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Yom Haatzmaut Sermon

My sermon delivered on Friday, April 27th when we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day.

I have often wondered why sympathy is more compelling than joy. Why does Yom HaShoah appear to be more observed than Yom Haatzmaut? Why does our people’s suffering draw us in more than our celebrations? We appear to respond more to the call of Jewish suffering and victimhood than to our joys and celebrations.

A friend could be a case in point. He will respond to my posts about the Holocaust with comments such as, “That was an amazing video.” Yet about my love of Israel he will say, “You are going there again!?”

I worry about American Jews’ ongoing commitment to Israel. About remembering the Holocaust I have less doubt given the extraordinary number of Holocaust museums that dot the American landscape. We live in an age where high school students across this land read Anne Frank’s diary and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Even in school districts where there are no Jews, students learn about the Holocaust. That was part of the power of the film “Paper Clips.”

My friend Reverend Hart could be more evidence of this truth. He read these books growing up in Holland, Michigan. Yet the first Jew with whom he had a lengthy discussion about these events was with his friend the rabbi. How many have read Shai Agnon, Amos Oz, AB Yehoshua or David Grossman in their schools? Such Israeli authors are relegated to college classes on Israeli literature.

And so seeing the Jews as victims, even seeing ourselves as victims still holds greater appeal. This is what the Zionist revolution was intended to cure. Its goal was to end Jewish victimhood and replace it with Jewish power. But these days we appear offended by Jewish power. We recoil when we see images of Israeli soldiers hitting protestors. We should of course be offended by such abuses of power. We are upset when we see Prime Minister Netanyahu wave his finger at President Obama and lecture him on Jewish history. We should be upset by such a lack of diplomacy. It would be better to offer such lectures in private. But this should not mean that Jewish power is offensive.

One should not confuse one soldier’s mistakes with the Israeli army’s mission; one should not confuse its leaders’ occasional missteps with the legitimacy of history’s first Jewish democracy. Israel has succeeded in restoring the Jewish people to history. Because of Zionism we are writing our own history—for better or worse.

The reality of Israel is messy and imperfect. A story. Only yesterday I joked about Israeli brashness with our sofer. The Torah scribe was at our offices to repair our scroll. For me it was also an occasion to learn more about his craft. We spoke about a computer program that checks the Torah scroll for errors. He shared with me that when he first used the program it kept telling him that he was making his koof wrong. Apparently his are more curved than the program’s programmed angular dimensions. Every time it saw his koof it would scream, “Mah zot—what’s this?” I joked, “It must be an Israeli program.” If it was made here it would say, “Please check your koof.” It was of course made in Israel.

Our American sensibilities are uncomfortable with Israeli brashness, with its vigorous debates, with its yelling and screaming, its imperfections. The reality of Israel cannot be so easily packaged.

Israel is no longer some idealized memory of a distant past. While it is tied to ancient Israel and its kingdom, it is not a memory, it is not a dream, it is no longer only a prayer. This is part of the dilemma. The Holocaust is a memory. And memories can be fashioned. Israel is a living, every day, reality. And realities can not be packaged. This is why more often than not our support for Israel is couched in terms of portraying Israel as a victim in need of our support. That is appealing—that fits into our programmed packaging. We receive letters asking for our support of Israel because it suffers Hamas rocket attacks—still, and is threatened by Iran’s nuclear weapons. I am not trying to suggest that Israel does not face grave threats. I am not trying to minimize the need for the IDF to remain strong and vigilant, and for us to advocate for the US to continue its unwavering support of Israel.

I do however object that these appeals strike this note of suffering and victimization. I think it only feeds Palestinian rejectionism. For decades the Palestinians and their leadership have portrayed Israel as a European transplant in the Arab Middle East, as Europe’s guilt offering for the Holocaust. Our continued use of this language of suffering and victimization undermines the very support we seek to engender.

We speak of Israel as a victim in need of our saving. And then we are saddened when Israel does not fit into this image, when it does not live up to its highest ideals. We are embarrassed when we see it fall short of our idealized visions. We grow distant when its leaders speak more like conquering kings intoxicated by the holiness of the land rather than compassionate prophets intoxicated with the sacredness of the pursuit of justice. I find such occasions to be instead moments to engage even more with Israel; I find them to be moments not of distance but of nearness. I believe it is my duty to support Israel and to help it live up to its self-proclaimed vision.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence states: “Israel 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 of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…” We desperately want it to be perfect, to fit into some neat packaging. When it does not, we grow distant. Too often we then revert to a language of victimization. We cry, “Israel is under attack.”

We are then presented with two apparently conflicting and opposing choices: either justice for a better Israel or security for a safer Israel. Support AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) or NIF (New Israel Fund). Why not both? Why must they be in conflict? Why can’t I advocate for a more secure Israel and a better Israel?

When Ben Gurion was prime minister there was the infamous White Paper that Britain issued limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Some argued that the early Zionists should not therefore fight alongside the British against Hitler’s Germany. Ben Gurion observed that he would fight the White Paper as if there were no war and the war as if there were no White Paper. Leon Wieseltier reminds us of this story and then states: “To be sure, the settlements are a terrible blunder, but centrifuges are spinning in Iran. To be sure, centrifuges are spinning in Iran, but the settlements are a terrible blunder… We should fight the centrifuges in Iran as if there are no settlements and the settlements as if there are no centrifuges in Iran.”

The Jewish community appears organized around these two choices. We are presented with what we are told are two conflicting choices. Choose one. Choose security or justice. I however forever want both. I want a more secure Israel and a more just Israeli society.

We are left with an Israel that is not neatly packaged. It has its flaws. This should not distance us from the state. It should be occasion for us to engage even more. Yes Israel faces threats. This does draw our support, although not our visits. And so we must visit even more.

I believe these two days of Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut mark the twin pillars of a modern Jewish identity. Both must be observed. We must remember the Holocaust and celebrate Israel. Israel is a nation of real people; it is not perfect. It is loud and boisterous. Most important it is not about being victims. And I refuse to compel my support by such portrayals. I want only the living reality—with all its achievements and all its imperfections.

I can celebrate Israel—even though it does not comport to all my dreams. There is much for us to continue to work on. That should be the case with every dream. Everything requires continued refinement.

I will continue to work to better Israel. And I will defend Israel. I will clamor for a more secure Israel. And I will advocate for a more just Israel.

Most of all I will sing, and I will celebrate Israel, because no imperfections can ever deter me from this love. No risks will distance me from this place.

We live in an unparalleled age. We are indeed a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.