Rabbi Jonathan Miller: Why This Liberal Jew Loves Israel

No, the RP hasn’t suddenly become a man of the cloth.  The following beautiful words were part of a sermon delivered by Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Alabama on June 24, 2012, delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham:

Rabbi Jonathan Miller

I have a love affair with the State of Israel.  I love its geography, from the sea to the desert to the mountains and hills.  I love the orange groves and the high tech office parks.  I love the oases and desert watercourses and the short lived blossoms on the hills after the rains.  I love the golden city of Jerusalem, the city of such promise—the promise of the coming of the Lord and the coming together of all peoples.  I love the people of Israel: the farmers and high tech innovators, the citizen soldiers and the doctors, the actors and the filmmakers, the mystics and the professors, the journalists and the scientists, the dancers and the store clerks and even the beggars on the street—they are mostly short tempered, quick to make decisions, overly generous, colorful and sweet.  They will let you know their opinion before they have thought it out themselves.

I love Hebrew.  After two thousand years of lying in books read by scholars and holy people, it is now used on the street by cops and crooks and little children on the playground.  Hebrew is the only dead language in human history that has been reinvented by a people to use in their everyday life. The resurrection of Hebrew represents the triumph of the human spirit over the hopelessness of human pessimism.

And I love the people of Israel.  I love how the cultures mix in this energetic melting pot.  I love how the Jews, my people have flocked from the ghettos of Eastern Europe and the Soviet gulags, from the Ethiopian desert and the villages of Arabia, from the casbahs in Morocco to the hill tribe settlements in India, from France, from Egypt, from Yemen, from Tunisia, from Iraq, from Iran, from Rumania, South Africa and the United States—all colors, all stripes, a holy concoction of believers and non-believers, educated and primitive, to create a nation and a culture from the cauldrons of hate and the hopelessness of exile.  Like my own country, the United States of America, Israel is to me that beacon of hope that expresses the fundamental truth of the human condition:  that our destiny is in our own hands; that in the future, we are not subject to defeat just because we have been defeated in the past.  Israel to me is the world’s quintessential symbol of the fact that the human spirit cannot easily be vanquished.

I love the way Israel has faced its challenges head on.  This is a contentious part of the world.  And Israel has not had a year of peace, a moment of peace, from its neighbors and from its foes around the world.  Israel is the only nation in the world where sixty four years after its founding, its existence, its very legitimacy is still being hotly debated in the salons of the capitol cities of Europe—those same salons that somehow remained quiet seventy years ago as the most civilized power known to man assembled its vast force to destroy the body and the soul of my people.  And most of Europe chimed in with rapacious glee.  “The Jews are dead.  Let us divide their spoils among ourselves.”  Their condemning drumbeat today is the height of chutzpah.  It is the breathtaking brashness of those who would destroy and then preach peace.

I even love how Israel has defended itself.  Mostly, Israel has defended itself by living into its better self.  Israel is not perfect.  There are many areas politically and socially and morally that Israel is called to fix.  Even by virtue of her past, she gets no pass for her mistakes and her imperfections.  She has traded conquered land for hope and promise, yet she has not received peace in return.  Israel has had to fight a relentless enemy that threatens her existence every day.  Her citizens are taxed at rates we could not imagine to provide a sense of security and well being to all those who live there.  There are religious tensions between faiths and, more pointedly within faiths that threaten to rend the social fabric which binds this new country together.  Still Israel has far exceeded any expectations that the young nation would have hoped for 64 years ago, with the challenges of settling generations of new immigrants, creating a country and recreating a civilization, of fighting war and combating terrorism.  This she has done without losing her soul.

I love the way Israelis somehow get it done, how the Israeli economy with 7 million people has produced more companies on the NASDAQ than all of Europe combined; more than China, Russia, Korea and Japan.  Two weeks ago, I flew from Birmingham to Charlotte and sat next to Brian, a young man who sends his three young children to the Briarwood Church.  He works for a medical software company, and he is in charge of US sales.  St. Vincent’s uses this software in the ICU and in the nursery to trim costs and produce better patient outcomes.  The company is headquartered in Tel Aviv.  Brian loves these guys.

Finally, I love Israel because of the way she has faced all of her problems, with the western and the Jewish values I cherish.  Israel lives with tension.  As a country, it celebrates the rebirth of the Jewish nation after 2000 years of subjugation.  Still, its Arab citizens live with full rights and full participation (with the exception of military service—which might soon be changing).  We Jews know the hearts of the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  The Arabs who are Israeli citizens, 20 percent of the population, study Arabic in their schools, can train their children more freely in their religion than they can do in Turkey, for example.  Arabic is an official language of the Jewish State of Israel.  Arabs serve in the Knesset, in the Israeli civil service, teach in the Universities, sit as judges on the Supreme Court, and serve as physicians in the country’s hospitals.  Arabs and Jews have a free press, not something to be taken for granted in the Middle East.  It is much easier to find Al Jazeera on an Israeli TV than on an American one.

Throughout the Arab world, ancient and venerated Christian communities are shrinking faster than the spotted owl in the California redwoods.  I love Israel because it is the only place in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing.  Other countries in the neighborhood worry about whether women can drive and the legitimacy of honor killings, but in Israel women not only have equal rights, but are advancing economically and in leadership roles in far greater number than most countries in the western world.  While the Muslim Brotherhood and their ideological allies trumpet human rights against the brutal despots who would rule over them, their umbrella does not include gays and lesbians.  Same sex acts are illegal and punishable in Muslim countries, sometimes punishable by death.  By contrast, I copied this from a website, gaytlvguide.com.

Tel Aviv is known as one of the world’s finest and friendliest GLBT travel destinations. Come experience Israel, where you can express yourself, indulge yourself, or just be yourself in cosmopolitan gay-friendly cities and resort towns.

I love that Israel today is a country that is open and free and true to the values I cherish.

So why is it that Israel is often pilloried by the press, and taken to task by its detractors, and put under a microscope by people who share Israel’s values and should be celebrating Israel’s successes in combating terrorism, in high tech innovation, and especially in the field of human rights?  Let me give you a few examples which trouble me.

Maybe ten years ago, I was invited to have lunch with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  He spoke so eloquently about reconciliation and human forgiveness at the Cathedral Church of the Advent.  I was seated right next to him at an intimate lunch.  In the course of the conversation, Bishop Henry Parsley asked the Archbishop, “Tell us your views on the Middle East.”  Archbishop Tutu did not speak about the oppression of the Coptic Christians in Egypt.  Neither did he speak about the injustices dealt out to women, or the dictatorships in Iraq, or the mullah-ocracy in Iran.  No, he went straight to the issue of the Palestinians. And he spoke of their suffering.  And then he said, “It is absolutely terrible, inexcusable actually, when people who have had such horrible things done to them do the same to others.”

I flipped my lid.  “Archbishop Tutu,” I responded.  “Where is the evidence of Israeli death camps?  Where are the communities of Palestinian children taken off by soldiers and civilians to be gassed or buried alive in open pits?  Where are the ghettos and cattle cars used by the Jewish powerful against the innocent Palestinian people?   And where, by the way, are the Jewish suicide bombers and the soldiers who use their arms purposefully to harm children, civilians, teenagers at dance clubs and families at a Sbarros pizza joint?”  Whew, I realized that I had just taken on a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate at lunch.  He brushed off my remarks cavalierly, as he would a housefly, and said, “Rabbi, I am opposed to suffering.”

When in 2007, President Jimmy Carter, who Jews voted for in larger percentage than his fellow Baptists, writes a book about Israel and calls it, “Peace Not Apartheid”, something is screwy.  Where are the pass laws and the second class citizenships status of Israeli Arabs?  To claim that Israel is on the path to apartheid is a bald-faced lie.  Tell that to the Israeli Supreme Court, which has championed the rights of the minority and the rule of law. President Carter has apologized for the book, but the charge of apartheid still remains, and you can still buy the book at Amazon.com for $12.99.

And finally, this week, Alice Walker has refused for her famous book, “The Color of Purple” to be translated into Hebrew.  She has claimed that Israeli policies are worse than Jim Crow in America or South African Apartheid.  Instead, she has voiced her support for Hamas, an organization devoted to Islamic hegemony and terror instead of peaceful coexistence.

My friends, if you want to criticize Israel, have at it.  Certainly Israel has its problems and its imperfections.  I can name them quicker than any of Israel’s most verbal critics.  But tell the truth.  Apartheid??  Racism??  Nazism??  Why does the world listen to these criticisms and take them seriously.  Why do the Norwegian Universities and British Theater companies boycott Israel, as though it is because of Jewish extremists that we take our shoes off at the airport and watch ourselves on the London Tube, the Spanish commuter trains and the Russian theater; as though the Israeli Mossad actually flew their airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  This is an Alice in Wonderland world view, and just because people continue to proclaim the Big Lie, that does not make the Big Lie true.

I will tell you why I believe that some liberals have gone astray when it comes to Israel, and why I still love Israel, now more than ever, and then I will conclude with some Hebrew poetry that ought to be familiar to you.

I believe that too many people like us champion the underdog uncritically.  For the past 64 years, the State of Israel was absorbing immigrants, grappling with war and terrorism, and creating a high standard of living so their children, Jews and Arabs alike, might have better lives than their parents and grandparents.  Israel’s adversaries have worked to make their children history’s victims in order to keep their despots in power.  In no other community of the globe have we institutionalized refugees into the 4th generation and beyond—not in India and Pakistan, or Greece and Turkey, or Poland and Germany, or Latvia and Russia, or among the Laotian and Burmese Hill tribes living as refugees in Thailand .  Only the Palestinians are the world’s eternal victims–even though they now have self-rule, an expanding economy and freedom of movement within the Arab world.

I believe that too many people like us hold Israel to a standard that they do not hold any other nation in the world.  Israel’s enemies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Libya and Sudan crush dissent and steal from their people, yet Israel is being uniquely criticized.  One wonders where is Alice Walker’s indignation when Syrians slaughter their own children, and Iraqi’s blow themselves up at religious festivals to kill their fellow citizens, and when South Sudanese Christians are brutalized by their northern neighbor.  There should be a single standard by which we judge every country, including Israel, and including our own.  Criticize Israel all you want.  But it is not fair to single her out.

I believe that too many people like us have the simplistic belief that if the Israelis and Palestinians could just get their act together, all the problems facing our civilizational divide would somehow be solved.  This is an illusion.  The Arab spring of 2011 has become a discontented winter in 2012.  This had nothing to do with Israeli policy.  But we are human, and we want to wave our magic wand and have the tension between our civilizations disappear.

I believe that too many people like us do not know the history or the geography of the land of Israel.  Naively, too many people like us believe that our good intentions and open mindedness should be able to blunt the actions of terrorists and others who wish to harm this country.  The violence in Palestine existed decades before Israel was established in 1948, before there were any refugees or borders.  Israel has offered to split the territories into two states—and the offer still stands.  In 1947, Israel accepted the partition of Palestine.  The Arabs opted for war.  In 1967, Israel’s enemies preferred occupation to recognition.  In 2000 and in 2008, Israel offered peace and secure borders.  She was met with suicide bombers.  To this very day, Israeli leaders invite their enemy’s leaders to sit down with them without preconditions, and bring an end to the conflict and an end to the occupation.  The offers are met with rockets and terror.

And finally, I believe that too many people like us find secret relief from the burden of anti-Semitism and historic Jewish suffering, which reached its zenith in the memory of many in this room.  This is the most subtle, and also the most powerful reason that many liberal people like us don’t know how to see Israel clearly.  Instead we might see in Israel a reflection of our shame and remorse.  If we can say that Jews and Nazis are no different from each other; or if we can say, even these people, the Chosen People, if they are given power they will act towards others as we have acted towards them, with malice and cowardice.  More simply put, if we can say that the Jews act like their persecutors; then the world can be excused for its anti-Jewish violence and hatred.  The myth of Jewish cruelty is a healing balm to the conscience of people like us who are too often silent in the face of evil and ashamed of it.  And that is why, too many people like us see Israel through a glass darkly, and not face to face.

I love Israel, even though she has warts, some imposed upon her by others and some of her own making.  I do not demand perfection from my beloved.  Instead, my beloved commands devotion from me.  I do not say that the object of my love is without reproof.  I do say that she continually surprises me with her achievements and her dedication to the principles I hold dear.  Not all the time, but most of the time.  And she does so far more often with far greater consistency than those who would champion her destruction and who applaud at her suffering.  They are the ones convinced of their truth, but they are wrong.  They are on the wrong side of history, and they are on the wrong side of the values we hold dear.

In 1978, when Menachem Begin spoke to the world from the White House Lawn after signing the peace accord with Egypt, he recited Psalm 126 in Hebrew.  He told the peoples of the world to turn to their Bibles and open up to the Psalm and read it together with him in the language of their heart, while he would read it in the Hebrew original.  This set a world record.  Throughout the world, more people read their Bible in that moment than at any other time in history.  How very appropriate.  It was the people of ancient Israel who gave the Bible to inspire, comfort and instruct people throughout the world and throughout history.  I will conclude my remarks today by reading Psalm 126:

Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes,Lord,

like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

Believe in Israel and pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love her continue to prosper!




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