Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Brotherhood Interfaith Dinner
Guests: Asbury UMC
A woman was busy preparing a dinner for the rabbi. Her young daughter interrupted her: Mommy, I have a stomachache.
The mother quickly answered: Your stomach hurts because it is empty. You need to put something in it. She gave her daughter a snack and continued her work.
When the rabbi came over, he asked the woman for a couple of Tylenol. “Forgive me, I have a headache.”
The little girl quickly spoke up: “I know what the problem is; your head hurts because it is empty! You need to put something in it.”
Thanks to our Brotherhood chefs, our stomachs are full right now. I’m not as sure about our heads. My hope is that by means of this program, Rev. Harrison and I will have shared some insights that will fill your heads. The purpose of this interfaith evening is to help us learn about and from each other.
I believe that we Jews are a People, one large family – about 14 million of us spread throughout this world. The distinguishing features of the Jewish People include the same ancestors, an honored and distinct history, common interests which grow out of living together for a long period of time, religion, language, law, art, music, literature, mores, customs, the will to live, and more.
Now if we accept Peoplehood as the basis of our identity as Jews, then the reason for our ties as American Jews to Israel become clear. Israel is the old family homestead, a place which houses some of the family, and is dear to the rest. It is the birth place of the Jewish Bible and the site of supremely memorable incidents in Jewish history. It is a haven for fellow Jews after the agony of centuries of persecution. Israelis are our brothers and sisters, and world Jewry views them with family pride. The needs of Israel and Israelis are many, and Jews throughout the world have seen it as our responsibility to assist when and wherever possible.
Israel helps Jews and strengthens Judaism.
The most dramatic way in which Israel helps Jews is by providing us with a secure refuge, a place where we can always go, where we are always welcome, no questions asked. As American Jews, comfortable and safe in a democratic country, we often forget how important such a refuge is and how much Jews have suffered throughout history for not possessing a safe haven. The immigration to Israel of nearly half a million Russian Jews in the early 1990s and of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s (three more waves from Ethiopia have brought the total to 130,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel) reminds us that today, as in the past, Jews must have a place where they can go without first securing the permission of others.
Another equally important reason for caring about Israel is that Israel strengthens Judaism by offering us the kind of Jewish experience that is not available anywhere else. Only there are Jews no longer required to explain to non-Jews who they are. Only there can Jews live by the Jewish calendar and clock. And only there do we have a setting where the values of our rabbis and prophets can be fully tested against the realities of everyday life.
Judaism can be practiced anywhere, and American Jews have created a vibrant Jewish life. Our Judaism is in no way inferior to the Judaism of Israel, but it is certainly different. If Judaism is to thrive, we need the examples of both communities; we must constantly learn from each other.
So we Jews support Israel’s survival, security, and well-being. Israel is unique in human history, whatever its faults may be. Because of our love for Israel, it is worthy of both our sympathy and our criticism.
Our basic core belief is that the Jewish People have a right to a national home and that State has a right to defend itself. We don’t have to agree with every policy of each government of Israel. I believe that we can argue vehemently from the Left or the Right or in-between that the policy of any particular government is mistaken – the same as we can do in this country. In this sense, Israel is a normal country. Its leaders sometimes pursue smart policies and sometimes ill-advised ones.
Being a lover of Israel or a friend of Israel does not mean being a knee-jerk yea-sayer to whatever Israelis want. In fact, there is no more cantankerous, self-critical group in the world than Israelis.
I’m pro-Israel, but that doesn’t mean that I also have to be anti-something or someone else. I am anti-terrorism and war, but I try not to be anti-anyone. I want to see mutual respect and peace in the Middle East for all.
Modern Israel is complicated. There is very little black and white – it is a sea of gray. On the one hand, Israel is a wonderful democracy with the best women’s rights, minority rights, and freedoms in the entire region. On the other hand, some citizens’ ideas conflict with those of others. For example, some ultra-Orthodox individuals want the “freedom” to separate buses by gender. Other secular citizens – who are the majority in Israel, but not in certain neighborhoods – want the “freedom” not to be told where to sit on a bus. The law is clear – no segregating buses. But how do they enforce the law? The conflicts over what freedom means are very loud, open, and messy in Israel. Israel is run by human beings, and people make mistakes.
We need to know the facts and be there for Israel, because Israel is a critically important part of our family. And Israel is important not just because we are Jews, but also because we are Americans. Israel is a country that shares America’s values and interests, and today it faces constant threats from those who want to destroy it. We in this country are not on the front lines – Israelis are. I suggest tonight that we have to have their backs.
In the past, the fight for the State of Israel mainly took place on the battlefield. Today the battle is taking place in universities, the media, and NGOs – non-governmental organizations. It is a cultural war.
There have been three major attempts to destroy the State of Israel. The first was from the War of Independence until the Yom Kippur War, in which enemies tried to physically eliminate the State of Israel. When they realized they could not defeat the IDF – Israel Defense Force – they changed tactics. If they couldn’t beat the Israeli soldiers on the battlefield, they would kill Israel’s spirit through terrorism, by murdering mothers in markets or restaurants, by killing children in schools or on buses. This lasted from the 1970s until the second intifada.
When they found they couldn’t defeat Israel even by murdering 100 people in a month, the third attempt has been de-legitimization. They have accused Israel of war crimes and of being an apartheid state with the hope that the international community would assist in destroying Israel if it perceived it as similar to South Africa. In the past, anti-Semitism was directed against Jews as a People; now anti-Semitism is directed at the State of Israel. So we are engaged today in a battle with cultural forces which are attacking Israel’s right to defend itself and the Jewish People’s right to its own homeland and its own state.
And very frankly, we non-Orthodox Jews are engaged in a fight for the soul of the State of Israel. We believe that Israel needs to be a homeland to all Jews, not just one narrow definition of who is a Jew. We are all Jews. We all have a place in Israel. We deserve to be recognized there as legitimate Jews with an acceptable form of religious practice, even if it deviates from what some in the government would personally practice. For Israel to truly be a democracy it must learn tolerance; it must come to value pluralism.
Many of us at Temple Israel belong to ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America. We are working on those internal issues of educating for and engendering respect for pluralist views of Judaism. That is definitely one of our struggles.
But we need help, very frankly, on the de-legitimization of Israel front. Israel lives in a very tough neighborhood and, sadly, its enemies seem to be multiplying. Turkey, once a friend of Israel, has moved to join its fellow Muslims in condemning Israel. Egypt, which made peace with Israel a generation ago, is threatening to revoke that peace treaty. The new Middle East, which has overthrown dictators, has created a series of unstable countries which could provide a serious threat to Israel. And Iran threatens to obliterate Israel with the bomb. Some European nations have tried to defeat Israel with a boycott. In the World of Nations, only Israel must constantly argue that she has a right to exist. Even the United Nations has begun steps to unilaterally declare the existence of a state called Palestine. Never mind that the Palestinians could have had a state a generation ago if its leaders had been serious about peace talks.
Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions are the battles in media and on campuses. So let me conclude with this reminder of the Biblical story of Amalek. Amalek was the enemy of Israel. It attacked Israel from behind, killing the elderly, the infirm, the stragglers. Amalek came to symbolize evil in the world, an evil that never seems to go away from generation to generation.
In the Bible, Israel fought back against Amalek. When Moses held up his hands, Israel was victorious. But when Moses put his hands down, Amalek was victorious. Two of Moses’ assistants – Aaron and Hur – stood next to Moses and held his hands up. Israel overcame Amalek. What a powerful symbol, helping hold up someone’s hands to defeat those who would destroy us.
In the last several years, when Presbyterians and United Methodists and others have gathered in their denominational conventions, there have been attempts to pass anti-Israel resolutions, calls for divestment in Israel, and even sanctions. Thank God, so far, these resolutions have been defeated. We Jews read with dismay of these mainline Christian denominations, people with whom we have worked side-by-side on many fronts for a long time, considering these resolutions.
That is why tonight is important. I want to say, on behalf of our congregation, as we listened to Rev. Harrison and recognized that there are some 100 Methodists and, frankly, Tom capped the number – there could have been more here tonight from Asbury. People who have traveled with their Senior Minister to Israel or who will be leaving in April to go with him to Israel, we sincerely appreciate the fact that you are holding up our hands in defending Israel consistently, committedly, and effectively. Thank you.