Shanah Ba’ah! Shanah Overet! One year begins as another year has passed. This past year has been a year of anniversaries. Montreal turned 375. It was 150 years since Confederation. November will make a century since the Balfour Declaration and seventy years since the UN voted to partition British Mandated Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. And June 6 marked fifty years since the reunification of Jerusalem and Israel’s victory during the Six-Day War.

By so many metrics, Canada is doing well both domestically and internationally. Our Prime Minister retains a high degree of popularity and respect, even if he is not the titan of international politics. Many Americans, in particular, envy our choice of political leadership. Unlike the United States, where the division between Red states and Blue states has all but paralyzed Congress, the core issues of social welfare and justice are shared by the majority of Canadians, liberal and conservative alike. A century and a half after our birth and despite the manifold issues that fill the pages of our newspapers, both French and English, we are a stronger, more progressive country than we have ever been, one that continues to welcome immigrants and refugees, one that shows respect for, and equal opportunity to, its residents and citizens, independent of their religion, national origin, race, skin colour or sexual orientation. Ours is, of course, not a perfect society. There still remains work to be done to close economic and societal gaps. But as Canadians, we have much to be proud of, as we enter the second half of our second century.

The three anniversaries celebrated this year in Israel are both a dream fulfilled and a challenge. When Herzl declared in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress that there would be an independent Jewish state in Palestine within fifty years, no one really believed that in November 1947, the UN would vote 33 in favour, 13 opposed, with 10 abstentions to partition Palestine and formally create a Jewish state. The partition resolution was passed on Shabbat November 29, Kaf Tet B’November, as Israelis would say and civil war broke out between the Yishav and the Palestinian Arabs on December 1. This would be the first of three phases of Israel’s War of Independence, a war that only ended with armistice agreements during the winter – spring of 1949. Six thousand Israelis were killed in the fighting, half of them survivors of the Shoah. That Israel survived the next nineteen years until 1967 is itself miraculous. During that period Israel absorbed two and a half million Jewish refugees, survivors of the Shoah and Jews expelled from Arab lands. Israel needed to build housing, provide schools, create jobs and provide social and medical services to both its immigrant population and its indigenous Arab population. And then in 1967, came its greatest challenge, a war that kept Israelis on edge for a month before it broke out on June 5, 1967. We all knew the results, but few, if anyone would have predicated the results, even a day or two before the outbreak of the war.

For Jews around the world, the high point of the victory was the capture of the Old City and the emotional words radioed to the chief of the Central Command, Uzi Narkiss, by Colonel Motta Gur, commander of the 55th Paratroop Battalion, “Har HaBayitB’Yadaynu”, The Temple Mount is in our hands. Little did we then understand in the midst of our euphoria how complex those words would become, how control of the Temple Mount would symbolize the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs that stretches back a hundred years or more, as first the Ottomans and then the British allowed Jewish immigrants to establish cities, towns, kibbutzim and moshavim. Even now, as I write this article in Jerusalem, serious clashes continue to occur on the Temple Mount between Israeli police and Palestinian worshippers furious that Israel increased security by adding metal detectors for those wishing to gain access to the Temple Mount after two Israeli police officers were murdered by a terrorist before Friday prayers on July 14. Two nights ago, on July 21, three members of an Israeli family in the settlement of Halamish, north of Ramallah, were stabbed to death as they sat down in their home to enjoy Shabbat dinner. 

Israel enters the New Jewish year strong economically, militarily and politically. It has strong bilateral relations with India and China and many African nations. Its relations with several of the states on the Arabian Peninsula continue to grow, even if official diplomatic recognition is still immediately unlikely. Relations with the U.S. and Britain and even Russia remain strong, and despite the rhetoric from the European Union, economic ties with France and Germany remain strong as well. The one snafu between Israel and Canada concerning the ban on importing wines from two West Bank wineries was reversed in two days, again indicating our current government’s commitment to follow the path laid out by former Prime Minister Harper.

One could talk endlessly about Israel’s economic progress during the past fifty years from a country once built on an agricultural economy to one that is a leader in high tech, engineering, medicine, pharmaceuticals, wine-making, as well as advances in agriculture and agronomy. To look out over the Israel-Syrian border from Mt. Bental in the northern Golan is to see the border demarcated by the green orchards of date palms and vineyards on the Israeli side and the barren, dusty tracts of land on the Syrian side.

Yet the euphoria of 1967 has given way among many sectors of the Israeli population – left, right and center – that the status quo is eroding Israel’s Zionist objective of being both a Jewish and democratic state for all who live within its borders. During Israel’s period of immigrant absorption and growth during the fifties, sixties and well into the seventies, there were two classes of Jews, Ashkenazic Jews, successful, educated professional and by comparison prosperous and Jews from Arab lands, especially those from North Africa and Yemen less educated, more religious, with larger families and clearly less prosperous. When Menahem Begin became Prime Minister, he counted on this large Jewish underclass and over the past forty years, there has been a narrowing of the socio-economic gap between the two poles of the Israeli Jewish population. By the same token, even though Israeli Arabs still lag behind Israeli Jews economically, they are significantly ahead of the Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not only economically, but also politically, for as we know, Israeli Arabs are citizens of Israel, with the right to vote in elections, attend Israeli universities and travel freely both within Israel and to any destination their Israeli passport permits them to travel. Not so, Palestinian Arabs.

The dilemma Israel faces this year is no different from the one it has faced since before the first Intifada. Simply stated, left, right and center agree that there is no one with whom to negotiate who has any political clout or credibility on the Palestinian side. Like it or not, Israel remains responsible for one and a half million Palestinian Arabs who live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. If Israel cannot resolve the dilemma politically, it needs to find a Jewish way to ameliorate the social and economic conditions of the Palestinian Arabs without jeopardizing the security of any of its citizens, no matter on which side of the Green Line they live. Israel may not be able to realize its democratic aspiration without a realistic Arab partner with whom it can negotiate, but it could most likely enhance its Jewish character by ameliorating the social and economic conditions within the Palestinian towns and villages, such that Palestinian Arabs can aspire to living standards at least comparable to those of their Israeli Arab brothers and sisters, who, overall would rather be citizens of Israel, a Jewish and democratic state, than a nascent Palestinian state.

Israel’s other dilemma appears to be reviving a growing emotional divide with Diaspora Jewry, especially Jews in North America. The decision to cancel renovations to the southern section of the Kotel, known as Robinson’s Arch, where men and women can daven in a mixed Minyan, and postpone the controversial Conversion Bill, followed by the so-called Black List of rabbis who are no longer eligible to attest to the Jewish status of people seeking to make Aliyah has angered Conservative, Reform and even some modern Orthodox Jews who see each of these decisions as an overreaching by the ultra-orthodox elements in the Netanyahu coalition. The problem is that on these issues Diaspora Jews stand largely alone. Secular Israelis and traditional, but non-Orthodox Israelis do not care about these issues. They either hold their noses and deal with the Israeli rabbinate as needed or leave Israel to get married and divorced under secular auspices in Greece, Italy and Cyprus. The Israeli government is also well aware of the short attention span of Diaspora Jews and is thus less concerned that these affronts to religious pluralism, a hallmark of western democracies, will significantly erode either financial or political support for Israel, specially in the US Congress. No doubt leaders of the liberal streams of Judaism and Federation leaders will continue lobbying the Israeli government to fulfill its promise to prepare an appropriate prayer space for mixed Minyanim and to return to the former status quo ante that allows all converts from outside Israel to claim Israeli citizenship (but not to have their marriages registered in Israel).

Overall, these are still bright days for Israel and world Jewry as we enter the year 5778. There is still work to be done to combat anti-Semitism, especially when it masks itself as anti-Zionism or anti-Israel rhetoric. There is still work to be done in Israel to balance the democratic and Jewish aspirations of the State against the political reality of a hostile Palestinian population and a strident haredi population, both of which are growing numerically at a more rapid rate than the rest of the population. There is still work to be done here at home and throughout the Diaspora to inculcate the core values of Judaism through engagement with Jewish texts from the Bible to modern Hebrew literature. Our legacy to the future must be more than fear of another unanticipated Shoah and a nostalgic dream of an imagined idyllic Jewish life in the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine. Our values are predicated on the sanctity of human life and the sanctity of time – the celebration of Shabbat and the festivals, values garnered by our regular engagement with Jewish texts.

As 5778 begins, we collectively pray for health and Shalom, both at home, around the world and especially in Israel. Like Aaron, the High Priest, we must do more than pray for peace; we must pursue peace. Our goal, Pirkei Avot teaches us, is not necessarily to complete all the tasks that are before us, but we, individually and collectively, do not have the option to desist from starting and trying.

On behalf of Joyce, Zev, Jeremy, Ezra and our new daughter-in-law, Hannah, let me wish each and every one a year filled with good health and the blessings of family, friendship, satisfaction and the pursuit of our core Jewish values through both study and action. May we all be sealed in the Book of Life.

 

 

Rabbi Lionel E. Moses