The Legitimacy of the State of Israel: Surviving in a Hostile Region

In my 10-page application to rabbinical school back in 2013, I did not reference the State of Israel even once.

It’s not that I had no connection to it: I had been there five or six times by the time I applied, including having attended elementary school for a year in Jerusalem while my father studied there as part of his own rabbinical studies (he graduated from RRC in 1990), and I returned for an intensive ulpan experience in my 20s.

And it’s not that I haven’t studied the conflict. Knowing that I desired to be a rabbi and that I would need to be informed — and yearning for answers to my own questions on the conflict — I’ve for years read up on and sought to understand countless angles of it.

But when I applied to rabbinical school, the State of Israel was simply not central enough to my experience of Judaism to warrant mention in the application. I was motivated to become a rabbi because of the way in which Judaism and living a Jewish life facilitated for me a relationship to God, and thereby lifting up my life, and I wanted, consciously or otherwise, to facilitate that for others, as they so desired

Today, I am the rabbi of Society Hill Synagogue, an independent synagogue in Center City Philadelphia, and I now write weekly emails about the State of Israel to a growing list of 1,100 email recipients.

What happened?

To state the obvious, Oct. 7 happened.

I want to be clear that this shift was not the result of external pressure; while all synagogues have internal politics around Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I received no pressure to tow a particular line on Israel. My thoughts are my own; I have freedom of the pulpit. The events of Oct. 7 facilitated a lurch for me out of my detached stupor for a number of reasons:

  • It saw the greatest number of Jews murdered on any single day since the Holocaust, in some of the most horrific ways imaginable.
  • 240 hostages were taken.
  • It led to a war in Gaza with disastrous humanitarian consequences. More than 20,000 Gazans dead, most of whom are civilians, the others being members of Hamas.
  • Discourse in the United States around Israel-Palestine has exploded — on social media, on college campuses and in city streets, often spilling into antisemitism, as well as anti-Arab and Muslim expressions.

All of this underscored for me what I have known all along, but which I had not made central to my rabbinate, perhaps somewhat exceptionally in the liberal Jewish world — something that has been a central insight of the Reconstructionist movement for decades, promulgated by its founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: Judaism is not just a religion. To be Jewish is to be part of a people — a people with a shared history, roots, a story and, yes, a land. There is no divorcing being Jewish from this history, from this conflict, from this land. Whether we define ourselves this way or whether others do, to be Jewish to be a part of an identifiable tribe.

That has informed my thinking as I write every week to the congregation I serve. What follows is an encapsulation of the thinking I share with them, recognizing, as I do with them, that it is constantly evolving:

War in General

  • War is horrific. No one I know wants War blows up individuals and families, homes and communities. It has done so on both sides of this conflict for decades.
  • To say war is horrific does not mean a government, a state, should never resort to war. World War II and the Holocaust have been foundational to many of our understandings of international affairs. The lessons of World War II were not that the allied powers should not have fought back. If anything, the lessons of World War II were that they should have fought back sooner. Neville Chamberlain’s name is disgraced because his decision to appease Hitler led to more death and killing, not less, even though he chose, effectively, an anti-war path. Historians suggest that the Allies should have gotten involved sooner, should have bombed concentration camps sooner, not pursued an anti-war path.
  • Not every conflict is World War II, however. Surely, there are many examples where the choice to pursue a military option was regrettable and tragic — the Vietnam War, and, some would say, the Iraq War in 2003 being the most obvious examples of recent U.S. involvement.
  • Still, the World War II example suggests that in the non-messianic age in which we live, the non-utopian age, war is sometimes a necessary component of the best response to a given action by an aggressor.

This War

  • Of course, that merely begs the question: Is war a necessary component of Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7, and if so, to what ends and through what means?
  • From Israel’s perspective, the nature of the Oct. 7 attacks — both the scale, the highest death toll since the Holocaust, the per capita equivalent of 15 9/11 attacks; and the horrors, parents murdered in front of children, beheadings, sexual violence — showed Israel in all-too-graphic terms what Hamas was capable of and desirous to do. Subsequent comments by Hamas that it wants to be in a permanent state of war with Israel make it very difficult to conclude that there is any exclusively political path to peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians while Hamas is in charge, as they are of Gaza. It is hard for me (and I imagine even harder for Israeli Jews) to envision a pathway to peace and reconciliation after Oct. 7 that leaves Hamas in power.
  • That means, for all intents and purposes, regime change, and it is hard to envision a means of doing that other than war. T’ruah, whose leadership I respect deeply for their work in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza over the last couple of decades, recently released a statement entitled “U.S. Must Pressure Israel to Return to Negotiations, End War,” while also writing, “Disarming Hamas is a necessary step toward a long-term political solution.”
  • I simply don’t understand how people envision Hamas being disarmed or otherwise removed from power other than through war. Those chanting for a ceasefire may as well be chanting: “Leave Hamas in power.” Or else, I am curious to understand how they imagine Hamas being deposed.
  • There are a couple of responses to this argument. One is that while the desire for Hamas to go is a legitimate one, the cost of this war — in civilian deaths and humanitarian suffering — is so high that no matter the ends, the means simply do not justify them.
  • Perhaps this is something of an unexpected turn, but in all frankness, I cannot argue with this. Not because I agree with it. But because the level of civilian death is so tragic that I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to put an end to it.
  • I believe that Hamas, if it had the means and if it were not subject to military pressure, would carry out worse attacks on Israeli soil — not just through collateral damage to civilians, which is horrific on all sides, but through targeting civilians, and so I do believe military pressure on Hamas is necessary. Still, the human cost of regime change is extremely high, and I understand opposition to it.
  • What I do not understand — or perhaps more accurately what I understand but have a much easier time personally rejecting — are those whose response is more along the lines that the desire for Hamas to go is not legitimate because Hamas is a movement made up of “freedom fighters.”

How do people envision Hamas being disarmed or otherwise removed from power other than through war?

Which brings me to the second of two major questions on the table in this moment. The first that I have just addressed is what should be happening vis à vis Gaza and Israel in this moment.

Zionism

The second, frustratingly, is that the movement in many ways underlying the calls for a ceasefire is the movement also calling out, “From the river to the sea, Palestine should be free,” and “There is only one solution, intifada revolution” — an anti-Zionist movement calling for the dismantling of the State of Israel.

Whether tied to a ceasefire movement or not, the anti-Zionist movement has been alive for a while and forces the question onto the table: Should the State of Israel continue to exist? While this is a settled question in the affirmative for vast majorities of, at the very least, the Jewish public and the American public (and, to be very clear, for myself: unequivocally yes), there is no doubt that there are significant numbers of anti-Zionist Jews and non-Jews, and that younger generations are encountering these questions for the first time and are still very much sorting through where they stand.

For me, the answer is easy: Israel exists and has existed for 75 years. Nine million people live there — with families, small businesses, shared culture, language, history. For many, it is the only country they have ever called home. Dozens of countries have been created since then. Israel is the only state in the world subject to this much pressure questioning its very existence.

Some of the people I know calling for an end to Israel are effectively calling for an end to all nation-states. While I find such thinking detached from reality — detached from the fact that war and violence among human beings long preceded the existence of the nation-state — I can hold space for the notion that not everyone calling for an end to the State of Israel is doing so out of antisemitic motivations.

I do believe, however, that the widespread scale of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment that we have been witnessing is strongly influenced by antisemitic currents in various societies. The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial awakening in the United States, while very much inchoate, helped many white Americans at least begin to unpack some of the implicit biases they had been holding vis à vis Black people and People of Color. Antisemitism is one of the world’s oldest hatreds, permeating Western culture for centuries. Do people, raised in that culture, holding anti-Zionist views and anti-Israel views, people who direct most of their energy in terms of international relations against the one Jewish state in the world, really think it’s not motivated at all by implicit biases against Jews?

That question goes for all of us as we form our relationships to this conflict — we should strive to use the most quoted phrase from Torah in this conflict, deservingly so — to see all of us created in the image of the Divine.

In aiming to do so, I can very much name that the Palestinians have been dealt a challenging hand.

In the 1940s, before the formation of the State of Israel, British-occupied Palestine was a predominantly Arab land.

It also happened to be the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, a connection which the Jewish people had nurtured for millennia through study of Torah, through thrice-daily prayer services, and through the culminating chants of Yom Kippur and Passover (“Next Year in Jerusalem”).

Both peoples had maintained deep, legitimate ties to the land.

Of course, in a story now all too familiar to us all, in part in response to the unbelievable scale of the murder of Jews in the Holocaust, the international community as represented by the United Nations voted for a partition of Palestine into two states: one Arab state and one Jewish state. We know what happened next. Israel declared independence within the U.N. recognized borders, and the Arab League, made up of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, declared war, in effect rejecting the plan.

On one level, it is understandable that the Palestinians rejected this plan. From their perspective, they had been living in this land and had no interest in sharing it with the many refugees pouring in from Europe, whose ancestors had not lived there in centuries.

On the other hand, the unique nature of the Holocaust and the unique situation of country after country having violently turned on the Jews did raise the specter that a Jewish state — a state of Jews for Jewish people, like a state of France for French people; Mexico for Mexican people; Japan for Japanese people and so on — was a reasonable if imperfect solution to an intractable problem.

There is a real question of the remedy for the Palestinian people who had to bear a higher cost of the solution to what to do with the Jewish people than all other peoples in the world.

That question is still unanswered. It is 75 years later.

I advocate strongly that the answer cannot be the destruction of the State of Israel, which has grown and blossomed in those 75 years — imperfectly, as the development of all states, and all peoples and all humans is imperfect — despite the constant denial of its right to exist and efforts to violently undercut its right to exist.

At some point, the question of the existence of the State of Israel needs to be put to rest, just like it is for every other state.

But an answer does have to be found for the Palestinian people that is both an alternative to Hamas — an alternative to the fantasy that the 7 million Jews will leave or die or be subjugated — and to second-class citizenship.

While we are not there yet, I believe that alternative is a two-state solution, what American diplomat Richard Haas, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, called the worst solution to the conflict except for all the others.

Fantasize as we might, the world organizes itself through nation-states. Until that messianic day when all nations at once disband borders, to ask Israel to be the first state to disband its own borders, dismantle its own flag, shelve its own national anthem, as anti-Zionists are calling on it to do strikes me as out of touch with the ways in which antisemitism has permeated Western societies, and as dislocated from the fairness and justice for which they are otherwise advocating.

The solution to the Palestinian problem cannot be the destruction of the State of Israel

I believe most people who are advocating for the Palestinian cause, Jews and non-Jews alike, are motivated by passions towards justice, righteousness, truth and holiness. I also believe we all have blind spots. And I believe there is a huge blind spot towards our own implicit biases towards the Jewish people — the way in which Israel, like most every state in the world, was formed through war, war that had some just motivations and some unjust consequences. Israel, like most every state in the world is formed around a shared sense of identity. That’s what we humans do. We form families; we build stronger connections among some than others; and we form communities out of that. The world can be overwhelming otherwise. The Jewish/Zionist/Israeli approach is not unique here.

There are some days I wish my rabbinate had been able to focus exclusively on those questions I outlined in my application to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College oh those many years ago, and there are others where I recognize that they are not pre-empted by the questions with which I am faced today: How do we hold space for Jewish community? How do we hold space for Jewish community across the globe in ways that both acknowledge our connection to the land between that river and sea and our Diaspora from it? How can our relationship to our understanding of Jewish values and to the Divine inform our relationship to our shared humanity with all? How can we operate as a people in a world very much marked by war while also acknowledging our desire to move away from it? How can we hold space for this while holding space for the humanity of everyone under the crossfires of these wars?

How, God?

2 Responses

  1. Chiam Weitzmann was a distant cousin of mine. He grew up in a town, now in Belarus, called Motol (pronounced Mottele). My grandmother grew up in the same town. Professor Weitzmann thought that there was no safe place on earth for Jews. That is why he advocated creating Israel.

    Unfortunately, sometimes it is thee or me. I think it is now that way for Israelis in their terrible neighborhood. I am a peacenik from the 60s. Many people have done terrible things. In the US, I expect terrible things to be inevitable in the next 4 or 5 years. I am a mere mortal.

    I have had to take a long hard look at myself in the past few weeks. I am no longer optimistic that I can change anything about the course of history. I only plan to survive for my wife, my children, and myself. I have no other plans. Survival may be very difficult very soon.

  2. By acknowledging the questions you open your words to a dialogue that hopefully will inform all sides and enlighten some, while opening a window to others.

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