Rosh Hashanah is traditionally a time for rabbis to weigh in about the Jewish and American issues closest to their heart — and many also devote one of their High Holiday sermons to Israel.
It’s an opportunity to speak to a sanctuary packed full of people, most of whom only attend a couple of times a year, who may care in an abstract way about Israel but whose sense of deep involvement and kinship has weakened over the years.
What we usually hear is a highly emotional presentation that falls back on the traditional depiction of tiny, beleaguered, valiant, virtuous Israel struggling to survive as an oasis of democracy and decency in an implacably hostile region. The message of these homilies often boils down to: “We’re right, they’re wrong. We pursue peace but they pursue terrorism. We’re successful, they’re failures. And the rest of the world, either through indifference, ignorance or deeply-imbued anti-Semitism, just doesn’t understand these simple truths.”
Of course, I would never dictate what a rabbi should say in a sermon on such a solemn day. Each rabbi should speak from his or her own heart, expressing deeply-held convictions. But as a congregant, that doesn’t stop me from hoping for something different than the usual formula — something that is more honest and authentic that addresses the basic challenge facing both Israel and American Jewry today.
This year, I particularly want to hear my rabbi talk about peace in a different way. I want him to depict peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution as something that is possible – and something that we can all, individually and collectively, help Israel to attain.
In his June speech to the American Jewish Committee, Secretary John Kerry challenged his audience to join a “great constituency for peace.”
“No one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community. You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security. And as President Obama said in Jerusalem, leaders will take bold steps only if their people push them to. You can help shape the future of this process. And in the end, you can help Israel direct its destiny and be masters of its own fate,” Kerry said.
I want my rabbi to answer Kerry’s challenge. And I want him to set out the choice Israel faces in very stark terms so that everyone understands it. I want him to state that Israel needs to get out of the West Bank if it wishes to remain both a Jewish homeland and a democracy. And I want him to make it clear that this is not a choice Israel should ever have to make – because an undemocratic Israel which denies basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians is just as unthinkable as an Israel which is no longer our Jewish homeland.
I also would like our American rabbis this year to spell out the concessions Israel will need to make to achieve peace. They need to explain to congregants that it will mean withdrawing from nearly all of the West Bank. We American Jews have to understand that this will also mean evacuating scores of settlements which should never have been put there in the first place ands tens of thousands of settlers. And peace will also involve allowing the Palestinian state a juridical status in parts of Jerusalem, although Jews should retain access to holy sites within the future Palestinian state like the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.
My rabbi should tell the congregation that Israel will not make these concessions as a favor to the Palestinians but because they are crucial to Israel’s survival as a Jewish homeland and as a democracy. He should state that making peace is necessary for Israel’s spiritual and moral wel-lbeing if we are to live up to the traditions of our faith.
Lastly, I’d also like to hear our rabbis tell congregants that Israel does have a Palestinian partner for peace. They could mention President Mahmoud Abbas’ strict adherence to a policy of nonviolence; they could refer to the close security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians; and they could include the fact that Abbas is hosting Israeli parliamentarians in honor of Rosh Hashanah and recently reiterated that a peace agreement would end all further Palestinian claims on Israel.
“People say that after signing a peace agreement we will still demand Haifa, Acre and Safed. That is not true,” Abbas said. People should hear those words.
Of course, it will take a degree of courage for rabbis to make these points which are not what most congregants are used to hearing and may not be what some want to hear.
But courage is exactly what is required from leaders. And so I offer this prayer to my rabbi as he prepares his sermon, quoting from Deuteronomy and the Book of Joshua: “Chazak ve’amatz! – Be strong and take courage. Tell the truth. Meet the challenge, join the great constituency for peace.
Alan Elsner is Vice President of Communications at J Street