An Israel Update

By Rabbi Michael Holzman

Over my years at Rodeph Shalom I hope that I have been able to communicate my somewhat complicated relationship with Zionism and Israel.  While I certainly call myself a Zionist and believe firmly that there needs to be a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, I am also pained and frustrated with the recent direction of the state.  That pain comes from what I see as the corrupting influence of Israel’s amazing military and economic power.  Setting this power against past and current threats to Israel’s very existence is a recipe for confusion, ethical-lapse and the abuse of the other.  And now throw in the intransigent position of the greater Arab world and the particulars of Palestinian politics and that recipe becomes a potent cocktail for disaster. 

Not happy stuff.

My opinions and feelings continue to evolve with each new experience.  In the last month, four events stand out in my mind—two positive and two negative—that renew both my hope and my confusion.

First, we were all so impressed with Israel’s response to the Haiti earthquake.  (I reject the claims by some that the response was a public relations stunt, and the complaints that Israel should really be helping the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.  These are cynical positions that ignore the reality that the state of affairs with Hamas in Gaza is a war, plain and simple.  Is the blockade pleasant?  Absolutely not, but it is a legitimate tool of war.)  What amazed me about the Haiti earthquake response was that the soldiers on the ground, and in widely circulated news videos, concerned themselves with saving lives, not the typical press-inspired controversies.  As Israel has done in so many world wide disasters (both natural and man-made) they sent their expertise, equipment, personnel and canines to make a difference.  They were the most efficient, effective and advanced teams on the ground.  And that’s what mattered, not cynical voices trying to undermine what was a legitimate good deed.  This is what Israel does best—develop technology, respond quickly, and give without question.

Then, I was dismayed and angered by the continued influence of extreme religious authorities who arrested and detained women who wanted to commit the horrible and disgusting sin of  —  guess!  Wearing a Tallis and carrying a Torah at the Western Wall!  (gasp!)  These events demonstrate two things, both quite disturbing:  1.  The ultra-Religious have crept their way into even more state power, and 2.  Judaism itself is headed for a massive schism as the growing power of the religious Right sends it even further into the recesses of atavism and pre-modern isolationism.  Once upon a time, the ultra-Religious either opposed the State of Israel, or left all governmental matters to the secularists.  But now they have discovered the power of a government to affect what they see as theological goals.  Very disturbing.  And those goals seem to be going backwards in an attempt to create a Taliban-style autocracy dominated by medieval thinking.  This is why the Orthodox recently moved to ban all Internet use amongst their followers. 

And as the month rolled on, I heard perhaps the most positive news in a long while.  A Palestinian developer, backed with financing from Qatar, has struck ground on a massive new residential development in the suburbs of Ramallah.  This new Palestinian settlement, Rawabi, is marketed towards the Palestinian upper class.  As described by NPR:  “In Rawabi, by contrast, a series of roads will loop down the hillside, lined with residential buildings connected by footpaths, designed for the Palestinian middle class, Masri said. Residents will have ample parking and access to parks, schools, mosques and a church.”  This type of development is exactly what Israel needs in order for Palestinians to feel a stake in the Peace Process.  People who live in a slum have little sake in the future of the slum, but when they own a home next to “footpaths” and roads that “loop down the hillside,” the future becomes much more important.  This is a sign of hope.  Now the question is, when the developer needs Israeli approval to bring in construction materials, or to build a road near a Jewish settlement, how will the Israeli government react?  This type of decision has tremendous impact on any future peace. 

Then fourth piece of news about Israel was deeply negative, and raises serious doubts about the future of Judaism itself.  A report in the January 29, 2010 Forward,  described the release of a new book that “reads like a rabbinic instruction manual outlining acceptable scenarious for killing non-Jewish babies, children and adults.”  The book, which appears to be a typical study book—like any gilded and embossed volume of Talmud or Maimonides—is called The King’s Torah (Torah Ha melech), and it contains texts and commentaries compiled by the Old Yosef Chai yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yizhar. 

Nothing in the book is especially new.  In the Torah God commands Moses to annihilate multiple groups, and Samuel commands King Saul to do the same.  Jewish texts are no stranger to genocide against non-Jews.  This is not a source of pride for us.  Rather, for millennia rabbis and communal leaders have sought to limit, overturn and restrict such texts from our communal canon.  What’s new about this new disgusting volume is that it highlights texts once downplayed and holds them up as justification for the most heinous of crimes.  The book has already sold 1,000 copies and another 1,000 are being printed. 

While this is incredibly disturbing, we should all be aware that this is not a mainstream organization.  The Yeshiva has been targeted by the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, and police have arrested leaders in the past for attacks on arab villages, and the arson of a mosque.  Major religious leaders in Israel have denounced the book, but some have endorsed it.  In fact, in 2006-2007 the yeshiva that publishes it received funds from the Israeli Ministry of Education, and in 2007-2008 from an American not-for profit, the Central Fund of Israel. So while this is a fringe yeshiva, it remains under the umbrella of legitimacy from some major leaders. 

Where does this lead us?  Israel is so far from monolithic.  There are signs of hope everywhere.  And there are signs of dismay.  The Goldstone report continues to hang over Israel like a Sword of Damocles.  What we can do is add our voice to the conversation, to write our letters to the editor, our editorials, to speak to our friends, to write our emails, to join organizations, to speak up.  As a very young nation, the narrative of Israel is constantly in question.  It is no longer a weak nation on the brink of disappearance, and it is not the arch-evil despot of power portrayed by some on the left.  Israel contains elements of incredible good, and powerful intolerance and hatred.  Every time we visit, every time we speak, we have a vote in what the future of Israel will look like.  Our job is to decry books like the sickening Torat HaMelech and to pressure Israel to change its policy towards women at the Western Wall.  Our job is to pay attention to the future of Rawadi and to forward to everyone in our address books the video clips about Israelis in Haiti.  That is how the future narrative will be written.