The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost: October 20, 2013
Preacher: Rabbi Brian Walt
Sholem Aleichem/ Aleichem Sholem
As-salāam ‘Alaykum/wa’Alaykum Salaam
Peace be upon you/ and upon you too.
What a blessed way to greet one another — three identical greetings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam! As the psalmist says, “ For the sake of my brothers, my sisters and my friends, I will speak only of peace. For the sake of this sacred place, the house of God, I seek only the best for you and for all people.”
What an honor it is to be with you this morning! Thank you for inviting me to preach in your church and for hosting the Tree of Life conference.
In the scriptural reading for this morning, the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem at a time of turmoil and change, and who witnessed the destruction of the first Temple, envisions a new covenant, a fundamental change in the relationship of the people to God and to all that is holy and sacred.
“The days are coming, says God, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. I will put my Torah/My truth in them and write it on their hearts … No longer will they teach their neighbor or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord’ because they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.” (Jeremiah 8:31-34)
We, like Jeremiah, live at a time of great suffering in the land of Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to cause untold suffering and violence and is a threat to world peace. We all need a new covenant: a new way of understanding our relationship to God, Jerusalem and the Holy Land that paves the way to justice, peace and security for all.
As a rabbi, a passionate Jew and a Zionist for most of my life, I believe the transformation that brings about such a new covenant is possible. I have experienced such a transformation in my own understanding of Judaism and its relationship to Israel and Zionism. I have also seen the birthing of a new interfaith covenant in the work of courageous Palestinians dedicated to nonviolent resistance supported by their Israeli allies and in groundbreaking witness by Americans of all faiths challenging our country to become a true voice for justice and peace for all.
Today I want to share with you my own transformation and explore some of the new possibilities for acting together as Christians and Jews to bring peace and justice to the Holy land.
I grew up in a committed and passionate Zionist family and community in South Africa and have been a progressive, liberal Zionist for most of my life. For us Zionism was an integral part of our Judaism. The Jewish day schools I attended as a child were Weizmann and Herzlia, named after the two Zionist leaders. I was part of Habonim, a Zionist youth movement, and spent three formative months in Israel in 1967 following the War. When I graduated high school, I made aliya (immigrated to Israel). I returned to South Africa in 1972 and then immigrated to America two years later. Since then and until four years ago, Zionism remained a core and inseparable part of my Judaism and Jewish identity.
I was a liberal Zionist. Liberal Zionism meant that I believed in the creation of a Jewish state that provides a desperately needed safe haven for Jews around the world, a state that would be a cultural center for the Jewish People, and a state that would reflect the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition. The creation of a Jewish state would also afford Jews, after centuries of victimization, an opportunity to test our values: not do unto others as was done to us.
It was this vision of Zionism that was the core of my faith as a Jew that led to a life-long involvement with liberal Jewish/Zionist organizations. Ironically, it was this involvement with liberal Zionist organizations that opened my eyes to a reality that most Jews and most Israelis never see. One of these organizations Rabbis for Human Rights most closely embodied the Judaism/Zionism that I believed in and it was my work with Rabbis for Human Rights that allowed me to see realities that transformed my faith and my life.
As Rabbis for Human Rights worked very closely with the Israel Committee against Home Demolition, in the 1990’s, I witnessed or visited several demolished Palestinian homes. The memory and visual images of these experiences live within me, in my body and soul.
I remember standing on the site of a recently demolished Palestinian home seeing the children’s toys lying in the rubble and a small one-person tent next to the demolished home where the father of the family now lived. The experience shook me to my core. How could I believe in a Jewish state that demolishes Palestinian homes using bulldozers to destroy everything including the toys of children, while it subsidizes thousands of homes for Jews, homes that house among others, friends of mine who make aliya – emigrate from America to Israel?
In 2008 it came to a head for me. In honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary, I led a Rabbis for Human Rights trip to Israel and the West Bank. We visited an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev where Palestinians have lived since 1948 without any services – no electricity, water, sewage system — while over the same period of time countless Jewish towns, and villages have been created, all fully integrated into the national water and electricity infrastructure. There are over 150 such unrecognized villages in Israel of Palestinians displaced in the 48 war. Right now, as part of its plan to “Judaize” the Negev, the Israeli government is about to implement the Prawer plan to expel some 60,000 Bedouin from their homes in the Negev.
We stood at a checkpoint early in the morning watching the humiliation of Palestinians waiting for hours and then processed as if they were a group of animals.
We replanted olive trees on Palestinian land, uprooted by Jewish settlers with the full protection of the Israeli army. The trees were undoubtedly uprooted again within days after our visit.
We saw vast expanding settlements all over the West Bank involving massive land confiscation while at the same time Palestinians cannot get permission even to build any additions to their homes.
And, for me, it was the visit to Hebron that was the clincher: We walked down a part of Shuhadah Street, a deserted street restricted to Jews, in the middle of Hebron, passing by Palestinian homes whose residents are not allowed to walk on the street in front of their homes. When our guide, Michael Manikin of Breaking the Silence, mentioned that this was a street restricted to Jews and we looked at the apartments where Palestinians, prohibited from exiting their homes onto the street, have to climb over the roof and then down a ladder to go to the store, the supermarket, the hospital, something in me snapped. Sadness and rage overwhelmed me. I realized that this was in some ways worse than what I had witnessed as a child in South Africa.
There is no word that accurately describes what we experienced on this 12 – day trip on both sides of Green Line other than systemic, structural racism. I finally had to admit to myself what I had come to know for a long time but was too scared to acknowledge: Political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethno-nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews. As such political Zionism violates everything I believe about Judaism. While there was a desperate need in the 1940’s to provide a safe haven for Jews, the Holocaust can in no way justify or excuse the expulsion of some three quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948 and the destruction of their villages, nor can it justify the continuation of that policy ever since to this very day.
In the past I believed that the discrimination — the demolished homes, the uprooted trees, the stolen land — was an aberration of the Zionist vision. I came to understand that all of these were not blemishes on a dream, they were all the logical and inevitable outcome of Zionism.
And I came to know that there is a need for a new covenant based not on any exclusive claim to the land — Jewish, Christian or Muslim — but rather on the land being shared among people of all faiths and all nationalities.
As a Jew, I believe in a covenant that rests on the inherent dignity of every human being, where justice is the core commandment of our tradition and where God calls us to advocate for the poor, the oppressed the marginalized. My support for Zionism violated each of these core values. I am a Jew with a deep connection to Israel, a deep love of Hebrew and Israeli Hebrew culture and a deep love for my family and friends there, but I am no longer a Zionist.
As a Jew, I am in solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice and committed to a vision of a land where all people are granted justice and human rights. That is my faith and that is my new covenant. Thankfully there is a growing rabbinic community with a home in the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinic Council that shares this commitment.
As part of my commitment to live this new covenant, I was blessed with the opportunity of leading another delegation to the West Bank in October last year. It was an extraordinary experience that provides an example of a new covenant in action.
This was a historic delegation of twenty-three leaders from the nonviolent U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, younger civil and human rights leaders, social justice activists, peace builders and educators – who traveled the West Bank to meet with leaders of the Palestinian grassroots nonviolent resistance movement and their Israeli allies. We were African-Americans and Jewish Americans; ministers and rabbis; prominent scholars and organizers, ranging in age from 30 to 83.
We met extraordinary human beings who are putting their lives on the line pursuing justice, equality and dignity. We visited several villages on the West Bank — Bilin, Budrus and Nabi Sali — whose land has been expropriated by the Israeli government and where their nonviolent protests against this injustice are met with rubber bullets and tear gas. Several black members of our group, including those who participated actively in the civil rights movement, remarked that what they saw on the West Bank was “frighteningly familiar” to their experience in the United States. We saw many parallels to the displacement and genocide of Native Americans, and to ongoing structural racism in our country today.
As an interfaith delegation, we embodied a new reality. We stood together as Christians and Jews united in the shared vision of a beloved community, one where all people are loved and cared for.
We returned committed to bearing witness here in America to the reality of the Palestinian people, to their struggle for justice, to their call for international solidarity to end Occupation and injustice and to change our government’s complicity in their suffering by ending the unconditional aid that our government gives to Israel in so many different ways.
Shortly after our return we learned that fifteen church leaders had written a letter to President Obama urging that aid to Israel be tied to ending of human rights violations. They were bitterly attacked by the mainstream Jewish community who threatened that their action could create “an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants.” Fresh from my trip with the images of human rights violations that we had just seen, I defended the courageous act by the Christian leaders and spoke about a new form of Jewish Christian cooperation experienced on our trip, one based on our mutual sacred imperative “to seek peace and pursue it.”
Lastly, I want to tell you a personal story about our trip.
On Friday we were in Nabi Saleh for the weekly demonstration. At the end of an emotionally draining day of watching the confrontation between the villagers and the Israeli military, we gathered for communal sharing on the patio outside the home of our hosts. I shared that I was a rabbi and that this very moment as the sun was setting was the beginning of Shabbat. Just over the hill one could see the lights of the religious settlement of Halamish built on the land of Nabi Saleh. They were beginning their Shabbat observance. I shared how painful it felt to be so profoundly disconnected from that community, not being able to share Shabbat with them, and, at the same time my joy at being in this interfaith community place in solidarity with Palestinians and their struggle for justice.
Lucas Johnson, an African American minister, understood the power of that moment for me and when the gathering ended he came up to me gave me a hug and said, “Shabbat Shalom, brother Brian.” I felt he deeply understood my inner reality as a religious Jew, and I felt like we were truly brothers, part of a group of brothers and sisters, Jews and Christians, African American and white, joined by our commitment to solidarity with the oppressed and justice for all. It was truly a moment of blessing and hope, a moment when I saw a glimmer of the new covenant that Jeremiah envisioned.
This new covenant brings people together of different faiths in our shared understanding that God’s Torah/ God’s Truth is embodied in us and written on our hearts and that we are bound to the sacred task of working for justice, compassion and dignity for all people in the Holy Land and in every land. It rejects any exclusive claim on behalf of any particular religion, nation or people. In response to Esau’s cry, “Have you only one blessing my father?” we respond that God’s truth, the truth that is in our very beings and heart, is that God blesses everyone, no exceptions. We know that God calls us to side with the oppressed, to work for justice and to end oppression and that God is waiting for our response.
Each one of us in our own way must do our part.
May God bless all those working to bring justice and peace in Palestine and Israel, in America and in our world.
And May God bless us all.
Let’s end the way we started with the identical blessing in three different faiths:
Peace be upon you!