Theme: Israel Sermon 2021


Right now we are living through one of the most hopeful moments in the history of Israel.   We have just passed 100 days of the centrist coalition government headed by Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, that embodies precisely the kind of Klal Yisrael vision that we should aspire to.

Just a few months ago, Israel was mired in yet a 4th election that once again, split the country into a hopeless political stalemate.  As usual, no single party was large enough to form a majority government, and no leader could gather enough parties from either the left or right to cobble together a coalition.  Bibi Netanyahu led the largest party, but his fight for power meant pitting Jew against Jew and Jew against Arab.

And then, somehow, impossibly, unpredictably, a coalition was formed of all three wings. Here in Canada, a similar situation would mean the PC, Liberals, NDP and Greens forming a coalition.

Israel’s new government combines the most left-wing peaceniks with the most right-wing hardliners, and everyone else in between including an Arab Islamic party.  Who could have possibly seen this coming?

This is the most centrist government ever formed in Israel. It reflects the idea that what unites us, is more important than what divides us.  This government is a rejection of the internal battles and hatred between Israelis that characterized the last several years.  It’s a model showing how to navigate political and cultural differences, not just in Israel but in any country. Most of all, we’ve seen that ideological rivals don’t have to be existential enemies.

Author and political analyst Yossi Klein Halevi writes,

“we are on the Israeli roller coaster.  Ups and downs.  From a potential 5th election to a stable government, we have a homeland that is so dynamic and fluid, there might seem no way out but then there is.  This government confirms the logic of the political system which we have been critical of for many years.  It contains disparate ideas and yet they are governing together because it needs to reflect the radical diversity of all Israelis, the ingathering of exiles from around the world.”

Bennet and Yair Lapid’s decision to split the role of Prime Minister was essential to the creation of this new government.  Their friendship goes back to 2012 when they were both starting new parties. Though their political views differed, they had a relationship built on trust and a shared vision for Israel.  During 2013, their first year in government, they both won an impressive amount of seats.  Neither had nearly enough to be PM but they agreed to work together so that they would both be part of Netyanyahu’s ruling coalition, or neither would be. They recognized each others strengths and said publicly that they would trust each other to rotate as Prime Minister role if the situation arose.  In 2021 this has come to pass.  Yair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, won the most seats of all the smaller parties but in a brilliant humble tzimtzum, he offered to let the right wing Bennet be Prime Minister first for 2 years.

Lapid then convinced Left-wing Meretz and Labor, parties that hold opposite views of the Yamina party – to join. Miraculously, the parties agreed. Next, Lapid held talks with the United Arab List, as he had the necessary confidence, trust and experience to negotiate with the first Arab party to join the government.  Lapid should be recognized as the most impressive unity builder since Ben Gurion, taking his own ego out of the mix to ensure equality across party lines. Perhaps this is the sea of change we have been waiting for.

So, what does this coalition government have to do now?

First, the most dramatic budget bill in a generation is headed to the Knesset for debate and passage. This bill is no mere budget; it’s a collection of deep and consequential reforms with the potential to drastically change Israeli society.  The combined effects of the pandemic and the past two years of unprecedented political deadlock, have opened a rare window of opportunity for this government to create profound and long-delayed change. It’s commonly known that the Palestinian economy before 2000 was deeply integrated into and dependent on the Israeli economy. Quite frankly, the Palestinian economy flourished because of Israel’s booming growth. Israelis could safely travel in Palestinian cities 20 years ago, and they established a trend of buying cheap Palestinian goods and services, from car parts to dentistry, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Together with overseas tourists, they dropped half a billion dollars annually at Jericho’s casino. Palestinian unemployment dropped in the Oslo years from nearly 25% to 10%. Nearly a fifth of employed Palestinians held jobs in Israel earning higher salaries than could be found in the Palestinian economy. Palestinians were the most highly educated Arab people at the time, representing double-digit percentages of Hebrew University’s student body. Palestinian per capita income was the highest of any non-oil-producing Arab country. Clearly, the Palestinian economy needed Israel to thrive.  And Palestinians became avid consumers of Israeli products.

However, the onset of the Second Intifada reversed these positive trends, hurting Israelis and Palestinians deeply. A flourishing customs-free trading area was suddenly transformed into “a war zone,” says Israeli economic analyst, Sever Plocker. Some speculated that the Second Intifada was driven by a “deliberate decision” by Yasser Arafat “to undermine what he saw as dangerous signs of stabilization and prosperity in the West Bank and Gaza,” the sort of prosperity that might weaken his authoritarian rule and sideline his revolutionary agenda. Israeli and Palestinian consumers vanished from the others’ horizons. Tourism, a multi-billion-dollar industry in the Holy Land, crashed on both sides of the Green Line. Checkpoints and roadblocks went up everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza, choking the internal Palestinian economy. Israelis fearful of suicide bombings stayed away from public spaces, emptying malls and markets for long stretches. Extended uncertainty dried up investment. The absolute number of poor in Israel grew by 22%. And Palestinians suffered more from the economic downturn

Netanyahu used the economic downturn of the Second Intifada to launch agendas to heal deep-rooted structural problems in the Israeli economy, from infrastructure monopolies to public-sector spending. Israel became the startup nation, cementing their place in the high-tech world of computers, climate friendly advancements, health care inventions and more.  While this sector has flourished, fundamental problems, from economic marginalization and violence in the Arab community to price-hiking overregulation of imports to the steadily worsening blight of traffic jams in the major metropolitan centers, have gone mostly unaddressed. Until now. This new coalition has already passed the first reading of the new budget and it might be law by October.

The second major challenge of this new coalition is to reconcile the divisiveness betweenJews and Arabs.  This past May during the Gaza conflict, Arabs and Jews in Israel were lynching each other and burning stores.  Four months later, we have Arabs in the government!  Hopefully, this a sign of positive things to come.  Now, more Israeli Arabs are enrolling in universities, smoothing relationships, and trying to ride this wave of optimism.  Nothing can be taken for granted. This government has to work at maintaining this fragile trust.

We also need to rebuild faith between Jews.  Let’s remember, this is our only homeland. We are in this together. Israelis are Jews from all corners of the world who have joined together, developing a shared israeliness. And there are Arabs, Christians and Druze too.  Israeli’s need to rebuild the hope for a shared destiny and get past the ideological battles from the past 4 elections. The Israeli declaration of independence declared it would be the state of all its citizens whether they were Jewish or not. of course we know Arabs happen to be aligned with the hostile nations surrounding Israel – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabi and Lebanon. Thankfully, we have seen some movement with the Abraham accords toward normalized relations with Bahrain, United Arab Emirates along with Sudan and Morocco.  The potential for further unity exists. Imagine what the middle east might look like if this current government continues this trend.

The Declaration also says that Israel would be the state for all Jews, whether they were citizens or not. But the relationship between Jews outside and inside Israel have changed for the worse.  In a recent survey, for example, 25 percent of American Jews think Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.  One out of very four Jews!  Are we losing our ability to explain Israel to the next generation of Jews?  why?  we saw this clearly in the last war with GAza.

We’ve all noticed the discourse on the war with Gaza, there is an escalation of the rhetoric around the criminalization of Israel. The last round of fighting was the IDF’s most successful effort at keeping Palestinian civilian casualties to a minimum.  10 days of intensive bombing in a small, crowded area embedded with terrorists, and the numbers of dead are very small in comparison to similar battles.  But    even so it was sold globally as proof that the Israeli army consists of child killers with a New York Times front page spread.

How did we get to this point? We used to be the underdog that everyone loved, we were cheered when we won the battle for idnependance and the 6 day war. We won the symmetrical wars, army vs army, tank vs tank.  Now Israel’s conflicts have become asymmetrical–our conventional armies vs weaker untrained terrorists throwing stones, firing unaimed missiles.  Its not an equal fight and we get blamed when Palestinian death counts are higher than Israeli. Let me ask, how many  Israelis must die so that it’s a “fair fight?”  Faulting only Israel ignores the reality that Israelis live daily with borders where people are committed to our destruction.  If you focus on the image of an Israeli tank vs a Palestinian child, then yes, we are goliath vs david.  If you widen the lens, and look at the Middle East, the roles are reversed: Israel is tiny compared to the Arab world.  We can’t see the Palestinian Israeli conflict encompassing one single month–May 2021. It’s been going on for 70 years.

Another factor is the fast-changing impact of  social media.  Why are Palestinians so effective when it comes to getting their message across?  they feature hard-hitting memes and infographics with one word: colonization, apartheid, murderes.  when we get asked about the conflict we tell the story..….well lets look back at the bible,  UN resolution this, Herzl, Zionsim blah blah blah and we lost you.  We use long-winded sentences to explain the details, which can get pretty boring and difficult to follow. In the social media war, we are losing the one-word battle.

But guess what, we can control the message if we change how handle the occupation.  We can’t continue to fight  without reassuring the international community that we are reluctant occupiers.  We need to emphasize that we want a 2-state solution, but we don’t have a partner.  It’s a valid argument, but under Netanyahu this last decade we lost credibility. Back in 2000 we sat at the table and our PM Ehud Barak offered 95% of the West Bank for peace.  Ehud Olmert offered a similar deal a few years later.  We were able to fight the second intifada from 2000-2004 with integrity; we had the moral high ground.  Now in 2021-22 we need to reaffirm our sincere commitment to a two-state solution whether the other side is ready for a deal or not.  That is where our new government can succeed.  We need to embrace a Jewish language that encompasses soul searching.  We need a right wing language of pride and backbone and anger and a left wing honest self examination and appraisal of our own shortcomings.  This is what this new government made up of left and right can and must do. 

Let us remember

  • Israel is the only democracy in the middle east.
  • Israel is the only democracy anywhere that is engaged seemingly permanent occupation over another people
  • Israel is the only country that lives under a permanent death sentence by her neighbors

What is the picture if you take all three sentences at the same time?  We need nuance.  We need to find the political centre.  the center is the only place that can uphold the contradictory and essential insights of our homeland.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, we are at one of the most amazing cross-roads in Israeli history.  We need to get through this pandemic of course, but then we need to make best use of the centrist government.  We need to find that middle ground in all parts of Israel. In the economy. In relations between Jews and Jews.  In relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.  Between Jews and Palestinians. We need more of Yair Lapid’s humility; remember, he stepped back from being PM to let Bennet go first in order to make the new government stand.  We need to keep trying to achieve peace. We need to reject easy solutions and continue on our quest for peace while remaining assertive.

It’s written in the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, that when all came to pray on High holy days, there was barely any room with people standing side by side, front to back.  Yet when everyone needed to bow down, miraculously everyone had room and no one was harmed.   There is enough room for everyone if we make that space.  May we all find that space soon, bimhera baymeinu, quickly in our day.  Shana Tova.