Kol Nidrei: Israel

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

On July 14th this year, Jason Shames, Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Northern NJ, sent the following note:

“Dear Friends, As many of you know, I am not a fan of former Pink Floyd bassist and front man, Roger Waters, not because of his music, but because of his longtime support of the malicious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement also known as BDS. In fact, if you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about him, you know exactly where I’d like to send Roger Waters for his obvious anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views. I’m especially disgusted by his comments about Israel during concerts and the many interviews he’s given over the years. I know I’m not alone in my opinion. The American Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have issued many statements about Waters’ support of the BDS movement. Howard Stern has been vocally (and profanely) up front about what little he thinks of Waters. Last year both Citibank and American Express withdrew their support of his concerts.”

Jason’s note continued on, but I’ll stop here because I want to get to the point: it’s clear that we, Jews of the world, are facing new and difficult challenges.

Today, many institutions and individuals support the BDS movement, calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel as a protest against what perceived to be human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. It is our obligation to fight this movement – it is discriminatory and fueled by anti-Semitic sentiments.

We all know that Roger Waters unfortunately is not the only famous individual to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “safe zone;” A way to openly express his personal prejudice and anti-Semitic views of Jews in general, and Israel in particular.

Other such famous people include actor Mel Gibson, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and best-selling American author Alice Walker. Even last summer, a plank in the platform of the movement for Black Lives Matter so strangely accused Israel out of the blue of genocide. And of course, there are many other such examples.

This new brand of anti-Semitism is more deceptive than what we’ve seen before, because it’s characterized not as “anti-Jewish hatred” but as “anti-Zionism.” Anyone who equates Israel’s self-defense against its enemies with Nazi genocide isn’t just an anti-Zionist, but an anti-Semite. Anyone who demands that Israel behave in a way that is not expected of other nations of the world – isn’t just an anti-Zionist, but an anti-Semite.

As a Jew, I want Israel to behave according to the highest principles of justice, compassion and peace, and also according to modern democratic principles. I speak as a Jew and lover of Israel, from a position of unconditional support and love for Israel, and its need for security for OUR people.

Roger Waters singles out and feels no such love for Israel. He speaks against the Jewish state when it unavoidably fails to live up to all of our ideals. Roger Waters is not just an anti-Zionist. People like him, my friends, are pure anti-Semites.

I wonder about those who obsessively focus only upon Israel’s behavior as opposed to that of other countries that are creating wide spread refugee and humanitarian crises in the world. Countries whose leaders increase their personal wealth – while their people perish from famine and disease – bear no moral equivalency to Israel, which is defending itself from attacks across its borders by terrorists who use the Palestinian people as human shields.

Why is it that only Israel’s defense, and not the open aggression and corruption of other nations, provokes moral outrage of the “anti-Zionists?” Because, again, Anti-semitism – seems clear.

Moreover, we have another threat, this time from within. Non-Jews speaking against Jews and Israel is one type of tsuris. We’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again, we know what to do, and how to defend ourselves. But the alarm sounds when the BDS movement towards Israel levels critical opposition from within.

In 2014, an international Jewish group, Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, issued a list of signatories endorsing an academic boycott of Israel. The boycott was the brainchild of the Israeli activist organization Boycott from Within, led by Israelis such as Ronnie Barkan, Kobi Snitz, Leehee Rothschild, Ofer Neiman, and other Israeli academics who support the BDS campaign.

Let me be clear that I don’t believe the Israelis who support BDS are anti-Semitic. For them, BDS is a strategy to let the Israeli government know how strongly they disagree with its policies. It’s a legitimate position even for friends of Israel to raise questions and argue against the justice of specific Israeli government policies. Get three Jews in a room and you’ll get six different opinions, right? Now imagine a whole nation of us! But Boycott? Israel? I mean come-on Israelis!!!

Let me also clarify that like most Israelis, I do want to see peace and collaboration with our Palestinian brothers and sisters. Not only that, I do support co-existence, and I want Israel to be loved, appreciated and truly successful in our world.  And here perhaps I am offering a controversial view: I don’t support the settlements, and I frequently find myself questioning Bibi’s decisions.There, I said it fast and now let’s move on.

The fact is, many Israelis, like myself, who are committed to a secure, prosperous Israel also ache each day that the conflict with the Palestinians persists. BUT if we criticize Israeli politics, we also have to remember in the same breath to mention how important it is that we have Israel in our lives, and to point out ways that we can support it. Don’t just speak against its politics, Bibi, or the West Bank. Please also mention the beauty, the Israeli folk dances on the beaches, and the aid that Israel sends to other nations in need—yes, even to its enemies.

Anti-Semitic critics completely fail to credit Israel with aid and support it provides to Palestinians in the form of medical treatment. Israel has provided aid to Syrians fleeing their borders. And most recently – of course Israel sent first responder relief and rescue efforts to Houston to help those in need after Hurricane Harvey.

If you check out on line the website Uncovering Israel in the 21st Century, or, another website that Israel Tour Company owner Larry Ritter recommended the other night with the funny title “No Camels, Israeli Innovation & Startup News” – you’ll find vast resource of more than 10,000 originally researched and produced articles, videos, images and blogs by some of Israel’s leading scientists and journalists, uncovering our country’s rich and diverse culture, innovative spirit, wide-ranging contributions to humanity, and democratic civil society.

Yet Israel continues to be criticized for its lack of humanitarian behavior.

And as we stand in solidarity with Israel, we must also resist the temptation to demonize the Palestinian people due to the sins of their leaders and the terrorists who live among them.

So many Palestinians also want to have peaceful relations, and like most Israelis, are so tired of bloodshed and violence. Reform Judaism has always maintained that the Palestinians are entitled to coexist side by side with Israel. We have also challenged the efficacy of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

However, in order to come to a peaceful coexistence, we do need to remember that Israelis need to hear six magic words from the Palestinians, especially from their leaders: Israel Has The Right To Exist.That’s it. That’s the first step, just those six words. Only then will Israelis feel safe enough to extend their hand in peace.

Look, Israelis and Palestinians are very similar in many ways. Most Israelis couldn’t care less about occupying Gaza, or the West Bank. They would gladly wash their hands of these territories in exchange for peace. Many Israelis and Palestinians have hearts of gold and are warm, hugging, expressive….. reminded of someone? And at times of real danger or grief – they come out to help one another because that is The Right Thing to Do as Human Beings!

For example, last year when I posted on my FB page the horrible aftermath of the fires that consumed miles of land and forests all over Israel, one significant ray of light was seeing. The Palestinians sent fire trucks and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Israeli fire fighters to defeat that fire. I was brought to tears because this is a vision I’ve been yearning to witness. THIS kind of collaboration between awesome human beings. Yes, we, Middle Easterners can be awesome human beings!

All of which goes to show that Israel’s situation is neither black nor white. There’s no simple solution to the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Just like there’s no simple solution between Jews and anti-Semites. The relationship between all four groups, at the core, is fueled by fear of each other. And what’s the best cure for fear? Learning compassion and getting to know each other. The great thing about compassion is that it’s often contagious; expose other people to your compassion and they’re likely to catch it and spread it as well.

But what about the negative anti-Israel BDS movement from within, the call for boycotting, divestment, and sanctions from Jewish protestors—both in the US and in Israel? I am absolutely opposed for one and only reason, my friends: Without Israel, there will be no “us” here in the USA, in Europe, or in other parts of our world. Simply put, Israel is a safety net of every Jew; man, woman, or child. Israel is the backbone of our people’s ability to withstand attack. Without Israel, we could find ourselves back in the gas chambers, or worse.

You know why? Because if worse comes to worst, and if this leader or another decides one morning that they do not like Jews, we will still have Israel to support us. If they use slurs like Mel Gibson’s, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” then we have a means to refute this. And if leaders decide to use their power to expel us from their country, we could make Aliyah through Israel’s policy of the Right of Return, which allows all Jews to immigrate to Israel

As you can probably see, I love Israel with all my heart, soul, and might. Not just because I was born and raised there and my entire family lives there, but because I am so aware of our need to keep Israel safe and thriving—for that “Just In Case” scenario.

Perhaps because of its complex history and culture, there’s just no other place like this small, vibrant, modern-yet-history-saturated country. There’s no other place in the world where people eat hummus and salads with almost every meal—even hummus for dessert!

So I invite you and your families to visit Israel when you are able, so that you can experience the length and breadth of a country that is part of our heritage and where we can experience our Jewish homeland in all of its diversity.

Every 2-3 years I visit my family, and each time I am surprised and excited by the changes: new malls, busy highways overflowing with shiny new cars, high-tech companies and building complexes erected by the ocean, in the midst of forests and ancient mountains. Every time I go, I love to buy Israeli products, for example, I bring home a suitcase filled with Hebrew books by Israeli authors. I like to support Israeli artists by going to Shook Nachalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv and buy all the art I can afford. I stock up on an Israeli Turkish coffee called Kafe Elit (and yes, I just received a suitcase full from my mom).

What else? Judaica from the source. Drop by my office to see the special Israeli dreidels I brought from Israel, as well as several unique hamsahs. I buy hair care and cosmetic products by an Israeli company called “Yes to Carrots,” which makes me feel very happy and positive every time I use them. The list goes on and on. By supporting the Israeli economy we support the Israeli people.

Travel to Israel is one of the best ways you can support our country: You can visit with the help of many programs or specialized travel companies. Young people typically go with programs such as Onward Israel, Masa Israel, or if you’ve never been to Israel, go on Taglit-Birthright Israel. For us, older folks, go to Israel with your Rabbi in February! Or, go to Israel on vacation, to study, or to visit you family. Talk to others about the beautiful landscape of Israel, about the unique feeling of thousands of years of Jewish existence in Israel. Visiting Israel shows Israelis that we really care; it also makes a tremendous difference to your own sense of connection.

You can experience Israel with your stomach too! Eat falafel, hummus, and more falafel. Buy Sabra Hummus, and look for other Israeli products at your local Supermarket. I know Stop and Shop has quite a few products made in Israel on its “Ethnic” or “Kosher” aisles. Have you ever tried “Shkedei Marak,” those yellow yummy “soup nuts” that are made by Osem? Falafel? Sure! You can make it yourself, try “Telma’s Falafel Mix.” Or visit local Israeli-owned stores; for example, in Wayne we have Gyro Grill, The Image Gallery, and Odyssey Boutique. There is also Mishmish (Hebrew for apricot) Coffee & Grill in Montclair, and a bunch of supermarkets, like Amira Fresh Fruit and Vegetables in Fairlawn, that carry international food including many Israeli products.

            Support non-profit, apolitical organizations such as Magen David Adom (Israel’s medical emergency service), Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Neve Shalom Oasis for Peace co-existence village in Israel, Friends of the IDF, Friends of Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Haifa Technion, Weizman Institute, I am sure there are lots more in your “to give” list.

Some people choose to Invest in Israel: they buy stocks on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, or Israel Bonds. And one of my own favorites is online shopping! There is a web site called Buy Israel Goods, check it out.

My beloved congregants, I could talk about Israel all night and into tomorrow, because there is so much to say and share about one of the most amazingly breath-taking countries in this world, and it happens to be my birthplace.

I started with Roger Waters and I’ll add that there’s currently a change.org petition to Boycott Roger Waters. And now, this summer, a documentary from award-winning filmmaker, Ian Halperin, “Wish You Weren’t Here”, is scheduled to be released soon. I am hoping to get hold of a copy of this movie, and perhaps show it here at our temple.  No, We don’t need no Roger Waters, but we do need each of YOU to support Israel, so we can continue to worship together, Bashana HaBaha, next year, here at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne NJ – or anywhere else in the world!

And speaking of Shana HaBaaha: Leshana habaah biyrushalim is a familiar Talmudic phrase that we Jews living in the Diaspora say each year, at the end of Passover and Yom Kippur. “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Leshana HaBaah – may we stand together and see the day when war and bloodshed cease, and great peace will embrace the whole world. Lehsnah Ha’Ba’ah – may nation shall not threaten another nation, and humanity will know complete and wholesome peace.

You are about to hear our choir sing Tefila Lishlom Ha’Medina, a prayer for the safety of Israel: they will sing  Avinu She’bashamayim, Rock and Redeemer of the people Israel: Bless the State of Israel, with its promise of redemption.  Shield it with Your love; spread over it the shelter of Your peace.  Guide its leaders and advisors with Your light and Your truth.  Help them with Your good counsel.  Strengthen the hands of those who defend our Holy Land. Bless the land with peace, and its inhabitants with lasting joy.  And let us say together, Amen.


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