridges built before it.  Before they even got to building bridge #8, there were sketches and drawings, discussions and debates about wire locations, light locations, types of metal to be used and so forth.  It took NASA many, many, many tries before making up one small part of the mission which would send humans into space.

I also saw a piece of paper where all the engineers who worked on the construction of the Saturn V signed their name.  What an extraordinary list of people.  It was not just Werner Van Braun; there were many people who each contributed something special.  Perhaps some of you in this room helped in some significant way.

What I saw in the bridge and in the piece of art was that it takes a committed group of people, working toward a vision of something greater than themselves to be able to build a bridge together, walk across it and achieve something incredible.

Building a bridge is something extraordinary; it takes courage to want to move from one side to another side.  It is scary to go across it. Rebbe Nahman taught, kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod, “the whole world is like a very narrow bridge,” v’haikar lo l’fahed, “and the main thing is not to fear.”

Yet we are afraid.  We as a Jewish community are fearful of many things.  We are fearful that we are becoming assimilated.  We are fearful that our youth are losing engagement with Israel.  We are fearful that Iran will develop nuclear weapons and use them against Israel.

I am not an expert on weapons, many of you in this room work directly in this field every day, and therefore perhaps you are the ones who should be expressing a view about the Iran Deal.  Some of us have lobbied on behalf of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) by expressing concern that the Iran deal might “facilitate rather than prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would further entrench and empower the leading state sponsor of terror.”[1]  Rabbi Rick Block, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, explains:

“Under prior legislation, most sanctions on Iran were to sunset only when the president certified to Congress that Iran no longer provides support for acts of international terrorism and has ‘ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of, and verifiably dismantled, its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launch technology.’ The deal accomplishes none of these goals. Rather, Iran receives as much as $150 billion in frozen assets, will reap immense profits from post-sanctions commerce, and can spend as much as it will to promote terrorism. Much of its nuclear infrastructure remains intact and it can continue R&D in weaponization….Administration officials initially promised a deal would include “anytime, anywhere” inspections. This one does no such thing. Instead, a cumbersome, convoluted process to address Iranian violations provides ample time to conceal most kinds of evidence.”[2]

While there are others of us who believe that while this deal is far from perfect it is the best viable option.  J-Street, one such Jewish organization issued this statement:

“[This] agreement…is the best chance for keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon…. It creates the most rigorous, intrusive inspection regime in history. It opens Iran’s program to the light of day, keeping illicit military uses off the table. It protects the international sanctions regime, allowing them to snap back into place if Iran cheats. It puts a long-term, lasting end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And it cripples Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, blocking every pathway to a bomb.”[3]

“The agreement prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for 10-15 years,” said Eran Etzion, Former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council, “this agreement is not about trust, it’s about verification.” Former Mossad Director Efraim Halevy added, “Without an agreement, Iran will be free to act as it wishes, whereas the sanctions regime against it will crumble in any case…if the nuclear issue is of cardinal existential importance, what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances it from the bomb?”[4]

Only history will know the answer of which side of the argument was right but I am concerned about several things that have happened as a result and some things which have happened during this debate to the American Jewish Community.

There has been a slow forming alignment of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with the Republican Party.  Perhaps it started innocently with a personality disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, but it has devolved into insults as each has attempted to throw the other under the bus in political situations. The problem is that Israel should not be aligned with either political party.  What AIPAC has done successfully for so many years is ensure that it worked across party lines for the betterment of the relationship between the US and Israel.  If Israel is seen as a partisan issue than we, the Jewish community loose.

Even more troubling though has been how we have treated each other.  Rabbinic colleagues of mine who came out for or against the deal were accused of supporting or not supporting the Jewish community.  I received a phone call from a congregant, wanting to know my position on the deal and why I had not signed any petition.  They had gone online and checked.  I also received a troubling email from a congregant after I shared my feelings on the deal.  Instead of recognizing that we could both be right and both be wrong at the same time, they proceeded to send me emails trying to get me to change my position.  We must put aside partisan politics and adopt the attitude of partnership.

My position is irrelevant.  I am the spiritual leader of this community.  I am here to help you become better people, to walk with you in troubling times, celebrate with you at joyous occasions and provide Torah based advice.  I am not an expert on foreign affairs or affairs in the Middle East – though I am an avid reader on both topics and as many of you know, I love politics as a source of entertainment.

While I do expect people to project their insecurities on me or on rabbis in general, we as a rule, try to be forgiving, non-judgmental and understanding people, what really surprised me was the level of people’s emotions.  One of my friends was accused on social media of being a Nazi, a fascist and an Arab-lover because he had spoken for the deal.  Colleagues of mine in Florida described people truly forming sides around the issue and not being supportive toward one another.  While other colleagues of mine, who were supportive of the deal, were accused of being “Netanyahu’s marionettes,” “warmongers,” or “traitors.”

When New York Senator Charles Schumer came out this summer opposed to the deal he was accused on CNN of taking that stance because he benefitted from it financially.  His major supporters were opposed to the deal and so he should agree with them after all he is Jewish.  He was not believed to have come to that conclusion after a careful and deliberate consideration on his own.  I believe that it took courage for him to take that stance.

We have cut each other down on social media, in public forums and lambasted each other in conversations.  We are not listening to all members of our community, some of whom believe and trust the President for seeing things we do not.  While others feel strongly that the President is wrong and that he has declared war on the State of Israel.

OK, now what?!?!  The debate about the deal is over.  The deal, for good or bad is what is going to happen.

We need to become friends again with each other and reach across a bridge.

During Talmudic times, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai often competed with each other as to who was correct in understanding various points of Jewish law.  Each group would say they were correct.  Yet God spoke and answered the debate by saying:  “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim — These words AND those words are the BOTH the words of the living God.”[5] Even though both sides are competing, according to GOD they are both right.  Both offer wisdom and insight — and we can learn from both.

One of my colleagues shared this poem on the CCAR Facebook page:

“The Place Where We Are Right” by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow

in the spring.

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

like a mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

If we both believe we are right, than nothing lives there because we will destroy each other to prove a point.  We need to come together!  We need to once again build a bridge and see our neighbor sitting next to us in this community, reach out our hand and love that person.

Since that the deal has gone through, I recently read an article in the Atlantic Magazine which offered a global perspective to the Iran Deal.

It pointed out that Lufthansa Magazine for touring suggested: “Teheran in a Day” in its most recent issue.  It featured a café for young lovers, fortune telling birds, contemporary art, film and cuisine and the parkour girls of Abo Atash Park. By the way, these girls have been featured in The Guardian, on YouTube and in New York Magazine.  It argued that European, Chinese and Russian companies are happy to export business, purchase oil and engage in educational exchanges.  Whether we like it or not, the world is ready to embrace Iran again.[6]

While it seems clear that Israel will be the country to pay the price for a more belligerent Iran, this is perhaps an area where the interests of the United States and the interests of Israel diverge.  President Obama seems focused since he came to power to realize the limitations of what the US can still do on the world’s stage after having struggled already in two protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.   He wants to build coalitions and believes that use of the military is not the best option.  Perhaps he is right.  Perhaps he is wrong.

We need to lobby congress to continue its support of Israel regardless of party affiliations.  In the face of a growing refuge crisis in the Middle East, where Russia may become the deal broker of a peace in Syria, Israel may become even more marginalized.  It is our obligation to make sure that does not happen.  We must encourage our leaders to view Israel not as a partisan issue, but an issue which affects all of us.  While Israel has come a long way from its fledgling days when the country started, it still needs an advocate and an ally now more than ever.

To accomplish this task we must continue the fight against the boycott, divestment and sanction movement which is strongest on many college campuses across this country.  We must work with our confirmation class students to give them the tools to be able to speak in an educated voice on this topic for Israel.  In Europe, where Israel is largely falsely accused of being an apartied state and abusing the Palestinians, we need to work against that image.  The United Nations has just agreed to hang a Palestinian flag among the flags of other global nations against the protest of the United States and Israel.[7]  Reykjavik Iceland voted to boycott all Israeli products until Israel is out of the “occupied territories” and then retracted that vote two days later.  The world community is not silent about the issue with the Palestinians and Israel is losing the PR battle.  Israel is seen as the aggressor in a conflict which is much broader than the Israelis or the Palestinians, but encompasses much of the Middle East.

There is still much work to do.

We will not be right all the time.  Some of the battles that we will choose to fight will not have the result we desire.  There will be times when we need to simply go back to the drawing board and sketch another bridge as we go across deep and treacherous chiasm.

But as NASA had to go through many designs, so too do we need to make mistakes before building something correct. There is no getting this perfect; there is no getting it exactly right.  From each person we can learn something and become wiser.

Ben Zoma says:
Who is wise?
The one who learns from every person…
Who is brave?
The one who subdues his negative inclination…
Who is rich?
The one who is appreciates what he has…
Who is honored?
The one who gives honor to others…
(Talmud – Avot 4:1)

May we be able to learn from each other together to grow as a community and support Israel.  After, if we won’t speak for Israel, then who will. 

Or in the words of Hillel the Elder

If I am not for myself, who is? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”-Hillel (Perikei Avot 1:4) 

[1] http://www.aipac.org/learn/resources/aipac-publications/publication?pubpath=PolicyPolitics/Press/AIPAC%20Statements/2015/07/AIPAC%20Statement%20on%20Proposed%20Iran%20Nuclear%20Agreement

[2] http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/250950-deal-or-no-deal

[3] http://act.jstreet.org/sign/tell-congress-support-deal/?akid=


[5] Eruvin 13b

[6] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/08/the-normalization-of-iran-another-view-from-israel/402562/

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/11/world/middleeast/general-assemblyvote-lets-palestinians-fly-flag-at-un-headquarters.html?ref=topics&_r=0

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