Yom Kippur 5773 Sermon – American Jews and Israel: What We Need To Say And Do To Secure Our Jewish State

Before I begin, I need to let you know that while I want to talk about Israel today, the political climate makes this extremely difficult for me to do.  Israel has become so politicized and this politicalization has created an awful rift within the Jewish community.  And this is wrong.  The love for Israel that so many of us share is not determined by our political affiliation but upon our faith, heritage and history – things that transcend politics.  But, the upcoming election has made it virtually impossible to talk about our Jewish homeland without ruffling feathers.  Every year, during the High Holidays, I talk about Israel.  But, this year, I came very close to being silent about the Jewish State.  But, I realized that if an American rabbi can’t stand on his bimah on the holiest day of the year and talk about Israel – something is truly broken.  I realized that if an American rabbi can’t express his support for the Jewish State on the same day that the President of Iran steps before the podium of the United Nations in New York City and threatens the Jewish State’s very existence – something is truly broken.  And I don’t believe we are that broken.  And I don’t believe that we Jews should be silent about our love for Israel – ever.  So, yes, I am going to talk about Israel today.  I am NOT going to talk about what the candidates have to say about Israel.  I certainly am NOT going to talk about who to vote for.  Today, I want to talk about how and why American-Jews need to talk about Israel.  This sermon today is not a feel good sermon.  It is not a sermon about spirituality.  It is a call to action – a plea that we, as a Jewish community – united by Israel and her safety, speak and act in ways which insure that G-d’s sukkat shalom – sukkah of peace – surrounds Israel, the United States and the entire world.  I know it sounds like a huge task.  But, I believe that we are up for it.

With this as an introduction, I want to remind you that at the end of the Book of Genesis, when the Israelites moved down to Egypt from Israel – they thrived.  Joseph, the son of our patriarch Jacob, rose to power in Pharaoh’s administration and all was good.  Egypt was a great place for the Israelites.  They were comfortable, successful and, most importantly, safe.  But, eventually, the tide would turn.  Joseph would die.  The political landscape would change and at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Torah tells us that “a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”  And with this new Pharaoh – Egypt became a dark place for our ancestors.  They were enslaved by Pharaoh – stripped of their freedom, rights and dignity.  Had it not been for the courage of Moses, the Israelite people might very well have died off, giving their last ounce of blood, sweat and tears to build Pharaoh’s empire.

The story of our ancestor’s demise in Egypt is one that repeats itself over and over again throughout our history.  As a small group of people often living under the control of others, we have frequently found our situation change dramatically as a result of political turnover or turmoil.  Whether it was while living under the rule of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks or the Romans, our biblical ancestors knew the uncertainty associated with living under leaders who did not consider the concerns of the Jewish people to be a priority.  This uncertainty would continue for centuries as Jews found themselves exiled from the land of Israel and rebuilding lives all over the globe.  At times Jews prospered in foreign lands, living under friendly rulers.  But too often, history shows us how these friendly rulers were replaced by others who either did nothing to protect the Jews or, worse, worked to annihilate them.  We simply need to look back just a few generations to the Jews of Europe – who, at times, prospered but were virtually wiped off the map with the rise of Hitler.

With the screams of the Holocaust still echoing across the globe, the establishment of the modern State of Israel was so very important to us because it was a place where we could be in control of our own destiny – no longer living in fear and waiting for the “new Pharaoh” to rise to power who did not “know us”.  With the rebirth of Israel in 1948, there was no longer any uncertainty about the Jewish tomorrow – because Israel promised and still promises a Jewish tomorrow – and, even better, a Jewish next year.  And for almost 65 years, American Jews have worked tirelessly to insure that Israel will be around, strong and secure, forever.

As American Jews, we are blessed to live in a country that has for years, welcomed us, blessed us, protected us – and let us grow and prosper as a powerful albeit tiny minority – making up just 2% of this great nation.  Without a doubt, Jews in America are safe, secure and prosperous.  We are lucky to be able to call America our home.  And we are lucky to be able to take part in a political process that gives us – a tiny minority – a say – and a pretty powerful say.

I experienced the power of the collective Jewish voice earlier this year when I attended AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington DC in March.  AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee)  is the largest pro-Israel lobbying group.  President Obama was a speaker at the conference.  Governor Romney also spoke.  Most major American political leaders played a role.  50% of Congress attended the conference along with 15,000 pro-Israel delegates who worked the halls of the Capital – lobbying for Israel and having a tremendous impact.

Thanks to the efforts of pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC, our government has taken important steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – and, thus, threatening the very existence of Israel, the stability of the entire Middle East and the security of the world.  Just this summer, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2012 (H.R. 1905), which enshrined in law that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and sharply tightened the enforcement of existing sanctions law. The House passed the measure by a vote of 421-6, while the Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent and President Obama signed it into law just last month.

Things sure have changed dramatically since some 400 rabbis marched on Washington just 69 years ago, on October 6, 1943.  These rabbis were marching in support of American and Allied action to stop the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust.  In 1943, President Roosevelt refused to meet with the rabbis as they walked up to the White House.   The President slipped out of the White House via a rear door.  Today, our American Jewish voice is powerful.  As Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote in a recent article, “Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people.” We might make up only 2% of this great country – but we have the support of many national leaders on both sides of the aisle.

And this is a blessing.

Since her rebirth in 1948, Israel has had a rough time.  But today, the Jewish State, which continues to struggle with her Palestinian neighbors, is facing unprecedented threats from Iran and her nuclear ambitions, from an unstable Syria, from the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, from the turmoil of the Arab Spring, from a strained relationship with Turkey, from Hamas terrorists who continue to launch missiles into Israel, from Hezbollah militants who are heavily funded and supported by Iran and from a powerful international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State.  Now, more than ever, Israel needs America and the support of the American Jewish community.  Because now, more than ever, Israel’s security is being threatened and with it, the certainty of a Jewish tomorrow in our Jewish State.

Both President Obama and Governor Romney are spending a great deal of time and money explaining their pro-Israel positions.  It is great that both men running for President have Israel on their radar screen.  But, come January, Israel will be just one of countless other important issues that the winner of November’s election will have to deal with.  While many of us in the Jewish, pro-Israel community will work to insure that Israel’s security continues to be a priority for the President come January – we have to appreciate the fact that the vast majority of Americans will be looking to whoever is our President next year to put jobs and the economy on the top of his to-do list.  Surveys of the American electorate suggest that other issues like heath care and illegal immigration also have to be on the President’s to-do list.  These same surveys suggest that the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t even consider Israel’s security to be something for the President to put on his to-do list – not because these Americans are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic – but simply because Israel is not on their radar screens.  For those of us living in a large Jewish community like South Florida, this is sometimes hard for us to understand. While I love the fact that today, we Jews don’t consider ourselves to be a “tiptoeing people”, we need to get our heads around the reality that what’s important to us is not always what is important to the rest of the country.

Based upon our tiny size and the fact that Jews, for the most part, tend to live in certain parts of the country, more and more, members of Congress increasingly live where the Jewish community does not and the Jewish community lives where there are fewer and fewer members of Congress.

  • For example, North Carolina, with a Jewish population of 30,000, has more members of Congress than New Jersey with a Jewish population of 500,000.
  • The State of Washington has a Jewish population of 45,000 and more congressional districts than Massachusetts with a Jewish population of 280,000.
  • 40% of the Jewish population in America currently lives in the northeast, an area that contains only 19% of the general population.

During these challenging economic times, Congressmen who are not representing a Jewish community like our own – which is the vast majority of Congressmen – are, understandably, much more likely to put Israel’s security on the bottom of the list of national priorities.

We have been blessed by the fact that Congress has been very receptive to pro-Israel lobbying groups and incredibly supportive of Israel.  This Congress “knows Israel” and “knows” how important it is for the United States to insure her safety.  But, Congress will be transformed by the November elections.  33 Senate seats and all 435 Congressional seats are up for grabs.  We already know that, because of redistricting and other factors unrelated to the results of the November election, there will be at least 71 new members of Congress in 2013 – 11 Senators and 60 members of the House – insuring that next year’s Congress will be comprised of one the largest freshman classes in Congressional history.

There will be a lot of newbies in Washington who the President will have to work with come 2013.  These newbies will play an important role in setting the national agenda.  As is typical with new Congressman, many of these new leaders will begin their Congressional careers with little or no background in foreign affairs.  Many of them will not “know Israel” and will, therefore, have little understanding of the important US-Israel relationship.  These Congressmen will, however, begin their careers with a clear and important message from their constituencies: get us jobs!   Spending American resources to secure Israel and stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb won’t necessarily be a national priority come 2013 – despite the pro-Israel positions of the people we will vote for in November.

If we want to do our part to help insure the safety and security of Israel AND remain a people who don’t tiptoe around – we have to live the words of the prophet Isaiah who said: “For Zion’s sake, I will not be silent!” If we, American Jews, can’t live by these words, who will?  Goodness knows there are a lot of important causes out there – and lots of people fighting for these causes.  We need more people to break their silence when it comes to Israel.  We need more pro-Israel voices.  We need Israel activists who will speak up for the Jewish State.

As this new Jewish year begins and many of us are looking to renew our connection to Judaism, I am asking you to become a pro-Israel activist.  I am asking you to educate yourself about Israel and use what you learn to insure that Israel’s wellbeing remains in the spotlight and on the radar screens of all of our elected officials. You can help to make certain that our leaders in Washington, old and new, “know Israel”.  You can support pro-Israel lobbying groups that work with our national leaders, take them to Israel and teach them about the Jewish State, her security concerns and the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.  You can come with me to Washington in March and become a pro-Israel lobbyist, meeting face to face with members of Congress urging members on both sides of the aisle to insure the safety and security of Israel.

Closer to home, each of you can talk to your friends and neighbors about Israel.  They need to understand that our passion to insure Israel’s security should be their passion as well!  After all, the biggest threat facing Israel today – mainly Iran and her nuclear ambitions – is a tremendous threat to the United States.

We need to remind people here that Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror – backing insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who are responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers.  This year alone, Iran has sponsored terrorism against the U.S. and its allies, including a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, D.C., failed attempts to kill diplomats in India, Thailand, Georgia and Kenya.  Iran is behind the horrific events in Syria and is feeding the frenzy associated with the murder of our Ambassador and others in Libya.

We have to remind our friends and neighbors that in addition to calling for the annihilation of Israel, Iran has called for a world without the United States.  A nuclear Iran would be able to provide nuclear materials and knowledge to its allies in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia – bringing the threat of nuclear terror extremely close to our shores.

We have to remind our fellow Americans that the prospect of a nuclear Iran would directly affect the price of oil.  Iran would be able to manipulate the cost of oil by coercing other oil-exporting nations to reduce their crude production.  A nuclear Iran could easily dominate OPEC – which controls 75% of the world’s conventional oil reserves – causing the global price of oil to skyrocket and force us to pay more for gas, groceries and other consumer goods.

But, more important than all of these facts are our beliefs and feelings.  As a pro-Israel activist, I don’t hesitate to tell people that I believe the world is better because of Israel.  And I also don’t hesitate to tell them that I fear a world that could witness her destruction.  And when someone responds to this by saying “well, that could never happen” – I don’t hesitate to say, “you don’t know your Jewish history”.  The tide can turn.  And then what?

As some of you know, when it comes to Israel, my greatest fear is not that Iran will get the bomb.  I have faith in Israel and her leaders.  Israel will not allow the six million Jews and two million non-Jews who call Israel home to be wiped off the face of the earth by Iran.  Israel will take action when and if she feels the threat is there.  What I truly fear is the morning after.  The morning after Israel attacks Iran – waking up to the news.  Waiting for the backlash – from the international community, from, perhaps, our own leaders who don’t understand the dangers of Iran, from our friends and neighbors.  I fear that this “morning after” is getting closer and closer.  It might, Gd forbid, be tomorrow.  And we are not yet ready for this sunrise. There are too many people out there who do not understand – too many people who won’t want to get involved because it costs too much, because it is too dangerous, because we here in the U.S. have enough on our plate.  Too many people who will accuse Israel rather than noting that she not only saved herself, but the entire world.

We – the American Jewish community – can prevent this “morning after” from being a nightmare for Israel and the global Jewish community by doing our part to right now to garner support for the Jewish State.  Perhaps, we can even prevent this “morning after” from happening in the first place by thanking our politicians for all they have done so far to stop Iran – but urging them to increase sanctions and do more to totally isolate Iran and her leaders.  I do believe we can do great things if we pledge to speak up as 5773 begins and insure that as many people as possible “know” about Israel.

By speaking up for Israel– what we are doing according to the Senator Jonny Isakson, the Senator from Georgia – is telling our story.  Telling the story of our heritage and the future of our children and grandchildren.  By speaking up, we’re telling the story that is the great miracle of Israel.  And this telling of the story is, according to the Senator, what it takes for our two countries to commit to a future for Israel that is safe and secure and at peace.

By speaking up for Israel – what we are doing according to former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey is being an American.  The Senator reminds us that at one point in America, there was only one abolitionist who said slavery was wrong.  There was only one suffragette who said women need the right to vote.  There was only one civil rights worker who said we have to perfect the American promise for African-Americans.  And there was only one environmentalist who said we’ve got to clean up our air and water.  And then there where two and then there were four and there were five…And if we lose sight of that, the Senator says, we don’t see the strength of America.

As American Jews, we owe it to ourselves, to our Jewish community, to our country, to Israel and the world to stand up for our story – for the State of Israel.  In doing so, we will do our part to insure that the words we will chant at the end of our service tonight – “Next Year In Jerusalem” – can be recited with pride by our grandchildren and their grandchildren in a peaceful world that contains a vibrant and beautiful State of Israel.

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