This is the third my series of four High Holy Day sermons on the topic "What does it mean to be Jewish and American?" (see below). In this sermon, I consider the place of Israel in being an American Jew and offer my thoughts on the Palestinian Authority's then-recent proposal for statehood at the UN.
Seeking Peace as a Measure of Selfless Devotion
In July of 1776, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The American Declaration of Independence created a new nation, a bold experiment that would, for the first time in history, seek to establish a modern country founded on the principles of democracy, freedom, and reason.
In May of 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed,
The State of Israel … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; [and] it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants….
The Israeli Declaration of Independence created a new nation, a bold experiment that would, for the first time in history, seek to establish a democracy in the Middle East founded on the modern principles of democracy and freedom as well as the ancient principles of Jewish peoplehood and religion.
We American Jews have been profoundly impacted by the creation of both of these nations. America’s commitment to freedom of religion and unprecedented openness to Jewish participation in public life has helped American Jews to create a unique and flourishing community here. And the establishment of the Jewish State has opened up a new world of Jewish life, inspiring American Jewry and raising it to new heights.
On Rosh Hashannah, I offered the challenge of t’shuvah, of answering the difficult question, “What does it mean to be Jewish and American?” As we continue to explore this theme, we would be remiss not to consider the significant role that the State of Israel plays in navigating our complex identities.
During my sermon on the morning of Rosh Hashannah, I argued that American Jews have a full claim to both our Jewishness and our Americanness.
Certainly, we feel included in the Israeli Declaration of Independence when it invokes “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate.” At the same time, we also feel included in the American Constitution’s opening phrase: “We the People of the United States…”
As Jews and as Americans, we hold two dreams, both the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, voiced so eloquently by Thomas Jefferson, and the Jewish dream of freedom, justice, and peace, voiced so eloquently by the Prophets of Israel.
Yet there are certainly moments when these dreams seem to be in tension with one another. Take, for example, the story of David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, two dreamers who sought to work together but whose visions came into conflict. David Ben-Gurion, professional Zionist and first Prime Minister of Israel, dreamed of a world Jewry that dedicated all of its resources to building a new Jewish state. Jacob Blaustein, American businessman and diplomat and president of the AJC, the American Jewish Committee, dreamed of an American Jewry both powerfully connected to the newly independent Israel and firmly rooted in their native United States.
Throughout their careers, these two men worked together for the betterment of the Jewish people. Under Ben-Gurion’s leadership, the State of Israel breathed new hope into the lives of many Jews devastated by the horrors of the Holocaust. Under Jacob Blaustein’s leadership, the American Jewish Committee helped secure hundreds of millions of aid dollars for Israel through the U.S. government. These forceful allies were potent advocates for the vibrant Jewish Diaspora and the blossoming Jewish State.
But they also disagreed sharply over the role of Israel and Zionism in the lives of American Jews. Ben-Gurion invoked the Jewish dream of the State of Israel, insisting repeatedly that a primary purpose of the Jewish State was קיבוץ גלויות, the “ingathering of the exiles.” This view is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which reads:
We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Yisrael in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.
This philosophy implies that the State of Israel is the rightful home of all Jews and that Israel therefore speaks for all of world Jewry. In effect, Ben-Gurion believed that every true Zionist had an indisputable duty to move to the Land of Israel in order to help build the state with his or her own hands and live out the fullest possible Jewish existence.
Jacob Blaustein, however, clung instead to the American dream. He forcefully refuted the concept that Jewish life in the Diaspora could never be as genuine and complete as Jewish life in Israel. In an address to the AJC, Blaustein affirmed:
American Jews—young and old alike, Zionists and non-Zionists alike—are profoundly attached to this, their country. America welcomed our immigrant parents in their need. Under America's free institutions, they and their children have achieved that freedom and sense of security unknown for long centuries of travail. We have truly become Americans; just as have all other oppressed groups that have ever come to these shores.
We repudiate vigorously the suggestion that American Jews are in exile. The future of American Jewry, of our children and of our children’s children, is entirely linked with the future of America. We have no alternative; and we want no alternative.
This point of disagreement between Ben-Gurion and Blaustein nearly spelled disaster for the relationship between American Jews and Israel. After all, the American Jewish community could only hear so many times that they were in all respects inferior to the Jews in Israel, and the Israeli Jewish community could only hear so many times that the support of the America’s Jews was contingent on their polite behavior.
It was a crowning achievement, then, when, in 1950, Blaustein and Ben-Gurion jointly stated that, while America would continue “[to develop] a closer understanding with Israel, … American Jews had no allegiance except to America.”
In other words, American Jews are comfortable where they are, and Israelis should not expect them to leave. At the same time, American Jews are committed to partnering with Israel by offering their economic, political, and fraternal support whenever possible.
Today’s Jews in Israel and the United States are heirs to this agreement.
But as many of us may know firsthand, our relationship with Israel is rarely as simple as the Blaustein-Ben-Gurion agreement would have us believe. The dispute epitomized by these two figures— the tension between supporting Israel and nurturing Jewish life in America— continues to surface today in both our private and our public lives.
For many among us, Israel is just another country. We are far away from Israel both geographically and culturally, and even those who have visited there may have felt at times like a stranger in a strange land.
For many others among us, Israel is not just another country; it is the most important country in the world. The criticisms and vilifications that so many Americans throw at Israel turn us away from our neighbors and remind us of the oppression that Jews have faced throughout their history.
At times, we are close to Israel; at times, we are distant. Within ourselves, and within our communities, it can be exceedingly difficult to affirm clearly how we feel about the Jewish State.
And this difficulty arose again recently, stirred up by the latest Palestinian bid for statehood, which grabbed the full attention of the Jewish world.
As I’m sure many of you know, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, appeared on September 23 before the General Assembly of the United Nations. As had been anticipated all summer, President Abbas submitted an application for the admission of Palestine as a full member of the UN. Over twenty years ago, Yasser Arafat declared Palestinian independence, and President Abbas now seeks the highest level of international recognition.
This effort has been called by many, including ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. It has been unclear what President Abbas hopes to gain with this tactic; the United States has promised to veto any measure that would admit Palestine as a full member of the UN, and even if Abbas’ application were accepted, the facts on the ground in Israel and the West Bank would remain virtually unchanged.
So it seems that Abbas has undertaken this political maneuver for only rhetorical gains. He seeks a moral victory, hoping to blame Israel for repeated failures of peace. He declared before the UN:
The core issue here is that the Israeli government refuses to commit to terms of reference for the negotiations that are based on international law and United Nations resolutions, and that it frantically continues to intensify building of settlements on the territory of the State of Palestine.
According to Abbas, the Palestinian Authority
… [has] persevered and dealt positively and responsibly with all efforts aimed at the achievement of a lasting peace agreement. Yet … every initiative and every conference and every new round of negotiations and every movement was shattered on the rock of the Israeli settlement expansion project.
In other words, Abbas claims that the Palestinian Authority has always been willing to make peace with Israel while Israel has intentionally withheld peace, favoring instead its West Bank settlements.
This one-sided argument, of course, is inaccurate; the Palestinian Authority failed to capitalize on the peace initiatives of Israeli Prime Ministers Yitchak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert. And strangely absent from Abbas’ speech was any mention of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, neither the first or second Intifada nor the constant rain of missiles that has fallen on Israel from Gaza.
Were Abbas sitting at a negotiation table, he would never be able to successfully wield such accusations. But Abbas’ bid at the UN is not an attempt to make a reconciliation with Israel; it is an attempt to cast blame and to gain political support.
Sadly, the Palestinian Authority is not the only party playing political games with the peace process. Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu also delivered a speech at the UN that sounded remarkably similar to Abbas’. He said,
All of Israel wants peace.
Any time an Arab leader genuinely wanted peace with us, we made peace. We made peace with Egypt led by Anwar Sadat. We made peace with Jordan led by King Hussein. And if the Palestinians truly want peace, I and my government, and the people of Israel will make peace. But we want a genuine peace, a defensible peace, a permanent peace. In 1947, this body voted to establish two states for two peoples – a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted that resolution. The Arabs rejected it. We ask the Palestinians to finally do what they have refused to do for 62 years: Say yes to a Jewish state. Just as we are asked to recognize a nation-state for the Palestinian people, the Palestinians must be asked to recognize the nation state of the Jewish people.
Here, too, is a familiar story. Netanyahu declares that Israel is always ready for peace if the Palestinians will simply recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Yet the Israeli government continues to build more and more roadblocks around its West Bank Settlements, roadblocks that obstruct not only traffic but also the peace process.
All sides of this conflict share responsibility for its continuation. Violence has been waged on both sides and is entrenched in the territories. The Palestinians have continued to deny that Israel is and will continue to be a Jewish state, and the Israelis have continued to build fences, checkpoints, and selective highways in the West Bank that cripple Palestinian society. Issues large and small, practical and symbolic, religious and legal have retarded the peace process and created populations that are frustrated, angry, and defeatist.
While Mahmoud Abbas has declared a “Palestinian Spring, … a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal,” I believe that his only achievements have been rhetorical. We are no closer to peace today than we were before his speech at the UN. In fact, we may be even further away.
For playing politics with peace helps no one but politicians.
The question remains for us: How will we, as American Jews, respond? Rabbi Donniel Hartman, an Israeli born in America, offers us this challenge:
It is time to stop counting all the injustices, enumerating all that which is unfair, telling over and again to anyone who can hear that it is not our fault. It is time for us to take responsibility for our destiny, a destiny not necessarily defined by that which is forced upon us but which will reflect who we want to be. It is time to bring to an end the defeatist mourning for and incessant talking about what should have and could have been. It is time to stop the self-defeating and paralyzing fear and reconnect to the reality of Israel and the gift of sovereignty and to claim our rightful place at the negotiating table – the place of the leader.
Ours is a time to lead, urges Rabbi Hartman, not a time to protest our victimhood and throw our hands up in desperation. Ours is a time to take action, not to persist in futile finger-pointing and ineffective name-calling. Ours is a time to come together, not to let our differences divide us so that our American Jewish community lies paralyzed with indecision.
It is far too frequently today that Jewish groups argue with one another rather than collaborate to find new and effective solutions. And it is far too frequently today that the contentious issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prevent people from working with genuine sincerity to find a solution to those challenges.
We must acknowledge our differences, with non-Jews and with ourselves, and find ways to unite in spite of them.
Jews have a long history of respectful disagreement, thriving on theמחלוקת לשם שמים, the “dispute for the sake of heaven,” as the cornerstone of religious and societal development. So long as we remain committed to our fundamental values, so long as we continue to uphold the ancient principle כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, all Israel is responsible for one another, our differences can propel us in the same direction rather than cause us to crash into one another.
Jacob Blaustein and David Ben-Gurion showed us that it is possible for committed Jews to come together to work out their differences. For them, the stakes were high; and for us as well, the stakes are high.
As heirs to their agreement, we American Jews acknowledge that we have a responsibility to stand with the Jewish State, both because it is our people’s homeland and because it is a long-time democratic ally of the United States.
In order to stand with Israel, as both our allegiances demand, we must have a firm footing on the stable foundations of our Jewish and American traditions. And both traditions compel us to work for peace.
As Jews, we are commanded, בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ, “Seek peace and pursue it.” As Americans, we are compelled by the words of President John F. Kennedy to reach for world peace, “not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
We recall the words of Abraham Lincoln, spoken on the field of Gettysburg in 1863:
It is … for us … [to] be dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain….
And we hear the call to work for peace contained in these words in a meditation from the Reform movement’s Gates of Prayer:
When justice burns within us like a flaming fire, when loves evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we demonstrate our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, then Your goodness enters our lives and we can begin to change the world….
As Americans and as Jews, we not only must devote ourselves to peace, we must devote ourselves selflessly to peace, discarding politics and partisanship in favor of a greater message.
Regardless of your personal beliefs about Israel, I invoke the spirit of American Judaism as a challenge to put aside our differences and devote all our resources to pursuing peace.
Instead of discrediting our political opponents, let us honor their good faith efforts to find solutions to the enormously difficult challenges that face Israel. Instead of labeling those who disagree with us as anti-security or anti-justice, let all of us strive to be pro-peace … even if we differ in the details.
On Erev Rosh Hashannah, I spoke about the importance of a community coming together in times of need. Now is one of those times. Individuals and organizations to the left and to the right all jockey for position and seek to justify themselves as the ultimate bearers of truth. But what we need is togetherness. What we need is common resolve. What we need is peace.
The city of Jerusalem, ירושלים, has been envisioned as a beacon of שלום, peace. On this Yom Kippur, we pray that this ancient home, this symbol of hope for Palestinians and Jews around the world, may achieve its destiny as we commit ourselves— as Americans and as Jews— to the greatest blessing, that of peace.
[Sermon anthem: Yerushalayim Shel Zahav]
 While Thomas Jefferson originally wrote “inalienable” (as here), the final printed version of the Declaration of Independence reads “unalienable.” The words have identical meanings, and selection of one or the other is based on convention. For more information, see “Unalienable/Inalienable,” http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/unalienable.htm.
 Israeli Declaration of Independence.
 “AJC and Israel at Sixty.” http://www.policyarchive.org/handle/10207/bitstreams/12306.pdf.
 “The Voice of Reason: Address by Jacob Blaustein, President, The American Jewish Committee, at the meeting of its Executive Committee, April 29, 1950.” http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/507.PDF.
 “Blaustein, Jacob, 1868-1970.” http://pleade.library.jhu.edu/doc-tdm.xsp?id=ms400_d0e136&fmt=blaust&base=fa&root=&n=1&qid=sdx_q9&ss=&as=&ai=.
 Cf. Gorenberg, Gerhsom. “Letter from Jerusalem I: Much Ado About Nothing?” http://www.hadassahmagazine.org/site/apps/nlnet/content.aspx?c=twI6LmN7IzF&b=6725377&ct=11195659¬oc=1.
 “Full transcript of Abbas speech at UN General Assembly.” http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/full-transcript-of-abbas-speech-at-un-general-assembly-1.386385.
 “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly.” http://www.haaretz.com/news/prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-s-speech-to-the-un-general-assembly-1.7254.
 “Abbas Declares ‘Palestinian Spring.’” http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2011-09-25/abbas-palestinian-spring/50542996/1.
 Hartman, Donniel. “A Response to Palestinian Unilateralism: A Time to Lead.” www.hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=798&Cat_Id=273&Cat_.
 Shavuot 39a.
 Psalm 34:15.
 “Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963.” http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Ready-Reference/JFK-Speeches/Commencement-Address-at-American-University-June-10-1963.aspx.
 “Transcript of Gettysburg Address (1863).” http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=36&page=transcript.
 Reading after Ahavat Olam, Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays, 1994, p. 87.
 Cf. Radak on Isaiah 65:18:
(יח) כי אם שישו - יאמר כנגד ישראל יאמר להם האל שישו וגילו עדי עד מרוב הטובה לא יאמר להם דבר אחר, כלומר שום דבר רע כי אם זה הדבר הטוב:
אשר אני בורא - פירוש מחדש, כי הדבר החדש יקרא בריאה, כמו בראשית ברא אלהים וגו', ואם בריאה יברא ה':
כי הנני בורא את ירושלים גילה - שיהיה שמה גילה ושם עמה משוש, וזכר ירושלים כי אף על פי שיהיה שלום בכל העולם תהיה ירושלים העיקר ומשם יצא השלום לעולם והתורה והדרך הטוב שבעבורו יהיה שלום, כמו שאמר על מלך המשיח ודבר שלום לגוים, ואמר והלכו עמים רבים ואמרו לכו ונעלה אל הר ה' ואל בית אלהי יעקב ויורנו מדרכיו ונלכה באורחותיו, כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה' מירושלם, ורב הטובה והשלום ואריכות הימים בירושלם ובארץ ישראל יהיה, כמו שאמר נכון יהיה הר בית ה' בראש ההרים ונשא מגבעות:
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”