IsraelRosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah 5778 Day Two: The Complexities of Israel

A few months ago I celebrated my tenth “aliyahversary,” marking ten years since the day in 2007 when I made aliyah – when I became a citizen of the state of Israel and made my home in Jerusalem.

The establishment of the State of Israel, a homeland for the Jews, is, without question, the best thing to happen to the Jewish people in nearly 2,000 years. Eleven years ago on Kol Nidre I formally announced to my congregation in Toledo, Ohio, that I was making aliyah instead of staying in Toledo. I told them:

For most of the past 2,000 years, Jewish history was the story of one disaster after another.  In the year 70 Romans destroyed the Temple, Jerusalem was laid waste.  In 132 the Bar Kochba revolt was brutally crushed, and with it died the dream of an independent Israel.  During the Middle Ages, Jews were massacred by the Crusaders on their way to “liberate” the holy land.  When Christian Europe was flourishing during the Renaissance, Jews were packed into ghettos.  In 1492, when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” Ferdinand and Isabel ordered the Jews of Spain to convert, flee, or die.  When the Enlightenment, and citizenship, came for the Jews of Western Europe, those in the East were being killed in pogroms, a foreshadowing of the horrors that would come later during the Shoah, when a third of the Jews then alive were slaughtered by the Nazis.

We were overdue for some good news.

And then, in 1948, a miracle happened.  A miracle every bit as great as the parting of the Red Sea.  A miracle which shows us that God truly has not forgotten His promises to the Jewish people.  In May of 1948, for the first time in 2,011 years, the land of Israel was free.  An independent Jewish state was reborn on the soil of ancient Judea.  More miracles followed.  Tiny Israel turned back the armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, won the War of Independence, and ended up with substantially more territory than had been originally granted by the UN.  And again, our tiny country defeated vastly larger Arab forces in 1967, and yet again in 1973.

The modern state of Israel is the most wonderful, exciting thing to happen to the Jewish people in the past two millennia.  For 70 generations, our ancestors prayed for this day.  And the day has finally come!

Yoel Bin-Nun was one of the first paratroopers to reach the site where our temple once stood in the heart of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. Here’s what he had to say about that incredible morning, as described in Yossi Klein Halevi’s book “Like Dreamers:”

“When I reached the Temple Mount that morning,” Yoel told his group, “my commander said to me, ‘Nu, Yoel, what do you say?’ I said to him, ‘Two thousand years of exile are over.’ That’s what I felt at that moment. If the Israel Defense Forces are standing on the Temple Mount, it is the end of exile. I admit I was naive. Redemption is a process; it’s complicated.”

One day, he believed, Jews would celebrate the story of modern Israel as they now celebrated the exodus from Egypt. Perhaps with even greater awe: in the ancient Exodus, after all, Jews had left a single country, while in the modern exodus they’d returned home from a hundred countries. A people keeping faith with its lost homeland and returning after two thousand years: impossible. The farther away we moved from the founding of Israel, the more extraordinary the story would appear.

One day, Yoel knew, Jews would look back at this time and wonder: How had they done it? Reclaimed land, language, sovereignty, power? Reversed the destruction of the Jews back to their origin, their vigorous youth? Replaced skeleton heaps in death camps with paratroopers at the Wall as the enduring Jewish image of the century.

Not only is it a miracle that Israel exists, what Israel has accomplished in the last 69 years is also nothing short of miraculous. The country has gone from being economically backwards and lacking in physical comforts to being an outpost of the Western World in the heart of the Middle East, a member of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Israel’s high-tech community is second only to Silicon Valley in size, importance, and vibrancy. Israel has successfully absorbed millions of refugees and immigrants from all parts of the globe including the Arab states, the former Soviet Union, and South America.

Israel only had one TV station until 1986, and didn’t get color TV at all until 1977. People traveling to Israel used to bring toilet paper in their suitcases because of the notoriously poor quality of the only toilet paper available in Israel. Not anymore. From being a military weakling and underdog, Israel – with a lot of American help – now has the most powerful military in the Middle East, including nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them anywhere in the world.

Similar to most of Western Europe, Israel has universal health care – everyone is covered, and there are no deductibles or co-pays. Go to the hospital for major surgery and you go home with no bills, no paperwork, nothing. College tuition in Israel is $2500 a year – that right there is a great incentive to make aliyah. And the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Muslim or Christian have access to the same healthcare, education, and are represented in the legislature.

Alan Deshowitz said,

No country in the history of the world has ever contributed more to humankind and accomplished more for its people in so brief a period of time as Israel has done since its relatively recent rebirth in 1948.

And yet not everyone sees the establishment of the State of Israel in such a positive light.

Palestinians tell the story very differently. We Jews celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. Palestinians mark that same time period with a commemoration of what they call the “Nakba,” an Arabic word for “catastrophe.”

Here’s how the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Dr. Riyad Mansour, describes the day:

Yesterday, 15 May 2016, marked the passage of 68 years since Al-Nakba, the tragedy in 1948 in which more than 800,000 Palestinians, 70 percent of our people, were forcibly uprooted and expelled from their homes and lands or fled in fear for their lives after brutal massacres were carried out in over 400 Palestinian towns and villages by Zionist terrorist groups in Mandate Palestine in a clear act of ethnic cleansing.…Today, Al-Nakba of the Palestinian people continues as millions of Palestinians continue to either live in exile as refugees, denied the inalienable right to return to their homes, or continue to live under Israel’s nearly 50-year old belligerent military occupation of the State of Palestine, including East Jerusalem, where they are forced to endure the constant violation of their fundamental human rights.  Indeed, with the passage of each year since Al-Nakba and since the occupation of the rest of historic Palestine, not a day has gone by in which the Palestinian people have not endured more loss, human and material, as well as untold suffering and hardship.

Israelis and Palestinians have very different understandings of both recent history, and the present time.

The way the Jews tell their story, they have been in Israel continuously since the days of Joshua, 3,400 years ago, sometimes fewer in number, sometimes greater.  When Jews started returning in larger numbers, in the late 1800’s, Israel was an empty place, swampy and desolate.  They came home and made the desert bloom.  Arabs from around the region started moving in when the Jews created a functioning economy.

The Palestinians say they have always lived here.  In the late 1800’s they were peacefully minding their own business when imperial colonizers bought up land from absentee landlords, driving the local inhabitants off land they had worked for generations. Zionists, people who came from Europe and knew little about Palestine or its people, took the land away from its rightful inhabitants.

Is Israel a modern-day miracle? Or are Israelis brutal, colonialist occupiers?

Clearly, it depends on who you ask.

There’s a universal human tendency to paint “our side” as all good, and the other side as “all bad.” If you’re fighting a physical war, that may be a necessary attitude. You have to dehumanize and blame someone before you can be comfortable killing him. But the tendency to make things black and white is not helpful if the goal is peaceful coexistence, people of different backgrounds living together harmoniously. When it comes to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I don’t see any possibility of a military victory for either side. No one is leaving this tiny scrap of land in the Middle East. We’re going to have to figure out how to get along together.

And for that purpose, I suggest we’ve been defining the “sides” the wrong way. This isn’t about Israelis versus Palestinians, or Jews versus Muslims. It’s about extremists – on both sides – versus moderates on both sides.

The extremists on both sides have a similar world view: The Jewish extremists want to get rid of the Palestinians entirely, preferably exiling them to Jordan, or perhaps accepting them as second-class citizens in a “greater Israel” that includes all of the West Bank. The Palestinian extremists want to drive “all the Jews into sea” and force them to “go back to where they came from.”

The moderates on both sides, on the other hand, are willing to “live and let live” and favor a solution that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and dignity.

For the moderates to prevail, we need to find a diplomatic solution, not a military solution, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And to find a diplomatic solution, the moderates on both sides need to understand the other side. If we’re going to be able to reach a just agreement, we need to fully appreciate and understand the issues.

Far and away the best way to do that is to go and see for yourself. Talk to people from different backgrounds and different perspectives. See the situation on the ground. Most Israelis and most Palestinians have never done that. A typical secular Israeli living in Tel Aviv has never been to an ideological settlement, and never talked to a Palestinian. A typical Palestinian has never talked to an Israeli other than a soldier at a checkpoint. So it’s no surprise we don’t understand each other well.

I’m planning a congregational trip to Israel in April, and my goal is to share with the participants the opportunity to hear from many different people and perspectives so they can form their own opinions, and develop an appreciation for just how complex the situation really is. I’m going to tell you about some of the things we’re going to see, but it’s not really a great substitute for seeing for yourself.

The first thing to understand in understanding Israel and Palestine is that Israel is like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Israel within the Green Line – the pre-67 borders – is very different than Israel beyond the Green Line, in the land that is called the West Bank, the Occupied Territories, Palestine, or Judea and Samaria, depending on your political leanings.

Within Israel, 75% of the 8 million people are Jewish; most of the other 25% are Muslim. Two percent of the population of Israel is Christian – about the same percentage of the population in America that are Jewish. Christmas is just another working day in Israel.

Within Israel, Muslim citizens have full civil rights, they carry Israeli passports, they have representation in the Knesset, they have the same access to healthcare and higher education that other Israelis have. There’s certainly still discrimination: studies have shown that if you take the same exact resume and replace a Jewish name with a Muslim name, the number of invitations to come in for an interview plummets by something like 90%. Discrimination against Muslims in areas such as housing is rampant, and largely ignored.

Does that make Israel an apartheid state, as some have accused? Certainly not.

But cross that invisible border called the “Green Line,” and everything is very very different.

Very few tour groups from overseas visit Hebron, even though it’s home to the second holiest place in the world to Jews. It’s too dangerous or too political for most tour groups. Security permitting we’ll go there in April.

Hebron is a city of over 200,000 Palestinians. It’s an important place mentioned several times in the Torah. It’s where the Cave of Machpelah is located, the cave that the Torah tells us Abraham purchased as a burial ground. Is it really the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah? There’s no way to really know, but it’s clearly been the tradition that it’s the place for thousands of years: over 2,000 years ago King Herod built the building that still stands on the site, a building believed to be the oldest continuously used intact prayer structure in the world, and the oldest major building in the world that still fulfills its original function. It’s now divided into two parts: a synagogue and a mosque, with strict separation including separate entrances.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Hebron was a much smaller city, 15-18,000 people; Jews and Arabs lived peacefully, side by side, sharing facilities such as hospitals, shops, and holy places. All that changed in 1929, when growing tensions between Jewish immigrants and native Arabs throughout Israel culminated in the massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron.

Jews fled Hebron, and no Jews lived in the city during the period when it was part of Jordan, 1948 to 1967. In 1979 a group of settlers moved into a former Hadassah Hospital in Hebron and turned into the start of a new settlement in the heart of the Palestinian city. There are now about 700 Jewish settlers living in small enclaves in the heart of a major Palestinian city.

Hebron is home to the most extreme elements in both the Jewish and Muslim populations. Palestinian terrorists have murdered dozens of Israeli settlers and soldiers; the Israeli terrorist, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Muslims who were praying at the Cave of Machpelah in 1994. Goldstein was killed by survivors of the attack who were able to overpower him. His grave is treated as a shrine by Jewish extremists.

The Israeli government decided that the only way to control the violence was to separate the populations. The only problem is the settlement is located in the heart of Hebron’s commercial district. 1,800 Palestinians shops along Shuhada Street are now closed. Some because the Israeli government ordered them closed; others, because their customers could no longer get to the shops because they were in the territory only permitted for Jews.

I’ve walked down that street. It’s eerie and heartbreaking.  Think of the impact of that: every shop that’s been closed is a family that lost its way of making a living. 1,800 families whose investment in their business has been destroyed. It was only when I walked down that ghost town of a street that the impact of the settlement in Hebron really hit me. There are apartments over the shops whose owners are not allowed to access them from the street – they have to come in a back way over rooftops. Many apartments have also been abandoned because climbing over rooftops for access is just too difficult, especially for older residents.

The settlers will tell you that they are restoring a Jewish presence to a place that is important to Jews, and that had a Jewish presence for much of its history. They will tell you that the shops aren’t closed because of the occupation, but because of terrorism. The Palestinians will tell you about the personal cost of the closures, and how unfair it is that the burden falls on the Palestinians and not on the settlers.

The West Bank is divided into Areas A and B, which are under Palestinian control, and Area C, where all the settlements are located, which is under Israeli control. Palestinians who live in Areas A and B effectively live in the country of Palestine. The Palestinian Authority is the local government. Israelis are not allowed into Area A without a permit from the Israeli government, for security reasons. As an Israeli citizen, I’m not allowed to visit Ramallah or Bethlehem without permission from the government. Israel still has a huge impact on the lives of Palestinians in Areas A and B: Palestinians fortunate enough to have work permits to work in Israel have to endure hours long waits at checkpoints; Israel controls the borders and decides who can leave and who can come into Palestine. Palestinians who want to travel are not allowed to fly out of Ben Gurion airport – they have to cross the border into Jordan and fly out of Amman.

Palestinians living in Area C have a much more difficult situation. They live under Israeli military control. If they are accused of a crime, they have essentially no rights – they are tried in Israeli military courts and have no constitutional protections whatsoever. Getting to and from their homes or fields is entirely dependent on the IDF. The Israeli government would like all Palestinians to leave Area C and relocate to Areas A and B, so they intentionally make life difficult for Palestinians in Area C. For example, they refuse to grant building permits to Palestinians in Area C; so Palestinians with growing families build houses without permits, which the Israeli government then regularly destroys.

There are Israelis working to correct the injustices; as a former chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights I’m one of them. But the Palestinians don’t really want our help – they would rather just be able to live their lives. As Nasser, a Palestinian shepherd in the village of Susiya, south of Hebron said in an interview:

In 2001, as he stood at the crossroads of his life, Nasser met a small group of Jewish activists who offered solidarity to Susiya. It was confounding: Jewish soldiers were demolishing his home and protecting the settlers, and Jewish individuals were volunteering to work beside him, but Nasser wanted to be neither the target of violence nor the recipient of charity. The questions he asked himself were philosophical: How to exist freely in a place where he was not free?

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression: the political situation in Israel is NOT going to be the main focus of the trip to Israel in April. My goal is to help people get a full picture of Israel. The Israel that I know and love. And part of that picture is understanding the political situation. But there’s more – way more.

One of the things that I most love about Israel is Shabbat in Jerusalem. Shabbat in Jerusalem is unlike Shabbat anywhere else. On Friday afternoon, you can tell that Shabbat is coming. Stores start closing; traffic thins out. From any place in West Jerusalem there are literally dozens of synagogues of every variety in walking distance. Most synagogues are Orthodox, but there are also Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal synagogues. There are also many different flavors of Orthodox synagogues – Yemenite, Iranian, Italian, among others. And there are Orthodox synagogues pushing the boundaries and becoming more like Conservative, with women leading parts of the prayer service.

Friday night almost everyone in Jerusalem is at a Shabbat dinner. Secular people might go out to a bar or a movie after dinner, but many of them are still together with friends or family for a Friday night meal. It’s a very different experience being Jewish in a place where we’re the majority. For our Friday night in Jerusalem I plan to organize home hospitality. Instead of a Shabbat meal in a hotel, everyone will get to have dinner with Israelis, a real Jerusalem experience.

In Jerusalem you’re surrounded by history everywhere you turn. One of my usual morning run routes in Jerusalem goes past the archeological site of Ramat Rachel, a 2,700 year old administrative center. Another morning run route crosses Gehinnom, “Hell,” and does a loop around the Old City; sometimes I take a detour and run up the Via Dolorosa, the road that Christians believe Jesus walked with his cross on his way to his execution.

Besides history, one of the most impressive things about Israel is the diversity in nature. It’s a small country – roughly the size and population of New Jersey. I’ve hiked the entire Israel Trail, which winds over 600 miles from the border with Lebanon to the border with Egypt. In the north there are mountains and pine forests; in the center, rich agricultural fields, bustling Tel Aviv, and the Mediterranean beaches. We’ll visit a winery owned by a friend of mine. In the south, there are the harsh and beautiful Negev and Arava deserts, and the Caribbean-style resort of Eilat on the Red Sea, with excellent SCUBA Diving. The Dead Sea, the lowest point on the planet at 1200 feet below sea level, is a wonder itself. Those in shape can climb to the top of Masada, where the Jewish revolt against Rome was finally snuffed out almost 2,000 years ago. Those not so athletic can ride the cable car.

Israel truly is the most amazing thing to happen to the Jewish people in 2,000 years. Every Jew should see it at least once. Every time you’re in the synagogue you say prayers for Israel and Jerusalem. Experiencing it yourself makes those prayers much more real. Our trip in April will of course include many of the “must see” sites – but it will also include much more. It will include the sides of Israel that took me years to discover.

At the end of Yom Kippur services next week we’ll shout “L’shanah haba’ah birushalayim!” Next year in Jerusalem. Let’s make it this year in Jerusalem!

Shanah tovah

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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