This week’s Parsha is Bamidbar, the continuation of the story of the People of Israel as they leave Mt. Sinai and travel to the Promised Land. The word, “Bamidbar” means “in the desert” a place that is a wilderness, difficult terrain that is hard to traverse. The commentators note that to attain the Promised Land, the people had to first travel across the wilderness. It was a journey that was filled with hardship and complaints, and yes even Moses, a kind and humble soul, lost his temper with the people he was leading And so it seems with all the important goals that we wish to acquire, before we can arrive at our goal, we have to cross a wilderness including all the same hardships and complaints. The best goals we aspire to can be achieved only when we successfully overcome the difficulties.
I thought of this during the week as we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim. The day that was chosen to remember the Six Day War of 1977, a war that occurred fifty years ago. The commemoration this year recalled all the joy of the victory that occurred fifty years ago, and it also was occasion to reflect on how Israeli life has been different because of Israel’s victory.
I really don’t remember very well the details of the war. I was a small child in 1967. I am sure that many people here remember vividly the events of May and June of 1967. I remember meetings at my synagogue to raise money for Israel as it faced a great crisis. I remember the worried looks of my parents and Rabbi as they discussed the provocations of Egypt and Syria. I also remember after the war. I have some pretty clear images of Jews rejoicing in Jerusalem, of lightning battles and sudden victories. How the Arab nations who bragged so much now were complaining of Israeli aggression. And I clearly remember a joke from 1967 that asked, how can you tell an Israeli tank from an Egyptian tank? The Egyptian tank has back-up lights!
But I also remember pictures of Arabs from East Jerusalem travelling to the Israeli side of the city and standing on the corner and seeing, for the first time, a traffic light. Residents of the west bank suddenly had new markets to which they could bring their produce and the choice they had to make, to trade with Israel or maintain their ties to Jordan. Families and friends who had lived in Jerusalem for centuries now could visit each other again, reaffirm old friendships.
And for the first time, Israel had defensible borders. Instead of green lines on a map that meandered up and down open fields, now there were rivers, mountains and canals that marked borders that were adapted from real barriers. I also remember that Israel found that gravestones from the Mt. of Olives had been desecrated and used as stair steps outside a modern hotel in East Jerusalem. The plaza in front of the Western Wall was small and filled with junk. It had to be cleaned out and expanded. Many Jewish sites in the old city were in disrepair. The oldest and largest synagogue in the Old City had been destroyed in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and was still lying in ruins.
When I studied the war in history classes, l learned that for the first time in its history, Israel was now a recognized reality in the Middle East. Before the war, the United States saw Israel as a dependent nation. After the war, Israel became a strategic ally. This was no longer a little nation living with the possibility that the Arabs would push her into the sea. This was a nation strong and smart. With this victory, Israel began to live up to its dream of being a new and stable nation in the world.
But there was still a desert to cross. To become a nation, Israel still had political realities that had to be addressed. There are always tough problems that must be solved and usually the first attempt to find solutions does not work out so well. For example, in the United States, the issue of slavery was not addressed at the time our constitution was written. We would have to fight a civil war to resolve the issues legally and we could still claim that the discrimination and inequality that we have today all hark back to founders of this country who were not ready to take on racism and slavery in 1776 or in 1789.
Israel too would now, as a secure state, have to face issues that it had long pushed aside. Treatment of Arabs as second class citizens from the beginning of the state was prohibited by law in Israel, but the reality was always different. Israelis had strong opinions about growing the state larger. This morphed into the Settler’s Movement that is the source of contention between the left and the right in Israel as well as a source of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
And over time the situation Israel found herself in after the Six Day War slowly became worse. Israeli soldiers and checkpoints have long been at the point between clashes between Palestinians and Israel. These soldiers put into impossible situations have often responded with cruelty and violence to the cruelty and violence they endure. Bad feelings on both sides have led to death and mutilations. Over the years, Israel’s moral superiority has eroded in the face of ongoing terror. To update a quote by Golda Meir, It is bad enough that they teach their children to be heartless and cruel, but I can never forgive them for making our children heartless and cruel. While there seems to be no end to the atrocities that Palestinians have heaped upon Israel, I am pained by the ever-growing number of atrocities committed by Israelis against the Palestinians.
Every stabbing on the West Bank, every rocket attack from Gaza, every lone wolf act of terror in Jerusalem and every tunnel discovered near Sederot only makes Israelis harder and pushes any talk about peace farther into the future. The glow of victory from June of 1967 has morphed into the gloomy situation we find ourselves in today. On the one hand having Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is worth all the struggle we have today. But I find that the unfinished business from the rest of the war is hurting Israel more than it helps.
Ultimately the people who live in Israel will have to decide how they will solve the issues that divide them. They will have to address the constant drag on their dreams that are the result of the continued Israeli presence in Gaza and the West Bank. Sooner or later they will have to choose between giving up the land, giving up the Jewish nature of their democracy or giving up on democracy for something more theocratic. There were not any good choices in 1948, the choices were no better in 1967 and to this day we are still searching for a solution to end the constant battles between Arab and Jews.
I don’t claim that we can equate what Israel does to the Palestinians with what the Palestinians have done to Israel. As a country, Israel has been strong and patient to a fault. But slowly a blot on Israel’s moral culture is spreading. Individual Israelis have committed atrocities. It is true that Israeli courts have meted out punishment for those who have committed the worst crimes, but there are other, smaller acts of aggression by Israeli citizens that have yet to be brought to justice. I am horrified by what the Palestinian government does, but I grow increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s response.
So I celebrate Jerusalem, reunited and indivisible. It will always be the center of Judaism and the capital of Israel. But there is still much desert to cross on our way to creating a reality from the Promise that is Israel. Israel is the beginning of the redemption of our people. Let us renew our commitment to working to complete that redemption so Israel can live up to the hopes and dreams that Jews everywhere have for our state.
May Israel one day be known as a center for innovation, a center for global trade, a place where Judaism can be practiced without shame or discrimination, a place where all people feel free and the country where the entire world can point to and say, “Israel can teach us all about bringing peace to the world”
May God bless Israel and her reunited capital of Jerusalem and may God bring peace to Zion and the Holy Land as we say ….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, May 27, 2017.