We’ve seen all of it, the best and the worst, the highs and the lows. Don’t mistake me – I am deeply grateful to have spent the last 10 days in Israel with a terrific group from my congregation, deeply grateful to have shared with them their experience of the Jewish state, its history, its people, its challenges, its successes and triumphs, of which there are so many. One cannot help but be awed by the accomplishments of this fledging nation over the last 67 years. One cannot help but be touched and inspired by the optimism and spirit of the young soldiers we met in the north, guarding the border between Israel and Lebanon. Or struck by the vibrancy of this country, by the deep feeling of its people, by the pervasive ‘can do’ attitude, by the strength and resilience and inventiveness Israelis have shown since the founding of the state in 1948. Israel is truly an amazing place, and nearly every Jew who visits here comes away with a renewed sense of their Judaism, a stronger Jewish identity, and a more profound connection to the Jewish homeland.
At the same time, we were also exposed to some of the challenges that face Israel today during our trip. We were in Tel Aviv on election day. It was wonderful – people in the streets, families enjoying what was a day off for most, but more than that – a celebration of democracy, something we all too often take for granted in the States. And yet there was a taint to it all because of the comments made by Bibi Netanyahu in the last days leading up to the election. A statement that he had no intention to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state was troubling, although not unexpected, and in fact some would simply say he finally said out loud what he has been thinking for a long time. And he is entitled to his opinion. But the race-baiting and fear mongering behind his remark ‘the Arabs are coming out in large numbers’ was shameful. Imagine if in the US a white politician tried to get whites to come out to vote by making statements on TV that ‘the blacks are turning out in large numbers.’ Bibi got away with it, and it worked, but the world watched the Prime Minister of Israel win a re-election bid by saying things that many of us find unacceptable and even racist. Is this the image of Israel we want projected to the world?
Of course this points to the underlying problem, the foundational problem, that confronts Israel today, its growing Palestinian population. Say what you want about Tom Friedman, but he rightly pointed out in his article this week that to a certain extent this is a simple numbers game, and the numbers are slowly but surely pushing Israel into a place where she will either be a Jewish state that is not democratic, or a non-Jewish state that is a democracy. At some point in the near future an Israeli Prime Minister will have to confront that choice.
We also experienced first hand another significant challenge today in Israel, namely religious pluralism. We had hoped to hold Friday night services in the small synagogue housed in the hotel where we are staying. We carefully reserved a time when we knew the Orthodox community would be done with their services so as not to offend anyone. But when we arrived we were told that the women in our group had to sit in the women’s section. We could have perhaps argued, although I don’t think we would have gotten anywhere. And it was Shabbat, a time when we hope to set aside our earthly cares and struggles, at least for a day. So the hotel management found us a room nearby, carpeted and finished, but obviously used mostly for storage. They graciously set up chairs for us, and we had a spirited service. But why should Jews feel uncomfortable expressing their own form of Judaism in the Jewish homeland? Why should a group of believing, faithful, caring, Israel-loving Jews be forced to hold their service in a side room when a perfectly lovely little chapel is empty just a few feet away? If you stop to think about it, the fact that Conservative and Reform Jews have to go to the courts to assure their right to religious freedom in the Jewish state is problematic, to say the least. And that is yet another challenge that Israel must continue to confront in the years ahead. In my mind a Jewish state where all expressions of Judaism are recognized and respected is a stronger Jewish state. I would also argue, but the way, that it would be more the kind of state that God intends it to be.
Of course this post could go on and on. So many wonderful and meaningful moments. Seeing the pre-schoolers at our sister synagogue Netzah Israel singing with incredible energy and spirit. The power and potency of Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Friday night services on the shore of the Galilee. The fabulous Rabin Center, one of Israel’s newest museums, that tells the story of the state itself as it weaves through the narrative of Rabin’s astonishing life. Hiking to the top of Massadah (first time in my 50s!). The schwarma at Moshikos. The list could go on and on. When you love Israel and you visit, you leave loving her more. Is there more work to be done? You bet! But Israel and her people will never stop trying. And that, in and of itself, may be the greatest sign of hope for the years ahead.