Sermon: Shabbat Shelach Lecha – The Meaning of Love for Israel

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 17 June 2017

It was my last day in Israel after a week of our Alyth Synagogue’s trip this year and the conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem.

I had rented a car so that I could visit my cousins near Netanya and, on my way, a recently bereaved member of this Synagogue who lives in the hills west of Jerusalem.   I stopped the car by the roadside overwhelmed by the beauty of the view, carrying with it as views in Israel so often do, the patina of hundreds, thousands of years of our people being in the land, wandering and farming its hills and valleys.

I just stood there, as you can in Israel taking in the beauty, understanding the passage from the Zohar which we studied in this morning’s shiur where Moses says that the purpose of the spies of our Torah portion was to find whether the Land contained within it a unique tree of life.  A life-giving spirit to our people, enabling us to connect with God through a special place on earth. (Zohar 3:158a) Once in a while in Israel you feel it, that this is really there, for me best experienced in Israel’s quieter places.

It had been the end of a crazy week.  Twenty-five members of Alyth had taken the journey of the spies of Shelach L’cha – not forty days to see the Land of Israel but just seven.  Even to see the Land in forty days, our Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 16:15) said God caused the land to shrink underneath Moses’ spies so that each road and path could be traversed in a few moments.

When Alyth goes to Israel it is not just to see the regular sights.   Every year we run at least one Israel experience for adults, with our youth movment RSY-Netzer taking our young people.  My part of this years second Alyth trip was certainly a mission to scout out the land.

Our aim was to visit Israel’s periphery, towns which have not enjoyed the prosperity of the centre of Israel around Tel Aviv.  Secondly to visit towns where Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel share the same space.  Thirdly to go into the West Bank and visit a Jewish settlement town, living peaceably, as well as a Jewish settlement which is not.  Fourthly to visit a Palestinian village which is affected by the building of a Jewish settlement.  Overall, to see all sides beyond the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv and Haifa axis of Israel where London Jews normally spend their time in Israel .  Then to go to the Knesset and ask politicians from across as much of the spectrum as we could access what we should do with the knowledge that we have gained.

So this is what we did over two and half days.  Knowing like Moses’s spies that there was always the risk that what we would see would not be the full story.  We understood that we could witness to an incomplete story that only a full-time resident of Israel could understand.  Yet we as diaspora Jews in a Synagogue as engaged with Israel as Alyth is, have as one of our core Jewish values Ahavat Yisrael – the love of Land and State of Israel, so we must see what Israel is today with our own eyes.

Day one – we began by driving from Jerusalem to Sederot, where we stood overlooking Gaza from a lookout point, hearing from a woman who had built a new life there on her Kibbutz.  She had been a member of one of the families which had to leave the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982 as a result of the peace treaty with Egypt.   She spoke about life under periodic rocket attack and her determination that this was not to be the definition of relationships between Israelis and Gazans.

She spoke about how she and others kept up contact with people they had known in Gaza before the disengagement.  She spoke about how person to person humanity is the only way forward.  In Sederot itself we heard how Mizrachi Jews and Beduoin together have united their voices and efforts to bring better job and educational prospects to their region.  Folks in the Alyth group commented how the underdevelopment of Sederot reminded them of pre-boom time 1970’s Israel.

On the same day we drove into the North and walked through Nazareth, seeing how Palestinian issues influenced the Arab population of this town, then receiving wonderful hospitality in an Arab Israeli school in the Jaffa of Nazareth part of the town.  There we met with a group of Arab Israeli women who have recognised that their economic and educational challenges for themselves and their children are the same as those for poorer Jewish women.  Together they learn and create after school clubs to enable their children to do their best and overcome their difficulties.  It was a beautiful vision of progress in Israel.

The next day we drove into the West Bank and stopped in the Jewish settlement town of Efrat where the Mayor told us how the town of 8000 had developed, at pains to point out the town’s co-operation with nearby Arab villages, the employment offered to local Arab workers and the openness of the town to all in the region.  It was quite a compelling vision.

We moved on to a much more disturbing vision of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, in Hebron, where 600 IDF soldiers defend 800 Jewish settlers in the old heart of the city.  This was a tough experience for our group.  We visited the Cave of Machpelah, the traditional site for the burial of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and our matriarchs, visited by the spies of our Torah portion.  This was the place where the spies saw what disturbed them most – the fierce Anakites.

Our Anakites were the settlers whose claim on this part of Hebron has cleared the centre of town of Arabs.  We then walked through the silent streets of what was once the market of the city, understanding that the story and the cost to the local population of different settlements is different.  It felt like being on the dividing line in Belfast of the early 1970’s, experiencing division and hopelessness with every step.

We went a step further into the West Bank, this time to Susiya, where a Jewish settlement has undoubtedly displaced the local cave dwelling Arab population.  Nearby is a largish Arab town, however the people who me met were shepherds and olive famers, not city people.   When we sat in the tent of a man called Abu Ja’iib and his family, the tent on rough land which his family has now occupied for thirty years amongst his own olive groves, refusing to move and make way for the settlement, he told us that who governs the land is not his concern.  What he wants is to be to farm his family lands in peace and build proper houses for his next generation.

No story of land and competing political claims is easy.    Our time in Sederot and Nazareth told us that there is a rich and vibrant citizen action in Israel to deal with the challenges of a county with a wealthy centre and a much poorer periphery. Our time in the West Bank taught us the there is nuance to the story of Jewish settlers and Palestinian displacement.

On the third day we went to the Knesset where MKs Oded Forer, Elazar Stern and Hilik Bar, respectively from the Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid and Israeli Labour parties met with us.   We asked them what we as diaspora Jews should do with our more open eyes to the reality of Israel and the West Bank.  Hilik Bar’s answer was the most cogent.

He told us that we should recognise that there are always alternatives in Israel.  He told us that Israeli politics is lively with many different ideas as to how to solve the challenges the country faces.   His appeal to us was to get involved, see that there is always an opposition in Israel which shares our values if we are not in agreement with the policies of a current government.

He told us that getting involved with their cause is love of Israel. You support the State of Israel from afar by getting involved in her struggles as much as by celebrating her more positive developments.  It is not difficult to find the organisations in Israel that press for change and to become involved with them.

This year’s Alyth Israel trip was about opening our eyes.  It was about seeing for ourselves the myriad struggles of curating this old-new Land.   It was about never losing hope or connection, which a is a major danger for Diaspora Jews.  Fifty years after the end of the Six Day War the State of Israel is thriving, but there are huge challenges to face – inequality, the incomplete solution to the West Bank occupation to name but two.

In the middle of our Hebron walk one of our participants said to one of our guides, called Achiyah –  “Seeing this I cannot now support Israel any more.. He said to her -on the contrary, from now on you should be supporting Israel to change so that we can all be proud of Israel today. Never stop coming and never stop caring.  Let’s change the unacceptable aspects of Israel together.”

To truly love someone is to grow together, not to idealise them as if they are the person you knew many years ago in all the optimism of youth.  What is true for human partners is true too for the relationship of the Jewish diaspora and the State of Israel.  True love for Israel is love with open eyes and the determination to go through whatever life brings together.  May we Disapora Jews always be with Israel in her struggles, may we support change, may we open our eyes to all the peoples of the Land and help support our State by getting involved.