A reflection from Rabbi Jim Kaufman, Emeritus Rabbi, Temple Beth Hillel, ISN Board Member and Chair of the ISN Program Committee:
ISRAEL: Prayers Contend Rather Than Blend
Millions daily turn eastward to Jerusalem. Jews to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Christians to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Muslims to the Dome of the Rock. And the prayers blend peacefully in the easterly winds.
Israel, is a very sensitive and complex interfaith topic under normal circumstances. When tensions devolve to war and death, interfaith dialogue practically ceases and our prayers contend rather than blend.
Though the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” (surely an understatement) is a geo-political struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, adherents of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are swept into the “conflict” because of the importance of Israel in their respective faith constructs.
If only Israel, after its establishment 73 years ago could embody the vision of 19th Century thinker Ahad Haam. He did not see every Jew moving to Israel but wrote of an Israel as a generator of such spiritual force that its existence had a worldwide impact. He knew as well that with the reality of Muslim and Christian holy sites, Israel could be a spiritual center for much of the world’s faith community, a cultural center whose spiritual energies emanated outward from it to the world, from Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy places there, to Jews, Christians and Muslims living in everywhere.
There are 2.3 billion Christians, 2 billion Muslims, and 13 million Jews in the world, constituting almost 55% of the world’s religious population. For Christians and Muslims it is not a “homeland” but an historical and spiritual center. For Jews it is a very necessary “homeland”, given the history of anti-Semitism.
So, yes it is by necessity a Jewish state but take a look at this excerpt from its Declaration of Independence declared May 14, 1948, 73 years ago:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
America, born in 1776, took 13 years to finally adopt a Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1789 that established the governmental apparatus to eventually achieve equality of its citizenry.
However, at age 73, Israel still has yet to ratify a “Constitution” that would create the path to fulfilling the vision of the 1948 Declaration, and ultimately the Biblical vision of Ahad Haam: Israel as a positive spiritual force throughout the world.
“And Israel shall be a light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Though a Constitution of the State of Israel has been on the “back burner” since 1948, Israel has yet to adopt it. Thus what guides the country is not a nationally agreed upon set of laws and values but what the Knesset (the governing body of Israel) votes on any given day. (Unless the judicial system rules it illegal) Bottom line: there is no “Israeli Bill of Rights”, no set of equally applied civil rights to all who live there. Surely the 20% of its citizens who are not Jewish and the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories are most times living lives minimally as “second class citizens”, and oftimes suffocatingly oppressed and tyrannized.
Am I a supporter of a “two state solution” to the “conflict”? Indeed. But even when (and I do believe “when” and not “if”) a secure and independent Israel and a secure and independent Palestine become a reality, Israel still must grow to be more than a technological wonder state, it must be a positive spiritual locus for 55% of the world. Only Israel, not Palestine, can be a potent spiritual symbol for all three religions.
As a Rabbi for almost 50 years, I have delivered countless sermons imploring American Jews to support Israel while at the same time imploring Israel to affect the vision of Ahad Haam.
At this writing (May 18, 2021) Israel is a source of fear and pain for the Israelis and the Palestinians who live there. For us here, Jew, Christian, and Muslim, Israel’s spiritual role in our lives is diminished as we mourn the loss of life and in the throes of this chaotic darkness, lose sight of an Israel that can be a symbol of spiritual diversity living in unity and peace.
We are geographically dislocated from Israel, physically thousands of miles away, yet spiritually so close in mind and heart. (A prayer book text comes to mind: “God, Thou art as close to us as breathing and yet art farther than the farthermost star.”) Our prayers ascend from California, yet drift in one direction, Jerusalem, eastward: Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Dome of the Rock.
May we be a source of light and hope for every Israeli and Palestinian as we unite in solidarity to pray for peace and dignity, an Israel that with our faith and support can truly become a “light unto all the nations”.
And may each of us, during our own prayers, summon a compassionate “listening ear” for the prayers of our neighbors.