Erev Yom Kippur 5775
October 3, 2014
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
In early August, as rockets from Gaza were being fired steadily into Israel, I saw a post on Facebook. A friend of a friend, living in Tel Aviv, had been forced to go into his apartment building’s bomb shelter in the middle of the night. The man’s wife and daughter had been mortified that he had worn a flimsy t-shirt and ratty black boxer shorts when he knew they might encounter friends and neighbors, and so he was inquiring (after-the-fact) about appropriate miklat-wear. Was his chosen outfit, he asked, appropriate in the given situation?
The post was clearly only half-serious, intended to bring a bit of levity to an extremely upsetting and tense situation. The man’s friends egged him on, urging him to wear even skimpier clothing were he to find himself in a similar situation in the future. Though I would not comment myself, I did find myself getting more and more upset as I continued thinking about the situation. No, I determined, the outfit was not acceptable; no outfit is acceptable, for no Israeli citizen should be expected to tolerate these ongoing attacks engineered by the terrorists of Hamas who will not rest until they see Israel destroyed.
It’s unacceptable that in her 66 years of existence, Israel has continually been drawn into defensive campaigns against its enemies at such a great price that there is hardly a family among her eight million citizens that has not been impacted in some way by a wartime casualty.
It’s unacceptable that when preschoolers and kindergartners in Israel hear the words tzeva adom they think not of the color red in their crayon boxes but of cowering with their classmates in reinforced bunkers.
It’s unacceptable that the so-called “leadership” in Gaza has spent money and energy stockpiling weapons, building underground tunnels designed solely to facilitate deadly terror attacks on the civilian population of a sovereign nation, leaving the citizens of Gaza to live in squalor and insecurity while they rule by proxy from the comfort of a luxury suite in Qatar.
It’s unacceptable that the media and the court of public opinion deride Israel’s every move, trotting out anti-Semitic canards and misplaced buzzwords like “genocide” and “apartheid.”
It’s unacceptable that the United Nations, established in the hopes of creating a level playing field for all peoples and nations, continues to isolate, marginalize, and condemn Israel, including twenty-one anti-Israel resolutions during 2013, while countries such as China, Syria, and Iraq- rife with violations of human rights and personal liberties- garner no such attention.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Israel’s enemies and critics have become more vociferous, and instead of reasoned critiques that might stem from disagreement over the policies of the Netanyahu government, the legitimacy of her very existence is being called into question.
Let me be clear: my heart breaks for the citizens of Gaza who have been caught in the crossfire of this conflict. I feel great pain for their situation, and mourn the innocent civilians who have been killed or injured. But unlike those who have chosen to be public faces of the pro-Palestinian movement, such as Roger Waters and Desmond Tutu and Javier Bardem; and those who have chosen to embrace the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, I know that I can feel compassion toward Gazans without finding it necessary to tear down Israel.
This spring, when I began to decide on my sermon topics for the High Holidays, I knew that I wanted to give a sermon about Israel. I hoped that I would tell you about the country’s beauty and its importance to our people throughout our history. I planned to invite you to come with me and my family on our congregational trip this summer- a trip which I still strongly encourage you to join. Perhaps I would have touted the many technological innovations that Israel has introduced to the world, or spoken about Israeli contributions in the fine arts. If I’d wanted to confront more difficult issues, maybe I would have mentioned the struggle for Jewish pluralism and women’s religious rights. Yet while I am thankful that the truce seems to be holding and the rockets have stopped, at least for the time being, I know I cannot give the Israel sermon I initially sat down to write.
The purpose of a sermon or other public speech is to inform, to educate, and perhaps to be persuasive enough to win over a listener to the speaker’s point of view. In this case, however, I know that the battle is not likely to be won through skilled rhetoric. People are pretty steadfast in their positions and have already chosen sides.
So the vast majority of you have already formulated your opinions on Israel, and the information I offer here in the next few moments probably will not garner converts to a different point of view. Perhaps some of you will be upset with me for choosing to speak about Israel this evening. Perhaps you question the connection between Yom Kippur and Israel; perhaps you feel that American Jewry has its own issues without coming involved in Israeli affairs; perhaps you have other reasons why the mention of Israel elicits an uncomfortable response. After all, according to the Pew study on Judaism, released last year, 30% of American Jews do not feel an attachment to Israel, and up to 57% disagreed with the statement that Israel is an essential part of Jewish life.
But wherever your personal feelings on Israel may lie, I hope that you will hear me out. For I believe that Israel remains vitally important to the Jewish people, and that there is much that the world can learn from her.
Much of the media, particularly during this summer’s escalation, has tended to portray Israel as the primary aggressor. But throughout Israel’s existence, this has rarely- if ever- been the case. In 1948, Arab armies attacked just after Israel’s declaration of independence, with the belief that they could destroy the new state before it could ever gain a foothold. In 1967’s Six Day War, Israel did launch the first formal strike, but that came only after Egypt’s President Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran and Iraqi and Jordanian forces had amassed along the Jordanian border. And on Yom Kippur 41 years ago, the Arab states launched attacks on Israel purposely timed to coincide with the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Similarly, this summer, Israel felt compelled to respond when its citizens came under a constant barrage of rocket fire. Surely, we in C-U would not sit idle while under constant attack from Gifford or Cerro Gordo.
Still, many writers and pundits argue that Israel responded inappropriately. They use terms such as “disproportionate force,” and point to the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian casualties. Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, noted in a speech given in Germany back in August that Israel’s “moral test … is to continue to distinguish between enemies and innocents…People sit in their comfortable homes, watching the evening news, and tell us that we are failing the test. Why? Because in Gaza, people suffer more. They don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – that the suffering of Gaza is the main tool of evil. When we explain to them, time after time, that Hamas uses the children of Gaza as human shields, that Hamas intentionally places them in the firing line to ensure that they die, that Hamas sacrifices the lives of the young to win its propaganda war, people refuse to believe it. Why? Because they cannot believe that human beings – human beings who look like them and sound like them – are capable of behaving that way. Because good people always refuse to recognize the totality of evil until it’s too late.”
As Lapid notes, we find that each side in this conflict emphasizes different priorities. Israel was able to greatly minimize the number of deaths on its side thanks to tremendous infrastructure investments in bomb shelters and in the Iron Dome missile defense system, both of which served to insulate Israeli civilians from the attacks. The leadership in Gaza, on the other hand, elected to invest its money in stockpiling weapons and building a network of tunnels into Israel, through which they intended to kidnap, attack, maim, or kill Israelis. An estimated 600,000 tons of concrete were diverted to build these tunnels at an estimated cost, in both parts and labor, of nearly ninety million dollars. Had this money been used instead to provide opportunities for the citizens of Gaza—to fund education and infrastructure projects, and to restore hope to a downtrodden community—this summer’s events could have unfolded much differently.
Some will still protest that Israel’s bombing raids unfairly targeted civilian areas. While there is believed to have been some discrepancy in the reporting of Gazan casualties, it is of course, extremely lamentable that any loss of life was incurred during this summer’s battles. But to suggest that the Israel Defense Forces attacked haphazardly, that they sought to escalate the death toll in any way, again distorts the reality of the situation. As has now been widely reported, and even acknowledged by the United Nations (an institution that is frequently quite critical of Israel), the IDF regularly provided advanced warnings of attacks in an effort to allow civilians to clear the area. That many chose to stay, heeding the urgings of Hamas leadership, testifies to the mindset of the Hamas commanders. Their endgame has little to nothing to do with freedom, self-determination, peace, and security for the citizens of Gaza. They are driven instead by a desire to maintain the struggle, for doing so keeps them in power, and bolsters their image as heroes or martyrs.
Another argument that is frequently heard regarding casualties in Gaza holds that since Gaza is so densely populated, civilians had no place else to go. Gaza is indeed a small country, but as Alan Dershowitz and others have noted, there are open areas away from population centers. Hamas fighters chose not to do battle from these locations, and continually discouraged civilians from fleeing to these locations. Instead, they repeatedly fired from civilian areas, including schools and hospitals, which is not only a violation of international law, but is also morally indefensible.
My outrage is directed toward Hamas and its combatants. This is not a group of intrepid freedom fighters engaged in civil disobedience in a battle for self-determination, despite attempts of the media to portray them in that light. Hamas is a terrorist organization, designated as such by the European Union, the United States, Canada, and several other countries. In contrast, I do feel empathy for the citizens of Gaza. I pray that they will have the opportunity to live in peace alongside their Israeli neighbors. I still cling to the belief that there can be two states whose rulers recognize and respect the right of the other to exist. And I hope that a resolution can be found soon, so that our children, the children of Israel, and the children of Palestine can be spared the pain and frustration of repeating the same conversations.
So, somehow, Hamas must be removed from the equation. And the world must understand that Israel’s struggles against Hamas are not isolated battles to protect Israeli interests; they are part of the global fight against terror. Though they may bear different names and fight on different fronts, all of the groups who have made headlines in the past year for kidnappings, beheadings, rapes, executions, and other violent acts purportedly carried out in the name of Allah—all these groups are essentially one and the same. Ignore the threat of Hamas—or of Hezbollah, which is strengthening its presence in Lebanon—and we risk watching their counterparts in Islamic Jihad, Boko Haram, and ISIS grow in strength and tenacity. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Monday in his speech to the United Nations, “When militant Islam succeeds anywhere, it’s emboldened everywhere. When it suffers a blow in one place, it’s set back in every place. That’s why Israel’s fight against Hamas is not just our fight. It’s your fight.” Radicalized, jihadist Islam—a perverse distortion of normative, moderate Muslim beliefs—represents an existential threat to us all.
To me, Yom Kippur is a time to look toward the future, to envision the change that we want to make in ourselves and the difference we want to make in the world, and then to take the necessary steps to bring those changes to fruition. As we improve our society and ourselves, we renew hope and opportunity for future generations.
I want my children, and your children, and all the children of earth to inherit a world of peace and possibility, in which problems are solved not through violence but through dialogue, in which the inherent worth of every individual is appreciated and celebrated. In the world I dream of, Israel will live in security with her neighbors, and terror will exist only in ghost stories and Hollywood slasher films. This is my prayer for the people of Israel, this is my prayer for the people of Gaza, this is my prayer for the whole world.
There are no easy answers to these issues. Certainly, I’d encourage continued support of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Buy Israeli goods, use Israeli technologies (which are already relatively ubiquitous), or travel to Israel yourself.
Advocate and agitate for peaceful resolutions to this ongoing conflict. As I mentioned, I still hold out hope that a two-state solution can be possible, and that democracy and cooperation can create a rapprochement in the Middle East. This will require compromise on both sides, which I believe should begin with a freeze on further Israeli settlement construction, and a reconceptualization of the right of return for Arab refugees.
We are B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, descendants of the one who wrestled and struggled. We continue to struggle; we continue to debate how best to engage with the land with whom we share a name and an identity. May we continue to struggle, may we continue to engage, until that day—may it come soon—when peace shall prevail.
Oseh ha-shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru: Amen. May the One Who makes peace in the heavens, cause peace to descend upon us, upon Israel, and upon all who dwell on earth, and let us say: Amen.
 Fitch, Asa, Rory Jones and Adam Entous. "Early Failure to Detect Gaza Tunnel Network Triggers Recriminations in Israel: Israel Estimates Gaza Tunnels Cost Hamas $90 Million to Build." The Wall Street Journal. 10 August 2014.
 See, for instance http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28688179