It’s been a tough year for lovers of Israel. Again.
This year it was the Gaza Flotilla, last year it was Operation Cast Lead.
Admittedly, for the first time in 2 years there are direct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But I detect no change in the mood in Anglo-Jewry when it comes to Israel. The mood is still pretty dismal.
I rang up a friend, who lives in Jerusalem and works as a facilitator taking Jews to meet Palestinians in the West Bank. I asked him what he was hearing from his contacts about the negotiations.
No-one talking about them, he told me, everyone thinks it’s a joke.
A joke! Here’s a joke about Israel.
Four Jews are sitting in a café enjoying a cup of coffee.
Oy – says one
Oy vey – says the next
Oy vey zmir – says the third.
Listen, says the fourth – if you keep talking about Israel, I’ll take my coffee elsewhere.
I have some sympathy with the fourth Jew.
But I refuse to despair.
Actually despair isn’t even the most serious problem. It would be bad enough if we were just bored of talking about Israel. It’s worse than that. The issue of Israel has become divisive – even amongst Jews. God help us, what has become of us. If I were to honestly talk about how I feel about Israel today, whether my position was hawkish or dovish there would be some of you, some of us, up in arms. How could I possibly … God help us. You used to be able to rely on Israel to unite us.
When Israel gets mentioned we – lovers of Israel – are finding ourselves stiffening up – like a circus-strongman before accepting the punch to the stomach at some fairground sideshow.
We are worried about what happens when Israel gets raised as a topic of conversation at dinner, at the office, on the college campus. We are worried and are retreating from being able to speak out and proud.
Our love of Israel has become bruised – it’s painful to touch, easily inflamed.
Our love is being conditioned into one of two responses.
One is a retreat behind a thick wall where everything Israel does has to be justified and every critique, whether it comes from outside or inside Israel, has to be fought off – often with allegations of anti-semitic this or self-hating that being hurled at whoever has the temerity to criticise. And cultivating that kind of belligerence can’t be good for our souls.
The other response is the ‘oy’ of our coffee drinkers. It’s a relationship with Israel that has become so battered that we are finding it harder and harder to say anything nice about anyone associated with Israel and her neighbours – soldiers, the media, Netanyahu, the Palestinians, Amnesty, the UN – we’re struggling to find a good word to share.
The only response to Israel that is truly forbidden is response of despair, but something is broken. Broken at the very heart of our love of Israel and our Jewish identity.
That’s why I feel I have to speak about Israel today.
And for those of you who will disagree with every word I will say on the subject, I want to say this as clearly as I am I able – we are a community, and I am a Rabbi, who value debate more deeply than we value dogma. This is a community which has always looked at the possibility of speaking in bland, easy-going generalisations and preferred instead to speak about that which is difficult, potentially divisive but nonetheless true.
I want to share, today, three Rosh Hashanah lessons I hope help us mend a relationship with Israel. And, actually, this isn’t just a sermon about Israel, it’s about all our broken relationships and possibility of rebuilding them.
The first religious response is this -
Change is Possible
There is an incredible optimism at the heart of Rosh Hashanah.
Like many of us here, I am sure I’m dealing with my own issues that go back years, and seem intractable, and my yetzer hara encourages me not to bother trying to change.
But the message of the season is that that pessimism and the attitude of resignation have to be fought back at every turn.
We are called upon to believe that things can get better, we must refuse to accept things must always be as they are today.
I believe it is a response we need to feel, desperately deeply when it comes to Israel.
Believing in the possibility of change isn’t the same as being hopelessly naive. Opening a door in hope to a cousin we have never really got on well risks the door being slammed back in our face. And when that cousin has a history of violent aggression the risk is very real.
But if we don’t believe change is possible we are doomed to repeat only the same old, same old. And the same old, same old is not only not good enough, it’s getting worse.
And to those who think that change, peace, is an entirely unreasonable dream, know that at least Bibi Netanyahu, Labour leader Ehud Barak and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni are all united in making the claim that things can be better. This is Livini, speaking just this week in Israel.
‘I say to the [naysayers] that they have no right to take hope aware from the citizens of Israel. An end to the conflict is achievable. There is no such thing as 'I can't.'
They are being very frum by trying again, and again.
The first Rosh Hashanah lesson is that despair is forbidden and change is possible.
The second Rosh Hashanah lesson is even harder to accept.
It involves letting go a little of what we know is right to admit our own fault.
It’s so tempting to think that we are stronger by conceding nothing.
But that’s not a very Rosh Hashanah attitude.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Palestinians and Hamas in particular are blameless, far, far from it.
And on every other day in the year we are absolutely justified in pointing out all the offensive failures of everyone else.
But on Rosh Hashanah we are commanded to turn that gaze inside.
On every other day of the year it’s possible to construct every occasion when we reached out a hand in friendship as utterly genuine, and every failure of the other to shake our hand as their perfidy.
But on Rosh Hashanah we are called to stand before the One who knows our inner thoughts and our hidden actions and doubt ourselves.
What else we could have done?
On Rosh Hashanah we are encouraged to focus on what else WE can do, rather than focus, always, on the shortcoming of the other.
It’s a necessary focus because we rarely heal, or even normalise, relationships with others by increasing our focus on quite how right we are.
We heal relationships by increasing our focus on what we can do to heal our relationships.
And that might require we lessen the focus on matters of strict legalist accuracy and instead pursue paths that create a rapprochement.
An example, drawn from the Talmud.
Suppose someone stole a beam and uses it in a building.
Shammai says we should compel the person to give back the beam, even if they need to tear down the building to do so. They have no right to the beam.
But Hillel says the person ought to pay off the owner of the beam, they don’t have give back that beam.
And the law follows Hillel’s position – it’s called a Takanat Shavim – it’s supposed to make it easier for people to achieve a rapprochement.
Now there is a call, for both Netanyahu and Abbas – what can you do to focus on paths that create rapprochement?
And there is a call for any of us living in broken relationships – the sort of relationship which has, for years, floundered over accusations and counter-accusations, where we too readily blame the other and too rarely have been prepared to look inside and double and triple check ourselves.
Rosh Hashanah demands we admit that we have made mistakes.
And there is another problem with this over-reliance on proving that we are right, and that the other is wrong.
It is that this kind of approach to life – right vs wrong, black versus white is more Greek than Jewish.
A Greek philosopher would say that if I’m right and you disagree with me, you must therefore be wrong and I must prove you are wrong.
And we live in a Greek world massively influenced by this Greek approach.
We grow up thinking that our winning means that the other person loses. We are schooled to think that being strong means standing firm.
But Judaism is more subtle, more willing to admit the presence of conflicting alternate rights.
It’s hard to explain this to someone who has never studied the Talmud, but a Talmudic argument that seems to pitch Rabbi X against Rabbi Y doesn’t tend to end with Rabbi X winning, and Rabbi Y losing.
It ends up, often some pages later agreeing that Rabbi X can indeed feel one way and Rabbi Y can indeed feel another way.
Judaism would suggest that we need to find ways where both parties to an argument can be right.
Judaism is willing to admit that I may be right, you may disagree with me and yet we must both be acknowledged, recognised, given something that can make us feel at peace.
I think it’s an important insight because beating the other in argument might make us feel better, but it doesn’t stop making the other feel worse. And that alone makes peace harder to find.
Eizeh hu gibor asks the Mishnah, who is mighty? One who conquers their evil inclination. Hakovesh et yizro Ben Zoma answers.
He doesn’t say, one who wins every battle.
I wonder if he means that a real hero realises that other people need to be allowed to win also.
I wonder if he means that a real hero doesn’t allow himself to be puffed up by his own rhetorical prowess so he insists on defeating everyone he meets.
I wonder if the really heroic way is to pull back from being convinced of our exclusive right to be right in search of ways to compromise and heal.
This is the opening of the Mishnah in Baba Metzia
Two people come before the court grabbing hold of the same Tallit. One says, it’s all mine. The other says it’s all mine.
You see the problem. Intractable. They both claim the whole tallit. They both want to be acknowledged as right, but their claims are mutually exclusive.
So, continues the Mishnah, ‘You get both of them to swear an oath that not less than half of the tallit is theirs and then you split it in half.’
You find a solution, a solution that appeases both claims even as they are both forced to compromise. Both make an oath which they can agree with. Then both get something. Less than they hoped to get, but more than they feared losing.
Peace, in this dispute over a tallit comes at the moment when the disputants accept that the other has a claim, or rather when the disputants acknowledge that their own claim is not total. That’s a huge spiritual, not to mention political, achievement, but it is a necessary precursor to finding peace.
If we wish for peace we must acknowledge our own claim cannot be total.
This is the challenge for the Netenyahus and Abbases and all of us.
Can we find the way to acknowledge that our own claim is not total and what is mutually seized and claimed by both of us will need to be split if we are both to find peace?
Of course I’m not living in Israel, I’m not serving in the army, or at a checkpoint. I don’t expect anything like the vote of an Israeli. But I’m a Jew and a Zionist.
Israel is at the heart of my Jewish identity and I pray daily for its peace.
And that, especially now, means that I feel the need to share these Jewish truths, these messages for Abbas and Netanyahu, and the rest of us.
Change is possible.
I have made mistakes.
My own claim cannot be total.
I know the Palestinians have made lousy partners for a lasting peace for decades.
But I believe change is possible.
I know that sick Palestinians have received world class treatment at Israeli hospitals, but, today, I don’t claim that Israel has done everything it should have done to encourage an economically self-sustaining Palestinian state where trade, not violence would be the central concern of its leaders. We have our share of guilt to carry also.
I believe that Jews have a right to live, in a Jewish state in the land we have loved for thousands of years.
But I believe in the right of Palestinians to self-determination in the land of their Forefathers also.
And I believe that the tallit needs to be divided.
To everyone involved in the negotiations I pray for your heroic strength.
May this at last be the year when Micha’s vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares comes true – a time when every man or woman, be they Jew or Palestinian, will sit under their fig tree with no-one to make them afraid.
To all of us living with long-term broken relationships, I hope these insights help. And that Micha’s vision of secure, restful peace, be granted to us all in the year to come.