Yom Kippur Morning 5783, at the Free Synagogue of Flushing, Queens, NY
“I want you all to know that among progressives, it’s become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government, and we will continue to push back and not accept that you are progressive except for Palestine,”
When a politician, an elected congresswoman no less, makes a provocative statement of such falsehood, even the most ambivalent or reluctant Zionist among you needs to sit up and take notice.
As Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted in reply, “In one sentence Rashida Tlaib simultaneously tells American Jews that they need to pass an anti-Zionist litmus test to participate in progressive spaces even as she doubles down on her anti-Semitism by slandering Israel as an apartheid state.
If she would like to know about progressive spaces, I would like to invite Congresswoman Tlaib to spend some time with me in the children’s oncology ward at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. My family could introduce her to our nurses, Muhaned and Hisham, Bilal and Jalal, gentle male Arab nurses, who have cared so tenderly for our son. Equally we could introduce her to their colleagues Ayala and Dina, Vladi and Inbar. Or to Doctor Mariam and Doctor Roni. Or Ayesha the cleaner, or Tikva and Angela, who assist. Or the team of medical clowns who wander the wards. Or any of the many volunteers, religious or secular, who come into the hospital and brighten the day of the sickest of kids. Or indeed any of the patients, young children treated equally regardless of their religion, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Druze, according to their need, whether they come from Israel or the West Bank, or even patients from neighbouring Syria. Or of course their parents, wearied and scared and fearful for their children no matter their faith. Rambam Hospital is a microcosm of the miracle of Israeli society at its best. A team who work together – who do everything in their power - to choose life. And all this in a medical facility that lives under threat of Hizbollah and its 100,000 rockets just to the north, across the Lebanese border. Where else in the world is a hospital’s underground car-park fortified and made ready to become a fully-functioning emergency hospital – with the potential for 2000 beds? So that, if necessary, doctors can safely treat patients whilst the city of Haifa is under rocket fire.
Or, if Congresswoman Tlaib does not want to see Haifa, perhaps she would travel with me further south, to see the remarkable cooperation that has developed between the Israeli town of Tsur Hadassah, the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, and the West Bank village of Husan. We could meet – as I did this summer – Ziad Sabateen and Phil Saunders –peacemakers who have brought their communities together in coexistence. Their pioneering work between three local parties: secular Israeli Jews, ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims have reversed decades of animosity in their area. It has been replaced by strong bonds of friendship and mutually beneficial economic relations – peace through shopping - and now they are looking to see how they can export their successful local model to other parts of Israel. Here too, they are choosing life.
The Land of Peace Initiative, as it’s known, like Rambam Hospital, does not make the headlines. The extent of the cooperation between Jews and Arabs in daily life is extraordinary. When we renovated our apartment in Jerusalem, the workers came across the border each morning from their homes in West Bank villages. It is their care and craftmanship which will keep my family warm and cosy this winter. My young son attended a kindergarten at the Jerusalem YMCA. A bilingual gan, his classes were taught both in Hebrew and in Arabic, and his classmates were Jews, Christians and Muslims living both in East and West Jerusalem. This is yet another progressive space, where parents from all sides value coexistence and understand that language and cooperation begins from the earliest age. They are choosing life as well.
Naturally, not everyone agrees. There are extremists everywhere – not just in Israel. And when things go wrong the world hears about it. But dismissing those who support Israel as non-progressive is not acceptable. It is entirely possible to be progressive and pro-Israel. And those of us who engage ourselves have a part to play in fighting for the kind of Israel that reflects the progressive values that we want to see both in Israel and around the world – and that’s progressive Zionism.
I am not just a Zionist. I am Israeli. My wife is Israeli and our son is Israeli – they were both born in Rambam Hospital in Haifa. Me, ok I may not sound Israeli - I’m an oleh hadash – I made my Aliyah in 2020 – two and a half years ago at the height of the pandemic. But I am Israeli by choice and I am proud to be Israeli. I was touched when – with the help of the Israeli ambassador – our son, a baby, was evacuated from Singapore to Haifa. When other airlines refused to let us fly in their aircraft – so critical was his medical condition – ElAl agreed not only to take us but also to fly the plane at a lower altitude than usual in the sky, so that my son’s lungs, which were then in bad shape, would run a lower risk of emergency complications.
I may be a Zionist, but I am also 100% a diasporist Jew. All my work all my life has been to support Jewish communities around the world, be it in Europe – the UK, Hungary, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg and most recently Lithuania, or in Asia based in Singapore or now in the United States, in Flushing, here in Queens. I am not someone who believes that every Jew should go and live in Israel, far from it. And I am critical of those who sit in London or New York and claim to be Zionists, without ever having the intention to go and live in Israel themselves. But I am also critical of those who have not been, and don’t intend to go, but would rather blame the State of Israel without having experienced the realities of life in the country for themselves.
Maybe I am just too critical, too judgmental. And at Yom Kippur it is on us all to be a little softer and more forgiving, in the hope that God will also judge each one of us with mercy. And if I am honest, I can understand why and how critical attitudes towards Israel amongst diaspora Jews develop. I can understand because I have spent a long time holding such an attitude myself. I attended university at a left-wing college where the default attitude towards Israel was antipathy towards the occupation. And as a young student I did little to Stand With Israel, I didn’t see it as particularly my issue. I was Jewish, but I’d never been to Israel, and it didn’t seem so relevant. But the year after I left Cambridge, my college proposed making the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said an honorary fellow of the college. There was a vote amongst the fellowship, and when Said lost the vote, the rumour went around that it was the “Jews of King’s College” who had organized his defeat. This had ramifications for the Jewish students too – a whispering campaign went around – and it was the first time when I saw directly how Israeli-Palestinian issues could spill very easily into anti-Semitism.
I have also seen how events in Israel can bring problems for Jewish communities around the world. One summer a few years ago when things kicked off in Gaza, a Molotov cocktail was thrown against the door of the reform synagogue in Brussels, Belgium, and in my shul in Luxembourg we discovered around this time that someone had smashed the glass in our front door with a rock. We repaired the door with stronger glass. In such a situation it’s all too easy to blame the victim – that Israeli aggression in Gaza increases the vulnerability of Jewish communities in Europe and around the world to be attacked. But again this is an example of our tendency to rely on the ease of false assumptions. And yet, I understand my fellow Jews who blame Israel for anti-Semitism. I just believe it’s misguided.
Israel exists in a difficult neighbourhood. It’s our only Jewish state. It’s no longer a young country - we will celebrate its 75th birthday next Spring. And we should celebrate the miracle of its existence and its success. It remains a refuge for Jews around the world in their time of need – just look at the many thousands of Jews from both Ukraine and from Russia who have flocked their since war broke out in February. As Golda Meir – Israel’s first and so far only female Prime Minister - said fifty years ago – “We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel.” She would have had a lot to rejoice about in this modern Start Up Nation. And yet – obviously – Israel has her share of problems. Israel is not a perfect democracy. I worry about the upcoming elections and who will win them. I protest the occupation and discrimination both within and beyond Israel’s borders, even as I accept that every country has a fundamental priority to safeguard the welfare first and foremost of its own citizens.
Our torah portion this morning – from Nitzavim, chapter 29 of Deuteronomy – reminds us that we stand before God. All of us, from the loftiest chieftains and princes to the lowliest wood-cutter and water-carrier. We stand before God to renew the covenant. We are advised to keep our faith and to love God, so that we will flourish in the land that God promised to our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are reminded to keep the mitzvot – God’s commandments – and the laws written in the Torah. And like this we will return – tashuv - to God – this is our act of teshuva.
Whether we stand in Flushing or Falasteen, Queens or the Krayot, on Yom Kippur we are presented with a choice: life or death, blessing or curse. And on Yom Kippur we are urged to choose life. Our Reform Judaism, our progressive values dictate it also. That we should work for a better world for all of humanity. Not “progressive except for Palestine” but davka that Palestine, that Israel can shine as a light to the nations through its remarkable democracy and progressive values.