Today is the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. In the secular calendar it began on October 6 1973. But we call it the Yom Kippur War for a reason: In our calendar, the Jewish calendar, it started today, the 10th day of Tishre in the year 5734. Many of us can remember exactly where we were when the war began. Some of us were right here, in this room, or in another synagogue. I was in France. I can still remember watching the news on a black and white TV and hearing the French newscasters say that this war would be very long and hard, tres longue et dure. This was a very different war from the Six Day War which had been fought just six years earlier. That victory created a sense of Israeli invincibility. The Yom Kippur War shattered that conception. Even if, in the end, the Yom Kippur War ended in a greater military triumph than the 1967 war, the cost in lives, and the specter of defeat and national annihilation, if only for a brief time, changed Israeli society yet again. Kibbutzim, for the first time, began to mark Yom Kippur, which most had never commemorated, not as a day of atonement, but as a day of mourning. The melody we use for Unetaneh Tokef, is a reminder of that mourning, composed by Yair Rosenblum, a secular Israeli, in memory of the 11 members of Kibbutz Beit Ha Shita who fell in that war, the highest casualty rate per capita of any community in Israel.
I still can remember that feeling of vulnerability; that Israel’s survival hung in the balance. Can you remember those feelings of dread and fear? It’s hard to put ourselves back there now. Israel has come so far in the last 50 years. It takes an effort of imagination to remember how we felt back then. To remember also, the courage, the sacrifice, and the refusal of the Israeli army to break and ultimately to turn the tide of that war. It’s hard even now to remember the suffering and loss that lingered on for years after the war ended. How the war shook the country to its foundation, sparking changes we are still living through today.
The irony is that the Yom Kippur War was the last time Israel would be seriously threatened by its neighbors. Never again would it face an existential military challenge. Four years later Anwar Sadat flew to Israel and spoke to the Knesset, offering peace in exchange for land. Two years later Menachem Begin and Sadat made peace. I can remember the shock and joy of that too. It took longer, but eventually King Hussein made a personal, warmer peace in 1994. Syria collapsed internally over time and ceased being a military threat, although today it is a proxy state of Iran along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. As real as these threats are, the balance of military power lies with Israel now, not its enemies. They may hate the Jewish state, but they are not able to wipe it off the map as they claim to desire.
Today, the greatest threats to Israel are internal. Over the past nine months we have seen the contradictions that have always existed in Israel, but simmered below the surface, burst out into the open. The so-called judicial reform proposed by the current government was the spark. I say so-called, because it is not a reform at all but a fundamental change to how Israel has been governed since its establishment. This is a coup attempt, as its opponents claim. What we are witnessing is a battle over Israel’s national character. The issue at stake is not simply how Israel’s judicial system works, but whether Israel will remain a liberal democracy, more or less, or become more tribal, inward looking and theocratic. This is why the reaction against it has been so fierce and sustained. These two world views, liberalism and tribalism, have riven the Jewish world since the Enlightenment when we Jews received citizenship and civil rights in Western Europe and the United States, for the first time.
Liberalism and universalism are values of Jewish secularists (among them many Zionists, except religious nationalists) and the so-called “liberal” Jewish religious movements, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal, that began to emerge in the middle of the 19th Century.
Jewish religious tribalism is the view of ultra-Orthodoxy, the so-called Haredim and became the view of the Religious-Nationalists who make up the hard-core of the settler movement. Their ideology is a fusion of Zionism and messianism. Their goal, to incorporate the West Bank into the State of Israel is not just political, it is messianic. They see themselves as fulfilling God’s will for the Jewish people. For these two groups turning Israel into a theocracy makes both religious and political sense. Democracy, civil rights, and minority rights are alien to their world view.
For most of its history, Israelis were willing to tolerate each other’s differences, even if they hated each other in private. Social solidarity and national survival trumped a desire for one side to dominate the other. Now that tolerance has broken down. The ultra religious, the most extreme settlers, and some populist (read authoritarian or fascist) ideologues on the right have decided to fundamentally change the way Israel is governed, so now these conflicts are coming to a head. It is not clear which side will prevail.
Looking at the vote totals from the last election, the current polling numbers, the number of Israelis who continue to take to the streets in protest, week in and week out, as well as the essential sectors of society that are opposed to these reforms, I suspect that the liberal-democratic forces will “win.” I say win in quotes because I don’t know what it means to win in this context. Once the bonds of solidarity are broken, or once tolerance has evaporated, how does one rebuild a society.
If a more centrist secular government comes to power and forms a coalition without any Haredi or National-Religious parties, they may punish these groups for trying to impose their political will. Government monies they count would dry up. Haredi boys and girls would be drafted. Many Haredi leaders understand that they may have overplayed their hand and are afraid of a coming backlash. Combined these two groups are maybe a quarter of Israeli society. Significant, but a minority nonetheless.
Any of these actions are possible, now that the pandora’s box has been opened, but all have risks. For example, if the settlers understand that the population no longer supports them, will they resort to violence? Could there be a civil war? Once a society is broken apart, the desire for payback is strong. The ability to repair, limited. The path forward, unclear. How does one reknit the bonds of social solidarity? Are there some sane politicians who see the risks and are willing to work out some kind of compromise?
What about Israel’s enemies? Will they be more emboldened if they sense that Israel is fragmented and see that as a weakness that can be exploited? Will everyone rally around the flag if they feel they have been betrayed by their fellow citizens?
We are in uncharted territory now and the outcome is unclear.
To put it simply, our house is on fire. What is happening now may be as serious as The Yom Kippur War, the stakes are that high, and the tragedy is we are doing it to ourselves. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps the contradictions in Israeli society were always too great to hold together. But Israel is at grave risk, so what is happening right now should matter to us. The outcome will affect all of us and the destiny of the Jewish people.
Remember the first words we will here in this mornings Torah reading, אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, “You stand this day, all of you, before your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every person in Israel,” Klal Yisrael, every person in Israel, the entirety of the Jewish people is a fundamental concept of Jewish identity that goes back to Sinai. We are, all of us, American Jews and Israelis, part of the same people. What happens to any of us, happens to all of us. We cannot be complacent. Right now this is our most important Jewish issue.
If you are opposed to the occupation, this is your issue. Because if these changes go through and Israel takes a hard right, theocratic turn, what will happen in the West Bank and Gaza will be brutal and hard and make what has come before seem mild. If Israel becomes a theocratic, authoritarian state. It will be isolated by the rest of the world and will sooner or later lose American support. It cannot survive as an international pariah. If the best minds, the most creative business people, the finest professionals and the best soldiers leave, how will Israel support or defend itself? The Jewish people cannot absorb such a blow again.
This current conflict, is in short, existential. Maybe I’m an alarmist, but I don’t think so. Which is why, to me, the response of American Jews overall, has been pathetic. I have received hundreds of emails from every Jewish organization under the sun wishing me a happy new year and asking for my financial support, and only one mentioned the crisis in Israel. Really? Right now? Don’t they get it? Our house is on fire!
Right now I am not going to donate to a fund to ensure the next 150 years of Reform Judaism. Right now that is not important enough. Nor do I plan to give money to help AIPAC fight Iran in the halls of Congress, as they are asking me to do. Right now that is not the primary threat. Don’t they see that? I will not support the Center for Jewish Spirituality (even though I like them), or the Jews of Color Initiative, even though I support them, or any of the JCC’s or film festivals, or Yiddish Library or whatever cultural institution wants my attention and money. When your house is on fire, the first thing you do is grab a bucket and put out the fire, not fundraise for your particular institution. From what I see our American Jewish community just doesn’t get it. I think the response shows that something is fundamentally wrong with our community and our institutions and our connection to the State of Israel. The one organization that is talking about this crisis: JStreet.
I am begging you to see it. Fifty years ago, during the Yom Kippur War, thousands of American Jews volunteered to go to Israel and fill jobs in the civilian sector while the soldiers were in the field and our communities raised hundreds of millions of dollars to cushion the financial impact of the war. Today, we need to mobilize again. We need to act. Write President Biden and tell him to keep the heat on Netanyahu to give up on his plan. Write your local congressional representative and tell them to sign the Israel Pro Democracy Resolution that is currently in the House of Representatives. Write to Prime Minister Netanyahu and tell him of your opposition and how it will impact your support for Israel. Participate in pro-democracy demonstrations here in the Bay Area and donate to UneXceptable, the Israeli expat led group that is leading this fight here in the US.Let our local Jewish Federation know that you want them to support democracy in Israel more forcefully than they have. If they don’t respond and if you are a donor, let them know you will be directing your money to an organization that supports democracy in Israel. I’m sure brighter minds than me have many other ideas. But at least it’s a start. It’s something you can do as soon as Yom Kippur is over. It’s that urgent.
But here is where it gets hard. If this attempt to remake Israel into a theocratic autocratic state is stopped, how do Israelis rebuild their social solidarity? That is the essential next step and I have no answer on how to do that, particularly if you don’t live in Israel. That is a path that I am afraid Israelis will have to find for themselves. But I think we can do some things. If you get engaged in this struggle, which I hope you will, stay engaged. Read Israeli newspapers. Listen to Israel radio, they have English language broadcasts. Go to Israel, especially if you have never been. You need to see it. It is an amazing place; you must experience it if you want to understand. Let me say this again, we are one people. Let Israelis know how you feel on social media. Defend Israel here at home from its detractors.
I will end on a positive note. I began by marking that this Yom Kippur is the 50th anniversary of that terrible war. Israel emerged from that crucible stronger, even when in the beginning things looked very dark. Perhaps that will happen this time. I am a person of faith, and my faith makes me optimistic. Israel has changed the historical conditions of the Jewish people in profound and positive ways. It has been such a change that we take Israel for granted. It is time to stop. What is happening in Israel is too important to ignore. On this day of self-examination, let’s commit as individuals and a community to re-engage with Israel in a serious way. Israelis are looking to us for it.The times demand it. Our tradition requires it.