May 27, 2011

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

There are some times when there is simply too much to talk about, even for a rabbi known for talking, in one sermon. And that is surely true of the events and issues swirling around Israel right now.

In addition to the fact that I have just been in Israel on a truly whirlwind trip sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the World Zionist Organization—basically, it consisted of two 24-hour days of flying back and forth for a total of three intense but wonderful days in Israel—and I have a huge amount to tell you about from that extraordinary experience, there has also been a little bit of other news about Israel.

First, Palestinian West Bank Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas published a controversial op-ed in the New York Times about Palestinian statehood in which he called for a State of Palestine in order to continue the fight against Israel by other means. Wow. Then US President Barack Obama delivered an hour-long address on the Middle East that was even more controversial in which he explicitly said Israel would have to pull back more or less within the 1967 borders. And then Israeli Prime Minister Biyamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington, met with Barack Obama, and together they released some statements. And then Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress. And then both of them spoke at the AIPAC conference in Washington.

Otherwise, nothing much happened in the last eight days.

So since it is basically impossible to cover everything, I'll start with the ikkar, the heart of the matter. Everyone has been talking about Obama saying last Thursday that Israel would need to get used to living within approximately the 1967 borders again, in order to ultimately allow for a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine. He added the crucial small phrase "with some adjustments," but most of the heat generated on the subject came from the president apparently endorsing the Palestinian position that everything outside the 1967 borders of Israel, which were basically the armistice lines from the end of the 1948 War of Independence, is now supposed to be Palestine.

Netanyahu responded, when he arrived in Washington the next day, by saying that the 1967 borders were indefensible, and he highlighted that again briefly in his address to Congress. At the AIPAC conference, the biggest pro-Israel convention in the world and the most politically important, Obama seemed to backpedal a bit and Netanyahu more or less didn't.

There were even some clever little fake internet news stories in which Netanyahu supposedly told Obama that just as the US expected Israel to withdraw from territories captures in a defensive war in 1967, 41 years ago, Israel also expected the US to withdraw within its proper borders prior to its war of aggression against Mexico in 1847, which Mexicans still call "The War of American Invasion"—some may call it the Catastrophe—and graciously return Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California to its proper inhabitants, the Mexicans.

Any, aside from this little issue the meetings and speeches and so on highlighted the overwhelming strength of the US/Israel relationship, and the many areas of close agreement. But that's a bit like saying, "and aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the theater last night?"

But before I plunge into this dramatic political quicksand, I must tell you a little bit about this trip to Israel, what an honor it was, and how it occurred. The program was called Rabbis Engaging with Israel, and it was fully sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Israel, the Misrad haChutz, and coordinated by the World Zionist Organization. There were 30 rabbis selected for this program, 10 Orthodox, 10 Conservative, and 10 Reform, almost all congregational rabbis from all across the United States and Canada. Great effort was exerted to be sure that the balance between denominations was even, and that all geographic regions were represented, from New York and New Jersey to Florida to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Toronto to North Carolina to Ohio to St. Louis to Arizona to Seattle to, well, it seemed like everywhere. They asked for resumes and CV's, and seemed to choose rabbis who represented reasonably large congregations and had diverse areas of influence. While I had the only radio show, several have written books, chaired significant organizations, and all participate actively in the Jewish and communal life of their communities, states, and national organizations.

It was a ridiculously intensive experience. The goal was to allow congregational rabbis to travel after Shabbat and return home to their communities before the following Shabbat. This requires a stupendous amount of fast travel if you live 30 minutes from Newark Airport. If, on the other hand, you live in Tucson, or happen to be leading services at the Temple Emanu-El annual retreat in Rio Rico, 20 miles from Mexico, and have to drive three hours to Phoenix, fly to London, layover and then fly to Ben Gurion Airport, and then take a sheirut to Jerusalem—well, it borders on the surreal. It's not certain that Mark Kelly, Gabby Giffords' astronaut husband, has been traveling more recently than I have...

It was, however, well worth it. We were rewarded with a day and a half of full briefings at the Foreign Ministry by all the finest experts on their staff—9 talks on our first day, about everything from the Nakhba human wave invasions to maritime law as it relates to flotillas to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement and Israel's response to Iran's nuclear program to Palestinian proclamations of statehood--meetings with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Elyakim Rubinstein, meetings with important members of Knesset and Ministers in the government, to meetings on conversion bills in Israel's legal system. It was access that very few get in such a short period of time, and since all of us were veterans of many trips to Israel—for some this was their third trip this year—and essentially Israel news junkies, it was a great opportunity to see behind the curtain and an opportunity to know the people who actually make policy, some of whom you will hear on the "Too Jewish" Radio Show over the next few weeks.

So, in addition to the emails I sent back from Israel which are now posted on our website, a few key observations.

First, there is no crisis in US/Israel relations. Everyone, and I mean everyone in Israel government stressed how exceptionally close the cooperation is now at many, many levels, from military and intelligence to economic cooperation and on social issues, between America and Israel.

Now, it is very apparent that Obama and Netanyahu don't get along very well, which is too bad, and that there are some strong and even perhaps philosophical differences on what will help the situation in Middle East. But in general all the hand-wringing and hysterical editorials are misguided.

First, many Israelis don't get along well with Netanyahu, either, including members of his own government. And when last I checked more than a few Americans didn't get alone with Obama. A 60% approval rating means, essentially, that 40% of the people can't stand you, right?

So don't worry too much about that. And don't worry too much about the 1967 borders with adjustments thing either.

The US government's official position for many years has been that Israel would eventually have to withdraw from most of the land captured in the 1967 defensive 6-Day War in exchange for a real and durable peace, ensured by strong security measures and a demilitarized Palestinian entity. There was always an understanding, made more or less explicit, that there would be some land swaps that would keep Israeli neighborhoods, like most of the Jerusalem municipal area, in Israel, and give the Palestinians some land from pre-1967 Israel that contained primarily Arab villages into Palestinian control.

This has been the US's policy for several administrations.

In addition, with the exception of the urban areas around Jerusalem and a few major West Bank towns—Ariel, for instance—ever since the First Intifada began in 1987, and certainly since the 2nd Intifada began in September of 2000, Israel has been living mostly within the 1967 borders with just a few exceptions—namely, Jerusalem, in particular the Old City, which Israel will never and should never give up, the Golan Heights, which no one in his or her right mind would suggest giving to Syria right now while Bashar Asad is conducting genocide against his own citizens, and a few settlements in the West Bank and around outer Tel Aviv.

So there really is nothing revolutionary about Obama's statements in his Middle East address. Coming in the last part of an hour-long declaration about the entire Middle East, a speech that attempted to move the US to the front of the whole Arab winter and Arab spring democracy movement and tried to reposition America leading the situation instead of following behind—you know, being proactive and not reactive—his comments on Israel and the Palestinians seemed to designed to restart the moribund—frankly, dead—peace efforts he has been trying to initiate for a couple of years.

What was extraordinary, and not in a good way, about Obama's speech was that he chose to deliver this message so publicly just before Netanyahu got to Washington. For a president who has been accused of being too nuanced, too little inclined to lead, this was not nuanced at all. He was kind of hitting Netanyahu in the head with hammer, albeit an old rubber-coated hammer.

And so, in effect, Netanyahu gently hit back.

Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington, an honor given not as often at you might think; the annual average of joint sessions is between 2 and 6 times per year in the last decade. In a truly stirring, eloquent speech Netanyahu received not less than 26 standing ovations from the House and Senate. While I am not always a fan of Netanyahu's, I must say that this was an excellent speech, and he addressed not only the President's comments about Israel but drew in a much larger way on the depth of the commitments between Israel and America.

As Bibi Netanyahu said, "Israel has no better friend than America. And America has no better friend than Israel. We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism...

"In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability. In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America's unwavering ally. Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American.

My friends, you don't need to do nation building in Israel. We're already built. You don't need to export democracy to Israel. We've already got it. You don't need to send American troops to defend Israel. We defend ourselves. You've been very generous in giving us tools to do the job of defending Israel on our own. Thank you all, and thank you President Obama, for your steadfast commitment to Israel's security. I know economic times are tough. I deeply appreciate this."

Most of what Prime Minister Netanyahu said was quite accurate, although the truth is that the American supply line is absolutely crucial to Israel's military strength, and we do well to remember on this Memorial Day weekend that the exceedingly close cooperation between the Israeli and American military is a centerpiece of Israel's strength, and America's strategic and tactical position in the Middle East.

I have known Bibi Netanyahu slightly since 1996, fully 15 years ago, when I met him before introducing him to a group of Reform rabbis who were touring Egypt, Israel, and Jordan in support of the then dynamic and exciting Oslo process. He is extremely bright, highly articulate, very well educated, and a leader. He is also somewhat, well, slippery, and very unlikely to ever be considered an optimist on the Arab world or the possibilities for peace in the Middle East.

To be honest, I am not a fan of Netanyahu's.

But his speech last week to the joint session included some great stuff. He seemed to capture a spirit of the region that went beyond what Obama said in his hour-long address on the Arab world and the whole Middle East earlier last week. He was eloquent:

"... an epic battle is now unfolding in the Middle East, between tyranny and freedom. A great convulsion is shaking the earth from the Khyber Pass to the Straits of Gibraltar. The tremors have shattered states and toppled governments. And we can all see that the ground is still shifting. Now this historic moment holds the promise of a new dawn of freedom and opportunity. Millions of young people are determined to change their future. We all look at them. They muster courage. They risk their lives. They demand dignity. They desire liberty."

Now I must admit that while I was in Israel no one, and I mean no one from cab drivers to Cabinet Ministers, had anything positive to say about the revolutionary changes in the Arab world in the past six months. Everyone in Israel was suspicious that what would follow would be either new military dictatorships, very similar to the deposed ones, or radical Islamic states. None of Netanyahu's hopeful words were reflected on the Israeli street or in the halls of democratic authority.

But still, Netanyahu said this. Good for him. He is right.

And he also said, talking about Israel,

"We have a free press, independent courts, an open economy, rambunctious parliamentary debates. You think you guys are tough on one another in Congress? Come spend a day in the Knesset. Be my guest.

"Courageous Arab protesters, are now struggling to secure these very same rights for their peoples, for their societies. We're proud that over one million Arab citizens of Israel have been enjoying these rights for decades. Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel's Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of one-percent are truly free, and they're all citizens of Israel!

This startling fact reveals a basic truth: Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what is right about the Middle East.

Israel fully supports the desire of Arab peoples in our region to live freely. We long for the day when Israel will be one of many real democracies in the Middle East."

Good stuff indeed. And certainly, in general, true. Democracies, the old adage goes, don't go to war against other democracies. And democracies don't seek to kill each other's innocent civilians and children. If the Arab countries actually emerge as democracies, eventually, it will be a very different and much better Middle East. Provided, of course, that the democracies don't then elect radical Islamist governments.

After all, Hitler was elected by a German democracy...

In any case, Netanyahu went on to say,

"Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples: A Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.

I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. As the leader of Israel, it is my responsibility to lead my people to peace.

This is not easy for me. I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland. In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo..."

So if Israel is wiling to accept a Palestinian state why isn't there one already, Netanyahu asked? Because the Palestinians have not accepted the existence of a Jewish state that has now been in existence for 63 years.

"They were simply unwilling to end the conflict. And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.

My friends, this must come to an end. President Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn't easy for me, and I said... "I will accept a Palestinian state." It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say... "I will accept a Jewish state."

Those six words will change history. They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end. That they are not building a state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it. They will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace. With such a partner, the people of Israel will be prepared to make a far reaching compromise. I will be prepared to make a far reaching compromise."

I am not sure that Netanyahu is telling the truth. He has many limitations, both in his own party and in his government, on the kinds of concessions he can sweepingly make to the Palestinians.

But he really did throw down a pretty reasonable gauntlet to Mahmud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.

And unfortunately the problem was clearly stated by President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, in his op-ed in the New York Times earlier last week when he said that the reason it was time for the Palestinians to have a state—one they have refused many times in the past, by the way—was so they could have additional leverage to use against Israel. You proclaim a new state so that your people can have self-determination. You proclaim a new state so that you can better serve the needs and legitimate positive aspirations of your people. You do not proclaim a new state so you can try to overcome another legitimate country.

If you wish a true, lasting peace you do not invite Hamas, which was founded to destroy Israel, into your government.

I don't expect a comprehensive peace agreement anytime soon, not between Hamas and anyone, and not between the Palestinians and Israel. But I can tell you that even without it, Israel is flourishing. Don't worry so much.

The Israeli economy is flourishing while ours languishes. I would trade Ben Bernanke for Stanley Fisher right now... From my hotel I could see 9 or 10 huge construction cranes over Jerusalem, building luxury apartments, new developments, big, gorgeous projects faced in Jerusalem stone, more construction than I have seen in the State of Arizona in the past three years combined. A sleek new light rail system was running its last trial circuits before opening, connecting all of Jerusalem to the great new Israeli rail system. Tel Aviv is flourishing, filled with successful high tech and medical technology companies. The countryside is beautiful and verdant, the recent drought over.

The new Foreign Ministry building itself is magnificent, even if the workers don't much like it... they are, after all, Jews.

What a gift it is to have a Jewish State, filled with life and energy and success—and yes, stress; what would Israel be without all of the Jewish need for angst and tzoris?

When we take our Temple trip to Israel next June, come along and see for yourself. Because no matter what the propagandists tell you, this is one of the truly great countries on earth. Ever.

And it is a good and holy place.


225 N. Country Club Road
Tucson, AZ 85716

Phone: 520-327-4501
Fax: 520-327-4504

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