50 Years after the Yom Kippur War Yom Kippur 2023
I thank Helen Mirren for bringing the character of Golda Meir, the Prime Minster of Israel, to life, especially for younger audiences who cannot comprehend the trauma that faced Israel 50 years ago, on this date in the Jewish calendar. I am sure that many of you here are old enough to recall that terrible moment when, on the day of judgment, the fate of Israel weighed in judgment. Some of you were actually in Israel at that time facing the enemy guns and bombs.
I well recall that I had only come back from my year in Israel as a rabbinical student just a short while before and was serving a congregation in New Jersey. I recall someone running in with the news that Israel had been attacked and then the rest of the day and the next several weeks were a time of agonizing anxiety. During that time, my brother-in-law, who was here just a few weeks ago, was hunkered down in his tank, barely surviving, while his wife, back in the rear, had no word of his fate.
I mention this to remind us all that what is going on in Israel today may seem like an apocalyptic disaster, yet I want to keep in proportion the reality that Israel has gone through more such disasters. Somehow the Israelis managed to pull themselves up back on their feet.
It was just 30 years ago, in contrast, that Israelis were caught up in euphoria because the Oslo accords had been signed and peace was finally at the doorsteps for the people of Israel and for the Palestinians. I recall having brought here a spokesman for the American Muslim community, Salam Al- Maryati, to speak about how wonderful it would be. Yet as you well know, true peace was still far, far over the horizon and still is, the Palestinians carried out terror attacks, and Israelis suffered the most shocking terror attack, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, by one of their own. It would then be followed by a wave of Palestinian terror bombings of public buses, just when our daughter was in Israel as a student.
Just before I came to Hollywood Temple Beth El, in 1990, I had spent four years in Israel, where I worked as director for the Central Institute for Jewish Studies of the Histadrut-Labor Federation, at Bet Berl, that is the Labor party's college.
We don't realize it, but Israel is, after all, smaller in population than Los Angeles metropolitan area, in a way, a very large village, in which everyone knows and is related to everyone else.
In the course of my work, I had met so many public figures, on both left and right. Prime Minister Rabin, then Minster of Defense, and President Peres, then Minister of the Treasury. Yigal Amir, the assassin, lived in my wife’s aunt’s neighborhood, and the assassin’s ex-girlfriend was the grad-daughter of a great Israeli, Rabbi Pinhas Peli, who had given me guidance in setting up my program. A speaker that I had brought as a presenter of Judaism and science, a notable head of Yeshivah and trained academic philosopher, a liberal Orthodox Rabbi, was accused of having encouraged the murderer.
What is my point ?
There is no simple " Us" and " Them" in Israel.
There is a saying in the Talmud: Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh." "All Israel are legally liable for each other." The word " Arev" comes from the word for mixture, or interweave.
The historic Jewish people, as well as the people of the State of Israel, is so closely interwoven and bound up each with the other, that it impossible to distinguish " Us" from " Them". A fight, quarrel or disputation is a fight within the midst of family, whether functional or dysfunctional.
When I was a student at the Hebrew University, one of my professors explained that the great miracle of Israel is not that it had withstood constant onslaughts by more powerful armies, but that it achieved it even though Israelis could not speak peaceably one to another.
I could only reflect on that years later, when I sat in the office of the Minister of the Treasury, then Labor coalition partner with the right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He complained bitterly about the threats to democracy that his partner posed, and then went on to serve in different positions with his erst-while “ enemy of democracy” opponents.
Perhaps that is inevitable for us Jews when we have kept the dogs of Jew-hatred away from us. We then play it safe, “ sha-shtil”, don’t rock the boat.
But when we disagree with each other, and there is no one outside threatening us, we pull out all the stops.
Perhaps precisely because we feel safe with each other. When we deal with gentiles, we are insecure, we are cautious, so we watch our language, lest there be a riot, lest there be a pogrom.
With fellow Jews, we let out all the stops. Jews, after all, don't riot against Jews. Jews ,after all, don't kill Jews. Jews, after all, don't take Jews to lawsuits. Until it is too late.
If anyone has watched the Israeli Knesset in session, one can see how easily the language turns vicious. It is not new. No one is free of blame.
There is the left-right clash.
Opposition Jews call Jews "Fascist" . Coalition members call the leaders of the IDF and the security services “traitors.”
A century ago, there was a controversial Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who broke ranks with the World Zionist Organization, and with the leadership of the Labor Zionists. He was a dramatic orator and thinker, whose ideas did influence the Zionist leadership. Nevertheless, his enemies blasted him as a " Fascist", a " Mussolini".
Just to confuse you, as I mentioned Prime Minister Shamir, the head of the right-wing Likud, he was a member of the very militant group, Lehi—which was po-Stalinist, pro-Bolshevik. It’s just to tell you that it is hard to tell left from right.
The left-right split is complicated by the religious-secular split.
Religious Jews speak of the secular Jews with disdain. The word in Hebrew for secular is " Hiloni, " but many pronounce it "Holani",sick.
In 1990, the leader of the Ultra-Orthodox, Lithuanian party, Rabbi Schach, was to have supported Labor in favor of negotiations with the Palestinians and was to have declared his support for the Labor Party. Instead of talking about the need for compromise, which he supported, he suddenly began to lambast the Kibbutz movement, Labor's vanguard . When he said " mechaleley Shabbes, boalei nidos, ochlei nevelos",(Violate the Sabbath, have sex with menstruants, and eat carrion) , broadcast live over Israeli television, any thought of coalition politics vanished.
The language of militant secularists is hardly better.
An Israeli journalist, a staunch secularist, in a respectable " Mekoman", a local paper, which is often more exciting than the major national papers, wrote of a horrible "Big Brother State" , dominated by the religious parties. He used description of sexual molestation and body snatching by haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, in language that would have well fit any anti-Semitic tract.
The French have a great phrase: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”-The more it changes, the more it stays the same. Or, to take from our own source, Koheleth, “Mah she Hayah-hu sheyihyeh” That which as been, is that which shall be.
But we sit here, in the US. We are comfortable, at ease ( sort of).
Older Americans, non-Jews and Jews alike, have followed the news in general, and know that Jews in Israel have been the target of historic aggression by outside armies and internal attacks by terrorists.
However, I look at surveys of young Americans. And I am concerned. Younger Americans can barely find Israel on a map of the middle east, if they can find the middle east in the first place. That, I recognize, is part of a historic pattern of Americans being, in general, indifferent to the outside world, as two large oceans separate us physically, and even after Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, and 9/11 reminded us we can’t turn a blind eye, still, we do tend to be distant from other nations’ turmoil. Thus, three Presidents in a row have been trying to pull us out of the Middle East ( with no luck).
But I am concerned about our younger Jews, who like Esther, are reluctant to run to the King on behalf of her people. Our younger Jews know somewhat more about Israel, but they, like so many young, want to be seen as progressive, as on the side of justice and the underdog, and like their non-Jewish counterparts, have been sold on the idea that Israel’s very existence is an act settler colonialism and white supremacy.
I just give you one example, of a review of Golda by a Noah Berlatsky, criticizing Golda on CNN:
In “Golda,” casting Mirren — a White, internationally renowned, British actress — is a metaphor for the way the film blurs Israeli identity with a generalized White, Western identity. By doing so, it attaches Israel’s moment of crisis to a tradition of triumphalist American military films that validates the virtue of the US, of Israel and of whiteness.”
…. “Golda” turns that into a straightforward story of righteous White Western victimization and ultimate triumph. It’s able to do that, in part, because it makes sense, to Western audiences, for a famous White actor like Mirren to play a Jewish leader like Meir who also broadly fits in the cultural category of “White” for most Western audiences.”
True, Anwar Sadat was on the dark side, but his wife, Jehan, was half-Brit and fairly white.
The Syrians, who attacked from the north in the same Yom Kippur War, were white-bread as well. Certainly, the Syrians I have met, are lighter than me, and lighter than half of Israelis. In, fact, except for the cast of the movie “Exodus”, can you find me some actual “ white “ Jews?
I mean, in Europe, we were Asians, and killed for that, but in western Asia ( yes, Israel is Asian) we are attacked for being Europeans.
Playing this white card, by a Jew, can be a very dangerous game.
For those of you who escaped the former Soviet Union, you recall the Yevsetkzia, the Jewish apparatchiks in the system who betrayed their fellow Jews, until they in turn were betrayed and liquidated. Or those of you who fled from the Khomeinist regime, you know of so many young Jews who rallied behind Khomeini and against the Shah, believing in a better and open society.
So, I am very concerned for our young Jews, who have no personal experience of the Israel’s precarious existence, and whose professors at Princeton force required textbooks that state that Israel uses Palestinians for body parts.
Yes, it is very easy to turn away from Israel at the sight of turmoil and accusations of “ dictatorship” of the courts, versus “ dictatorship” of the masses.
So it becomes our job, the old guard, to remind or teach our young Jews what Israel has achieved, despite the flaws and despite the divisions.
I say it as “ we”, because, even as Jews of the diaspora, in our support and backing, have had a hand in this.
We, a defeated and devastated people, despised by Christians and Muslims alike, for nearly 2000 years, a people who had one third of our body chopped off in the space of a few years, came back to life to create an independent state, one that held its own against overwhelming military odds, multiple times.
We breathed new life into a land that had been neglected and laid to waste by centuries of misadministration by outside conquerors, especially the Ottomans, not the Europeans.
We gave new life to a language , Hebrew, that had been relegated to pious prayers and religious texts, one of the oldest languages in continuous use on earth, and is now the spoken tongue of millions of Jews and Arabs as well.
A people that had been scattered over the entire planet, a people disconnected from each other in many ways over the centuries, a people of many tongues and customs, a people some of whom were creating the Avant Garde of modern civilization and some of whom were still living in antiquity, have been brought back together to shape one nation, despite such unbridgeable differences.
A people who, at the start of independence, 75 years ago, had to ration the very basics of food, has become Start Up Nation, a nation whose largest city, Tel Aviv, ranks now as the world’s most expensive.
A nation that brought into its borders many times over its population over the space of a few years, people often malnourished, ill, physically devastated, Today, the Israelis occupy spot number 10 in in world in life expectancy, and 4th happiest place in the world, according to a UN report. Israelis are happy-despite facing existential dangers—it is almost Disneyland by that measure.
So, when I look at the demonstrations on the street, in Israel, now going on for close to a year, yes it is demoralizing, and yes Israel does not now seem like the happiest place on earth. However for us all, both Jews here in the United states and for Israelis, both Jews and Arabs (who want to be part of this state of Israel not part of a Palestinian state), it is essential to look back at what has been accomplished despite all the obstacles and despite all the impossibilities.
Theodore Herzl , the visionary founder of the concept of the state of Israel, stated
“ When one will it, it is no legend.”
The State of Israel is no legend. Yes, it is still going through its growing pains, after ¾ of a century, but it is no legend. The people have made it past 1948 and past Yom Kippur of 1973. They will make it past the struggles of democracy and the courts of 2023 and we here are part and parcel of that story. Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live.