The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Opening a community conversation
YOM KIPPUR D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
10 TISHREI 5782 // SEPTEMBER 17, 2021
Dear friends, in my work as community rabbi,
I strive to sow love and care, never division, among us.
Today, I want to talk with you about a conflict,
the one between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East,
and the related one in Jewish communities across North America,
including our own.
My hope is to bring us closer together
through the holy work
of a much needed conversation.
On this holy day of Yom Kippur,
I want to open a conversation not about politics,
but instead, about teshuvah—
about the ways we have missed the mark on this issue,
about the ways we can do better.
I believe we need to heal and to listen to each other,
to gain greater insight into this painful conflict,
to do our small part to bring about peace and justice to the region,
and to unite against antisemitism.
In a sense, this d’var Torah is unfinished,
It is, I hope, just a beginning.
While none of us live in the region day-to-day,
the issue cannot be sidelined in North America
or even in rural Vermont.
To be sure, most of us know little or nothing of what it is like
to send our children off to the Israeli army,
or to have thousands of bombs sent to kill and terrify us
as we sit with our neighbours in the miklat, the bomb shelter.
Nor do we know what it is like
to be stopped at a checkpoint,
or to have our neighbour killed in the crossfire
between Hamas and Israel.
But the conflict has arrived right at our very doorsteps.
We watch it unfold in the media,
and it plays out at UVM and our other local colleges.
During the escalation of the conflict in May and June,
Jews, like you and me,
were physically and verbally attacked just for being Jewish.
Ben and Jerry’s just down the road from us
stated it will no longer be selling ice cream
in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
And just this past Monday night,
a five and a half hour meeting of the Burlington city council
was devoted to a resolution
to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.
Protesters threw Zionism around like a dirty word,
chanting “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,”
describing the dissolution of the State of Israel.
We cannot ignore this issue as a congregation.
We can’t close our eyes to the fact that
the Jewish community in North America is divided about Israel,
and there is much teshuvah that we must do to repair damage.
Often—though not only—broken down by generation,
there are those who argue that Israel’s occupation
is the sole or most significant cause of the conflict.
On the other hand, there are those who argue
that Palestinian leadership and its people are the main barrier to peace.
Some lean towards empathy for Palestinian suffering,
while others are most concerned for Israel’s safety and security.
And there are many who are personally torn, drawn to both sides.
In a recent poll of American Jews,
25% argued that “Israel is an apartheid state”
20% of voters under 40
believe that “Israel doesn’t (even) have a right to exist.”
Jews are divided on the settlements,
with one-fifth believing the West Bank should be annexed,
but a majority believe in a two-state solution.
Disagreement, in itself, is not bad, and often can be good.
But we are well beyond mere disagreement
when we call each other traitors, ethnocentrists, and even racists.
We are left with a collection of flattened, one-sided views—
Some people divided into factions,
while many others are left with a sense of apathy or despair.
Al cheyt shechatanu lefanecha, for the sins we have sinned against You,
for dividing ourselves into camps
that are hostile and unwilling to listen to one another,
for rejecting nuance or even leaving the conversation altogether.
Yet, it is clear to me that so many of us crave, we yearn to talk about this.
Just last month, when I sent out an email titled “Ben and Jerry’s,”
we had the highest open rate of any email JCOGS has sent.
Now, either you thought JCOGS was about to give out free ice cream,
or you wanted to be part of the conversation.
I get to hear from so many of our members.
This is an emotional and difficult topic for many of us.
But more than ever, we need to find a way towards common ground.
And so, I want to invite you into
a different kind of conversation within our community,
one based on love, respect, and deep listening.
This conversation came especially alive for me in rabbinical school.
There, I had the profound gift of studying under
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld.
She talked about what she calls the “radical centre.”
Standing in the radical centre means trying
to be courageously open
to hearing different perspectives,
not only those from ‘my people’,
whether they be ‘right’ or ‘left’.
It means trying to take the risk to learn
with empathy, without polarization.
The radical centre takes a lot of energy and courage to grapple
with multiple, substantive arguments that seemingly contradict each other,
and yet, like culling wheat from the chaff,
finding the truth therein in order to come to a more whole perspective.
I want to share with you a glimpse
of my own story and understanding of the conflict.
Like you, I am no expert.
I have been to Israel multiple times,
including a year studying there in Hebrew with Israelis,
and I’ve visited with settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank.
I’ve met with power brokers and humble pita makers,
and been in their homes.
Yet, I have lived at a distance for the majority of my life.
Personally, I am not drawn to standing at any extreme.
I see many sides, both within me and within our congregation,
and I am Yisrael, in a state of wrestling.
Hillel the Sage once said:
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.
Im ein ani li, mi li?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
From a young age, I was raised to care deeply about the Jewish family,
an extension of my own relatives,
a people halfway across the world in Israel
and spread throughout the diaspora,
who I love and cherish with Ahavat Yisrael.
Much of this family care and concern grows
out of the ashes of anti-Jewish persecution
that culminated in the Holocaust,
including my own grandparents’ survival,
while the rest of my family perished.
As with most Jews, I am deeply concerned
with the ever-present dangerous growth of antisemitism.
This summer, we saw Jews across the world attacked on the streets,
blamed for all of the Middle East’s ills.
I am troubled by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement,
which simplifies a conflict that is complex
by placing the sole responsibility on Israel,
attempting to isolate Israel on the world stage,
while repeatedly delegitimizing the existence of the State.
Israel is surrounded on all sides by hostile, powerful nations
with governments and people,
including among Palestinian leadership,
who often openly call for our people’s destruction.
In world politics and at the UN,
our thousands of years of history and connection to the land is ignored,
while dozens of other countries with dictators
and other societal issues are given a free pass.
Doesn’t delegitimizing a state with a majority of Jews
perpetuate the oppression of thousands of years
that Jews have lived through?
Does Israel not deserve peace and security?
I believe so much of this issue is about pride.
Israel is a special place.
I was raised to appreciate the heroic beginnings of the fledgling state,
born out of the need for Jewish power and self-determination
in the face of generations of victimization.
A creative, entrepreneurial enterprise,
a tumultuous, but active democracy,
a living, breathing society.
May the Jewish people all around the world live on in peace and harmony,
including half of our people in the State of Israel.
Al cheyt shechatanu lefanecha, for the ways we have missed the mark by
not taking pride in our own people’s accomplishments,
forgetting our precarious history and present,
and abandoning our own story and security.
Hillel the Sage continues:
וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.
Uchsheani leatzmi, mah ani?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
In addition to my love for the Jewish people,
I also believe in the inherent worth of all people,
the Jewish value of betzelem Elohim,
how each human is created in G-d’s image,
and our moral imperative that all human life is sacred.
Can we as Jews acknowledge that Palestinians suffer profoundly?
Gaza is an open-air prison with few options for basic survival.
The unemployment rate in the West Bank is close to 30%.
And 1.5 million Palestinians continue to live in refugee camps.
I have always been drawn to the intersection of peoples.
In rabbinical school, Alison and I, with then baby Adar,
decided to live in Haifa,
in part, because we wanted a view into a full Israeli experience
in that mixed Arab-Jewish city.
That year, I met Elias Chacour,
the Archbishop of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Northern Israel.
He is a Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli, a citizen of Israel.
I felt I was in the presence of a holy person.
He described how, as a young child,
his small town in northern Israel
was destroyed by the pre-State Israeli army.
He held no hatred or animosity in Israel’s founding.
He described Israelis and Palestinians as “blood brothers,”
while he sought peace and justice for all.
With all of Israel’s heroic beginnings,
for all that Israel is a beacon of light—
it is far from perfect.
Its history is complex.
And so, too, its current lived reality.
We have often forgotten our Torah’s mandate
to love the stranger in our midst.
Israel can do better to live up to its own Declaration of Independence,
in its words:
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL 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…”
I hold that it is “kosher”
to critique the Israeli government’s policy and rhetoric.
Critique of Israel, offered with love, can be healthy.
Yet, I have also seen how critique
can sometimes turn into a double standard,
where Israel is blamed, while others are given a free pass.
Al cheyt shechatanu lefanecha, for the ways we have missed the mark by
only prioritizing the Jewish narrative without seeing other claims,
ignoring or even rejecting Palestinian suffering,
and not living up to our own values of justice and peace.
All in all, I hold that, from the radical centre,
the State of Israel is neither David nor Goliath.
I do not adhere to “Israel can do no wrong”
nor “Israel can only do wrong,”
Israel is not entirely innocent, nor solely responsible.
She has a mighty military with great power,
yet faces existential danger every day.
There is no single entity at fault.
And we all share responsibility
to work towards a future of justice and peace.
And so I offer all these words out of love for the Jewish people,
and a deep love for our JCOGS community.
I offer these words
in the hopes that as I share my thoughts with you
you will share yours with me and with our congregation,
and that you will listen with patience and an open heart,
as I promise to continue to extend the same to you.
Though it feels a rare thing these days,
I have not given up on conversations of integrity, honesty, and nuance.
The Sage Hillel concludes:
וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי:
v’im lo achshav, eimatai?
If not now, when?
Here we stand on this awesome day.
I have asked us to consider our collective teshuvah.
I am asking each of us to consider our own role:
When have I opened myself to other perspectives?
How have I closed myself off out of pride or shame or indifference?
When have I sown division?
How have I helped heal?
When have I let hatred or intolerance prevail?
How have I worked for justice and peace?
Wherever you are in your own process,
I am inviting you into this conversation as a congregation
with five initiatives that we can do right now.
First, in a week and a half, during the holiday of Sukkot,
JCOGS is hosting two conversations called
Sukkat Shalom: A Fragile Peace,
Sunday, September 26 in person,
and Monday, September 27 on Zoom, both at 5pm.
The conversation will be based on a book reading
of Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor,”
one of the more inspiring books I have read on the conflict.
Today, JCOGS is giving out one copy of this short book
to every family that wants one.
We have 100 copies for distribution.
Read some or all of the book,
and then come to one of the facilitated discussions,
whether in person or on Zoom.
For those who are not with us in person now,
we will leave copies in the tent,
and you can pick one up anytime,
or order your own copy online.
Second, please come to these meetings with ideas of how JCOGS
could be involved in supporting those who work
for peace and security in the region,
communities building bridges among Palestinians and Israelis,
through efforts in everything from education to environmental sustainability.
Third, thanks to the 2000 emails of opposition,
including many from our own members,
the Burlington BDS resolution did not pass.
But the work fighting against antisemitism in Vermont is far from over.
I want to encourage all those who are interested
to get involved with the Jewish Communities of Vermont’s
new antisemitism task force.
Fourth, we are in the very preliminary stages
with Father Rick Swanson
and Saint John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church
discussing a joint JCOGS-Saint John’s trip to the Holy Land
and we need a few people
to help us plan this most amazing, life-changing trip.
Finally, let’s end with a prayer.
A prayer we read every Friday night:
our prayer for Israel.
Rock and Redeemer of the people of Israel, bless Israel in its pursuit of a flowering of redemption. Send Your light and wisdom to Zion’s leaders and advisers, and help them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of all who work toward safety, justice, and democracy, crowning their efforts with success. Shield the land with Your love, and spread over it Your shelter of peace. May the time be near when all its inhabitants and neighbors dwell together in security and everlasting peace, and let us say: Amen.
May we see this prayer come true in our day, speedily and soon.