We Need to Talk About Israel

Rabbi Sarah H. Reines
Evening Shabbat Sermon from March 10, 2023 / 18 Adar 5783

I have a confession to make. In my 25 years as a rabbi, I have never given a sermon about Israel. I have lots of reasons for that. 

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, my feelings for and thoughts about Israel are deeply intense and conflicting — it’s hard for me to find clarity for myself, much less express myself clearly to others.

Second, I have imposter syndrome. I don’t know enough — not enough history, not enough political nuance. I lived for a year in Israel and have visited several times. But I don’t have enough first-hand experience to claim any kind of authoritative voice. 

Third, I feel cowed by the thought that I can provide answers — answers to the tangle of challenges Israel faces, responds to and creates.

Fourth, it scares me. Whatever I say will trigger strong and barbed responses — responses that might cause people to leave a congregation or blackball a rabbi. A recent article about rabbis speaking about Israel from the bima described this phenomenon by its informal name, “Death by Israel Sermon.”

So there are plenty of reasons why I haven’t given sermons about Israel. And none of them are an excuse. Shame on me. I am breaking my own silence tonight after having spent time in Israel over the last several weeks at this critical moment in Israel’s history.  

Fascism is a real threat and religious zealots are in power. I joined hundreds of thousands of protesting Israelis — the largest number in Israel’s history. Air Force unit reservists are striking, tech companies are threatening pull outs. Orthodox preteen girls shoved, clawed at and spit on me and other liberal Jews praying at the Western Wall. Government officials are calling to wipe out Palestinian villages and encouraging police violence against Jewish protesters. While I was there, two young Jewish Israeli men from a nearby settlement were shot dead by a Palestinian resident of Hawara. Settlers responded by torching homes, cars and trees, stopping to offer evening prayers, and then continuing to terrorize this community.

So I’ll speak about Israel tonight and again in the future. I can’t promise I will speak with clarity or with the breadth and depth of knowledge I crave. I won’t provide answers, and what I say may upset you. But silence — individuals, clergy, politicians, congregations, organizations, nations —  has contributed to this tenuous place where we find ourselves. To be silent is to be complicit. It may not be too late for the change Israel needs. But that change will only have the possibility of happening if we confront truths and absorb perspectives that may anger us, frighten us or make us uncomfortable. 

I have reams of notes and articles, I’ve been swimming in facts. But for tonight, I would like to share three anecdotes. I’ll begin with something that happened in my very last hours in Israel. To get there, though, I first need to bring you back with me to 30 years ago, when Rabbi Davidson and I were first-year students at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

My husband, Rich, took an ulpan — an immersive Hebrew course offered by the city — and met Bassam, a Palestinian Christian living in East Jerusalem. We quickly became friends. Bassam joined me, Rich and my classmates at a dance club on my birthday. We celebrated with his community at his brother’s wedding. We shared many coffees at cafes and meals with his parents in their home. When Rich and I left our apartment at the end of the year, Bassam was there, heaving our suitcases in the cab and seeing us off with hugs and a few tears. 

We kept in touch for several years. Remember, this was 1992, so we mostly communicated by writing aerograms. Bassam loved American pop music, so Rich and I sent him recordings of WPLJ on cassette tapes. We talked about him coming to New York, us returning to Israel. But before either of those things happened, we lost touch. Rich and I moved a few times, lost an address book, and then there was really no way to find each other. We thought about Bassam a lot, but were always unsuccessful in tracking him down, even over social media.

Nine nights ago, I was spending the last hours of my trip to Israel at a restaurant in East Jerusalem. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I said to the owner, “This will sound like a crazy question. But do you know someone named Bassam? He would be in his 50s. He has a brother, Ibraham. The woman responded, “Bassam? He lives two minutes in that direction.” A customer overheard and hit Bassam on his speed dial. Fifteen minutes later, my friend was standing next to me. Muslim customers applauded when they saw their Christian neighbor embracing this American Reform rabbi, reunited after 30 years. 

This is Israel. 

And 30 years ago, this is where I would have ended the sermon I never gave. Because that is the Israel we want, the Israel we believe in, the Israel that inspires. But that is far from the full picture or the full story.

Bassam and I only had a short time to catch up. And what I heard saddened me. He and his brother are the last of their family and the last of their Christian community to live in the neighborhood anymore. Religious and political tensions within the Palestinian community, in addition to the military and political tensions coming from the Jewish community, became too much for them. 

Bassam lowered his voice when he told me that four years ago he applied for Israeli citizenship and was one of the small minority who received it. Without citizenship, it was becoming impossible for him to fully function as a tour guide who needed to travel inside and outside of the Green Line and country. “But,” he whispered, “some people don’t like that.”  

Bassam explained that despite everything, he didn’t want to leave. He was living with his wife and children in the house his family had owned for generations — under Ottoman rule, then British Rule. After 1948, his family worried for their future, and then in 1950, still in their home, they found they were living in Jordan. Then in ’67, East Jerusalem was occupied, and then in 1980 it was declared annexed. “Jordan, Palestine, Israel,” Bassam said. “I honestly don’t care what it is. I just want me and my family to be able to go to school, make a living, and enjoy our lives. I just want us to be regarded as full human beings, as people who have always had their home here, as people who belong here. I just want the basics.”

This, too, is Israel. 

Now, join me in Haifa, where I spent erev Shabbat two weeks ago tonight at Congregation Or Chadash, a vibrant Reform community. That night marked the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine and we had the privilege of hearing from Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, Ukraine’s only Reform rabbi. In the early months of the invasion he hid in the basement of a building, pastoring his congregation as much as he could virtually, before escaping to Haifa.

Rabbi Dukhovny is a Ukrainianborn child of a Holocaust survivor. His mother and her sister were saved by non-Jewish Ukrainians while the rest of their family was murdered in the camps. A month before the Russian invasion, during an interview, he was optimistic, believing that the U.S. and the U.K. would not abandon Ukraine. And then he said, “And if the worst really happens, we have a homeland: Israel.”

Just two weeks ago, I was listening to this man’s voice, trembling with emotion, expressing grief for his dispersed community and overwhelming gratitude for the safety Israel provided for him and so many other Jewish Ukrainians. The Zionist promise of a safe haven for Jews stood right before me. 

This is still Israel.

Now join me for the last anecdote I will share tonight. I spent my last three days touring the West Bank with 10 colleagues. A Jewish Israeli security guard named Avi accompanied our group. Avi is a secular man in his early 30s. I asked where he lived, and he told me Ein Kerem. If you don’t know, Ein Kerem is a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of West Jerusalem, home to Christian Holy sites and artsy cafes. If you’ve been to Hadassah Hospital, you’ve been to Ein Kerem.

Avi explained that he lives there instead of Tel Aviv because he seeks quiet. But he is realizing he wants a quiet that he may never find in Israel. He craves refuge from the noise and chaos and tumult and violence and suffering and shame. He described Ein Kerem as a settlement. When I reacted, he said, “Arab families lived there and then in 1948 they had to go. Now we live there. That’s a settlement.” 

Avi is planning to leave. He told me that he’s been saving his money and finally found some property he would like to buy in a quiet, forested area. Where? In Ukraine!

I reacted. And Avi responded, “It’s what I can afford. And if I can open my door and hear birds and see trees, what does it matter if I’m in Ukraine, or Italy, or America? Quiet and green —that’s all I need.”

This, too, is Israel. Israel is a place where young people — and now I’m talking about Jewish, non-Orthodox citizens of Israel — where young Israelis increasingly find themselves unable to economically or physically or emotionally or mentally or ethically feel at home. 

The irony deepens. It turns out Avi’s great grandparents came from Ukraine. Like Rabbi 

Dukhovny, his grandparents found a new beginning in Israel — this patch of land alive with the promise of a safe, productive, fulfilling future for themselves and their children. Now, only a few generations later, their Hebrew-speaking, army-trained, sabra descendant is planning to leave his ancestral homeland for the country they fled, where Jews have suffered some of the bloodiest massacres of our history, a country which is now a war zone.

Here is Avi on the left. It’s not a great picture of him. I snapped this picture to capture the vision of this seemingly lovely, well-maintained park. It’s in Kiryat Arba, a settlement adjacent to Hebron, and it is dedicated to Meir Kahane. Kahane was the ultra-nationalist founder of the Jewish Defense League and Kach, the Orthodox-nationalist party, who served one term in the Knesset before being convicted for acts of terrorism.

At the end of the park you will find the well-maintained grave of Baruch Goldstein. Goldstein was the American religious extremist, and member of the Kach party, who, in 1994, entered a mosque in Hebron and opened fire on 800 Palestinian Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125. You can see from the stones that people — Jewish settlers, mostly — still come to pay tribute. Itamar ben Gvir, the current minister of national security, is an admirer who had a picture of Goldstein hanging in his office. 

This is where we are now. This, too, is Israel.

There is so much I don’t know. But this I will state with surety: Israel exists and needs to exist. That cannot happen if it continues the unethical and illegal practice of occupation. That can only happen if it will reflect the values of its founders, as articulated in its Declaration of Independence: 

“Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

This last picture is taken in a refugee camp in Bethlehem. I am sharing it because I think that the little boy sitting down on the ground, and the wall painting of a little girl floating away while holding a bunch of balloons, capture the desire people have to stay in their homes, while yearning to escape. 

Most people just want the basics. We are all part of the same fabric. We can find a way to live in shared space. It’s happened at other times, in other places. Why not in Israel, in Jerusalem, in Palestine? And if not now, when?