Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Remembering the Promise With Its Obligation

Shacharit L'yom Kippur 5775
Most of you have heard this beautiful song by Naomi Shemer, z’l. The song was Shemer’s entry at the 1967 Israel Song Festival, and it won! If you listen to it carefully, it is a song about Jerusalem written at a time when Jews did not have access to the Old City. It is a song of longing; a song filled with memories
The last stanza ends with "If I forget thee Jerusalem", asher kula zahav, “which is entirely of gold,” a beautiful juxtaposition of a quote from Ps. 137 (“By the Rivers of Babylon …), combined with the main image of the song, that Jerusalem is the crown jewel of our people. The song was so popular that it soon became the unofficial National anthem of the State of Israel. But, why?
I’d venture to say that it is because remembering, NOT forgetting, is at its core, just as remembering our historical ties to the land of Israel is at the core of Zionism. Zionism is the idea that we can take a common memory, the longing to the return to Zion/Jerusalem, and turn it into a Modern political movement. Zionism is an interpretation of Jewish memory, and as such, it is an interpretation of what Judaism is.
The origins of our longing for Zion are found in the Torah. In the Book of Genesis, Bereshit, our ancestors were promised the land of Canaan by God. Although Zionism is largely a secular political movement, the idea of a “Promised Land,” plays an important role in how we see the Jewish past. Our Jewish memory is that we were given the Land of Israel, l’rishtah, as our inheritance, apparently without any conditions … at least until we get to the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, D’varim, when everything changes….
The Torah portion, which Bruce just read beautifully, and translated for us, begins with one of the most famous “covenants” between God and the Jewish people. First, the Torah makes clear that this covenant, brit, is incumbent upon those present at Mount Nebo, Jews and “resident aliens” alike, as well as upon all generations to come. Secondly, if we follow the Torah, God may “bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.” The opposite, of course, if we don’t.
This covenant introduces a new idea: Keeping the “promised land” is dependent on us living up to the teachings of the Torah. The difficulty of living up to the ethical values of the Torah have come to the forefront in recent decades. Some critics of Israel have equated Israel to South Africa during the Apartheid era, and point out that Israel cannot be a “Jewish” state, and also remain a democracy, at the same time.
In a recent paper from the Israel Action Network, a project of The Jewish Federations of North America titled “Israel: Jewish and Democratic,” the authors address the issues that Israel, as a liberal democracy, must resolve when it comes to the treatment of its minorities. Given the climate of violence in the area, the relationships between the Jewish state and its mostly Arab non-Jews creates tensions.
The Israel Action Network paper cites the example of a case brought to Israeli Supreme in 2000. The case was about an Arab citizen who was denied the right to buy State-owned land after it had been transferred to the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund. The Court ruled in favor of the Arab citizen, and stated that that these Zionist institutions, which are geared toward development of Jewish settlement in Israel, cannot be used to get around the fundamental obligation to treat all citizens equally. The ISC concluded:
“True, a special key to enter the house is given to the members of the Jewish people [Law of Return]. But once somebody is in the house as a citizen under the law, he enjoys equal rights, just like all the other members of the household… Hence there is no contradiction whatsoever between the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and complete equality between all of its citizens.”
The point is that in any democracy, there will be accommodations that need to be made to respect and expand the rights of minorities. This is why, we in America, still need a Civil Rights Movement, for instance. The problem, however, is that Israel is usually singled out as not doing the right thing. Many critics point to “the fact” that a true democracy must be cultural or religiously neutral. Israel, therefore, could not remain Jewish and democratic. 
I don’t know enough about constitutions around the world, but Alexander Yacobson does. Yacobson is a former Meretz activist and Peace Now member who supports of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yakobson wrote an article for Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper titled, “Israel can be both Jewish and democratic. Here's how.” He cites these examples:
“The Irish constitution, for example, starts with “in the Name of the Holy Trinity.” According to the constitution of Denmark, the Evangelical Lutheran Church “shall be the Established Church of Denmark.” Under a 2012 constitutional amendment in Norway […], “The Norwegian Church, an Evangelical-Lutheran Church, remains Norway’s Church; Specific provisions on the organization thereof are laid down by law,” […]. In both Denmark and Norway, the monarch must belong to the Lutheran Church.”
So, it can be done, so how is it possible that what is good for Norway or Denmark, is not good for Israel? That Israel is a Jewish state does not mean Israel is a theocracy. What this indicates is that, in the public sphere, Israel may reflect its core mission of serving as the nation state of the Jewish people. I am confident that Jewish values and ideals are compassionate and considerate towards non-Jews. The Torah is clear that we must treat the strangers, the resident aliens, with decency.
The fact that the non-Jews may experience discrimination is Israel is a reality. The Israel Action Network concludes:
“Living as a national or ethnic minority within a majority culture is never easy. The situation of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens is especially challenging, both ideologically and practically. They do face de facto discrimination in the workplace and in allocation of state resources and Israel’s government should be expected to do much more to address this issue.”
We could not agree more. We should be the first to hold Israeli leaders accountable but not because the constitutions of Ireland or Noeway say so, but rather because the ethical and moral teachings of the Torah compel us. Our common Jewish memory includes both the promise to settle the land and the obligation to live up to the ethical teachings of our Torah.
As Jews who live outside of Israel, in the Diaspora, our job is to continue our support for a Jewish and democratic state by insisting that Israel be treated fairly in the concert of the nations AND that Israeli leaders keep in mind the highest ethical teachings of our tradition. It is a work in progress, my friends, but we cannot despair or give up.
For two thousand years, our people read Parashat Nitzavim at our synagogues and listened to the phrase, “the land that you enter to possess;” and it meant nothing concrete to them, only an annual utterance of longing for a promised land. Im eshkachech yerushalayim, “If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem,” echoed a distant land. The words of the covenant we read today could not be applied. We had no way to undertake our part in this covenant, in “the land that we were about to enter.”
But we are not those Jews. We are blessed to live in a time when we can again put into practice the conditions of that covenant. As Jews living in this time of national renewal, we must again also remember how we commanded to act in the land that we were given. If we turn away from compassion and turn to nationalism as if it were a cult, then, Israel will embark on a very difficult path. If, on the other hand, we walk in God’s way and grant others the rights we claim for ourselves, then, Israel will be a thriving Jewish democracy.

In the year that has just began, may we always remember our common past, its promises and demands, so that we can look into the future with hope and with the certainty that our people has a brighter future for us all. 

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