Rabbi Micah Citrin
February 20, 2015
In October of 1947, just weeks before the United Nations was to vote on a partition plan that would create a Jewish and Arab state in Palestine, President Harry Truman received the following letter:
Dear Mr. President:
“Again I am appealing to you on behalf of my People. The future of one and one-half million Jews in Europe depends on what happens at the present meeting of the United Nations…to alleviate further suffering by these helpless people.
How they will be able to survive another winter in concentration camps and the hell- holes in which they live, is beyond my imagination. In all this world, there is only one place where they can go – and that is Palestine. You and I know only too well this is the only answer.
I think that I am one of the few who actually knows and realizes what terrible heavy burdens you are carrying on your shoulders during these hectic days. I should therefore, be the last man to add to them; but I feel you will forgive me for doing so, because tens of thousands of lives depend on words from your mouth and heart. Harry, my people need help and I am appealing to you to help them.
Everyone at home is well and my business is keeping up fine. Just enlarged the store and am very proud of it.
Wishing you and your family the best of everything, I am sincerely your friend – Eddie Jacobson.”
Long before Truman became president, Eddie Jacobson was his friend and business partner in Kansas City. Like a modern day Esther, Jacobson extends a personal plea to his dear friend that would have an indelible impact on the entire Jewish people, not just those suffering in DP camps in 1947, but on the entire canvass of Jewish history. And we know the outcome of this chapter of the story. On November 29, 1947 this U.N. narrowly voted for the partition plan. On May 14, 1948 David Ben-Gurion read aloud Israel’s Declaration of Independence resuscitating the Jewish State in our time. And President Truman courageously recognized the provisional government of Israel, making United States of America the first country to welcome the Israel into the family of nations.
It would be an overstatement to suggest that the correspondence between Jacobson and Truman established the Jewish State. Yet, we cannot overstate the importance of one man taking it upon himself to play a part, to speak out, to join with pioneers and Zionist prophets, immigrants, scientists, soldiers, statesmen, and students who realized Herzl’s words, that if we willed it, it would be no dream. Today, our house stands; foundation and frame sturdy, built in sweat, blood, labor, and love. It would seem that the Zionist dream has been fulfilled and that the task is complete.
Perhaps this is so from a distance, but let’s take a step closer. Let’s look into the window. We find a family sitting around the table, arguing, debating, and struggling to define what the character of the home will be for the coming generations. What does it mean to be a Jewish and democratic state? How does Israel live up its own ideals in the Declaration of Independence, that the state will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture? Zionism is not over, the house still very much being built, only at this time from the inside out.
It is election season in Israel right now. The leading centrist opposition party to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud is called the “The Zionist Camp.” The right wing nationalist party is called “Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi” the Jewish home. What it means to be a Jewish State in the 21st century resides at the heart of this election, not the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, not Iran, but the character and content of the values by which Israel will define itself. Rabbi Doniel Hartman, Orthodox rabbi and head of the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute, says that this is the most significant election in terms of the identity of Israel and its people. And because the heart of this election is about the Jewish identity of the Jewish State it affects every Jew in the world. So each Jew should enter the conversation. The State of Israel is being created anew with this election. Who will be Eddie Jacobson? Who will make a plea for her life?
This election season also is unique because it coincides with the 37th World Zionist Congress elections taking place throughout the Jewish world. Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897 to be the political arm of the Jewish people that would create the scaffolding for a future Jewish government. After 1948, something amazing happened. The WZC continued to convene becoming the venue where Jews around the world could voice their vision of the Jewish character of the Jewish state. The very existence of the World Zionist Congress, which interfaces with the Israeli government, reinforces how Israel is the great, shared project of the Jewish people. This means that you have a vote. This means that you have a say in building Israel. This means you too, sit around the table, in our Jewish home, as our people defines what we will become.
Israel needs our voices more than ever right now. Israel needs our vote of confidence that its Jewishness is rooted the very democratic ideals that cherish individual freedoms, equal protection under the law, concern for the rights of minorities; the same ideals that have allowed us to thrive in the United States and that we hold dear in this country. And if we neglect to speak up for these values, let me share with you an alternative vision of Israel that some hold.
This vision can be captured in signs posted around the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh. One reads, “REQUEST AND DEMAND: Women waiting for their husbands are asked to wait only in hidden places, like behind the white pick-up truck, etc. And not near the synagogue’s entrance. Don’t be a distraction or a stumbling block, God forbid, to men praying or studying in the study hall.” This is an Israel that like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia rids the public sphere of women in the name of extreme, religious fundamentalism.
We can peer into this vision of the Jewish State in aggressively nationalistic legislation that supports loyalty oaths, actively reminds non-Jewish minorities of their status as other, and threatens the equal protection of all Israeli citizens as guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence. This vision would see Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel jailed for performing non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies for couples who want to choose their own way to express their Judaism. It is shameful that non-Orthodox weddings are not recognized by the modern State of Israel, but making officiation a crime would be tragic, an incremental step toward theocracy.
The antidote to this vision of Israel is progressive Judaism. We are the vanguard of a Judaism and Zionism firmly rooted in Israel’s founding document; a Judaism that embraces human dignity and freedom as the bedrock of our national aspirations. When signs went up in places like Beit Shemesh singling out women, shunning them from the public sphere, Orthodox women turned to the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement. IRAC sued on their behalf and the courts found these discriminatory signs violated the equal protection of women. No one else has worked for equality in Israel like IRAC.
And the Israeli Reform Movement meets the Jewish needs of Israelis who seek meaning in Jewish tradition that is modern, open, and accessible. Nearly 8% of the Jewish population of Israel considers itself progressive, either Reform or Conservative. That is nearly half a million Jews, and that number is growing. These Jews need support. They need communities and rabbinic leadership. They need us as partners in building a strong, Jewish and democratic Israel.
Who will be Eddie Jacobson? Who will stand up for the Jewish character of the Jewish State? The future of our people’s life is at stake. Will Israel continue to share the values of the United States and other Western countries, or will it become a Jewish Iran or Saudi Arabia, cloistered, cut off, theocratic, and ethnocentric? This is not just a question for Israelis, but for Am Yisrael. It is time for us to write our letter to the Jewish world, to stand up as Reform Zionists, passionate about our Judaism and our Israel.
If you are ready to answer this call, there are three things you can do. 1) Become a member of ARZA, Association of Reform Zionists of America. If you love Israel, let it show as a Reform Jewish Zionist. 2) Vote for ARZA, in the World Zionist Congress elections. When you vote, and when ARZA wins a majority of the delegates to the Congress, progressive institutions like IRAC and Reform congregations in Israel stand to receive millions of dollars in funding. This kind of financial support shapes realities of Israeli life and turns our values into facts on the ground. More than that, we get the attention of the Israeli government and let government officials know that Israel must be welcoming of all Jewish expression not just Orthodox Judaism. Voting links go out each week in our Temple Bytes eblast. If you need a paper ballot, contact ARZA chair, Mark Lobo, or me. You just need to be 18 and Jewish. It is a $10 investment to vote in order to cover costs of the election. 3) Get out the vote. Your vote is not enough. You have 3, 4, 5, 10 friends and family members you can call here at Temple and around the country to encourage them to vote ARZA. Be their Eddie Jacobson. Ask them to help you build the Jewish State.
Dear friends, Israel’s future cannot wait. We cannot afford to be silent. I am appealing to you to help. I am appealing to you to help our people.