Aliyah Journal — June 5, 2007

Jslem67 Today – June 5 – marks 40 years on the secular calendar since the start of the Six Day War. On June 7 Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, from the hands of the Jordanians. And that’s why this entry is titled “June 5,” not “t-34 days,” because it is really concerned more with what happened 40 years ago than with what will happen 34 days from now.

As I write this I’m on an airplane heading home from New York, where I have just spent two very full days participating in Rabbis for Human Rights – North America’s annual board meeting. We did all the sorts of “boring” things boards do, talking about budgets, fundraising, personnel, etc.; but we also had a couple of very powerful moments, and one of them was when Rabbi Sheila Weinberg led us on a reflection on the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and what it meant to each of us. She had us think about an 80 year time frame – our recollections of that fateful day, 40 years ago, our feelings today, and our vision for forty years hence. It was an amazing discussion; two of the rabbis in the room were in Jerusalem during the war, one of whom was living in Talpiot, which was right on the front lines. Only one rabbi in the room hadn’t yet been born in 1967 – tells you something about the demographic of RHR’s leadership. Everyone struggled to a degree with the present, and visions for the future ranged from pessimistic to Messianic. Here are my reflections:

Forty years ago I was 11 years old – interestingly, the current age of my #3 daughter, Katherine. I mention this because it becomes significant in terms of my vision for forty years hence. I don’t really remember noticing much about the Six Day War when I was 11; I’m sure we discussed it, I was in Hebrew school already, but I guess it didn’t register that much. But my earliest memories of the Six Day War are two-fold: a feeling of great pride, that little Israel turned back all those Arabs who wanted to destroy her. And admiration for Moshe Dayan, the tough general with the eye patch who really kicked butt. And I think for pretty much everyone in the room, the feelings at the time were unadulterated pride and relief, thanks to God.

Fast forward 40 years – to today – and pardon the repetition, but my comments from my sermon a few weeks ago really capture what I feel:

“This past Wednesday we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim. 40 years ago this week (on the Jewish calendar), in the heat of the Six-Day War, the Israeli army captured the old city of Jerusalem and the eastern suburbs from Jordan. It was an incredibly emotional moment. From the founding of the state of Israel until that June morning in 1967, Jews were unable to pray at the holiest site in Judaism, kotel hama’aravi, the Western Wall. On Wednesday I watched the story of news coverage from that day 40 years ago, and tears came to my eyes when I heard the announcer call out har habayit shelanu! Har habayit shelanu! The Temple Mount is ours! The Temple Mount is ours! And the pictures of the Israeli soldiers touching the Wall with tears rolling down their battle-hardened faces…. What an amazing moment.

“But the joy of Yom Yerushalayim for me is tempered slightly by some of the baggage that comes with it.” Hmm…perhaps I should have said tempered more than slightly. The 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem also means the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank.

Until fairly recently – maybe a year ago – I was uncomfortable with even using the language of “occupation.” Occupied from who? I used to ask. The Palestinians never had a country of their own in the first place. They rejected it from the outset 60 years ago. But however one feels about it, the West Bank is clearly under military occupation – just as Iraq is. The West Bank has not been annexed to Israel, and the residents are not citizens. When you have one country’s military supervising a population of people who are not citizens of that country, you have a military occupation.

Unlike many of my friends on the left, I do not blame Israel solely for the occupation, and I do not think Israel can unilaterally end the occupation – utter chaos would ensue, witness what is happening in Gaza with Fatah and Hamas literally killing each other, with each bullet fired pushing the time for a Palestinian state further into the future. And unlike my friends on the right, I don’t believe Israel has some God-given right to keep the land and dispossess the inhabitants. I find the occupation at present a very sad necessity, that depresses me. I wish the Palestinians would put together a government that is capable of governing, that would recognize Israel, so Israel could end the occupation. Of course, Israel would also have to have a government willing to stand up to the settlers and give the Palestinians a contiguous land mass in the West Bank that would form the basis for a reasonable country. Sadly, neither of those two things seems to be on the horizon in the near future, which means for now the occupation will continue, lives will be lost on both sides, Palestinians will continue to live with oppression, and the Zionist dream is tarnished as long as our dream is accompanied by the misery of so many others. As long as Israel is the occupying force in the West Bank, the occupation should be conducted as humanely and lightly as possible – which is one of the reasons why I support the work of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel (other reasons including the important work they do with Jews).

But enough about the depressing present – what about the future? I’m definitely in the optimist camp. When I look forty years in the future what I see is an Israel that is truly Jewish and Democratic. An Israel that is part of a “Middle Eastern Union” modeled on the European Union. When she is the age I am now, my daughter Katherine will be able to drive from her home in Jerusalem to Amman, Jordan for lunch, or to Damascus for a weekend, without having to pass through any border control, just as there are no border controls driving from Germany to Belgium and France. The Middle East will be prosperous, everyone will get along. There will be religious freedom in Israel – Conservative and Reform rabbis will be able to perform weddings that are recognized by the government. One of my colleagues pointed out that the issue of treatment of the Arabs and the issue of the treatment of non-Orthodox Jews are probably related. When the “establishment” stops treating Conservative Jews like Arabs, they will probably also treat Arabs better!

I hope I live long enough to see my vision for peace in the Middle East fulfilled. And I pray that God gives me the strength to contribute to making it a reality once I’m a citizen of Israel, 34 days from now.

Reb Barry



Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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