Friday, November 23, 2012

Getting Back to the Table by Letting Out the Goat - Shabbat Thanksgiving 5773

On this "Shabbat Thanksgiving," there are many things for which we should be thankful.

First, that we survived the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Many of us were inconvenienced by the storm, and some of us had major damage to our homes. But by and large this community was spared the devastation that parts of the South Shore of Long Island, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey suffered. We should not forget, even as we celebrate two benei mitzvah today, that there are now many in our region who lost everything.

Second, many members of this community have been forthcoming in helping others in need in the wake of the storm. That is what makes us a qehillah qedoshah, a holy congregation, and I applaud those of us who have taken the initiative to contribute in every way possible to relief efforts.

Third, that the Iron Dome defense system in Israel was quite successful in shooting down rockets that were headed to residential areas. Some reports said that the success rate was near 90%.

Finally, that the cease-fire in Israel is (mostly) holding for the third day. This is very good news for the members of our partner Conservative congregation in Ashkelon, Kehillat Netzah Yisrael, where life had more or less come to a standstill for eight days. It is also personally good news for me, since my son lives in Nes Tziyyonah, out of range of the Qassam rockets which make up the bulk of those coming from Gaza, but within range of the larger rockets like the Fajr-5 rockets supplied by Iran. (During the eight days of rockets, there was only one air-raid siren in Nes Tziyyonah; my son and his neighbors gathered in the stairwell, the safest part of their apartment building, until it passed, thankfully uneventfully.)

It is worth noting, by the way, that this is, in fact, the second cease-fire in 2012 brokered by the Egyptians. Back in March, after four days of less-intense rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, a similar deal was struck. And here we are, eight months later, in the same place. And so, while we might be grateful for this lull, we should also fear the next shower of rockets and what will come from it. Because there will be more rockets, more sirens, more lives lost and disrupted; the only question is when.

Or maybe there is a way to break this pattern.

There is a well-known folktale from Jewish tradition that goes like this: A man goes to his rabbi. He says, “Rabbi, my house is too small! My wife and I and our four children are barely able to live, because we are constantly in each others’ way. What should I do?”

The rabbi thinks for a moment, then says, “Do you have a goat?”

Yes,” says the man cautiously.

Bring the goat inside the house,” suggests the rabbi.


Just do it,” says the rabbi.

So the man brings in the goat, which takes up more space and wreaks havoc within the tiny house. He goes back to the rabbi.

Do you have a cow?” asks the rabbi.

But rabbi, it’s already crowded and miserable! If I bring in the cow, it will just get worse!”

Bring in the cow.”

The man reluctantly does so. The animals are now eating their food, sitting on their tiny couch, keeping them up at night. He goes back to the rabbi.

Bring in your chickens,” says the rabbi.

But rabbi...”

Just do it.”

So he does. He’s now at his wits’ end, tearing his hair out from the stress of a small house filled to the brim with people and animals. He goes back to the rabbi.

Now take all the animals out,” says the rabbi.

The man sprints home and gets rid of all the animals. A day later, he returns to the rabbi.

Rabbi, I want to thank you so much! Our house is now so roomy!”


Did the house change? No. But the man’s perspective changed.

In the summer of 2000, when I was working in Jerusalem as a music specialist for the Conservative movement’s Ramah day camp, talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down.  Fatah Chairman Yasir Arafat rejected PM Ehud Barak’s offer of a state that would include almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, plus control over Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Immediately after, Arafat ordered the violent Intifada, and years of suicide bombings hardened Israeli resolve against peace talks. Israel decided that the PA was no partner for peace, and has not engaged seriously with them since.

In 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally.

In 2006, the Palestinian territories held free elections. Hamas won a majority of seats in Gaza, and soon after seized control over the Strip.

In 2008, after thousands of Qassam rockets had fallen on Sderot and other communities near Gaza, Israel launched a ground offensive, Operation Cast Lead, to demolish terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. There was a heavy toll of civilian and combatant lives.  Rockets have continued to fall sporadically in the south of Israel, but in the intervening years Hamas has grown more powerful and more deadly.  

And then came the events of the past week and a half. Meanwhile, PA President Mahmoud Abbas watches on the sidelines from the West Bank.

Over the past 12 years, our perspective has changed. Everybody has grown more and more pessimistic about the chances for peace. Current PM Netanyahu is far more interested in saber-rattling over Iran than talking with anybody on the other side of the Green Line.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is only one possible way out of this, and it’s not a sure thing, but it is better than the current situation.

The only possible solution is the two-state solution. Israel and the PA, supported by all the major international players, must swallow their pride and sit down at the table and talk. All other outcomes are unsustainable; let me explain:

1. Maintaining the status quo. Every few years, Israelis are shelled heavily, and then retaliate until the next cease-fire. Obviously, this cannot continue forever, because each time the rockets fly, they are more accurate, more intense, with bigger payloads and longer ranges.

2. The one-state solution. Israel annexes all the territories and grants citizenship to everybody in the territories. This is suicide - Israel will not be able to maintain itself as a democracy with a Jewish character when the largest political group is Palestinian.

3. Unilateral withdrawals from parts of the West Bank. As many have pointed out, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza may have yielded an economic benefit for Israel by no longer requiring heavy military protection from the settlements in Gush Qatif, within the Gaza Strip. But whatever benefits reaped have been negated by the thousands of rockets that have been launched by Gaza-based terrorists.

But the reason that the Gaza withdrawal did not have a positive effect on the region is because of its unilateral nature. Israel did not consult with anybody; no peacekeeping forces were installed; no structure was in place to make a smooth transition; no other governmental powers were there to support either side. This vacuum led to the rise of Hamas, and we all know how that has turned out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think about this a lot. And as far as I can tell, the only other possible path is the two-state solution. Those of us that balk at the idea of sitting down at the table with any Palestinian group should recall that we do not make peace with friends; we make peace with enemies. We don’t have to like each other, but we do need to talk.

If Israel sits with Mahmoud Abbas and hammers out a peace agreement such that a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank, soon enough the economy will improve, employment will improve, Palestinians will be able to have some kind of normal life, and they will (as they have done in the past) go about their business and focus less energy on hating the Jews.

And what about Gaza, you ask? This is the important part. Hamas not, at least right now, a partner for peace, because from where we sit right now it is unlikely that they will acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.  As Israel’s ambassador the US and military historian Michael Oren stated in an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few days ago:
Negotiations leading to peace can be realistic with an adversary who shares that goal. But Hamas, whose covenant calls for the slaughter of Jews worldwide, is striving not to join peace talks, but to prevent them. It rejects Israel’s existence, refuses to eschew terror, and disavows all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.”
Ambassador Oren goes on to speak optimistically about the chances for peace with the PA:
Egypt and Jordan tried more than once to defeat Israel militarily, only to recognize the permanence of the Jewish state and to sign peace accords with it. Similarly, the Palestine Liberation Organization, guided by nationalism rather than militant theology, realized it could gain more by talking with Israel than by battling us. The result was the 1993 Oslo Accords, the foundation for what we still hope will be a two-state solution. By establishing deterrence, Israel led these rational actors toward peace.”
What Oren fails to say is that while deterring Hamas, Israel can at the same time reach out to the PA and build that Palestinian state. Once that state is built in the West Bank, then the people of Gaza will see the benefits of peace that their cousins are reaping, and throw of the yoke of Hamas and the curse of eternal war.

We have to set aside the fear. We have to look above the comfort zone of “noto get to “yes.” We need to take bold steps. Cooperation right now between Israel and America and the PA on economic and security matters is at an all-time high. Now is the time, during this cease-fire, for Israel to look east to the West Bank, rather than south to Gaza, and reach out. It is time to take out the goat and the cow and the chickens, and work from a new perspective.

Otherwise, it will all happen again, sooner and stronger and more deadly.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol Yisrael, ve-imru Amen.
May the One who makes peace on high bring piece upon us and upon all Israel, and let us say Amen.

Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, November 24, 2012.)

1 comment:

  1. Terrific. The ONLY way. Otherwise, another 64 years of war! Thanks to President Obama's untiring efforts to get this ceasefire, too. Does Israel have the lesdership for peace? (I fear not, save for the President).