A view from the pew
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A view from the pew

The recent debates over the so-called Jewish State basic law was the catalyst, though not necessarily the true cause, for the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.

What was this debate really about? As a Chanukah gift to ourselves, I suggest that each of us do a Google search of the following list of internationally recognized legal documents: the Balfour Declaration; UN Resolution 181, dated November 29, 1947; the Israeli declaration of independence; and UN Resolution 242, dated September 1967.

Each of these internationally recognized legal documents are proof that for nearly a century, the international community has affirmed and re-affirmed the right of the Jewish people to re-establish ourselves as an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. You will note as well that over that same century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora has affirmed our responsibility to recognize the political and religious rights of non-Jewish residents of the pre-1948 community and of the equality under law of all citizens of Israel.

After you look at these documents, I would suggest a second search. This time, look for the names of American Jews who were active in the early and middle 20th century, were prominent leaders in American civic life, and played critical roles in the Zionist movement that led to the creation of Israel.

While it is far from exhaustive, a short list of American Jewish Zionist activists includes three leading Reform rabbis; Rabbi Stephen Wise, Rabbi Judah Magnes and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. It also includes prominent members of the legal profession such as Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter; and civic leaders such as Louis Marshall, who simultaneously held the presidency of Congregation Emanu-El of New York – the largest Reform temple in the United States – and chaired the boards of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Committee. Brandeis and Wise were active in national Democratic politics, while Silver and Marshall were proud Republicans. One additional name to add to your Google list is Felix Warburg ,who headed Kuhn Loeb and Company, which was the second largest firm on Wall Street in the 1920s. Another name to put into your search engine is Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah.

What each of these amazing American-born Jews shared was a commitment to building a Jewish state in Palestine that would serve as both a place of refuge for Jews and a center of Jewish cultural life. Of these early Zionists, only Rabbi Magnes and Henrietta Szold moved to the land of Israel. They all saw their role in the creation of a Jewish state as providing both political and financial support for those people who chose to move to what then was called Palestine. Each of them took great pride in the fact that the Jewish state for which they were advocating in the halls of Congress and the White House was committed to being a democracy, where religious freedom and equal rights would be extended to all who lived there, Jew and non-Jew alike.

This topic is timely right now, but still you might wonder why I want to give you this history lesson as a Chanukah gift. My reason is simple. The word Chanukah means dedication. Our festival of lights commemorates the re-establishment of an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel in 165 BCE. That state, like the State of Israel in 1948, was a focal point of Jewish life for a far-flung and prosperous diaspora. That Jewish state also lived in tension and conflict with neighbors, but according to Jewish tradition its ultimate fall in 70 CE was due not to the might and power of its Roman attackers, but to “sinat chinam,” the fratricidal conflicts among Jews of differing political and religious ideologies.

I was born three weeks before David ben Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish State, which was to be called Medinat Yisrael. For the first 25 years of my life – and of Israel’s independence – the focus for both Israeli and American Jews was on what it meant to be a Jew in the 20th century. Over the last few decades we have wasted too much time as a community on the internecine debates over who is a Jew. We also have spent too much energy on reactive responses to anti-Semites who cloak themselves as anti-Zionists by defending the Jewish nature of the State of Israel.

This Chanukah, let us all give ourselves the gift of better understanding the truly miraculous story of the birth of Israel, to which the Chanukah menorah with all its lights cannot hold a candle.

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