Rosh Hashanah 5783 – Israel, Great and Flawed

If you listen to different people talking about Israel it can be bewildering, because it sounds impossible that they are talking about the same country.

To some, Israel is a miracle, the Jews made the desert bloom, have created the only true democracy in the Middle East, and it is a beacon of hope for mankind. To others, Israel is an illegitimate, repressive, apartheid state created by a bunch of colonialists who parachuted in from Europe.

Choose your side. Most Jews and Evangelical Christians on one side, Palestinians and “woke” liberals on the other side, a not insignificant number of Jews among them.

And almost no one occupying the messy middle ground. At least, not outside of Israel, and even in an increasingly polarized Israel “liberal Zionists” seem to be an endangered species.

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. Sixteen 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!

Seventy years ago, Israel was a small, impoverished country with an economy largely based on agriculture whose survival depended on handouts from Jews in other countries. The country’s security was in a precarious position, surrounded by enemies who had stronger military forces, and dealing with an internal Arab population that was viewed with suspicion who were living under martial law with limited rights until 1966.

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.

What Israel has accomplished in a little over 70 years is astounding. That small, impoverished country is still small, but it punches way above its weight on the international scene. Israel is now one of 38 countries to be members of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a list that includes other leading Western democracies. In 2020, for the first time, Israel’s GDP per capita pulled into the top 20 globally, amazingly ahead of Canada, which was number 20 on the list, just a few hundred dollars behind Israel. In 2022 Canada has pulled back ahead, and is ranked 14 while Israel has moved up to 15.

Israel’s impressive performance is largely driven by the country’s booming high-tech sector.

Israel’s high-tech community is second only to Silicon Valley in size, importance, and vibrancy. When I’m not doing rabbi work, I do marketing writing for Israeli tech clients, including the most active venture capital firm in Israel. As a result, I get exposed to a lot of Israeli technology, and the advances Israeli companies are making are nothing short of astounding. Israeli startups are applying artificial intelligence to many different fields, from cybersecurity to agriculture to autonomous driving to law and medicine. There are companies driving innovations that are helping to make quantum computing a reality today, not the perennial five years from now.

I admit to having some concerns – there are technologies automating tasks that no one would ever have thought could be automated. For example, one Israeli company has developed technology for automated fruit picking that combines drones with artificial intelligence. The drone flies up to a tree, finds the fruit, uses AI to determine whether or not the fruit is ripe, picks it if it is, leaves it on the tree if it isn’t, flies it back to a bin, drops it, and goes back for more. Two technicians can run a fleet of 80 drones, replacing dozens of agricultural workers. The company points out that today a lot of fruit goes to waste because there’s no one to pick it, but I worry that the technology could also put a lot of people out of work who don’t have other skills.

Another concern is the Israeli cyberattack technology developed by companies such as NSO that is being used by autocrats and dictators to spy on journalists and the opposition.

 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. 

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 Canada, Israel has universal health care and universal higher education. 

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.

But Israel is not perfect. As an Israeli, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand the problems the young nation faces as it struggles to forge a path that is both Jewish and Democratic.

Last week at Shabbat services I spoke about religious pluralism in Israel, and how outrageous it is that there is no freedom of religion for Jews in Israel. Let that sink in. Jews in Israel do not have the freedom to practice their religion as they see fit, because the ultra-Orthodox have been granted a monopoly on religious life in Israel. Israel is the only Western country in the world that has elements of a theocracy, such as all marriage having to go through religious authorities, and a monopoly on the use of the term “kosher.”

As a Conservative rabbi, I cannot officiate at a legally recognized wedding in the state of Israel. A few years ago, I officiated at the wedding of one of my daughters in Jerusalem. She and her then fiancé had to fly to Cyprus first to have a civil wedding, otherwise I could, in theory, have gone to jail for two years, and their marriage would not have been recognized by the state.

If a boy wants to have a bar mitzvah at the Kotel, the Western Wall, the holiest place in the world for Jews, all he has to do is show up, and his group will be given a Torah to use, free of charge, and a spot for the ceremony near the wall. Any female family members have to try and watch by looking over a 5’ tall wall. If a girl wants to have a bat mitzvah at the Kotel, she can’t. Even if she had access to a Torah, and managed to smuggle it past security, they would take it away as soon as she tried to start reading from it.

I have been a supporter of Women of the Wall a group of women fighting for the right of women to pray as they wish at the Western Wall since before I made aliyah. A few years ago, a friend of mine came up with a way to get a Torah to the women’s side for Women of the Wall’s Rosh Chodesh prayers. He had a son of bar mitzvah age, so we asked for a Torah for a bar mitzvah. They gave it to us with no questions. At that time there was an unlocked gate in the divider between the men’s sections and women’s sections. We opened the gate and handed the Torah to the women. Pandemonium broke out, and I had to rush to the women’s side to defend a friend and one of my kids who were among the people being attacked and harassed by unhappy haredi men. I viewed it as an act of civil disobedience for a noble purpose.

There are a lot of other issues in Israel that are similar to issues you find in other countries, such as income inequality and road safety, but the other big uniquely Israeli problem of course is our relationship with the Palestinians.

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 over 9 million people are Jewish; most of the other 25% are Muslim. Just two percent of the population of Israel is Christian. Christmas is just another working day in Israel.

Within Israel, Muslim and Christian citizens have full civil rights, they carry Israeli passports, they have representation in the Knesset. For the first time ever, an Arab party is part of the current governing coalition. 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 discrimination 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, the Cave of Machpelah, where legend says Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. There’s a magnificent structure that King Herod built 2,000 years ago, still standing, the oldest continuously used intact prayer structure in the world. But you probably haven’t been there, because the area is too dangerous or too political for most tour groups. 1,800 Palestinian shops were closed to try and keep peace between 700 Jewish settlers and 200,000 Palestinians. Walking the street of shuttered shops is eerie and heartbreaking.

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.

Hebron is an extreme example, but such issues are common elsewhere as well. 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 Israeli 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.

Area C includes 40% of the land in the West Bank but a much lower percentage of the Palestinian population. 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. Meanwhile, Jewish settlements next door, also in Area C, get building permits, and if someone builds without a permit, more often than not (but not always), the building is approved retroactively.

All legal according to Israeli law, but clearly unjust.

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?

But as critical as I am of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, I completely reject the BDS movement for one simple reason.

Lack of peace between Israel and Palestine is NOT entirely the fault of the Israelis. As Abba Eban famously said, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Yasser Arafat should have accepted the deal that was on the table in 2000. He walked away from it. Instead celebrating 20 years of Palestinian independence, the Palestinians can now celebrate 20 years of continued Israeli military occupation.

And don’t even get me started on Gaza. The miserable situation in Gaza is completely the fault of Hamas. If they had decided to pursue peace in 2005 when Israel withdrew from the Gaza settlements, Gaza could now be a prosperous mini-state with a strong economy. Instead, they chose to continue a struggle they can’t win, and the leaders of Hamas line their pockets and let their people suffer.

By now, you may well be wondering, “What exactly is the rabbi’s point? He’s probably alienated everyone here by now – those who love Israel because he’s criticizing Israel, and those who don’t like Israel, because he’s praising and defending Israel.”

The point is this. As polarizing as Israel is, the country is NOT black and white, all good, or all evil. Every country has problems; here in Canada we are reckoning with our treatment of indigenous peoples, in Quebec the health care system is famously underfunded, and of course here in Quebec we have political prejudice against the English speaking community. In America they have Donald Trump and white nationalists, millions of uninsured people, tuition that is crazy and gun laws that make no sense.

Yet all three of these countries I care about are also great countries. 

There is a teaching from Rabbi Yosi in the midrash that says,

כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵין עִמָּהּ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינָהּ אַהֲבָה.

Love that does not have rebuke with it, is not love.

Being critical means you care. If you’re married, I’m sure your spouse loves you even though they are quite aware of your faults. They don’t have to make believe your flaws don’t exist. They love you flaws and all.

Some Israelis think Israel just has a hasbarah problem, a PR problem, if only Israel did a better job of explaining things anti-Israel sentiments would be greatly reduced. Israel may have a PR problem, but Israel also has a reality problem. Our defense of Israel is far more effective if we acknowledge where Israel falls short. We are much more credible then when we point out the many ways the Palestinians fall short.

Israel is the heritage of all Jews, not just those who have chosen to make their homes there. I encourage you to visit Israel, but don’t treat it as Disneyland, a nice place to visit and see the sites. It’s your family, your heritage, your home too.

Israel occupies a central place in Judaism. We face Jerusalem when we pray. We break a glass at weddings to remind us of the broken Temple. Every Shabbat and holiday we recite a prayer for the state of Israel. In our weekday prayers we pray for the ingathering of the exiles three times a day.

But the Torah cautions us that our presence on the land is conditional. We only merit the land of Israel if we faithfully follow the commandments – and that would especially mean the commandments on how to treat other people, to love our neighbor, to protect the vulnerable, to take care of the stranger, for we know the hearts of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.

The values that are commonly shared among Canadian Jews – treasuring democracy, inclusivity, respect for minorities and other faiths – are all values that can use strengthening in Israel. Our loving concern from here, our support for organizations that support religious pluralism and peace can help Israel live up to the vision of our prophets, that Israel should be l’or goyim, to enlighten the nations, to be a role model of justice and compassion for all the nations of the world.

After the holidays I’ll follow up this talk with an email introducing some organizations that are working to strengthen Israel as a Jewish AND democratic state.

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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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