By Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, Beth Tfiloh Congregation
On Monday, I am leaving for Israel and I can’t wait to get there to see how much has changed since I was last there in January. In recent years, it has become a pattern for me to visit Israel twice a year; once usually in January – pure vacation — and the other in late May or early June – primarily for meetings of Bar Ilan University’s Board of Directors.
But no matter how frequently I go, I am always amazed how much things change from my last visit. I can go there in January and order at a falafel store, and then in June it has turned over into a French restaurant! In Tel Aviv one January, they were riding skateboards down the promenade. In May, it had turned into electric scooters. In May, I walked into the Makolet, the small grocery store on the corner of my hotel, and I came back in January and it’s a 20-story, five-star deluxe condo!
One day, I walk down Allenby Street and there’s a strip joint! The next day, it’s a Chabad House! What a country! Wherever you look, there are big cranes and construction going on, with new views, venues rising overnight!
And yet, amidst all this, one thing never seems to change: Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.
You come to Israel in 2009 – he’s the Prime Minister. You come again in 2019 – he’s the Prime Minister. You come when there are battles in the north – he’s the Prime Minister. You come when there are battles in the south – he’s the Prime Minister. You come in January of this year – and he’s the Prime Minister, but he is under investigation and so is his wife. And there is talk – a lot of talk – that it’s time for a change.
That’s what I thought! But now I’m going back … and nothing seems to have changed! Bibi Netanyahu is on the verge of becoming the longest serving Prime Minister in the history of the state of Israel.
And many American Jews just can’t stand the thought of it! There are plenty of Israelis who didn’t want him as Prime Minister again. The opposition parties got a fair share of the vote. But the next day, the Jews of Israel went back to business as usual.
But not American Jews! According to one survey, 70% of American Jews disapprove of Netanyahu being Prime Minister.
I can understand where many of them are coming from. Large segments of non-Orthodox and secular American Jews resent his having backed out of a Kotel compromise that would have given women a place at that sacred shrine. They disapprove of his playing favorites to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment and empowering them at the expense of non-Orthodox rabbis.
They are appalled at Netanyahu’s connection with the extreme right when they feel more connected to the American left. They are uncomfortable how some of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians make them look bad to their liberal friends living on the West Side of New York or in Berkeley, California.
So they don’t like Netanyahu. And I, for these and my own reasons, don’t like him as well.
But this recent reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister brought out a side of his American Jewish critics that I have not seen before and is extremely dangerous. It is one thing to criticize Israel … it’s quite another to undermine Israel.
And that’s what many American Jews are trying to do! After Netanyahu’s reelection, Peter Beinart, a popular Jewish liberal critic of Israel, wrote an article entitled, “The Lesson of Netanyahu’s Victory: Israel will not change without pressure,” calling on American Jews to pressure the American government against Israel. The leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements here in the U.S., along with the Anti-Defamation League, didn’t simply disagree with the Israeli Prime Minister’s electioneering pronouncement that he was in favor in annexing West Bank territory.
That would have been their right to do. And they have the right to tell him so! But they didn’t have the right to write to the President of the U.S. pleading with the President to stop Israel’s Prime Minister. The attitude of these American Jewish leaders was best encapsulated by the words a rabbi of a Reform congregation in Washington, D.C., who proclaimed to his congregation last year, “It’s time for us to save Israel from itself.”
So, I ask you: what does he know about Israel’s security situation in his synagogue in Washington that the members of Israel’s Knesset don’t know in Jerusalem?
How does he know how Israelis feel – how he would feel – if he was living in Petach Tikvah and not Bethesda? Is it not possible that the people of Israel see things differently from their perspective; that the people in Israel are not as concerned as American Jews are on how their liberal friends on the West Side of New York feel about Israel’s decisions? Israel is more concerned about how the people in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq and Gaza see it. And that can make all the difference in the world!
I can prove it to you. What if I told you that in Caesarea, the wealthy seaside town where the Netanyahus have a home, most of the people voted for the opposition, Gen. Gantz? And in Rosh Ha’ayin, the working-class, small town where Gantz lives, most people voted for Netanyahu.
Can you understand that from here? And what if I told you that the Israeli town that is most vulnerable to attack, the town where children constantly have to run to shelters in their schools because of incoming rockets from Gaza — the town of Sderot — which constantly calls for harsher responses than Netanyahu has given to Hamas rockets over the years … what if I were to tell you that 85% of the people in that town voted for Netanyahu’s Likud Party and his more right-wing partners?
American Jews are so knowledgeable that from here they think they can save Israel over there? That attitude flies in the face of the history of the state of Israel.
When the state of Israel was reborn in 1948, things were a little rocky in its relationship with Jews living in the U.S. Of course, American Jews felt good about the idea that refugees from the Holocaust would have a place that would take them in. But a large segment of American Jews didn’t think of themselves as being refugees living in Diaspora. They didn’t think they needed a state of Israel to guarantee their survival. They were happy and successful right here … and they were very concerned when they heard Israeli leaders speaking of the state of Israel becoming the voice of world Jewry, and wanting to tell American Jews how they should conduct themselves.
In 1950, the division between Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel was considered so critical that it brought together the leader of Israel and the leader of American Jewry to find common ground. The leader of Israel was its Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. The leader representing American Jewry was the president of the American Jewish Committee, which was then looked upon as being the most powerful force and spokesman for American Jewry. Its representative who met with Ben-Gurion was a man by the name of Jacob Blaustein.
I would like to believe that Jacob Blaustein is looking down upon us today, as his great-grandson has become a Bar Mitzvah here at Beth Tfiloh.
I do know that the accord he negotiated with Ben-Gurion impacted Jewish history. But I think he would be shocked at what has happened! He and Ben-Gurion agreed that the state of Israel, its government and its people, would not tell American Jews how to live their lives, would not impose their will on them. For the most part, Israel has lived up to that agreement.
But who would have ever imagined that the reverse would happen … that American Jews would tell Israel how to conduct its affairs … that American Jews would turn to the President of the U.S. to pressure Israel to give up its bargaining chips; American rabbis who every couple of years lead groups to Israel think that they can save Israel from Israel? I wonder how many of those rabbis and how many of their congregants even know that when they exit Ben-Gurion Airport, the hills they see in the distance are in what is called the West Bank, which they are so anxious to return. And that one terrorist missile from those hills could cut off Israel from the rest of the world! That will go a long way in saving Israel from itself!
These rabbis would be wise to follow the advice of a rabbi much smarter than them – my teacher, the late, great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. After the Six Day War, when Israel captured and returned to the Western Wall and to Chevron and to Judea and Samaria, a group of rabbis asked Rabbi Soloveitchik whether it would be permissible to return these sacred sites to the Arabs if they would be willing to make peace.
Rabbi Soloveitchik responded, “Why do you ask me these questions? We have to negotiate with common sense, as the security of the Yeshuv requires. What specifically these security requirements are, I don’t know, I don’t understand these things. These decisions require a military perspective which one must research assiduously. The borders that must be established should be based upon that which will provide more security.”
And then Rabbi Soloveitchik concluded, “It is not a topic appropriate for which rabbis should release statements, or for rabbinical conferences.”
These words explain why, to some degree, Rabbi Soloveitchik was considered brilliant by all. He understood that Israel’s security decisions should be made by people who know what they’re talking about, and not by rabbis in suburban America.
Let me tell you one more thing Rabbi Soloveitchik said about Israel. He took note of the fact that in this morning’s Torah portion, the Torah speaks of Israel as a land that is “defiled” and a land “resting,” and “observing its sabbatical years.” From Rabbi Soloveitchik’s way of thinking, God is telling the Jewish people that Israel takes on a human personality; the Jews rest every seven days, Israel rests every seven years.
Israel may be “defiled,” so, too, a human can be defiled at some point and sanctified at another. We Jews have to remember: the state of Israel is not perfect. It’s only human! Some of its decisions are flawed, and others are sacred. Not every Jew living in Israel is a saint, and not every decision made by its government can be sanctified.
And, just as a human is to be judged by looking at all its qualities, so, too, the state of Israel. Its decisions are made by all of its people, and the majority does rule. Some may not like that but we dare not take that for granted.
In the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, there is an article entitled, “A Good Democracy is Hard to Find.” Just ask the people of Turkey, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Venezuela and the Philippines and so many others! All of whom see their democracies under assault.
And then, there is Israel. Do you know how many parties ran for the Knesset in Israel’s recent election? 40! And yet, with all its diversity, Israel has made the dessert bloom, has given an ancient language new life, has become a giant in technology and a nuclear power … all without the advice of American rabbis.
No, Israel is not perfect, it’s only human! But it doesn’t need us to help save it from itself.
Israel is doing quite a job all by itself!
Today’s Haftorah finds the prophet Jeremiah imprisoned with Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonians. Destruction and exile is on the horizon … and yet, God tells Jeremiah to purchase a parcel of property in the land of Israel. He tells Jeremiah to have hope; that even in the darkest of times, “Od yishama b’orei Yehuda uv’chutzot Yerushalayim – there will yet be heard in the cities of Juda and outskirts of Jerusalem,” “kol sasson v’kol simcha kol chatan v’kol kalla – the sound of rejoicing and joy, the sound of bridegroom and bride.”
We are that generation privileged to see this prophecy come true. So instead of criticizing, let’s rejoice. Instead of pressuring, let’s be grateful.
I leave for Israel once again, grateful to be part of that generation that can go to Israel … and when I get there, whether it’s Bibi or not Bibi … that is not the question. In fact, there are no questions!
With Israel, our prayers of 2,000 years have been answered. This year and every year until the end of time in Jerusalem!
The publication of this sermon, delivered by Rabbi Wohlberg on May 25, 2019, was sponsored by a pair of Beth Tfiloh congregants.
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