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October 26, 2014 | 2nd Cheshvan 5775

My Heart is in the East: My Zionist Commitments

May 2, 2011-28 Nisan 5771
Delivered by Rabbi Richard Jacobs at the Religious Action Center's Consultation on Conscience, Washington, D.C.

It is such a great honor to be with you today as part of the RAC's 50th anniversary celebration. Modim anachnu lach-How grateful we are for this crucial pillar of our Union for Reform Judaism.

My own social justice commitment began back in the late 60s when I was a camper at the Union's Camp Swig in Northern California. Rabbi Joe Glaser of blessed memory had invited Cesar Chavez to speak to us. Chavez told us about the plight of the farm workers and how eating non-union grapes or lettuce harmed their lives. Right then and there my Jewish identity was connected with social justice. Doing justly was as fundamental as saying the shema each day.

Over the years I have worked closely with David and Mark and the rest of the RAC's extraordinary staff. The RAC has never stopped raising its prophetic voice on the most critical issues facing our country and our world. On Darfur, civil rights, economic justice, reproductive rights, the environment and so many other important moral issues, the RAC has fought for what our Movement believes.

Throughout my rabbinate I have been a social justice activist standing proudly with the positions advocated by the RAC, the URJ and the CCAR. Our Movement stands strongly and proudly for Israel. Our Reform Movement believes that peace is indispensable to Israel's security and well-being, and that a two-state solution (one Jewish, one Palestinian) is necessary to achieve a viable and lasting peace.

Our Movement also believes that robust foreign assistance to Israel is an important anchor for the peace process, providing Israel with the confidence and assurance needed to move forward with peace negotiations. Knowing how crucial Israel is to our Movement, what a crossroads this is in the Middle East peace process, I'd like to take the next few minutes to share with you what Israel means to me.

I fell in love with Israel. It was during my junior year of college, which I spent studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ever since, working to strengthen Israel's security and well being, well that's been at the core of my public life.

What is the source of my passion for Israel? Yehuda Halevi best expressed my commitment when he wrote: "My heart is in the East."

I love the extraordinary and complex mosaic that is contemporary Israel: the secular, the settlers, the peaceniks, the Orthodox, the Bedouins, the Reform, the new immigrants, the chalutzim, the Arab-Israelis, the left, the right and the center. They are all part of my Israel. I'm responsible for all of them.

Like all of you, I am proudly and strongly pro-Israel. While there are many legitimate ways to express pro-Israel commitments, I believe all must uphold Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. By "Jewish state" I mean a state with a stable Jewish majority, and by "democratic state" I mean a state that grants full political and civil rights to all who dwell permanently within its borders.

Now, being pro-Israel means always standing in solidarity with the State of Israel.To me, Jewish life cannot be imagined without Israel at its core. Occasional disagreements with Israeli policies are a necessary part of serious engagement with our Jewish state. But our love for Israel is not dependent on who is prime minister or on what issues are before the Knesset or the chief rabbinate.

Daniel Pipes, an academic known for his hard-line Middle East views, had it right when he said recently "that anyone concerned about the security and welfare of Israel is in the pro-Israel camp."

When it comes to my strong support of a two-state solution, I stand with all of the current and recent Israeli and American administrations and with the great majority of American Jews.

Let's be clear, the stakes are very high. There are plenty of people around the world who question Israel's very right to exist. Now those same people do not question Sudan's right to exist even though their president has been charged with genocide, but they do the democratic state of Israel's.

Attempting to delegitimize Israel, on too many college campuses and throughout much of Europe, critics try to portray Israel as though it is some apartheid-like state. It is an absurd assertion. Anyone who knows what apartheid was, and who knows Israel today, is well aware of that.

Critics cite assessments like the Goldstone Report to justify such contentions. When it was first issued I publicly challenged its fatal flaws. The Goldstone Report states that Israeli armed forces "carried out direct intentional strikes against civilians," a contention, as you know, that Goldstone has now retracted. But the damage has been done, and we're going to spend years trying to undo that damage. When Rabbi Eric Yoffie excoriated Richard Goldstone and his biased report at the first J Street Conference, some booed him. Rabbi Yoffie was unfazed and went on to say "Anyone who supports a peaceful two-state solution must consider the role of Hamas in destroying such a prospect-and yet, quite astonishingly, nothing of this is discussed in the Goldstone Report." I applaud Rabbi Yoffie's independent and clear voice in this and other crucial issues.

And just weeks ago David Saperstein had my full support when he gave his constructively critical keynote address to the second J Street Conference. I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi Saperstein's decision to speak at the conference, to assert again how vital movement towards a peace process is to Israel's security and America's interests, to offer thoughtful criticism of J Street's policy making, but also to offer a strong critique of J Street's stand opposing the recent US veto of the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements.

Like my colleagues Eric and David, I am unafraid to challenge misguided views regardless of the source.

Leaders of the Reform Movement must never be defined by membership in outside organizations but rather by the longstanding policies of our Movement-policies that are fully in consonance with those I have held for decades.

Over the years I have attended many rallies, I'm sure many of you have as well, for Israel here in North America and in Eretz Yisrael. Back in 2002 while suicide bombers savagely slaughtered hundreds of Israelis, there was a rally in support of Israel on the mall in Washington DC. I pulled my own kids out of school and convinced over a hundred members of my synagogue to take the day off from work and school to make the five-hour trip to Washington DC to stand up for Israel. Though tens of thousands of lovers of Israel attended the rally, I was disappointed there were not more liberal Jews. My then 12- and nine-year-old sons made their own poster that said: "Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace."

If you were there, you remember the sun was scorching hot and I was thankful that my wife had made sure I had sunscreen in my pocket. As I looked over at a bearded man in his black coat with a "Hebron Forever" hat on, I couldn't help but notice he was getting quite a sun burn. I passed my sunscreen over to him but he hesitated, seemingly questioning whether he could trust our help when he saw the sign my boys were holding. Thankfully, reason prevailed on him.

The many speakers at the rally all had strong pro-Israel messages. The speakers included fundamentalist Christian leaders, members of Congress, and mostly right-wing Israelis. Finally, the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gave a very pro-Israel speech, but when he went on to say that we should not ignore the suffering of innocent Palestinians in the conflict, he was booed. At that moment I lost some of the powerful feeling of solidarity. Why couldn't a strong pro-Israel rally tolerate a balanced statement by this well-respected pro-Israel hawk who was one of the highest ranking Jews in the Bush administration?

In times of crisis it is not uncommon for lovers of Israel to close in tight around only a narrow slice of the community; but Israel is not served by such a narrow tent.

I also believe that Israel's security and well-being require that Israel must become a more tolerant and pluralistic society. I have spent over 20 years working to strengthen the Israel envisioned in Israel's Declaration of Independence:

"THE STATE OF ISRAEL 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..."

Working to fulfill those commitments should be central to every responsible pro-Israel activist. Working for the rights of Israeli Arabs makes Israel more secure. Working for the rights of Russian speaking immigrants to convert to Judaism without coercing them to ultra-Orthodoxy makes Israel a home for all Jews. And removing legal barriers keeping non-Orthodox communities from building their religious communities makes Israel a more authentic Jewish state.

Consider the case of Yossi Fackenheim, the son of the late Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim who was converted at the age of two before an Orthodox beit din in Montreal. At the age of 29, he was told by the Jerusalem rabbinic court that he is not Jewish because he does not strictly observe the mitzvot. If this is how people with Orthodox conversions in Israel are treated, you can imagine what happens to Reform and Conservative converts.

This week our congregation, like many of yours, will hold many events to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut. On Erev Shabbat, as we have for the past years, we will host five IDF officers who will share their diverse backgrounds and service in defense of Israel. Last year, our teens were privileged to host 25 elite IDF commanders. Following Operation Cast Lead, it is critically important for these remarkable young soldiers to know that we in America are with them. I know first hand as a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute the kind of ethics training these officers receive because they are taught by many of the same scholars with whom I study.

As I stand with the IDF soldiers this Friday night, I will let them know that my congregation stands in solidarity with them. We admire their courage; we support their abiding efforts to make Israel secure. I am confident that the IDF always aspires to conduct itself according to the highest ethical standards. There will always be lapses and errors in judgment especially in the new unprecedented ways of war confronting Israel, but I believe no other fighting force has more ethical rigor than the Israel Defense Forces.

Aleinu -"it is up to all of us" to foster a deep love for and engagement with Israel among Reform Jews of North America, young and old. We need Israel and Israel needs us.

Israel is not a vaccine against assimilation, but it can be an inspiring source of Jewish creativity and identity.

Israel is not only a bundle of issues and challenges. Rather, it is our dynamic, complex and inspiring Jewish homeland.

Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman in their study of attachments to Israel by generation found that 80% of Jews over age 65 said "caring about Israel is an important part of being Jewish." But that percentage begins to drop as you move to the younger generations. Only 60% of young Jews under 35 believe caring about Israel is a key part of their Jewish identity. I take that downward graph as a challenge not a conclusion.

There can be no doubt there is, at this moment, a critical juncture in the history of Israel.

Despite the expanding sanctions and the undermining of Iran's technical abilities that U.S. and Israeli joint efforts have achieved, Iran remains determined to move its nuclear weapons program along as expeditiously as possible endangering Israel's literal existence and U.S. interests throughout the region.

In the UN and around the world, Israel's enemies have launched an offensive of economic attacks aimed at weakening and delegitimizing Israel that is taking hold in anti-Israel strongholds on and off campuses in Europe and North America. These Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions tactics are destructive and we must do everything in our power to combat these attacks through education, legislative advocacy and good, old-fashioned community organizing. The RAC and ARZA have played a key role in these efforts. But all of us, we've got to do our part. I know we can count on each other to get it done.

With all of these menacing existential threats to Israel, we need more vigorous, thoughtful debate regarding Israel and the complex questions of how to best respond to these challenges. One key theme through all of my observations this morning is that we need the pro-Israel tent to be as large as possible. Leaders of the congregational world know this well, for the diverse views held among our congregants mirror the community-at-large.

The pro-Israel community must reach from the IDF veteran fighting for peace on the college campus to the AIPAC activists lobbying members of Congress, to the human rights activist protesting unlawful seizure of Arab homes in Jerusalem, to the fifth grader planting JNF trees in Modi'in, to those who oppose the conversion bill by sending emails to the prime minister, to those who can't wait to dismantle the settlements, to those who show up for pro-Israel rallies at the UN.

A very important part of my leadership as the URJ president will be to help all of our congregations become ohavei Tzion-lovers of Israel.

I want all of our URJ congregations to see the Israel that I love. I want to show them all of the hard parts but still I know they will fall in love with this place of miracles and courage. They will see the gorgeous faces of the Ethiopian children who marched across African deserts to reach the land of their prayers. They will marvel listening to Russian immigrants playing Bach concertos on the Ben Yehuda Mall. They will see the miracles that remain hidden to those who only know Israel from afar.

We're a week away from celebrating the day when Israel was declared 63 years ago. At 4 p.m. on Friday, May 14th 1948, a very diverse group of Jewish leaders signed on to the Declaration of Independence. The 37 signators included communists, socialists, revisionists, rabbis, atheists, kibbutznikim, urbane city dwellers, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, rich and poor.

It was an unlikely and very diverse group of Zionists bound together by a common vision that our people could one day live as a free people secure in our land. That same vision can unite us today as well. That is the vision that informs my deep and abiding commitment to and love for Medinat Yisrael.

I will never back down from my commitment to a secure Israel.

I will never stop fighting for an Israel that grants all of its citizens, Arabs and Jews, fundamental human rights.

I will never stop working for an Israel that grants equal rights to Jews no matter their spiritual practice or belief.

I will never stop advocating for the US to remain Israel's staunch ally.

I will not back away from my commitment to a two-state solution living side-by-side in peace and security.

As the leader of the largest Movement in Jewish life, I intend to work every single day to build up the ranks of those who share my Zionist passion. And I call upon everyone in the pro-Israel community to join me in this critical work.

When Israel gets into our hearts, then I know that we will never stop fighting for an Israel that is secure, religiously free, guided by justice and dwelling in peace.

Our hope is not lost-
The hope of two thousand years:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Ken yehi ratzon.

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