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Educating our Children to Seek Peace and Pursue it.

This time last week, I was sitting in Jersualem.  Sitting in a park, Gan HaPa’amon, towards the middle of the city, towards the middle of the beating heart of our people.

I was surrounded by my friends.   Friends that I made mostly in my 20s. In what I know for our Bat Mitzvah and our Confirmands will be transformative years in their lives, because study after study says that the years leading into the end of your high school experience, the beginning of your university experience and the first few years after university really set the course of what itreally means to live a Jewish life for you.  In this group of friends, there were a few rabbis now, rabbinical students – Liberal and Reform congregational teachers and lay leaders.  Board members of our congregational movements.  Zionist leaders that represent us in the World Zionist Congress.  And there was something rare about this group – this being a rarity in Jewish communal life – I actually raised the average age at the gathering.

And one of the topics which came up on that Shabbat afternoon was the question of who were going to be the next leaders of our movement in the future.  Who were going to take the place of these 20 and 30s year olds, who are already looking in the future for us, of our movement.  And part of the question is about education.  How do we educate? Are we educating for Zionism or educating for Activism.  Are we looking to raise Zionists or Activists.

Before I give you a taste of that conversation, I want to zoom out for a second:

We were gathered together, because it was the World Union of Progressive Judaism conference.  The WUPJ is chaired by our member, Carole Sterling, following the footsteps of the likes of Lily Montagu, Rabbi Leo Baeck, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Austin Beutel.  She, and President Danny Freelander had gathered together learners and leaders from all around the world, and helps grow and empower our movement’s branches in far-flung East Asia, South America.  Please visit our Reform and Liberal congregations all around the globe when you travel.  See for a listing of our congregations around the world.

That is why we were together.

The place we were together is a completely different story.

We were gathered where all gatherings of this type should take place – in the State of Israel in the City of Jerusalem.

And not only the who and the where, but also the when is also important- Our conference was held on the eve of Yom Yerushalayim  – Jerusalem Day.  The day during the Six Day war, fifty years ago, when IDF forces secured the Kotel and the city from Jordan.

After the Armistice following the War of Independence, access to these site had been cut off –  a border, in 1948, with Jordan including a no-mans land, prohibiting access.  Israelis barely even dreamt of accessing, let alone controlling these holy sites.  The city of Jerusalem was built to the West – the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Israel Museum.  Sites around the border, were practically given away – with snipers occasionally taking pot shots, windows were narrow and facing away from the inaccessible Old City.  This was how our movement gained its prime real estate in Jerusalem outside the Old City-  it was practically given to us because it was so undesirable.

And when, just over 50 years ago, Jordan entered the war, the possibilities opened up.  Less of a plan than a rush secured Judaism’s holy sites with secure access for the Jewish people.

We acquired and then annexed a circle of land around the ancient city of Jerusalem, building a circle of Jewish settlement around Har HaBayit, within the municipal boundary, yet over the Armistice line,  so that when negotiations happen, a line can be drawn on a map of ‘where Jews live’ which will include Jerusalem.

Inside of that line, inside of the municipality, many small villages perched on hills suddenly, in name, became part of the city of Jerusalem.  When we annexed land, we also annexed people the people living on the land.  Jerusalem became united!  Yom Yerushalayim – a day celebrating the Unity in Jerusalem.

Yet, we of course know that while we may have done a great of annexing the land, we have not done a stellar job of annexing the people who live on that land an incorporating them into the infrastructure of the city.

The roads I traveled down last week were only paved in West Jerusalem and on the East side of the city on the way to Jewish settlements.  The rest were winding dirt roads up hillsides.  A majority of the homes do not have municipal water hookups.  This is changing, in the past three years Jerusalem has started working towards equity in the city, for all of its municipal tax payers, but it is a slow process.  In the words spoken four days ago by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, “We must take urgent care of East Jerusalem. We cannot sing songs of praise for a united Jerusalem while East Jerusalem, the area where 40 percent of its residents live, is the poorest urban area in Israel.”  President Rivlin is a Zionist.

Which leads us to our topic:  What does it mean to be an Activist versus being a Zionist?

One of my professors, Paul Liptz, delivered a keynote at the World Union convention.

He gave parts of his story- of coming from the Zionist Youth Movement world in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), how he received a call on the phone, rushed to meet with his youth group pals, before getting on a plane and arriving at Ben Gurion just before the 6 Day War started.

He told of his experience during the war, and then his experience just following the war.

When he arrived in Jerusalem – a Jerusalem conquered.  A Jerusalem united. He went – of course – to the Western Wall.    I almost said the Western Wall Plaza – for that is what it is called today-  the big open space in front of the Western Wall 450 of us prayed together, men and women together, last Thursday.  But – you may not know this.  50 years ago today, that Plaza was being cleared.  For there was an Arab neighborhood which just up against the wall.  People’s homes, where their families had lived for generations, were located just feet from the wall.  And Shavuot was coming, 50 years ago today, as it is coming this Tuesday night.  And the Israeli government knew, that hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over Israel were going to come to Jerusalem, to the Kotel, just as our people did in ancient times.  And they were going to come, men and women together in that area near the wall – just as we had in ancient times.  Men and women, together coming to dance and sing and celebrate.

And so my professor, Paul Liptz, was one of those volunteers who came and cleared the rubble, of lives displaced, so that the feet of our people could return home.

These actions are not what make him a Zionist.  He is a Zionist because of how he reflects on his story.  He began with these words, “I’m not sorry for having come here, but I want to talk to you about my pain.”  And he ended with these, “I came to save my people. Did I, in reality enslave us all?” Paul Liptz is a Zionist.

Now I want to talk to you about activism.  Sometimes it is called “Hasbara.”

Recently, in our Grade 7 program here, which Zoey did outstanding in, we ran a program focusing on Israel with an organization called “Stand With Us.”  Part of the program included a three part narrative from their educational resources of Jewish History:

  1. Ancient History- Indigenous roots
  2. Diaspora- Suffering and Persecution
  3. Israel – Our Liberation

This is from their website:

Over 3,000 years ago an indigenous people developed a thriving civilization and culture in their ancestral homeland.

“Over time they were conquered by a series of aggressive foreign empires. While some of the people stayed in their cities and communities, most of them gradually scattered across Europe and the Middle East. For 1,900 years they lived as an oppressed minority, suffering persecution, expulsions, and ultimately genocide.

They barely survived but never lost hope. They overcame.

They started a liberation movement, went back home to join those who were already there, and built one of the most vibrant, diverse, inspiring nations the world has ever seen.

That nation is Israel. People all over the world have been inspired by this story of resilience and hope. Israel’s Story: proof that if you will it, it is no dream.”

I’ve spoken about the “Diaspora as suffering / Israel and Liberation” juxtaposition before – All of us are suffering here in Canada, of course, just as our ancestors have always done – during the years of economic growth in Eastern Europe, and the terrible years of the Golden Age of Spain.  And Israel is Liberation from all of our worries, which is why I’m sure we all have flights book for when Shabbat goes out.

So I want to spend two minutes on what is an offensive part of this narrative.  And that we should find challenging, as educators who care about our youth: “Over 3,000 years ago an indigenous people developed a thriving civilization and culture in their ancestral homeland.”

An indigenous people.  Jews an indigenous people.

This is painful to read in two ways.

Firstly, because it is meant to train Activists and not Zionists.  It is a phrase meant to lodge into the identity of our Grade 7 students, so that when the meet a Palestinian friend in university, and that friend uses the common Palestinian narrative and brings up their own identity as an indigenous person, our children will say, “That can’t be true! I’ve learned that Jews were the indigenous people of the land.”  That the Palestinian narrative, that some of their ancestors have been living on the land for thousands of years, and that in the mid 1800s – in the midst of European colonialism, a group of Europeans planned to move to create a state on land already occupied.  This narrative, our children will say, “It can’t be true, because Jews, we are the indigenous people.”   It is meant to arm our children.   To teach our children to shut down, and not to have dialogue.  It is meant to give our children a narrative that does not work for understanding and for peace.

And-  most importantly for me – this activist training is often wrong.  Who was it that called Zionism Colonialism? I’m not sure who said it first, but the most famous proponent of this was Jabotinsky.  And Jews as an indigenous people? Is this our narrative?

And Abraham was traveling for Ur of the Chaldeans when God spoke saying, “Lech L’cha M’artzecha”  Go forth from your land – to the place that I will show you.  Wander.  Go look forwards.

In the Haftarah which Zoey so beautifully chanted a few minutes ago, we heard the narrative of the Jewish people and our God like a cheating wife and a husband.  We get hints of broken promises, multiple lovers, and only in the end of days is our people given respite.

And in Leviticus we recently read, “Do not defile yourselves, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. The land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws . .  If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (18: 24-28)

Nachmanides interprets this verse to mean that if we do not follow the Torah, the ethics of our people, if we do not follow the way that Jews should live, the land will vomit us out as well.

Let me say that in different words- if we do not seek peace and pursue it.  If we do not make sure that the law applies equally to all of the citizens of the land – c’ger c’ezrach, then.  Then the land will vomit us out.  For, our tradition teaches us, we may dwell in the land as long as we are deserving.  This is the Jewish narrative.

What is the difference between an activist and a Zionist?

An activist is prepared for war.  An activist is someone ready to fight, tooth and nail, for an inch of land which an Israeli soldier’s parent might give away for peace.    An activist arms children to win a fight, not with tools that they understand and can call their own, but with the trigger to cause an explosion of hate and anger on our campuses.  So that our children will feel attacked.  So that our children will feel stronger in their Judaism – a Judaism under siege.

Two of our Confirmands wrote their reflections on Israel.  I hope that you will spend some time to read them during the Kiddush following services.  They are complex, and show our program well, and I thank you for the time you’ve invested in this moment in your lives, and the encouragement of your parents to get you here.

To our Confirmands I hope that you will continue living a life of complexity.  A life of Torah.  And a life that is Zionist-  loving the Land of Israel and all of its inhabitants.

As we were sitting in a shady spot, on the Shabbat before Yom Yerushalayim, we were struggling with how hard it is to find Zionists as we are working to include more people, especially women, in their 20s and 30s in the leadership of our synagogues and our movement, the consensus was this-  The difference is this: A Zionist has a vision for what Israel could be like. Should be like.  For the day after the peace.

For our educators have the courage to teach towards this vision.

May you, our Confirmands, have a vision of a democratic, Jewish, vibrant state of Israel always in your hearts.  May the members of our Grade 7 class, know that the Torah is not about ‘who got their first,’ but about building a just society.  And as you age, and as you grow, I pray that you will continue to tie us closer to our land, to our people, and to our God.

On this Shabbat following Yom Yerushalayim, we pray, still, for a united Jerusalem. And we pray for peace.

Our Youth shall dream dreams, and the old shall see visions. May our dreams and visions work together to build a vibrant State of Israel for our future generations.

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  • Carol Abugov

    Very thought provoking and richly complex.
    Thank you.

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