Yom Kippur Sermon: Pursuing Justice for Israel

As some of you know, I tried really hard to get myself arrested in New York City two weeks ago.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  I tried really hard to get myself arrested in New York City two weeks ago.  I have never been arrested.  Have never been in trouble with the law – except for a few minor traffic tickets.  But I was determined to get arrested on September 20th.

Unfortunately, despite juggling my schedule, getting Cheryl’s permission, finding flights – I didn’t get arrested.  Our dear friend, Amy Segal, Cheryl’s best friend and the mother of Abigail’s dear friend, Sabrina, passed away and was buried on September 19th.  Instead of spending time in a jail cell on September 20th, I was here in South Florida, in mourning, comforting my wife and daughter.  That is the only reason I was not arrested on September 20th.  Trust me, I would have much rather have been in jail.

September 20th was the day that the Palestinian Authority was set to ask the United Nations for Statehood.  Under the direction of Rabbi Avi Weiss and the organization Amcha, a group of Zionists, lovers of Israel, planned and actually did take part in organized, non-violent, civil disobedience – in the spirit of great leaders like Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Rosa Parks.  They blocked traffic in front of the United Nations, in turn, blocking an entrance to the UN in an attempt to symbolically stop the absurdity of the Palestinian bid for statehood going on inside the international institution.  Some were arrested for their actions.

Coming before the UN, attempting to get themselves declared a sovereign state based upon the infamous pre-1967 borders was a blatant attempt by the Palestinian Authority to undermine the need to talk to and negotiate with Israel.  The statehood bid destroys any attempt to revitalize the peace process.  It flies in the face of UN resolutions that call upon both Israelis and Palestinians to work together to create lasting, secure, peaceful and meaningful borders.  All of this, plus the fact that the UN has demonstrated over and over again just how anti-Israel it is, acts only to delegitimize Israel.  And let’s not forget that the Palestinian Authority, while demanding that the UN recognize her as a sovereign nation, refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and continues to support terrorism against Israel. And of course, we must not fail to mention Gilad Shalit, our Israeli soldier who has been held captive for more that five years by Hamas with whom the Palestinian Authority has signed a unity agreement.  As Gilad’s father stated in early September: “The Palestinian Authority cannot seek recognition or UN membership as long as they continue this international crime and hold Gilad without allowing him visits by a doctor or a Red Cross representative.”  But, the Palestinian Authority has done just this and Gilad is still held against his will with no visit from a doctor, no communication with the International Red Cross or his family.

As the organizers of the civil disobedience set for September 20th reminded me, there are times when standing safely on the sidewalk is just not okay.  When the safety, security and very future of Israel is on the line, when Israeli children live in fear of missile attacks from Gaza, when Israeli families are murdered in their homes and cars simply because they are Jews, when Israeli soldiers are held against international law – it is time for those of us, Jews and non-Jews, lovers and supporters of Israel, people of conscience to step into the street even if the police tell us not to.  Even if it is illegal.  We must do so peacefully, respectfully and with great pride.  As Martin Luther King Jr. taught us as he relied upon civil disobedience to fight for freedom and equality, “we should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”” Sometimes we need to break the rules in order to bring awareness to something so very wrong and broken.  And the actions of the Palestinian Authority are very wrong and the UN is very broken.

I know some of you feel that my views and opinions on Israel are rather “hawkish” and right of center and, in many cases, I agree with you.  On the issue of Palestinian Statehood, however, I beg to differ with you.  My views on this issue are shared by virtually every major, mainstream Jewish organization – including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Political Action Committee, of which I am a proud member of the Washington Club.  Even more left leaning organizations, organizations that I don’t often see eye to eye with are opposed to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN.  Our own government is opposed to it and has promised to veto any resolution pertaining to Palestinian Statehood that comes before the UN Security Council.  Tzipi Livni – the chief rival of Prime Minister Netanyahu – is also opposed to the statehood bid.

We Jews, we are a passionate people with many opinions.  You get 5 of us in a room, you will hear 10 opinions.  When it comes to Israel and how we will achieve peace there, I am used to healthy, lively, colorful debate with my Jewish brothers and sisters.  But, on the issue of Palestinian statehood at the UN, there seems to be a lot – not complete – but a lot of agreement within the Jewish community.

When I began to share with family and friends my intention to fly to New York on September 20th to take part in the civil disobedience before the UN, I was touched by the number of people – Jews and non-Jews – who told me that they too were opposed to the statehood bid and horrified by the way the UN treats Israel.  At the same time, however, I was disillusioned by the numerous requests I got from people not to “cause trouble in New York”.  People – many of you – some of you products of the 60’s, people who did or would have marched with Martin Luther King, people who admire the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Bielski brothers whose story was told in the film Defiance, people who believe that we need to stick our neck out there for things we believe in – you called me, texted me, emailed me, visited with me  – urged me to be careful, not to get thrown in jail.  You were worried that I wouldn’t be tough enough.  You were worried that I would get hurt.  Scared.  Upset.  You were afraid things might get out of control and I might get caught up in something bigger than I expected.  You supported my cause.  But, you didn’t think I should get out there and take a stand.  You wanted me to stay in my nice little Ramat Shalom bubble.

Seth – one of our members here today – he bought a plane ticket and he went to NY.  He didn’t get arrested, but he represented us.  Cory  – another one of our members – offered to go with me and serve as my “bodyguard”.  A few of you offered to post bail for me.  But everyone else – mostly diehard, progressive, stand up for a cause, Israel supporting, proud Jewish, speak up when you see injustice kind of people – you were totally opposed to me taking part in any type of civil disobedience.  Some of you even admitted that you got arrested for standing up years ago against racism or Vietnam.  But you didn’t want me to get arrested for standing up for Israel.  And this truly broke my heart.

Today, I really don’t want to talk about Israeli politics and how to bring peace to the Middle East.  Today, I want to talk about what we are willing to do for us.  What are we, South Florida Jews, who despite economic challenges, live in a pretty good place, what are we willing to do – if anything – for the larger, global Jewish community?  I am not talking about money.  I am talking about giving of ourselves to help the Jewish world.  What do we do for our fellow Jews who are not safe?  What do we do for the countless Israeli children who live in fear of a terrorist attack?  What do we do for Israel when the world denies her justice – when the UN treats her differently from every other nation?  What do we do to secure Gilad’s freedom?  Do we go to a lecture on the issue, maybe sign a petition and go on our way?  Or are we required to stand up and do something?

I talked last night about Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer that reminds us that today, the Book of Life is sealed.  There are three things, according to Unetaneh Tokef, that we can do to insure that we make it into the book: tefillah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and TZEDAKAH (pursuing justice).  Can it be any more obvious that our tradition, our Judaism is screaming out to us: If you want to live – really live a meaningful life and be inscribed in the Book of Life this year – you have an obligation to stand up for what is right and speak out against what is wrong.  You have an obligation to put yourself on the line and insure that the scales of justice are balanced.  After all, this is what it means to pursue tzedakah.  We are led to believe that tzedakah means to put money money in a pushke. That is not tzedakah.  By doing tzedakah you do what you can to insure that goodness and righteousness and fairness and justice are upheld.  Yes, it is hard work.  But, it is what we Jews are expected to do if you want to live a meaningful, powerful life.  This is one of the lessons of Yom Kippur.

The past several months, I have watched from afar and envied the commitment and passion involved with the Arab Spring.  Young Arabs, many of whom would want nothing to do with your or me, or Judaism or Israel, have taken to the streets to protest their standard of living and demand a change.  And, in many cases, they have been successful (in ways that jeopardize Israel’s security – but that is another discussion).  As I have watched these Arab protests change the make up of the Middle East, I have wondered where the Jewish Spring has been!?  How about the Jewish Autumn?  Where is the outrage at the continued attacks on our people – the anti-semitic diatribes, the terrorist strikes, the murder of innocent Jews in Israel?  Where are the overwhelming Jewish calls for justice and reform within the halls of the United Nations?  Where are the thousands of Jews protesting the arrival of Ahmadinejad in our own country?  Where are the hundreds of Jewish parents demanding that Gilad is set free? Where were you when Seth protested in front of the UN on September 20th?  Where are we guys?

When we were in Israel this summer, we traveled to a kibbutz on the Lebanese border.  One of our goals while visiting the kibbutz was to have our two bar mitzvah boys, Aaron Lettman and Trevor Wilpon, plant two kiwi trees on the border.

As we prepared to plant the trees, our kibbutz host, Aitan, told us about the violence that has taken place recently along the Lebanese border.  He showed us the remains of a Ketusha rocket that was fired by terrorists into his neighborhood.  He handed us a kafiyah – a Muslim headscarf tied in a knot and filled with stones – it was used as a weapon against Israeli soldiers who were guarding the border this Spring as hundreds of Arabs, caught up in the fury of the Arab Spring, tried to force their way illegally into Israel in an attempt to undermine Israeli sovereignty.  No one had to ask where our soldiers were.  They were there – at the border.  They protected Israel.  Kept it secure.  That’s what they are always doing – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  That’s what they are doing right now.

Aitan showed us blood-stained foam lying in the fields by the border – foam left over from military stretchers that carried wounded Israeli soldiers back into Israel from Lebanon during the 2006 Lebanon War – a conflict in which Israeli tried to rid the region of the terrorist group Hezbollah.  One of the wounded Israeli soldiers brought back from Lebanon on one of those stretchers was Major Roi Klein who was actively rescuing some of his men in Lebanon when he saw a grenade being launched at them.  Without thought, without hesitation, Roi jumped in front of the grenade – saving his men – at the expense of his own life.  No one had to ask Roi to do what he did.  He was there – taking care of his men – or, his boys, as those of us who were in Israeli came to know them.

As we learned about Roi, we walked closer and closer to the border fence.  Aaron and Trevor holding the kiwi trees.  Aitan told us to look up the mountain that lay on the other side of the fence in Lebanon.  We did so and saw a fortress at the top.  “Wave to the Hezbollah terrorists” Aitan said.

And he wasn’t joking.

Everyone hesitated.  It was as if you could feel the group collectively saying to themselves “Oh my God – terrorists, what the heck do we do now…”

“Go on,” Aitan prodded, “wave!  Let’s sing Jewish songs.” And he started to lead us in Am Yisrael Chai – Israel lives, Israel is strong.

“Sing!” said Aitan.  “And wave,” he said.  We started to wave and sing quietly – still uncertain what exactly was going on…..

We got to the site where we were planting the trees.  “Keep singing, keep waving.”  Aitan said.  And we did so – except those doing the planting.   As we stuck the trees in the ground, he explained to us that we were doing exactly what Hezbollah doesn’t want us to do: “we are showing them that we are not afraid,” he said; “we are showing them that we are proud, we are showing them that they cannot stop us from growing our land, from living our lives, from being Jews.”

After we heard that, Aitan no longer had to ask us to wave or sing.  We got it.  We were there standing with, digging in, singing about Israel.

On this day of personal introspection – on this day when we commit ourselves to teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (pursuing justice) – I am not asking you to become an Israeli solidier and put your life on the line like Roi Klein of blessed memory.  I am not asking you to get arrested with me in front of the UN.

I am, however, asking you to seriously evaluate how you, as a Jew, do meaningful tzedakah, for other Jews.  I am asking you to step off the sidewalk and into the street.  I am asking you: where are you now that Israel needs support?  I am asking you: what are you doing to insure that Israel is treated justly by the world?  How are you standing up to the anti-Israel bias in the UN?  How are you countering the hateful spewings of monsters like Ahmadinejad?  How are you proudly telling the world that Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people live and will continue to live? These are questions we Jews must ask ourselves as we enter 5772.

Referring to the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King taught that “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

If we Jews don’t speak up and take a stand, the lies and distortions told on behalf of those out to delegitimize Israel and the missiles and bombs that come from Israel’s enemies will not be the greatest tragedy of this period of Jewish history.  Rather the greatest tragedy will be the appalling silence and lack of action by the Jews.

I end today with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav – who teaches us: kol ha’olam kulo
, gesher tsar me’od, veha’ikar – lo lefached klal – the entire world is a very narrow bridge, the essential thing is to have no fear at all.

When it comes to Israel, we are living through very trying times right now.  We have a rough road ahead of us – a very narrow bridge.  But there is no time for fear.  Fear silences us.  Fear keeps us on the sidewalk.  Fear keeps us from acting.  The essential thing is to have no fear at all!  We must unite, hand in hand, arm in arm – just like they did on the streets of Selma and slowly, very slowly, cross the bridge.  With hands held and arms locked, we will make it to the other side.  And the nation of Israel will live.

Am Yisrael Chai!

 

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