D’var Torah: Shabbat after Trump’s Recognition of Jerusalem

Let me start off with an apology for the personal indulgence that is about to follow, because I am going to speak about myself this morning in order to introduce my relationship with the State of Israel to you, a topic which has not yet come up in my conversations with any of you.

By now you know quite a bit about me, including my feelings about American politics which I’ve tried to only mention when it has felt pertinent, when Torah has had a direct bearing on the issue of the day in American politics and when our Jewish teaching and tradition have required a particular response from us.

But this last week, Israel, which is one of the pillars of Jewish life, was in the news in a way that it has not been since I was hired as the rabbi of this community, and I see it as my duty to address it. Of course, I’m referring to the President’s announcement of American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his plan to move the American embassy there from its current location in Tel Aviv.

However, I have intentionally avoided speaking with you about Israel until now for fear of expressing a personal belief which might be at odds with what some of you believe, and possibly at odds with what Rabbi Smookler before me believes. I use the word “believe” instead of “think”, because the way that many of us (including me) relate to Israel is often deeply emotional; it’s something we feel and yes, believe, in our hearts – and even deeper, in our kishkes.

So, before I begin to speak about Israel, it’s important to me to try establish my bona fides with you, in the hope of explaining where I’m coming from, just how much Israel means to me and how I approach Israel from a place of profound love, before anything else.

In order to explain where I’m coming from, I need to begin in South Africa of my youth, where the army still had a policy of mandatory military service, which meant that all white males aged 17 who were not fulltime students, had to report for duty. By the mid 80s as I approached conscription age, the country was living under a permanent state of emergency and the army was increasingly fighting a brutal war against its own people in its attempt to suppress black South Africans and to reinforce the government’s policy of Apartheid.

One morning at a High School assembly, the 11th Grade boys were instructed to stay behind after everyone else had been dismissed. Once the others had left, we were handed military registration papers which we were told to take home, fill out together with our parents, and mail in. I immediately decided for myself that there was no way I was going to take up arms in an immoral struggle against an oppressed majority, and so I promptly deposited my military registration papers in a trash can in the boys’ bathroom at school.

I never discussed this with my parents because on the one hand, I didn’t want them to try discourage me out of fear for the long arms of the law in what was essentially a police state, and on the other hand, I didn’t want to make them to complicit in what I knew was an illegal personal campaign. Especially my father, who worked as a prosector for the South African Department of Justice.

Maybe it was a foolish plot, but at fifteen, passions already begin to run deep, and at that time a passion that counterbalanced my contempt for the injustice of Apartheid, was my love of Israel. I had decided that if somehow the South African military came looking for me, I would hightail off to Israel, because I planned on ending up there in any case (I was planning on going to study there for my undergraduate degree with a possible view to immigration).

It was not lost on me at the time that Israel had it’s own conscription policy, but I was able to explain to myself that even though I considered myself a pacifist, if necessary I would sooner participate in a national struggle for survival that I felt belonged to me, than help prop up an illegitimate regime that stayed in business by perpetrating crimes against humanity against tens of millions of people on a daily basis.

My family had always been deeply connected to the State of Israel. Both my mother’s and father’s sides were from Lithuania, a Jewish community which was renowned for its participation in the political Zionist movement. My father used to tell the story of how the day after the establishment of the State of Israel, he ran inside the house with the newspaper and translated the article about the new Jewish state for his Zeida who until his dying day, only spoke Yiddish. The first question his Zeida asked upon hearing that an independent Jewish state existed for the first time in 2,000 years, was: what will happen in Israel if and when a Jew kills another Jew?

We’re an upbeat bunch, us Silberts.

Some 25 years later, war would break out in Israel on Yom Kippur, just weeks before my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. In a heartbeat my parents called the caterer and the hall, and cancelled the party. The knew without any hesitation that whatever funds they would have spent on a celebration, were needed then more than ever in Israel. It wasn’t that my parents had all that much money back then in any case, but there was no conflict for them about what to do with that which they had.

When my parents first travelled overseas in their early forties, it was to Israel, and when they gave my siblings their first gift of foreign travel, that too was to Israel.

My first overseas trip was as a High School Senior, when a new opportunity was made available for the first time ever to Jewish high school kids throughout the world: a trip to Poland, which was still Communist at the time, to visit the Nazi death camps and the scattered traces of what once was Jewish life in Poland. After an exhausting week in Poland, surrounded by Jewish death, we boarded a plane and flew to Israel.

We arrived late at night, tired, emotionally drained, disoriented. It was my first time riding the long, twisty climb to Jerusalem, and when the bus came to a stop and we got out, we were told to walk straight and turn right, to find ourselves standing in the plaza in front of the Western Wall, lit up against a pitch-black night sky. More than at any other time in my life, I experienced what it meant to come home to a place I had never been before.

I will never outgrow my initial awe at seeing the Western Wall. It was a homecoming I’ve experienced time and time again – I think 9 times, maybe 10? – yet it’s something I never tire of. For me, the excitement of laying eyes upon it each time I return, is unrivaled by any other place I’ve visited since.

There’s a modern Hebrew song about the Western Wall, the Kotel, which bears the words:

יש אנשים אם לב של אבן, ויש אבנים אם לב אדם
There are people with hearts of stone, and there are stones with the hearts of people

These are the stones, these are the hearts, these are the people, this is the home I was already determined as a teenager to make my own some day, and if it was to be just a few years later as a college student in Israel, or a few years sooner as a high school kid seeking refuge from the South African Army; either way, I knew I would get there.

Well, I didn’t get there. As it turned out, the army never did notice my absence, so no emergency escape plan was ever necessary. My plans to study there were also cancelled as my mother became seriously ill and there was no way I could leave her. We lost her in the summer before I began college, and because I was already enrolled at the University of Cape Town, I started my undergraduate studies and eventually completed them there. As luck would have it, I unexpectedly came across a unique opportunity to attend Graduate School at Brandeis University outside of Boston, one thing led to another and almost 24 years later, here I am, having visited Israel many times but never having stayed for longer than a few weeks at a time.

And so, I still find myself relating to Israel from afar, watching with love and interest, and increasingly often with concern. But as I watch on together with other Jews in the diaspora, I feel that there’s a growing intolerance of certain perspectives about Israel and a readiness to dismiss and even kick people out if they dare to hold certain opinions. And ironically, these are ideas about Israel which are expressed every single day inside Israel, in a dynamic and democratic environment, yet which seem to be increasingly forbidden when expressed outside of Israel.

Israel, together with Torah and the Jewish people, is one of the three pillars of Judaism, as I see it. (Of-course, God overarches all of these.) My friends, it’s important to me that we are able to speak openly and honestly with each other about the topic of Israel too.

But the first rule for any discussion has to be an agreement to enter the discussion with respect for each other, and to recognize that we hold strong opinions because we care, and other people are allowed to care as much as we do, even if we disagree. But as Ellen Gertzog recently put it, we need to listen in order to understand each other as opposed to listening just so that we can react to each other.

With this topic, like with any other topic that I raise with you, I invite you to disagree with me. Mine is most definitely not the only legitimate opinion on the matter; I certainly don’t mean for this to be a bully pulpit. But I must tell you that like many, many Israelis, I am deeply troubled by the policies of the current Israeli government, which I feel place an ever widening gap between Israel and peace. This certainly hurts the Palestinian people who soon will outnumber Jewish Israelis, but it also hurts Israel. Of course the Palestinian people and even much of the Muslim world have a LOT to answer for, but right now I’m speaking about us.

Former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, wrote in the NY Times last week:

For all of Israel’s great achievements in its seven decades of statehood, our country now finds its very future, identity and security severely threatened by the whims and illusions of the ultranationalist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In its more than three years in power, this government has been irrational, bordering on messianic. It is now increasingly clear where it is headed: creeping annexation of the West Bank aimed at precluding any permanent separation from the Palestinians.

This “one-state solution” that the government is leading Israel toward is no solution at all. It will inevitably turn Israel into a state that is either not Jewish or not democratic (and possibly not either one), mired in permanent violence. This prospect is an existential danger for the entire Zionist project.

And then we have a week like the one we’ve just had.

Friends, you already know that I don’t hold Donald Trump in high regard. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to you that I don’t believe he did what he did for the benefit of Israel, and I don’t believe that he did it for the benefit of the United States. I believe he did it for the benefit of Donald Trump. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post:

If this move were part of a larger strategic plan, that would be one thing. In that case, Trump’s announcement would have been carefully plotted out, coupled with serious policy expectations, or it would have been part of a series of measures to reassure both sides. Instead, it appears to be a one-off decision, designed largely to delight core elements of Trump’s base at home — evangelical Christians and pro-Israel donors. The only strategic aspect appears to be that it will help shore up the GOP base on the eve of Roy Moore’s senatorial contest in Alabama. That’s not diplomacy; that’s pandering.

Should Jerusalem be recognized as Israel’s capital? Yes, of course it should. It should have been recognized as such 70 years ago. But now?! My fear is that doing so now only undermines Israel and puts its security at risk, and I love Israel too much to want that for Israel.

And of all things, to “recognize” the sanctity of Jerusalem as our capital, to recognize the sanctity of land in the same week that he violated the sanctity that the national parks in Utah have for American Indians by so severely reducing their protective status and making way for oil drilling on that land, is an outrage.

Let me end with a hope, a bracha, for my friend Susan who lives in Jerusalem and who wrote this week on Facebook:

Wrong time. Let it be the gift for making peace through agreed on and internationally recognised borders. I’m sick with fear at the violence that might erupt and in wondering where my son is.

Susan’s son is in the army and she is not permitted to know where he is posted this weekend in case it’s in an operational area. May he return safely to his mother, may the Jewish people yet live safely and peaceful in ארץ קדשינו – in our Holy Land – and may the Palestinian people yet find lives of dignity, independence and peace, alongside the Jewish homeland.

כי מציון תצאי תורה ודבר ה׳ מירושלים
Our Torah descends to us from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל על כל יושבי תבל
May the One who makes peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel and to all within God’s realm

Shabbat Shalom.