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The blog of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia's Reform Jewish Synagogue
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Rabbi Maderer: Reform Zionism

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 1:45pm

This article originally appeared in the March issue of the Rodeph Shalom Bulletin.

Last month, I expressed here, and in a sermon, my gratitude about my extended family’s trip to Israel. Several things made it deeply meaningful. I have an almost life-long relationship with Israel, having begun my visits as a child. In preparation, I read from Rabbi Larry Hoffman’s book about spiritual pilgrimage to Israel. My children were moved to journal every night we were there, and for a progressive lens, my family traveled with the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). The ARZA-led experience was important to me because it meant a critically thinking guide whose approach would feed my passion for Reform Zionism. Last month, I shared with you one critical aspect of Reform Zionism– that we need to own our place in Israel, our place at the Western Wall/Kotel, and our authentic place in Judaism.

This month, I would like to share another critical aspect of Reform Zionism. Much like Reform Judaism is devoted to cultivating a meaningful Jewish community and also caring for the other, Reform Zionism is devoted to the love for and support of the Jewish homeland and also caring for the other. Support for a Two-State Solution indicates the commitment to a home for two different peoples–both Jews and Palestinians. Too often, leadership voices and the media express polarizing views, as if we may only advocate for the Jews or for the Palestinians, as if human beings may care either for our own or for the other. I believe this is the false choice of those on the right who won’t speak of hard truths about the occupied territories to be spoken, and of those on the left who neglect to be transparent that Boycott Divestment Sanctions does not seek to make Israel a fairer place, it seeks to eliminate Israel. In a state established in the wake of the Holocaust and where over a million Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries landed, in a state where security is so different that my hotels had bomb shelters but no chain locks on the room doors, and in a state that has occupied territories of other peoples, I cannot see how either the far right or the far left can alone lift up the truth.

Leadership voices and the media often also make the mistake of characterizing Israelis as monolithic or Israeli attitudes as an extension of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attitudes. In my short time on my recent trip, I was privileged to share moments with Israelis. In these moments, when I learned about their attitudes, I wished you were there. I wished you could hear the depth of love for Israel and for others, and the nuances that I heard over and over.

I am thinking of Joseph, the driver on our jeep tour of the North. His parents were from Morocco and his wife’s parents’ family had lived in the Galilee ever since the 1870’s when they bought land from the Rothschilds.

I am thinking of our guide in the Golan Heights who spoke in such a heartfelt way about the tragedy in Syria. He spoke passionately about his and Israel’s readiness to return the Golan Heights to Syria if only Syria would recognize Israel’s right to exist.

I am thinking of our guide on the bus who noted how quickly and easily we would be going through the checkpoints, and how different that experience is for Palestinians. And in the same breath as his true empathy for the Palestinians, he spoke about the need for security.

The people I have met in Israel just don’t fit into the boxes on the left or on the right. They are living it and experiencing a human reality that is more complex than polarizing over-simplification. Actually, what many Israelis perceive and express sounds to me a lot like Reform Zionism.

For an outstanding summary of Reform Zionism’s understanding of Two States for Two Peoples, please read the piece by the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, below.

The Issue Remains: Two States for Two Peoples
As referenced in Rabbi Maderer’s article, this piece by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, was originally published on reformjudaism.org on January 23, 2019.

Because of my deep admiration for Michelle Alexander’s brilliant work on the unfinished tasks of civil rights, I eagerly read her recent New York Times piece, hoping she’d shed new light on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Instead, this endlessly complicated and painful conflict was simplified in Alexander’s narrative, with Israel shouldering complete responsibility for the deplorable status quo. Right-wing voices that put the blame solely on Palestinians make the same reductionist mistake.

Let me be perfectly clear: As a lifelong Zionist, I believe in the justice and rights of the Jewish people. I also believe in the justice and rights of the Palestinian people. That’s why I believe in two states. As the leader of the largest Jewish movement in North American life, I and so many of my colleagues have been anything but silent in the face of the painful reality for Palestinians living under occupation.

But calling for an end to the occupation is not the same as resolving the underlying issues of security for Israelis and sovereignty for Palestinians.

One can be deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being and fully supportive of the right of Palestinians to a homeland that is side-by-side with Israel. The security barrier and checkpoints were not created to oppress Palestinians, but rather to save Israeli lives during the waves of terrorism that blew up Israelis on buses and in cafes. Removing them without addressing the root causes of the conflict will unleash, not quell, the violence. And yes, the proliferation of settlements in the West Bank causes much Palestinian suffering and makes the possibility of a two-state solution more unlikely.

That’s why our Reform Movement has long opposed Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. The occupation threatens the very Zionism we hold dear – the living expression of a Jewish democratic state. It causes pain and hardship to the Palestinians and alienates Israel from friends and allies around the world. Only two states for two peoples, both states viable and secure, living side-by-side in peace, will bring this tragic conflict to its long-awaited end.

But honesty must resonate from the right and the left, from all people of good will. Let’s briefly examine three points: Gaza, the lack of negotiations, and the situation between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Gaza is a humanitarian disaster. There is plenty of blame to go around for sure. Let’s include Egypt along with Israel and talk, too, about the bifurcation and cynicism of the Hamas-Fatah divide when we discuss Gaza. To debate Gaza with no mention of Hamas rule obscures the complex reality. I recently visited with Israeli residents along the Southern border. Yet, Hamas, which cynically commandeered the peaceful protests that were taking place inside Gaza, encouraged kites be flown across the border to set aflame miles of Israeli fields, and has furrowed tunnels that open up into kindergartens and dining rooms in order to conduct covert operations inside Israel.

There must be a return to active negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, the current Palestinian Fatah-led government, which President Abbas has led for 18 years, is itself in a stalemate.

There is alas, here too, enough blame to go around. The current Israeli government is a right-wing government that has not encouraged negotiations and has, instead, supported the growth of more settlements, making a two-state solution appear intractable.

The Netanyahu government continues to rule by appealing to dividing people, similar to what, alas, is happening elsewhere at this moment – Brazil, Poland, Hungary, the United States. These efforts are being fought not only by our movement here in North America and in Israel, but also by many Israelis. We fight in Israel for a shared society that will embody the very values that Israel’s founders called for: “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…” – values that continue to inspire all of us who love the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, the situation between Jewish and Palestinian citizens (who comprise 21 percent of the population, based on the 1967 international borders) within Israel is different from the broad strokes too often painted by critics. Today, the dean of Israel’s top law school is a Palestinian citizen of Israel; 41 percent of the students at Haifa University and 22 percent at the Technion (known as Israel’s MIT) hail from this population, and while discrimination continues to be a problem, the trend line – despite the politicians – is moving in a different direction.

Of course, the world keeping silent will not make Israelis or Palestinians more secure or more free. But neither will the status quo improve if one-sided narratives prevail, reducing this complex conflict to a morality tale with one side holding all the moral virtue.

I look forward to open, balanced, and honest dialogue with all who want to shape a better tomorrow for Israelis and Palestinians.


Parashat Ki Tisa: Religious Fanaticism in Israel

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 11:01am

Israel’s non-profit SpaceIL launched its spacecraft from Florida’s Cape Canaveral last night in a bid to become the fourth country to make a soft landing on the moon. The unmanned craft, called “Beresheet,” a reference of course to the first word in the Torah, began an approximate seven-week journey to the moon, from where it will send back images of the rocky surface and conduct experiments on the lunar magnetic field.

This should be a time of pure joy and celebration for Israel. Yet it is not. In the same week in which we saw the best of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision, we also saw a much uglier side of the Jewish State.

This week PM Netanyahu courted members of the fanatic and racist Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power) party to join the right-wing Jewish Home party in the coming elections.  It came with offers of prominent positions in the government like Minister of Education.

Otzmah Yehudit have no place in Israel’s government. As Rabbi Josh Weinberg of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) wrote, “The same people who support annexation and promote separate labor and delivery hospital wings for Jews and Arabs could potentially be responsible for educating Israel’s youth.” Or as the organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights puts it, “Otzma Yehudit is comprised of “extremists who celebrate violence and preach genocide.”

These descriptions of the Otzmah Yehudit party and its leadership are not surprising as they are the direct disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose own party was deemed illegal in the late 80’s and early 90’s as a result of his racist ideology and incitement to violence. Kahane was even convicted of domestic terrorism in the US before making aliyah and now Netanyahu is courting his protegees in a last ditch effort to hold on to power.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read about the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. Quick review: Israelites are clearly told in the 10 Commandments not to make idols. Big surprise – they make a golden calf. God and Moses get really mad and then we read (Exodus 32:26-29):

Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and… all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, “Thus says the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day. And Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves to the ETERNAL this day—for God will bestow a blessing upon you today.”

You heard that correctly. In our very Torah we read that Moses and God command the Levites to slaughter 3,000 of their brethren who took part in the idol worship. And to top it off the, Levites are then rewarded for their zealotry with God’s blessing. It is disturbing to say the least.

We often do not focus of this part of the portion. It is troubling; it is difficult and uncomfortable to think that our own sacred text contains fanatical and fundamentalists streams. It is hard to acknowledge that, although rejected by the majority of our people, Judaism contains violence and extremism.

But we must shine a light on the difficult truths of ancient Israel and the modern State of Israel. To ignore these realities and put our heads in the sand, does a disservice to Judaism and to Israel. We are taught to engage, to question, to wrestle with the challenging aspects of our religion and peoplehood.

And when we find that those aspects of our tradition or those factions of our people are morally wrong, we are commanded to denounce them. In the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, called The Holiness Code, we are told in no uncertain terms that we have an obligation to tochecha, to rebuke, our kinsman who have taken the wrong path. It is without a shadow of doubt that Netanyahu has gone too far in welcoming this fringe, hate group into his new potential government and we must speak out.

Many like our own Reform Movement, the ADL, the New Israel Fund, AIPAC, and the AJC have made public statement condemning Netanyahu’s move to legitimize right wing fanatics; yet many other Jewish organizations have remained silent. Now is the time for every Jewish organization to speak out against Otzma Yehudit and their reprehensible ways. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.

We need to speak out because of our love for Israel. The commandment of tochecha (rebuke) from Leviticus is immediately preceded by the commandment to, “love our neighbors as ourselves.” The two are intrinsically connected. As Anat Hoffman, head of the Israeli Religious Action Center, a civil right organization protecting women, Arabs, progressive Jews and others is apt to say, “I show Israel I love her, by sueing her.”

Similarly, Rabbi Jeff Salkin, in a recent article about Otzmah Yehudit reminds us:

We must double down on our support of Israel. Now, more than ever before, we must make a loud, feverish, pointed distinction between the Netanyahu government and Israel itself. We must make a loud, feverish, pointed distinction between this government, and its partners, and Zionism itself.  Just as it is necessary for those who oppose the Trump administration — in the name of American ideals — we, too, must oppose the Netanyahu administration — in the name of Zionist ideals. Again to use the American example: some separate themselves from, and disavow, the current administration. But, they do not separate themselves from, and disavow, the United States of America itself.

Here at Rodeph Shalom, we take seriously the words of Rabbi Salkin. We do not disavow, we do not separate ourselves from Israel. To this end, next Shabbat we will be hosting two student filmmakers from Israel. The two students, one Arab/Muslim and one Jewish are from Beit Berl College – an exemplar of diversity and coexistence.

Beit Berl College prepares Israel’s educators, civil servants, artists, and filmmakers to make a difference. It trains leaders for the next generation who will shape the face of Israeli society for generations to come. The college is founded on the idea that Israel’s diverse population is its advantage. They truly believe that, “Israel cannot afford to leave anyone behind.” Even the college’s very location, “at the meeting point between one of Israel’s high-tech centers (Kfar Saba and Raanana) and the Triangle region of Israel’s Arab towns (Tira and Taibeh), is a living laboratory for building a shared society.”

Please join us next Shabbat for a film screening, discussion, and of course, falafel, right after services.

So, back to the rocket. Beresheet will travel approximately 4 million miles on its journey, circling the earth multiple times to gain speed before it slingshots toward the moon. It is scheduled to land on April 11th. Israel’s upcoming elections are on April 9th.

I pray that on the 11th, we will be celebrating two amazing accomplishment for Israel and the Jewish people – landing on the moon and the rejection extremism and bigotry.

Theodor Hertzl said, “Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah… If you will it, it is no dream.”

If we will it, it is no dream:

To make the desert bloom

To land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon

To have a moral, democratic Jewish State in the in the Land of Israel that lives up to our Jewish values of tolerance, inclusion, and respect.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon – May this be God’s will


Shabbat Shalom