Rosh HaShanah Day 1 5784 / 2023: Understanding this year in Israel

I could tell you so many stories from our magnificent congregational trip to Israel this summer - but the story I have to tell you today is about giraffes. 

You’re wondering, where did you see giraffes in Israel? -- Having been to Israel many times, I had visited most of the historical and cultural and religious sites on our itinerary for our congregational trip, but I had never been to this little place called the Ayalon Institute, and frankly I was a little skeptical when our tour provider suggested it. But I HAVE to tell you the story.

The Ayalon Institute is a kibbutz that was built not far from Tel Aviv, in 1945. It was a Jewish agricultural settlement like hundreds of others all across what was then called Palestine, with communal buildings like a dining room, a laundry, a kitchen and bakery, and dwelling places for the people who lived there and who worked in the fields and cared for the animals. So far, not exciting.  But -- this place had a secret, that even most of the residents of the kibbutz itself did not know. 

Like, for example, a young woman I'll call "Michal," who came to the kibbutz in 1946 and was assigned to work in the kibbutz laundry.  The supervisor of the laundry was another young woman named Esther, and one day around lunchtime, Esther told Michal: bring the wet laundry to hang it up outside, and bring the dry laundry back inside. Apparently it took Michal much little less time to do this task than normal.  And she came back and she couldn’t believe her eyes - suddenly in this small laundry room were 20 other members of the kibbutz - friends of hers that she knew worked in the fields and the citrus grove. What were they all doing suddenly, crowded together in the laundry building? 

And then she saw that the huge industrial washing machine had been moved from its location -- something she did not think was possible --revealing a staircase going down, and yet more members of the kibbutz were climbing up this staircase -- Michal could not possibly imagine from where. And as surprised as Michal was to see this sight, all her friends seemed equally surprised and alarmed to see Michal. 

So this is when Esther pulls Michal aside and says:  I’m going to explain everything but you have to understand that you are sworn to absolute secrecy about everything you have seen and everything I am about to tell you. 

And Esther tells her:  I know you think this is a regular kibbutz, and you think you’re working in a regular laundry room, but in fact, of the 120 of us living on the kibbutz, there are about 40 people, including many dear friends of  yours, who go to work every day in a secret location 20 feet below this laundry building. Even their friends and their romantic partners and even their spouses think they work in the fields, but actually they work down there. They were all leaving for their lunch break when you surprised us and came back early.  

Because, Michal, this place was not really built to be a kibbutz. The real purpose of this community is to conceal the fact that there’s a secret underground ammunition factory 20 feet below the ground.

Already in the 1930s there had been enough attacks against the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine that they had the sense that a time would come when they would really need to defend themselves if they wanted to survive.  The Yishuv leadership had found ways to manufacture guns - but surprisingly enough, the hardest part was manufacturing bullets, which is a process that is noisy and smelly and therefore very difficult to do in secret when the British authorities prohibited it.  Not to mention extraordinarily dangerous.

Someone had the idea of manufacturing bullets underground and concealing the whole operation by building a kibbutz on top. Esther continued:  Most of the residents of this Kibbutz have no idea that the bullet factory even exists.  The consequences if anyone found out this secret are so dire, it was decided that the secret would be better kept if even those other kibbutz residents, like you, didn’t find out what was going on below your feet. There are many couples where one partner works in the ammunition factory and the other partner has no idea there even is an ammunition factory.  So Michal, we are sorry to burden you but now you know the secret, and now you have to bear with the consequences of knowing the truth.

And Michal, absolutely shocked, did a valiant job of keeping the secret for the next several years. 

At this point in this intense story, I know what you’re thinking:  Where do the giraffes come in.   The rabbi said this was a story about giraffes.

Those who worked in the factory frequently needed to warn each other when someone approached them who did not know the secret about the factory and about the kibbutz’s true purpose. And their code word for the dozens of people on the kibbutz who didn’t know about the factory was ‘giraffe.’   Because giraffes are so tall that they have no idea what is taking place below them.  Just like those dozens of residents of the kibbutz had no idea what was happening under their noses. Michal had been a giraffe until suddenly she wasn’t anymore.

The real story of the Ayalon Institute is that the ammunition that it manufactured from 1945 to 1948 is part of what enabled the State of Israel to survive in those early years. It’s an incredible story of ingenuity and heroism.  And it’s worth a visit the next time you’re in Israel because I am not even scratching the surface of this remarkable story.

But today I remain transfixed by the experience of the giraffes - the people who were in the dark about something absolutely central to their lives. In this case it was clearly for their own good - they actually were safer through their not knowing the kibbutz’s true purpose. But in general, being oblivious to one’s surroundings is no virtue - it’s usually deeply unfortunate. 

In Jewish tradition, we regularly use metaphors for God that are the polar opposites of the giraffe metaphor.  For example, on most major Jewish holidays we recite words from the book of Psalms - מי כה' אלקינו המגביהי לשבת המשפילי לראות בשמים ובארץ.   “Who is like God - who sits on high but descends to see what is happening throughout the heavens and the earth.”  We picture God as being above, but intimately aware of everything taking place below - unlike the giraffes in their blissful ignorance of what’s happening under their neck.

Sometimes we may think it’s a relief to be unaware of what’s challenging and complicated that is happening around us - sometimes we really prefer not to know - it’s easier, maybe less stressful, and definitely less complicated.   But truly, the Ayalon Institute situation is the outlier.  Almost all the timeת it’s much worse to be a giraffe than it is to have a more accurate understanding of what is happening around us. 

On this Rosh HaShanah holiday, I am thinking about some of the ways that I, like many of us, truly am a giraffe - times when there’s something central to my life and my society to which I am basically oblivious. I think, for example, about how most of the time, most of us don’t really know exactly where our food comes from or who produces it.   I couldn’t tell you exactly where our garbage goes when we throw it away in Hoboken.  Most of us who aren’t service workers probably have very little understanding of the lives of those who stock our grocery shelves, deliver our packages, harvest our produce, pick up our garbage, and fulfill other tasks that those of us in a different stratum of society may take for granted.  And all this is worthy of consideration and personal learning that I am committing to myself. But today, I am especially thinking about the giraffe metaphor regarding challenges that Israel is facing this year. 

You may know that this year we have seen the largest protest movement in Israel's history - every Saturday night without exception since this past February, protesters gather - usually more than 100, 000 - to protest against the current Israeli governing coalition.  Some accounts say as much as 30% of Israel's electorate has participated in at least one of these protests.  And in the face of a massive protest movement in the largest Jewish community in the world, American Jewish communities shouldn’t be like giraffes. It behooves American Jews to get a good understanding of this conflict.  (actually… a better understanding than we’re going to get from this discussion today.  But for some of us, these comments will be a start.)

This controversy centers centers on the role of the judiciary in Israel today - Israel’s governing coalition would like to reduce the power of the judiciary, suggesting that judges in Israel hold disproportionate power, more power than the judges in other democracies; those in the governing coalition seek to bring the power of the Supreme Court justices in line so that they will no longer be able to override the elected leaders of Israel.

And the opposition and the protesters respond by saying:  First of all, this ruling coalition claims to represent the majority of Israel, but it rose to power even though fewer people voted for them than for the opposition, as such things can sometimes happen in Israeli elections (we in the US also know a thing or two about that).  

They won the election, but they don’t necessarily have a mandate to make sweeping changes in the structure of the government and basically dismantle its system of checks and balances. Second, they are misrepresenting the Israeli judiciary which actually has powers not that different to those of other democracies.

But third and most important: if we today think of Israel as a free country, aspiring to be a democracy that safeguards civil rights and civil liberties, that’s largely thanks to the strength of the Israeli Supreme Court. It’s not coincidental that the current government that is the most right-wing in Israel's history, by far, is the one that wants to weaken the Supreme Court. The current governing coalition  includes several members of the Otzma Yehudit party that are followers of Meir Kahane -- who was briefly a member of Knesset in the 1980s but was expelled from the Knesset because of his racist ideology.  The rest of the Knesset -- from the left to the right! -- used to walk out of the room when he got up to speak. Well, now there are at least 6 members of Israel's Knesset who share that ideology, including Itamar ben Gvir who is a government minister with control over Israel’s police.  Ben Gvir didn’t serve in the Israeli military because when he was army draft age, he was considered a security risk because of his far-right wing activism. And now he’s supervising the police.  Zionism is emphatically not racism -- but the ideology of the Otzma Yehudit party actually IS racist and they are not embarrassed about that. 

Whereas this is not the primary issue that the protests are about, the specter of the far right is definitely in the background of what’s on the protesters’ minds as they confront the direction that they fear Israel is moving. 

The Supreme Court has often been the key supporter of civil rights and civil liberties in Israel.   The fact that the Israeli judiciary has frequently advocated for Israel's minority groups has often been a source of frustration for some on the Israeli far right.  That Israel’s non-Jewish citizens can appeal to the Supreme Court and often find a supportive ear - or that Israel has an enlightened perspective on LGBTQ rights especially by the standards of the Middle East-- or that non-Orthodox Jews have some right for their religious perspective to be recognized in recent years- all this is really thanks to Israel’s independent Supreme Court.  So it is not surprising that there are various groups in Israeli society that would like to block the power of the Supreme Court because they find that it empowers groups in Israel that they don’t want to empower. 

Our community here in Hoboken is politically diverse -- in American politics and in attitudes about Israel. We don’t presume that anyone here shares any particular political perspective, whether with regard to this country or Israel.  But I do note that this is a non-Orthodox congregation. And that means that people who gather here, regardless of whatever other issues they care about, tend to be interested in the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.  And that’s one reason why overwhelmingly, non-Orthodox Jews who live in Israel are concerned that the current coalition has no interest in granting any measure of equality to non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

One of the slogans of the protesters is נאמנים למגילת העצמאות - “loyal to the declaration of independence’ -- because Israel’s declaration of independence spells out the vision of its founders, including that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” And it has been the Israeli Supreme Court that has historically upheld these values especially when these values have been challenged by other segments of the society and government.

After returning from Israel I shared many stories of conversations I had had on my trip- Today I will share just two. One was a conversation with a leader of Masorti Judaism in Israel, who has been a guest speaker at our synagogue.  His family has lived in Jerusalem for 10 generations.  When I saw him in July, he said:  I did two things yesterday I never expected that I would  do, but I felt compelled to because I feel the future of my country is at stake.  First, I blocked traffic on Israeli highway 443 yesterday morning together with other protesters - I felt I needed to remind israeli society as a whole that if this proposal to essentially neutralize the Supreme Court goes forward, normal life in Israel will not go forward.  And second, I told my son something I never thought I would say to my son -- which was - if you get arrested today I will be so proud of you. 

And I also had a fascinating visit this summer with friends of friends who live in the Druze village of Isfiya. You may know that the Druze are an Arab community living especially in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. They practice a religion that is similar to Islam but also different from Islam. Those Druze who live in Israel tend to serve in the Israeli military and otherwise be actively involved Israeli citizens.  The couple I visited are from families whose roots in the land of Israel go back for centuries - the father of the family was born in that same village some 80 years ago.  He served in the early years of the Israeli military and pursued a career in Israeli civil service, as did many of his siblings and his children. It was quite sad to hear from him his perspective on the current government. He feels that as part of the 20% of Israel’s citizens who are not Jewish, he and his family have been loyal and dedicated, shouldering their share of Israel’s security burden. He has always felt part of Israeli society, but the extreme nationalist turn of this current government truly makes him feel like he and the sacrifices that his family have made are not being appreciated.  Like the other 20% of non-Jewish Israeli citizens, he has no desire to be a second-class citizen. And of course beyond that 20% are millions of others who are not Jewish but are living under Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank in a situation that is clearly not sustainable - and the chances of devising an equitable solution seem to be increasingly remote - not only because of the current government situation, but we could call it an aggravating factor. 

You know that I regard Israel as a crowning achievement of the worldwide Jewish community, a remarkably vibrant society; and the home of so many people who are deeply and lovingly connected to me and to our community.   I shudder to think about what Jewish life would look like around the world if Israel had not come into being.  That’s part of why we invest so much time and energy in our congregation thinking and teaching about Israel; why we had a trip to Israel and are eager to plan for the next one -- and it’s why in addition to having an American flag in our sanctuary, why we have an Israeli flag here. And some may understand this as a sign that with regard to Israel, we American Jews are giraffes -- peering at Israel on high from a distance, and  not necessarily taking an interest in potentially uncomfortable details about Israel.  But that is manifestly false.   We’re not giraffes.  It is specifically because of my deep connection to Israel and affection for Israel, and my yearning to see Israel thrive for many many generations in the future, that I say, quoting the book of Isaiah:  למען ציון לא אחשה ולמען ירושלים לא אשקוט - for the sake of ZIon I will not be silent, for the sake of Jerusalem I will not keep quiet.  

Many people in our community have told me  this year that they are intensely concerned by what is happening in Israel.  And they are wondering what they can do with their intense feelings.And in fact, I have 3 suggestions.

#1: Learn. Read up on the issues from a variety of different sources - I have some suggestions that cover the gamut from left to right, including sources specifically about the overhaul controversy, and more general books, web sites, and podcasts focused on Israel.

#2.Remember that you are a stakeholder in Israel even as a diaspora Jew.  In fact, there’s a very specific and tangible way that you can affirm that you’re a stakeholder - you can vote in the World Zionist Congress elections. When Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, 120 years ago, he said that it needed to be a representative body of the Jewish people. The World Zionist Congress preexisted the state of Israel, and The State of Israel, surprising as it may sound, was founded as a project of the World Zionist Congress.   And the World Zionist Congress continues to meet and in fact it controls a not insignificant portion of the budget for some Israeli institutions. And if you are Jewish, and you are over age 18, you have a voice and a vote because you are a stakeholder.  If you’re not an Israeli citizen, of course you’re a different kind of stakeholder than Israeli citizens are - you don’t pay taxes or serve in the military   - but you do have a voice. This is an official way in which Diaspora Jews can make our voices heard.  The next elections aren’t until 2025 -- watch for updates about this from our community, and please be in touch if you would like to be a leader of our voter turnout campaign for the World Zionist Congress elections.  Even more important than the election itself, is the mere fact that the election exists -- that’s a powerful demonstration that diaspora Jews are officially recognized as stakeholders in the project of Israel. 

#3:  Acknowledge the complexity, that this protest movement is active at exactly the same moment when there are numerous vicious attacks against Israel and its people.  This situation is not black and white.  Sadly there are illegitimate attacks against Israel all the time.   There have been several horrifying and murderous terror attacks against Israelis this summer and earlier in the year.   Just in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas spout antisemitic rhetoric, claiming that the Nazis weren’t really racist but they just objected to Jewish financial activity, and he denied any Jewish connection to the Middle East.  And he’s the MODERATE Palestinian leader next to the terrorist organizations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  (I am heartened that a group of Palestinian academics and thought leaders condemned Abbas’s speech.) The challenge to us as mature thinkers is to allow these facts coexist with the idea that Israel also has growing edges, even as it is up against extreme challenges. Like everything else in the world, sometimes Israel is criticized unfairly, and sometimes it is criticized fairly.  That’s also true about the United States, or about each of us as individuals. The existence of someone like Ben Gvir does not make the enterprise of Israel illegitimate.  And the ignorant antisemitism of Mahmoud Abbas does not make the claims of the Palestinians illegitimate. We should acknowledge the complexity of every place - in Israel or the US or anywhere else. 

This summer I did attend one of the Saturday night protests in Jerusalem. And the final speaker of the evening was former member of Knesset Tzippi Livni, who was for many years associated with the Israeli right of center. She concluded her remarks by sharing the iconic story from the Talmud about an old man planting a carob tree. When this man was asked if he was aware that carob trees take 70 years to bear fruit, he responded  that yes, he was aware - he knew he wouldn’t survive to see this carob tree bear fruit - but he was planting it for his descendants. 

And she continued that her parents, and she, had done whatever they could to build Israel as a Jewish and democratic state for the benefit of future generations.And that same impulse had brought her out into the street to make her voice heard, to safeguard Israeli democracy for the future. 

It might be easier to be a giraffe.  But we aspire to a greater level of responsibility. It’s our lot and our responsibility to be as fully aware as we can be. 

Any time Jews gather for prayer, Israel is not far from our minds. Israel is literally all over our prayerbook. Over and over again in our High Holy Day prayers we pray for שמחה לארצך וששון לעירך -- Joy for the land of Israel and happiness for the city of Jerusalem. We pray for wisdom for its leaders, peace and security and justice for its residents. For everyone may it be a Shanah Tovah.


[Note: The story about "Michal" was told by our tour guide at the Ayalon Institute, but I was not able to find confirmation of her name or of some of the details of the story.]


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