It is a moment I will never forget. Sitting in a crowded El Al airplane, holding hands
with new friends as we embarked on a journey of study and self discovery, having spent months
reading and packing and preparing for the trip, this first trip on my own, a trip across the globe to
the Jewish state.
It was almost shocking for a Midwestern teen to hear the flight attendants speaking in
Hebrew. The familiar announcements about flight times and using your seat as a flotation device
all set to the particular speech pattern of Hebrew – ancient and yet brand new, strange and
foreign, and yet already close to my heart.
This was the moment my love affair with Israel began, with the descent into Ben Gurion
airport during that summer of my first trip. It is easy to say that the world was a different place,
and that America was a different place – even the first Iraq war was still months away. Certainly
Ben Gurion airport was a different place, not nearly as modern as today. That day we
disembarked directly onto the tarmack, most of us kneeling and kissing the ground as we touched
the Land of Israel for the first time under the blue and white flag.
Terrorism was a concern, sort of, we were to be escorted by an armed guard at every
moment. But we felt as if that danger was far away, not something that could affect us directly.
Our overwhelming feeling was pride and love, a feeling we called “Am Yisrael” – that the
Jewish people, small in numbers, was thriving in our national home. That our people has
something beautiful to share with the world; that it thrives here, in the land of our ancestors, and
that it might shine to all corners of the world.
I still feel elevated when I land at Ben Gurion airport. I look forward to cab drivers
espousing Jewish philosophy while tearing through the streets, Jewish booksellers sitting and
playing backgammon in the park, comparing old war stories.
There is nothing like the warm rush of Shabbat in Jerusalem or Tzfat, matched only by the
warmth of a Jewish family welcoming you into their home for a meal. I am filled with pride
every time I enter the land, every time I am able to show our Jewish youth my Israel, the place
where I am Jewish first.
Where does that feeling live today? We rally in support of Israel, we send our money and
lobby our politicians. But fewer and fewer of us are going to visit, fewer of us feel our own
connection, and greater numbers of us, American liberal Jews, have concerns about the direction
Israel is headed. We swallow whole the news-cycle version of a conflict we do not truly
understand. We will be condemned to repeat the past if we forget it.
Couched in the relative comfort of life in America, we have profoundly forgotten the
narrative of our people – the ways in which countless countries have turned their backs on the
Jews – and the strength with which we rose from the ashes, the literal ashes,
to create living breathing Judaism in defiance of those who sought our destruction. And yes, we
did all of this in the one place where there has always been a Jewish presence, since before
recorded history: the birthplace and resting place of our ancestors. We have willed into being the
hope of two thousand years – to be a free people in our own land, in Zion and Jerusalem.
The word for this feeling is Zionism, which has developed, to some degree, a negative
connotation in some corners. I am proudly a Zionist, because I remember that our road to
autonomy has been paved with the blood, sweat and tears of generations of Jews who survived
all that the world could throw at them and stood up to declare their independence.
Today the only war we remember is an all-consuming media war. Such a small parcel of
land in the world and yet Israel occupies much of our international and political attention. Israel
has been constantly beset on all sides by armies who seek her destruction.
And despite her great persistence and strength, modern Israel is known more for images of
oppression than her many, many accomplishments.
Israel was born out of our shared story. Israel is our response to history, our way to
honor the past and build our future. The way we tell this Jewish story will become the very
foundation for a new generation of our people to build upon. It is the same story we retell every
year at the Passover Seder. “My father was a wandering Aramean, who found a land of his own
after surviving the narrow straights of Egypt.” We might as well read, my ancestors left Europe,
my parents left Russia, or Ukraine, or Poland, in search of the Golden Medina, the Promised
We are at home here in the United States, but only because so many built their Jewish
home in Israel. Our strength is their strength, and their freedom is our own. If we forget this
lesson of history, if we are not able to say those words now, or even to remember them, if we are
not able or willing to stand up for Israel,
then we dare not be surprised when no one stands up for us at all. There will always be some
bent on our destruction. It is time for us to take a stand.
Please do not mistake my intent, today of all days. To be a Jew means to live with
compassion and empathy for all, especially the oppressed. The Palestinians have been oppressed
for generations – used as pawns, slaughtered, driven from their homes. To carry on the dream of
Zionism, to hope and pray for a liberal, democratic Israel and to be willing to work towards that
goal, the only acceptable position is one that recognizes two narratives, and attempts a
For this is our High Holy Days. And while we pray for comfort and peace in our own
lives, we pray for peace and security for all people, nowhere are our prayers more needed than in
our homeland, our family in Israel. We simply cannot afford to wait while years of attacks and
counterattacks drag on, maiming yet another generation with images of war.
We cannot afford to watch while growing anti-Israel sentiment becomes rooted anti-Semitism in
Europe. Peace is the only path that might help us avoid going down that road again.
We are familiar with the catchphrases, the excuses and reasons why peace has not lasted
in the Middle East. We understand the complexity of the region, now more than ever. But our
understanding of these events has remained incomplete. We are guilty of the sin of
complacency, that has allowed us to watch the news with one eye open, and miss the critical
details. This historic moment calls us to embrace our Jewish narrative, to understand what
Israel’s path forward must look like. If you care about your own freedom, and the ethical values
that make this country great, then there is no moral choice but to support Israel, in what will
surely be known as her moment of destiny.
Let us attempt to set the record straight. As we begin our season of renewal, let us
answer the questions of Israel’s critics, and through real answers, nurture a renewed commitment
to Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel, and Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel – where our civilization
has grown and thrived for thousands of years. And let us attempt to understand the opportunity
before us now. What real chance is there now for peace?
The first and simplest question is, “why has peace with the Palestinians been so elusive?”
Israel has offered peace to her neighbors, time and time again, and those offers have been
rejected, time and time again. This is not because the Palestinian people do not want peace. I
have met many Palestinians who want peace. But within the Arab world the Palestinians are
being used by those with real power to further an age-old hatred that cannot be ignored. The
current conflict with the Palestinians is the tip of the iceberg –
the most visible front of the war between democracy and radicalized Islam, which becomes more
radical with every passing day.
When Western media outlets rely on twitter feeds and facebook accounts for background,
when they flatten history to a simple reporting of how many missiles were fired today and where
they landed – we miss the answer to this important question of “why?” Peace will come only
when there are two partners at the table, when moderate Islam produces a leader who can speak
for the will of the people and silence extremists.
A more difficult question to address is the perceived power differential that exists
between the Palestinians and Israelis. Why does it seem that Israel attacks defenseless
Palestinians from a place of such security? Is this not simply a case of David versus Goliath,
with the impoverished Palestinians playing the meek David, armed only with rocks, while Israel
protects its citizens with the Iron Dome?
In fact, the leadership of the Palestinian people has consistently kept them in poverty.
Rather than investing in infrastructure and building a civil society, first the PLO and now Hamas
have used their substantial funds to stockpile weapons in mosques, schools, and homes, use
civilians as human shields, and hoard literally billions of dollars in secret funds. Yassar Arafat,
who led the PLO until his death in 2004, received almost 3 billion dollars from the international
community which is still unaccounted for.
As forces like ISIS emerge from the chaos of the Arab Spring, forces from which even Al
Qaeda distance themselves, Israel remains democracy’s only friend, the only place in the Middle
East where human rights are even a conversation; the only place where citizenship equals the
right to vote, the only place where LGBT families, minorities of all stripes, where women are
given a voice and a home. Israel has its demons, certainly, but the oppression of the Palestinian
people is not one of them.
This is not a simple conflict. It is connected, in every way, to the forces of democracy
which battle radical Islam in every place on our planet, even here in the United States. Our
support of Israel is support for our way of life; it is as simple as that. The Palestinian leadership
invests in arms smuggling and hidden terror tunnels, maximizing casualties and engendering
international sympathies – while launching missiles every day – over six thousand since Israel
withdrew from Gaza – targeting Jews, any Jews.
Israel invests in the Iron Dome to protect its citizens and minimize casualties. Israel air
drops leaflets in Gaza neighborhoods warning of terrorist activity in the area and asking people
to leave so that they might go door to door in search of weapons caches, putting Israeli soldiers
at great risk, and attempting to protect the Palestinian people. How do we understand the
perception of Israel as strong while Palestinians remain weak? Because the Arab world has not
invested in the Palestinians, they have used the Palestinians as pawns in their war against Israel
and the West.
The Israel journalist Ari Shavit has offered a fresh look at prospects for peace in his new
book, My Promised Land. He argues that early Jewish settlers, the chalutzim, lived peacefully
alongside their Arab neighbors, and that while tension and conflict were perhaps inevitable, that
locally Arabs and Jews have always acted more like family. In cities and towns all across the
land, small communities have long been realizing the dream of peace through personal
relationships, and joint business ventures, by cultivating the land, and benefitting from their
efforts together. While global forces shake angry fists and wage war, villages and cities all over
Israel weave the bonds of friendship that lead to peace.
Decades of violence has done the most damage to those living side by side, in
neighborhoods and town, even in settlements. The utopia of peace had become reality.
Early settlers worked the land, to their own benefit and that of their Arab neighbors. The utopia
seems naïve now, but it is not hard to see its remnants on any visit to the holy land. Standing on
a rooftop overlooking East Jerusalem during my last trip to Israel, I commented that the world’s
three great Western religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam – they do not exist side by side in
Israel, and they never have. Looking down at the overlapping and crisscrossing stones of
mosques and church steeples, ancient streets and modern highways – it becomes clear that these
sister religions, these cultural cousins live right on top of one another, their stories are
intertwined. It would be as impossible to draw clear borders as it would be to separate out dark
sand from light on the banks of the Mediterranean. Peace will acknowledge this intimacy and
build upon it. Peace will come from a grassroots, shared vision of peace.
That peace is coming. For decades now the only question has been how many children
need to be sacrificed like Isaac led to the slaughter, like Ishmael left in the wilderness to die.
There is enough tragedy, enough victimization; both sides have growing support for a lasting
peace. When the Palestinians, especially moderate Palestinians are ready to work on their issues,
Israelis have proven they are prepared to come to the table and work towards peace.
In truth, there are only four issues separating the Palestinian leadership from the Israelis.
When facing one another at the table, a peace agreement will rest on four general compromises.
And both sides know what steps will be necessary. Since the Oslo Accords of 1993, both sides
have known the changes that a peace agreement will bring.
(1) Borders will be agreed upon, generally following the ’67 lines with few exceptions.
(2) Both sides will recognize the other’s sovereignty.
Hamas, whose very name means destruction, will drop from its charter any reference to pushing
the Jews into the Sea, and Israel will withdraw settlements from recognized Palestine. These
will be difficult but necessary steps.
(3) The status of Jerusalem. Both sides of this conflict claim Jerusalem as their own.
However, in my estimation, sixty years of Israeli rule have led to development, freedom and
access for all people. Arab control over the city for generations led only to snipers on the
rooftops. I pray that Israel maintains control of Jerusalem. The very foundations of peace
depend upon it.
(4) The final issue is what the Palestinians call their “right of return.” In recent
years Israel has taken a difficult look in the mirror to understand the Palestinian version of what
happened in 1948. It is true that in some places, Palestinians were exiled and even massacred.
For our people to come from Europe having seen decades of such violence against themselves
and their parents, it has been a difficult pill to swallow to come to understand the way in which
we treated the “other.” Peace will mean owning up to these injustices, and likely compensating
the Palestinians, accounting for the way in which they were forced from their homes in 1948, as
the Jews moved in. An actual “return” of Palestinians into land governed by Israel is not a
solution, but peace will mean a recognition of the “other’s” narrative.
Israel has already shown they are willing to take a hard line with their own people when
they believe that peace is honestly on the table. This is the peace plan, it is inevitable, it is
optimistic, and it is the only vision for peace on the table.
I understand why liberal American Jews have, in large measure, questioned the dream of
our grandparents to see a thriving Jewish state in our historical homeland. We have become
alienated by Israeli government policies which seem to offer no endgame other than stalemate.
There is only one road that leads to peace. It requires us, liberal American Jews, to
remain engaged, to build the kind of Israel we want to see, to support and fight for those agencies
on the ground who are building not merely a Jewish state, but a liberal democratic Jewish state.
Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic writes that “the Jewish ethical tradition is
not only about statehood and safety and survival, it’s also about a certain set of values. You have
to be committed to the concern for the dignity and the rights of non-Jews who are under your
control, whether they be in the West Bank or Gaza or Israel. And you have to be supportive of
their rights, because if you’re not concerned about their rights then the rights of Jews aren’t safe
Our people have suffered in every place, in every age. And finally we have rolled up our
sleeves, and have built a country out of the desert. We’ve told the world, “enough is enough,”
and have turned inward to create the only democracy in the Middle East,
with more start-up companies, more inventions, more Nobel prizes, more freedom, more success
than we’ve had any right to expect. This is our legacy, and our pride. And if we are to thrive in
the 21st century and beyond, we must all be willing to invest in this continuing narrative of the
Jewish people, and to work for peace.
At every joyous occasion our liturgy reminds us, “Od yishama b’arei Yehuda… kol
sasson v’kol simcha…” once again there will be heard in the cities of Judah, the voice of
happiness and celebration. It is a dream we are close to realizing, so that as planes filled with
young people continue to land at Ben Gurion, the voices of those Jewish pilgrims will sing
Hatikvah, and as they enter Eretz Yisrael they might kiss the hallowed ground.