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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776
Israel Peace

                    The Masks Are Off: Palestinians, Israel, and the Problem of Peace

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations

UAHC National Board Meeting
The Temple-Tifereth Israel
Cleveland, Ohio

June 1, 2001

See Press Release
Resolution Adopted by the UAHC

It is a great pleasure for me to be with you in Cleveland on this Shabbat. On issues ranging from social justice to Zionism, Cleveland's Reform synagogues have long provided leadership not only to their own city but also to the North American Reform Movement. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Rabbi Barnett Brickner, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, and Rabbi Alan Singer Green, among many others, have distinguished themselves in service to this community, and also on the national Jewish scene. And today, a new generation of lay leaders and Jewish professionals continues this tradition of action, inspiration, and movement leadership.

I am grateful to all of our congregations for making this service possible, and I offer special thanks to Rabbi Richard Block and our friends at The Temple-Tifereth Israel for hosting us this Shabbat. Rabbi Block is an old and dear friend, and I am truly delighted to see him occupying this pulpit. My thanks as well to Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, our dynamic and energetic regional director, for his help in the planning.

I referred to the many great rabbis who have served in this city, but for me, standing on this bimah as a lifelong lover of Zion, it is the presence of Abba Hillel Silver that I feel most keenly. I never met Rabbi Silver, but ever since my years at Brandeis, when I began to study Zionism in a serious way, he has been my hero. His name was a ready answer to those who reminded me of Reform Judaism's anti-Zionist past. And as a rebellious college student, I was drawn to his stormy personality and aggressive tactics.

Silver trusted the instincts of the Jewish people and distrusted the politicians who might be tempted to betray them. "Agitate, agitate, agitate," he told his followers, and "Don't put your trust in princes." I was impressed by how successful he was in the 1940s in mobilizing public opinion, Jewish and non-Jewish, on behalf of the Zionist cause.

For half a century, the message of Silver's rabbinate was that Judaism and Zionism constitute a natural and harmonious blend. He put it this way: "The upbuilding of a Jewish national home in Palestine is one great, urgent, and historically inescapable task of Jewry. The upbuilding of a Jewish religious life in America and elsewhere throughout the world, inclusive of Israel, is another. One is no substitute for the other. One is not opposed to the other."

For some, in Silver's day, this was a controversial message, but it has long since become the consensus position of Reform Judaism and the Jewish world. Nonetheless, at this difficult time, when Israel finds herself under attack, it is important for us to reassert this message, in clear and forceful terms.

In fact, my feeling is that more is required. As the bloodshed continues, and as we sit heartbroken before the killing and the terror, this is an appropriate time for cheshbon ha-nefesh-for an accounting of the soul.

The crisis in Israel during these last 9 months has led me to reexamine my most fundamental assumptions about the conflict in the Middle East. I have reviewed all that I have said and written during the last 5 years, as well the resolutions of our Board and Biennial Assembly. With that review complete, I share with you my feeling that we have been wrong about some very important things. We have been wrong not so much in what we have said but rather in what we have not said. We have been wrong in not understanding the full complexity of the threat that Israel faces.

First and foremost, we have been wrong about Palestinian intentions.

We have believed, along with our allies in the peace camp, that if an Israeli prime minister would be brave enough to say that Israel must choose peace over territories, the Palestinian Authority would also choose peace. It would do so resentfully, reluctantly, and out of grudging self-interest rather than love, but nonetheless, it would choose peace. Then, last summer, Ehud Barak bravely offered a Palestinian state on 96 percent of the West Bank, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Had that offer been accepted, the Palestinians would live today in their own independent state, free of Israeli occupation, masters of their own destiny.

But the offer was not accepted. The voices of reason and moderation on which we had counted did not appear. And the PLO showed itself, once again, to be one of the most stupid, murderous, and bloodthirsty national liberation movements in all of human history.

Yitzhak Rabin, the hard-bitten hero of peace, had embraced the Oslo Accords and said to Israelis and Palestinians: "Enough of blood and tears." But Rabin had misjudged his enemies. Last year at Camp David, Yasser Arafat was still thirsty for blood and tears; a few months later, he cast aside his commitment at Oslo not to use force and launched a second intifada. We know the tragic result. Once again he had abandoned his people. Once again he had led the Palestinian revolution down the long, cruel path of violence, suffering, and death.

And we were wrong about something else as well. We did not pay nearly enough attention to the culture of hatred created and nourished by Palestinian leaders.

Like Jews throughout the world, we have been shocked and bewildered by events of recent months. Palestinian violence has reached a new level of viciousness. One outrage follows another: the mob killing of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah; the bludgeoning to death of two teenage boys in Tekoa; and the endless bombings, with their heavy toll of civilian lives.

And just today we learn of another outrage, a suicide bomber at a crowded disco. What kind of political leadership targets children and young people for death?

The masks are off, and the costume ball is over. Palestinian leadership barely bothers anymore to regret these atrocities or to deny its own responsibility.

Attempts to justify and explain these actions are still made, often by diplomats and sometimes by well-meaning Jews. But to excuse the Palestinians from the normal standards of moral judgment is to patronize them and to separate them from humanity. The only explanation that makes sense is a deep and profound hatred, among some segments of their population, for Israelis and Jews.

Palestinian children, of course, are not born hating Jews. Hatred is a powerful sentiment that must be acquired-from parents, from education, from government authorities. The hatred of so many Palestinians for Jews results from a conscious process of demonizing the "Zionist enemy." There is a direct line between Palestinian terror and the growing use of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi language in the Palestinian media. There is a direct connection between Palestinian terror and the street theater in the West Bank that reenacts the killing and burning of Jews. And there is a direct line as well from the bombings and the murders to the number one song on the Egyptian hit parade, entitled "I Hate Israel."

We Jews know from the scars in our souls that these words prepare the ground for the knife, the gun, and the bomb. And so we now recognize, all of us, that if anti-Jewish incitement continues, the possibilities for peace will be destroyed. We know that the Palestinians cannot have peace with Israel and continue to hate the very idea of the Jewish state. We understand that there will be no peace until Palestinian writers and educators abandon their lexicon of hatred and adopt a lexicon of conciliation and understanding.

Our Movement has said little about such things. We assumed, wrongly, that if a political settlement were reached, then conciliation would inevitably follow. But we, along with most of the Jewish world, now realize that conciliation, at least in some measure, must come first. The Palestinians must demonstrate, even before an agreement is reached, that they have a true desire for peace.


Our errors of judgment, of course, do not mean that Israel?s hands are totally clean. Occupation involves acts of degradation and cruelty, and Israel's occupation has been no different. Her settlement policy, it often seems, is in the hands of fanatics. And her response to terror has raised questions; the vigorous debate in Israel over what is or is not an appropriate response is to be welcomed in every way. And this too: Israel has also been guilty from time to time of demonizing her enemies. Tragically, the voices that teach hatred of Arabs and Palestinians are usually religious voices.

But do not be misled. There are critical differences here. Israel's leaders have always battled the agents of hatred and incitement in their midst. A song entitled "I Hate the Arabs" could not be heard, even once, on any Israeli radio station. The citizens of Israel remain moderate and sensible. And we must reject at all costs the poisonous argument of "moral equivalency." Those who battle terror are not the same as those who inflict it. Those who offer peace are not the same as those who spurn it.

We must beware of critics who, in the comfort of faraway homes, make light of Israel's plight and urge a forbearance that they themselves would never exercise. Palestinian gunmen fire every day into Gilo, a residential area of Jerusalem. Parents throughout Israel leave work to drive their children home from school because they are afraid for them to ride on public buses. And, relative to population, the number of Israeli deaths in the last eight months is the equivalent of twenty-five Oklahoma City bombings. Such terror and violence are simply intolerable. Imagine explosions at your local mall and shots into your living room. No Israeli government, and no democratic government anywhere, can sit idly by while its children are murdered and bombs go off in its population centers.


So yes, I have been wrong, and I believe our Reform Movement has been wrong about a number of things. We misjudged Palestinian intentions and misread Palestinian society. We failed to insist that steps be taken to reduce incitement against Jews and Israel. And we were inclined to focus overly much on the hard choices we had to make, and not enough on the hard choices that our Palestinian neighbors had to make.

But while we have been wrong, we have also been right. In fact, on most things we have been right. The intifada has left us shaken and more cautious than we were, but it has not changed the history, the demography, or the economics of the Middle East, and it has given us no reason to revise our long-term view of what is necessary for peace.

As I have stated before, the views of the Reform Movement, expressed in the statements of our leaders and the resolutions of our Biennial Assembly, rest on the following principles:

We believe that in order for there to be peace, Israel must end her occupation and her rule over the Palestinian people.

We believe that the way to end the occupation is for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated agreement, based on mutual recognition that provides security for both sides.

We believe that territorial compromise and the separation of Israelis and Palestinians are the essential elements of such an agreement.

We believe that a Palestinian state is inevitable, and indeed is already in formation.

Even now, when Palestinian extremism assaults our sensibilities, we know that there is no moral or practical alternative to these principles. We know that to be a Zionist is to accept these values, and that those who would turn Jews into a colonial minority in the Land of Israel are not Zionists at all.

Peace is probably not possible now. But someday it will be possible. And when it comes, it will be constructed precisely on these principles.


The most urgent need, of course, is to break the cycle of violence, stop the killing, and get both parties to the negotiating table.

The primary burden here falls on Mr. Arafat's shoulders. He says that he wants to talk, but he cannot expect to come to the table when he is covered in blood. He says that he wants peace, but this means that he must talk the language of peace to his own people. And if he is ever to achieve the agreement he seeks, he must find a way to say to the citizens of Israel: "You are here in this land by right, as are we. Welcome home."

As for the Israelis, I believe that they would be wise to freeze temporarily all settlement construction. They should do this not because the Mitchell Commission wants it, or because the American government wants it, but because it is politically wise and morally right. At this moment, deepening or extending settlements simply does not serve Israel's interests.

Can an end to violence and a return to negotiations be achieved? Only with American involvement. Some fear American participation, but I am not among them. The alternative is intervention by a hostile United Nations. And history teaches us that American mediation has been essential to every agreement ever reached by Arabs and Israelis. Also, the current administration is a conservative one that despises terror, treats Arafat with suspicion, and is respectful of Israel's military prerogatives. Its instincts in the region have been far more right than wrong. I believe, therefore, that the Reform Movement should encourage an active role by the American government at this critical time.

Can we be optimistic about peace? It is very hard. At best, peace will come slowly, with many interim steps along the way. Still, we must avoid seeing the Palestinians as bloodthirsty beasts incapable of rational thinking. We must assume that they will eventually accept that two states sharing the Land of Israel is the only viable path.

Yes, this has been a terrible year, but we will not give up on the dreams that were born in Oslo and in Washington. We know that while the road ahead is full of terrible dangers, the road back leads only to oblivion. We believe that the day will come when this dream will be shared once again by soldiers weary of fighting, by mothers and fathers weary of weeping, and by Jews and Palestinians weary of a terrible history of blood. The Jewish people and the people of Israel cling tenaciously to our hope for peace; despite the traumas of the moment, we will nurture it, guard it, and grow it into a treasure for future generations.


And what of religious freedom and equal rights for Reform Jews in Israel? Not surprisingly, we have heard less about these matters in recent months. Security and survival receive absolute preference; victims of terror are dead, while victims of religious discrimination are not.

Still, we do not put aside our religious concerns. In a sense, they are more important now. Israelis face a prolonged period of political uncertainty. Systems of meaning are needed at such times, to provide comfort and revive hope. And liberal Judaism can offer what secularism and Israeli Orthodoxy have failed to provide. Yes, we will defend Israel's body, but we will also nurture Israel's soul. And for this no apology is needed.

The power of Israel's Orthodox monopoly concerns me little, if at all. Our victory will be a while in coming, but it is assured, and this for the simple reason that the Orthodox establishment continues to make itself ridiculous in the eyes of the Israeli public.

The most recent example came in April of this year, when religious authorities began enforcing a law that forbids restaurants to serve leavened goods during the Passover holiday. In a scenario better fitted to Teheran than Tel Aviv, the Passover police went from restaurant to restaurant, issuing summonses to all who sold bread. Picture the absurdity of the situation: a non-kosher McDonald's, which sells cheeseburgers all year, would receive a "kosher for Passover" certificate for serving its cheeseburgers without the roll.

And then the law of unintended consequences came into play. Many Israelis, who are perfectly content not to eat bread during Pesach, began consuming bread or serving it in their restaurants simply to defy the authorities. Indeed, this is a well-established pattern. When downtown city shops were closed for Shabbat, shopping centers and malls began to flourish outside city limits. Strict enforcement of personal status laws encouraged many Israelis to marry outside of the rabbinate, or not to marry at all. Virtually all Israelis ritually circumcise their sons, but of this we can be sure: If the law ever requires circumcision, the numbers will plummet. I have often thought that if only the Knesset would outlaw Reform Judaism, we would immediately become Israel's largest religious movement.

Poll after poll indicates that a huge majority of Israelis want to be Jews in their own way, without imposing belief on others or having it imposed on them. In the year 2001, can anyone doubt that Judaism is at its best when it has no power, only influence; no authority except that which it earns, no claim to people's attention other than the distinctiveness of its values?

North American Orthodoxy is vibrant and creative because it competes in a pluralistic religious environment. Israel desperately needs an Orthodox leader who will return traditional Judaism to its former splendor by dismantling the religious establishment and sending yeshiva boys to the army.

North American rabbis frequently come across Jews who are indifferent to their Jewish heritage, but we rarely meet Jews who hate Judaism. In Israel, however, a good-sized political party is built entirely on contempt for the religious establishment. And secular Jews are so alienated that this often leads to active dislike, if not hatred, of religious Judaism.

And these attitudes in turn lead to rejection of Torah and just plain ignorance. A substantial proportion of Israel's Jewish citizens are nearly complete Judaic ignoramuses.

Last year, on the Israeli TV version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, a contestant was asked: "At which holiday is the Kol Nidrei prayer recited?" Even after seeing the multiple-choice answers, he did not know. And when the audience was asked the same question, it did not know either.

Oy. We have our own ignoramuses, God knows. Still, now that the Jewish people has its own nation-state, set in the landscape of the prophets, resonating to the language of the Bible, and surrounded by visible reminders of its history, it should distress Jews everywhere that so many of Israel's citizens cannot connect Kol Nidrei with Yom Kippur.


Is everything lost? Not at all. Even now, at a time of terror and war, Israel's citizens are doing what Jews have always done: They are searching for credible values, Torah-based rituals, and a personal spiritual center. And for many Israelis, this search is leading them to the institutions of Reform Judaism.

Bet Daniel, the Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv, has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. It is a vibrant and innovative center of Reform Jewish life, and last year its rabbis performed more than 400 weddings. It is estimated that 3,000 Bar Mitzvahs are celebrated each year in the Reform and Conservative synagogues of Israel. In a small country, these are very large numbers. Israelis, in short, are voting with their feet. They want a version of Judaism that will not ram religion down their throats but will frame their existence with meaning and redeem them from loneliness. And for more and more of them, Progressive Judaism?warm, egalitarian, compassionate is the answer.

What is our task? To strengthen our movement in Israel in every possible way. To work for an ARZA victory in the WZO elections. To join the fund-raising efforts of ARZA/World Union, North America. And to look for new ways, as a united Reform movement, to provide much higher levels of financial support to our struggling schools, synagogues, and youth movements in Israel.

And this, too: As our movement grows, we should not beg for recognition from the Chief Rabbinate or anyone else. To do so is to put our dignity in their hands.

In this regard, I very much regret the decision of Israeli Reform leaders to join with the Chief Rabbinate in a conversion program. The problem is that our role is confined to teaching a course to potential converts. We have no say in the conversion itself, which is the responsibility of the Chief Rabbis. And the Chief Rabbinate does not talk to us, or sit with us, or recognize us. It can convert, or not convert, anyone it wants. Worse still, this approach is now being used as a model and precedent for conversion procedures around the world. How is this a victory for us? No self-respecting religious movement participates in a process that gives others the right to convert while denying that right to itself.

I have the greatest respect for my colleagues in Israel, and I recognize that this decision is theirs. But I hope they will reconsider their role in this process. I believe that our growing appeal in Israel derives from our ability to offer an alternative to a discredited religious establishment. This is not the time to compromise our integrity, our independence, or our religious vision.


We forget, sometimes, the tremendous power that Israel holds over us, her ability to inspire, to unite, and to bind us to Jewish destiny.

When the Birthright program was proposed, I was among the many doubters. Why waste resources sending college students on first-time trips to Israel? Better to spend the money here, on Jewish education.

But I was wrong. These kids-many of them on the margins of Jewish life-responded with wonder, surprise, and eye-opening exhilaration. For us, Israel is too often about guilt and giving money, about political crisis and religious crisis. But for these kids, Israel was about pride and roots. It was about the excitement of seeing full-time Jews in a collective Jewish setting. It was about falling in love with Israel, and with Judaism, anew.

Can I explain this? Not entirely. But our yearning for Zion, that precious land chosen by God, that home to heroism and holiness, has in some measure always been inexplicable.

Inexplicable too is the mystery and the wonder of the modern State of Israel, filled with contradictions, barely a half-century old. Already that State has transformed the Jewish people, giving it a public dimension, providing us with a place to come home, restoring Jewish dignity everywhere.

Our task now is to do everything we can do to assure Israel's security and to pray that somehow, in some way, our brother/our enemy will learn to live with us, and we with him.

Our task is to join together, Israel and the Jewish world, in the work of spiritual renewal.

Our task is to do what Rabbi Silver surely would have done: to go to bed each night with a blessing on our lips for the miracle that Israel has become.

Our task is to embrace Israel, to hold her near, and, by so doing, to reconnect our future with our most ancient past.

Ken yehi ratson. May it be God's will. Shabbat shalom.


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