Israel: A Force of Progress And Change
A Sermon For Yom Kippur 5778
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
September 30, 2017
A cartoon strip I recently saw hit it right on the nose. In the first panel, a speaker addresses a large audience and asks, “Who wants change?” Enthusiastically, everybody raises their hand. “Who wants to change,” he asks next. No hands go up, and all avert their eyes, looking down at the floor. Finally, the speaker asks, “Who wants to lead the change?” The room suddenly becomes empty.
We speak often of change, but not always fondly. It may be a good idea, we all agree, but nobody actually wants to do it. Change is difficult. We grow comfortable with our routines, while change evokes all sorts of fears. The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know, is the common adage.
And yet, change is inevitable.
Since World War Two, the world has changed immeasurably. Empires fell, new countries emerged; political alliances have formed and re-formed; medical advances have enabled the world’s population to triple in size. The Internet has changed the way we communicate, while modern transportation has affected the entire structure of families and societies everywhere.
Yet one place has seen more rapid change than practically any other in the world: Israel.
One hundred years ago the Land of Israel was sparsely populated. It was basically either swamp or desert. Ruins and desolation characterized what once was the crux of civilization, where the world’s trade routes intersected. In modern times, however, almost everything about it changed. Most importantly, our people’s historic return to our homeland transformed the landscape, and now Israel is once again a busy hub of enterprise, business and culture.
It has been 69 years since Israel declared independence, and in this span, the State of Israel has undergone innumerable transformations. Physically, it has grown right along with its population. When I was a child growing up in Netanya, the city’s population was almost 30,000. Today, it’s nearly a quarter of a million. Though I still recognize the neighborhood I lived in, the city has grown and become a sprawling metropolis. And what is true for the city is true for the entire country. The many wars Israel has had to fight in defending its right to exist have expanded Israel’s boundaries and made the state both larger and stronger than ever.
In its first few years, Israel was famous for its agriculture. It exported Jaffa oranges, Carmel wines, and flowers. Slowly, manufactured goods replaced these; and then, as in a storm, hi-tech took over. There are few orange groves left, all have given way to high-rise apartment and office buildings.
Israel’s national character changed just as rapidly. In its early years, Jews from Russia founded kibbutzim and communal villages and established Israel’s social and political system. After the Holocaust, refugees poured in from all over Europe. In the 1950’s, almost a million Jews, expelled from hostile Arab countries, made Israel their new home. In the 1970’s, a million and a half Russian Jews left the land where the term “pogrom” originated, leaving behind a system that still refused them the right to live as Jews. In the 1980’s and 90’s, close to 30,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown into Israel in stealth, so as not to upset a secret agreement with the government of Ethiopia.
Kibbutz Galuyot—the ingathering of the exiles—was not an easy process. Each group brought its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Absorbing so many people in such a short time was an almost impossible task—yet Israel persisted and found ways to adapt, to change, to absorb, and to integrate. In those years, Israel’s highest goal was to give shelter to the homeless, to provide safety and security to those who were persecuted, and to ensure that the Jewish People would never again be helpless victims.
Survival in the new land brought new demands and more changes. Never permitted to own land, Jews had to learn how to till the stubborn ground and make it fertile again. Then they had to learn to be soldiers and do the unthinkable—stand up and fight to defend themselves, their families and their homes. With each war that Israel fought, it had to change tactics. From an invasion of seven Arab armies in 1948, to cordon and blockade in 1967; to a surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973; to an unending barrage of missiles and rockets; to terror and kidnappings; to murder and assassination, Israel has stood firm and—not without the help of our brothers and sisters in the United States—was able to fend off the attacks. When our enemies changed their strategy and turned to legal and diplomatic warfare in international courts, in economic unions and even on college campuses, Israel responded in kind.
Through all its wars, Israel developed not only one of the strongest and most moral army in the world—the Israel Defense Force—but possibly also the best espionage and secret service organization of modern times—the legendary Mossad.
But Israel hasn’t had to adapt only to external stimuli. Internal issues continue to demand its attention. Bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel was nothing compared to bringing them up to speed with the 21st century. This was a population whose family, educational and social structures back home were completely different from what they encountered in modern Israel.
Israel has had to contend with the emotional and psychological effect of almost daily loss of life on the battlefield as well as in horrific terror attacks. Yet rather than weakening our resolve, the tragedies only resulted in Israel becoming one large family and a tighter, united community. Whenever tragedy struck, everyone, everywhere, mourned. When Sgt. Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Southern California who volunteered to serve with the IDF, was killed during the Gaza War in 2014, 30,000 Israelis came to his funeral. When Sean Carmel from Texas, age 21, fell, 20,000 came to show their love, thanks and respect. When Staff Sgt. Major Hadas Malka, a border police officer, was stabbed and killed in a Jerusalem terror attack, hundreds of young women from all over the country volunteered to serve in the Border Police Unit. The change Jews had undergone, from weak, defenseless victims, to strong, resolute and determined fighters, is one of the greatest transformations of all time.
Today, however, Israel faces even greater challenges.
Israelis are evenly divided today over Israel’s control of the West Bank. Following the 1967 Six Day War, hundreds of thousands of Israelis streamed into land that had previously been under Jordanian control. With the establishment of new cities and settlements, however, new problems arose: What to do with the vast, impoverished Palestinian population that had been kept in miserable conditions for two decades in UN-financed refugee camps. What had previously been Jordan’s problem became Israel’s problem. For a time, coexistence seemed possible, but more and more it seems that Israel is going to have to find a way to disengage from some of these lands, probably sooner than later.
Israel’s religious identity is also a vortex of change and contention. Israel was established as a Jewish state, but the meaning of that term has never been clear. Even as David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence, he made the decision to let Orthodox religious parties join the government. Since that time, the religious parties have enjoyed disproportionate power and influence. Despite the fact that 2/3 of Israel’s Jewish population considers itself secular, their rights to marry, divorce, convert and even worship have been controlled and curtailed by the ultra-Orthodox. Whether the struggle to change this system will be successful or not is still to be determined.
Other social changes modern Israel contends with include gay rights. Though in many aspects Israel is one of the most progressive and gay-friendly countries in the world, there are some glaring exceptions. Gay marriage is not recognized in Israel, and child adoption by same-sex couples is prohibited by law. Yet here, change is in the air. This past summer, the government presented its opinion that single-sex parents “load additional baggage on an adopted child, already burdened by the presumed stigma of adoption.” This statement provoked outrage in the LGBTQ community in Israel and in the US, and within days, the government backed down from this position. Even though this law has not yet been changed, it now seems to be moving in that direction.
Overarching all of these changes, Israel today is redefining the larger meaning and purpose of its existence. Whereas once Israel saw as its primary objective providing shelter, safety and security for all Jews, it has now set a new goal for itself. Our ancient prophets spoke of Israel as being a light unto the nations. With this ideal in mind, Israel today is positioning itself as a benefactor of humanity. It does not save its medical or technological advances for itself, but rather uses them to help impoverished nations around the world. From empowering women to providing solar energy technology; from teaching new water- and soil-conserving farming methods to tackling poverty and disease, Israel focuses its efforts on enabling governments, communities and individuals to improve their own lives. Whenever and wherever disaster strikes—a hurricane, earthquake or epidemic—Israel is among the first to send medical and technical teams to help. Today, Israel is at the forefront of improvement and progress, willing to share lessons it has learned the hard way with whoever is willing to sit and learn.
Change is inevitable. In the last few years, public opinion of Israel worldwide has changed dramatically. The Jewish community in the United States is no longer as supportive as in previous years. Today we see American Jews who refuse to support Israel financially or politically. I was fortunate enough this past summer to visit an Air Force base somewhere in Israel. As I watched an F-16 taxi, take off and roar overhead, I learned that just the maintenance cost of this newest and most powerful jet in Israel’s arsenal is $40,000 an hour—let alone the human factor or the cost involved in installing the most up-to-date hi-tech enhancements that benefit not only Israel, but also the United States.
It’s OK to choose which specific organization in Israel one prefers to help, from ecological and environmental, to religious, medical, cultural or educational institutions. But what we American Jews must never lose sight of is that there is a high price to pay for our hard-won right to live as free and proud Jews.
Today, a new generation is growing up: a generation that has not known pogroms or discrimination; a generation which never saw Israel as a dream, and does not recognize the need for Israel as a safe haven. Many of today’s young, confident and poised Jews do not feel that they need Israel’s protection. Some of them are turned off by what they see happening in Israel and the West Bank and do not take the time to understand the history behind events. It is essential that we teach them the meaning and purpose of Israel. They must learn its history, both ancient and modern.
The Jewish People have always striven to move culture and civilization forward. Today, we must all recognize and cherish the modern State of Israel not only for what it has been, but also for what it still is. Today, in a world where everyone wants change but is afraid of it, in a world where no one wants to be a leader and move towards change, Israel stands alone, tall and unafraid, still and as ever a powerful force for progress and development.
An Israel that is safe and secure within its borders, living peacefully alongside its neighbors, is still a far-off dream. But, as the visionary prophet of the modern State of Israel, Theodore Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, said over a century ago, “If you will it, it is no dream.” It will take our collective will, and the support of each and every one of us. Still, I have no doubt that if we put our backs to it, this wonderful vision can and will become astonishing reality. May this time come soon and in our own day.
Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman