How can we productively talk to one another: a lesson from Israel's Declaration of Independence

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Rosh Hashanah Day 2
Sunday September 17, 2023

Seventy five years ago, the State of Israel was declared. As a nation it did not come into being on one day, but was dreamed about, planned, imagined, fought for, and reimagined for millenia. For the last seventy five years, the citizens of Israel have dealt with war, terrorism, opportunity, possibilities, nation-building and Israelis. From secular to religious Jews, Muslims and Christians live side by side--sometimes. They work together, sometimes. Most try to build their homes and families, imagining a future where all can truly find peace.

This vision can be seen in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, signed May 14, 1948, which declares:

    ERETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) - the Land of Israel] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books…

The opening of the Declaration reminds the world and the Jewish people of our connection to the land itself. No matter where in the world we live, Jews have an inherent connection to the land. Our prayers are filled with references to Jerusalem, to Zion, to Israel. They mourn for our separation and cry out for our return. At every wedding, we break a glass, reminding us of the imperfection of the world, but mostly the imperfection of a perfectly redeemed Jerusalem, remembering the destruction of the first and second Temples, the historic homes of our connection to God. No matter our success, no matter our blessings, no matter our political leanings, we have a connection to the land itself.

Throughout Tanach, Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim, Torah, Prophets and writings, we see our historical connection. Rashi famously asks why does the Torah start with Bereshit, with creation, rather than with what he sees as the first mitzvah in Torah, found in Exodus where it tells us to establish the calendar. Why do we need the story of creation and our people, he asks? The answer is so that the entire world will know, that we will know of our connection to the land of Israel. Rashi teaches that the Torah begins with creation so that the world will know that Israel has been deeded to the Jewish people, that the land has been given by God and the tie cannot be severed by humankind. For the same reason in Genesis, when Sarah dies, Avraham is explicit in purchasing and demanding a deed for her gravesite, to ensure that it cannot be debated in the future.

Israel’s Declaration speaks of this connection:

    Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma'pilim [(Hebrew) - immigrants coming to Eretz-Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation] and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood. ..

Jews have continually lived in Eretz Yisrael from Abraham to the present. While subsequent exiles limited the numbers in the land, there has never been a time without some Jewish population b’aretz. Our yearning to return has been present throughout our history, our literature, our music, our culture. In every generation, in every century, there were rabbis and teachers, individuals of all different backgrounds from all around the world, who returned to Israel to attempt to make a life. In the last couple hundred years, with the advent of political Zionism and worldwide Jewish persecutions, there were more organized efforts to return and restore the land to her former glory.

Thankfully, those efforts were remarkably successful, turning a desert with few natural resources into a global power. Science and technological advances in Israel have truly changed the world. (You can join the A-Team to learn more about those!) Israel has changed global agriculture, pulled water from the sky, innovated in medicine, military and education in ways that will resonate for generations.

The declaration declared the mission and vision of Israel, a home for Jewish refugees, a nation of cooperation, that unlike the Jordanians who from 1948-1967 did not allow Jews to visit the Kotel, would allow all faiths to visit their holy sites. It reads:

    THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. . .

Throughout Jewish history, we have been a wandering people, a people in exile. As a tiny minority of the world’s population, we often existed at the whims of more powerful nations. Far too often our presence was no longer welcomed. We have been kicked out of Spain, England, France, Germany, and massacred throughout North Africa and Eastern Europe. Even General Grant (who did truly atone afterwards) tried to kick Jews out of the South during the Civil War! Sitting here safely in our sunny St Petersburg, it is hard to understand how fraught our history is. It is hard to understand how rapidly and frequently our presence, as Jews--whether secular or religious--has been deemed no longer welcome.

In Weimar Germany, Jews felt more secure than they had in centuries there. Many Jews had honorably served in the First World War for the German Empire. They no longer had to convert to Christianity to have legal access to the professional classes. Life was good. Unfortunately the depression and Hitler rapidly changed their world. Nations around the world heard Hitler’s rhetoric, heard the anti-Jewish hatred, saw the racist laws and did nothing. They kept their borders closed. Jewish-exclusionary immigration policies kept Jews from leaving Germany, Austria, Hungary and eastern Europe because there was nowhere to go. Had America’s borders been more open, Had Canada’s borders been more open, Had England’s borders been more open, Had China’s borders been more open…the world would look very different than it does today. Israel’s founding documents say NEVER AGAIN. They say that no matter what happens in the world--we have a place to go.

When I lived in NY, I knew a couple in their seventies. Her parents had escaped Vienna. They had been wealthy, comfortable. Life was good. Thank God, they were able to leave before the Nazis murdered them.They taught her that she must always have a passport, a packed suitcase and sufficient funds, in cash, to get out if needed. How do we balance the need for our own security with the desire not to live in fear?

The Declaration offers us hope, allows us to abandon fear. It shared a vision of the future, a vision of peace, of mutual cooperation and support in the Middle East:

    WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East. . .

This vision of the future, a vision of peace, of mutual cooperation has not come to fruition. The reality has been different. The parties on the other side have not been so open to cooperation and peace. Just this week, we saw that Abbas, the prime minister serving in the 18th year of his four year term, shared deeply antiSemitic remarks, claiming Hitler persecuted Jews because of “their social role, which had to do with usury, money, and so on.”

Fortunately in recent years new business and political arrangements have been made, expanding the cold peace with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Morocco, to include more open connections with the Gulf States and perhaps even Saudi Arabia.

Now the biggest challenge Israel is facing may not be an external enemy, but herself. Internal divisions have led to multiple coalition failures, leading to the collapse of the last few governments. In building the current governing coalition, Netanyahu allied himself with figures that had been previously banned from government service for their racism and incitement. He was a much more effective politician than those on the left, forcing certain parties to merge to ensure that they kept their seats, ensuring that he was able to form a coalition, while his alliance earned well less than 50% of the votes. Immediately after the election, the Justice Minister announced a plan to reform the Supreme Court: giving the Knesset more control over judicial selection, reducing the Court’s power of judicial review, allowing the Knesset to override the Court’s decision with a simple majority vote, reclassify certain apolitical government ministry legal advisors into political roles, and to get rid of the “reasonableness” doctrine which the court has used to overturn certain laws.

As of yet, only the overruling of the “reasonableness” doctrine has been passed, and the full Supreme Court just this week heard the case, which if they overrule it may lead to a constitutional crisis in a country lacking a constitution!

Since February, large swaths of the population have protested these reforms. At times 10% of the entire nation’s population has been on the streets. Can you imagine if 35 million Americans were protesting weekly? In truth, I’d be more concerned here about violence amongst and to the protestors. In Israel there has not been a single instance of looting and almost no violence by the protestors and with notable exceptions, very little violence from the police. There have been weekly (and some more frequent) protests not only in “secular” Tel Aviv, but even in the shtachim, the settlements.

Like so many issues it is complicated. Politics lead to strange bedfellows. There is no clear solution, no clear compromise that will allow both sides to declare victory. I pray that President Herzog will be able to get the sides to speak to one another, to find a way to build Israel’s future together. Otherwise, I fear dire consequences. Many reservists in senior positions will not return to serve in this government. God forbid, Hezbollah and Hamas, who also see this playing out in the news, could strike, leading to an IDF fighting without its full strength.

Ultimately, I see two central issues

1.    How do we talk to one another any more?
2.    How can Israel remain our home?

The second is easier than the first. Israel has been our home for thousands of years. Through exile, through violence, through suffering, through miracles. It will always be home. We can argue about politics. We can argue the meaning of democracy. We can argue about what are the right reforms OR the right way to make governmental change. In my heart of hearts, I believe no matter what happens with the justice reforms, it will remain our home. We will need to raise our voices louder to fight for spaces to pray with men and women together, to ensure the rights of LGBTQ+ Jews, to protect minorities and to ensure that women’s voices are heard. We will need to vote in next year’s World Zionist Congress elections to ensure that Masorti/Mercaz/United Synagogue voices are heard in Israel. Maybe I’m a pollyanna, but I believe that Israel is resilient and will come through this foundational and fundamental challenge.

The first challenge remains hard. How do we talk to one another? Like too many rabbis these days, I am nervous to even bring up Israel on the bimah. No matter what I say, some will call me a liberal nutcase and others will say I’m a settler-supporting right-wing nutjob. Good thing, I’m not allergic to nuts! We need to find a way to lower the temperature of dialogue EVERYWHERE. We need to find a way to listen to one another--not to speak only to tell the other person is wrong--but to LISTEN to why their ideas might have substance! We need to be open to changing our minds if the facts do not align with our arguments.

I heard recently from Rabbi David Wolpe, emeritus at Sinai Temple in LA. He spoke about the need to have friends who disagree with us politically, to talk with people outside our bubbles, to see that others are not merely anti-American or anti-Israel crazies, but actual human beings, perhaps even fellow co-religionists, fellow Jews, who might share many of our values but see different solutions to the world’s problems, or even define the problems differently.

Our tradition teaches the difference between a maklokhet lshem shamayim, a debate for the sake of heaven and one that is not for the sake of heaven.

ָכּל ַמֲחֹֽלֶקת ֶשִׁהיא ְלֵשׁם ָשַֹֽׁמִים,סוָֹפהּ ְלִהְתַקֵיּם. ְוֶשֵׁאיָנהּ ְלֵשׁם ָשַֹֽׁמִים, ֵאיןסוָֹפהּ ְלִהְתַקֵיּם.

Mishna Avot 5:17 Every machloket (conflict) which is l’shem shamayim is destined to endure. And that which is not l’shem shamayim, is destined not to endure.

.כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים - כלומר שאנשי המחלוקת ההיא מתקיימים ואינם אובדין.

Bartenura, Avot 5:17 [The mishnah says:] Every machloket (conflict) which is l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), is destined to endure.” This means that the people engaged in the conflict will endure, and will not be lost.

Rav Ovadia of Bartenura teaches a valuable lesson. Way back in 15th century Italy he saw that the way we speak to one another is existential. If we cannot engage productively, if we cannot speak respectfully, if we cannot refrain from engaging with ad hominem attacks and forgetting the issues, we will cease to exist as a people. However, if we can focus on what matters, strive to build a better future, not only will our world endure, it will thrive. In this way we will live the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and truly create the redemption of Israel and perhaps even the entire world.