My response to the Jewish “Blood Wedding”

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Many have seen or heard about the video that surfaced depicting Jewish settlers recently dancing and singing at a wedding in celebration of the slaughter of a Palestinian family some months ago. Some pretended to stab a picture of the little Arab infant that was killed. Kol Nidre, I gave a sermon about the moral future of Israel.  I think it is more relevant than ever:

Rabbi Doug Sagal’s Kol Nidre Sermon 5776 “There is Hope for Your Future,” saith the Lord.

July 11, 1976 was a very special day in my life. It was Dad’s Day at Camp Becket, the YMCA summer camp I attended as a boy; and like the other boys, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my Dad, but as my Dad arrived at camp, something strange happened. While the other boys and their dads eagerly paired up and went off to the activities that had been planned for that day, my Dad took me aside and asked to speak with me for a moment. Surprised and unsure of what was to come, I went over with him into a nearby ball field and there he told me a story so extraordinary that I didn’t believe it at first.

Only one week earlier, he told me, on July 4, terrorists had commandeered an Air France jet travelling from Tel Aviv to Paris. They flew the jet to a place I had never heard of, Entebbe in Uganda, and there they separated the Israeli passengers from the others, herded them into the terminal and threatened to kill them unless their demands were met. The non-Jewish Air France crew insisted on remaining with the Israelis and other identified Jews and so their lives were now at risk as well.

On July 4, 1976 while our country was celebrating its Bicentennial, Israeli Special Forces, known as the Sayeret Matkal, landed at the airport at Entebbe and in an incredible and unprecedented precision military operation that had been hastily planned in only a matter of days, managed to kill all the terrorists and free most of the hostages. Four hostages were killed during the gun battle as well as the commander of the operation, Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister.

The Israelis had literally achieved the impossible. To accomplish this feat, they needed to fly almost 2500 miles over mostly enemy territory, refuel their airplanes, land without being detected, and approach the Entebbe terminal without alerting the terrorists and the Ugandan military who had surrounded the airport. The nation of Kenya had secretly agreed to allow the Israelis to use their airspace and refuel and in retaliation, the brutal dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, slaughtered hundreds of Kenyan- born Ugandan citizens in the following days. My Dad told me all this, standing in a ball field, a week after the events.

This New Year of 5776 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe rescue; I was in Israel this past July 4 and the Israeli airwaves and newspapers were filled with retrospectives and reminiscences and memorial services devoted to that incredible day. For those of us who experienced this event, it seemed to be the very validation of the Jewish state envisioned by Theodore Herzl exactly 80 years before.

In 1976, it was as if we said to the world only thirty years after the Holocaust, no matter where our people are being persecuted and threatened, we will find you and we

will bring you home. When Natan Sharansky was imprisoned by the Soviets one year after Entebbe, although isolated in his Russian cell, he could still hear commercial planes passing overhead. He later wrote that every time he heard a plane, he thought of Entebbe, and reminded himself that one day, he too would be liberated from bondage and brought to the State of Israel. Entebbe, almost 40 summers ago, a generation ago in Biblical accounting, represented for many Zionism at its best; Zionism fulfilling its ideals and hopes. That we would re-enter history as a free people determining our own destiny, free to create a new Jewish society in our ancient homeland and build a society that reflected the values contained in Torah and the wisdom of our people.

Last week on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, were read as the traditional Haftarah. It was as if these following words written 2600 years ago had come to pass in our day:

“For thus the Lord has spoken-
The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel
I will bring them back from the land of the enemy
I will gather them from the remotest parts of the world They will return with tears of happiness.”

Israel now scattered, shall be gathered – Jacob has been freed, but the Prophet Jeremiah, the Prophet whose words are quoted frequently during the High Holydays, so much so that he may be the Prophet of the High Holydays – the Prophet who traditionally wrote the words hasiveynu adonai aleycha venashuva chadesh yameinu kekedem – Return to us Adonai, and we shall return to you – renew our days as of old. Jeremiah was not merely the Prophet of hope, predicting the ingathering of exiles and the restoration of the Jewish homeland.

In the words of Rabbi Benyamin Lau, one of the most prominent Orthodox figures in Israel today, Rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem and nephew of the former Chief Rabbi, Jeremiah was a harsh social critic of the Israelite society of his day, railing against injustice and cruelty, demanding that the weak and vulnerable be protected, that the leaders of his time were ignoring profound injustices. Jeremiah was imprisoned and even tortured for daring to question the leadership of his time and abuses in his society. In a recent book, Rabbi Lau has said that modern Israel needs to reclaim the words of Jeremiah for the social challenges of our day are pressing. Rabbi Lau has written, “We need Jeremiah’s criticisms because the State of Israel has no insurance policy. It is our role to protect and maintain it. There are good people who are striving today to rectify the ills of the modern Jewish state, to reduce socio- economic disparity, to break down the walls that divide us, to bridge the gaps of language, to include rather than to reject.” “I pray,” Rabbi Lau says, “that we will work together to create a Jewish culture in Israel that will shed light and goodness upon all it touches”.

If Jeremiah were to return today and walk the streets of Jerusalem, what would he see? He would see that his words uttered 2600 years ago had come true; that a scattered people has been restored to it’s land, building an extraordinary society – the only democracy in a sea of hatred and intolerance. A society free and thriving despite needing to protect itself constantly against enemies bent on her destruction; a Jewish culture that leads the world in innovations in science, technology and medicine. A society that measures it’s days, weeks and months by the calendar of the Jewish people; a society that according to a recent study contains some of the happiest people on Earth. Truly, he would find that these words that he spoke long ago have been fulfilled. Again are heard in this place, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness; the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride. But if Jeremiah, Prophet of Israel, Prophet of the High Holydays returned today and included in his travels not just Jerusalem but Washington and New York and Teaneck and Los Angeles – what else would he see. He would see a Jewish community bitterly divided over the issue of Israel’s security, specifically the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran. He might read of how Jews who oppose the agreement are labeled warmongers by fellow Jews and Jews who are in favor of the deal called Kapos and enablers of another Holocaust. This prophet who sought unity in his time would be grieved to see members of the Jewish community who love the State of Israel at odds with one another, refusing to listen with love and understanding to one another. Perhaps he would repeat these words he uttered long ago, “To whom shall I speak – they do not hear – behold their ears are uncircumcised, they do not listen.”

Jeremiah was the prophet of a united Jewish people, calling for a divided people to unite. He proclaimed, “At that time I shall be the God of all the families of Israel – and all of them are my people.

If Jeremiah walked the streets of Jerusalem or Washington or New York or Westfield or Scotch Plains today, would he not call on us to cease and desist from the quarrels amongst ourselves that threaten to divide us? What would Jeremiah make of the incident this past July? An ultra-Orthodox man imprisoned for ten years for attacking people at a Jerusalem Gay Pride parade is freed and once again commits violence at the Pride Parade, this time slaughtering with a knife a sixteen year old girl named Shira Banki, whose crime was caring about Gay Rights. As ultra-Orthodox Rabbis in Jerusalem condemned the attack, they still insisted on referring to quote “the attack at the Jerusalem abomination parade”.

What would Jeremiah say to those ultra-Orthodox Jews who attack women wearing tallesim at the Western Wall? Who banish women to the back of buses in Jerusalem and vandalize Reform and Conservative synagogues? Would he say, as he did long ago, “You who call yourselves handlers of the Torah, you know me not.” And what would the Prophet Jeremiah say of the so-called price tag attacks – acts of violence – committed by Jews against Arab Muslims and Arab Christians supposedly in retaliation

for the Israeli government cracking down on extremist settlers; the settlers call these tag machir, the price tag for attempting to stop them.

In June, extremist Jewish settlers burned the Church of the Multiplication in the Galilee, a church sacred to Christians all over the world, painting the rubble with anti- Christian slogans. What might Jeremiah say about the Palestinian family burned to death by Jewish extremists on the West Bank, among whose victims was a baby of 18 months; scrawled on the smoldering wall was the Hebrew phrase “tag machir” – “price tag”.

What would be his comment about the vandalism just months ago at the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem which educates Jews and Arabs together, a school attended by the grandson of a Temple Emanu-El member – a school burned, vandalized and damaged, the words “Death to Arabs” scrawled on the walls. Several young ultra- Orthodox Jews were arrested and the mother of one of the criminals said, “I would have done the same thing”. I wonder if Jeremiah would shout, as he did in ancient days, “Your garments are stained with the blood of the innocent. You have eyes and heart only for shedding blood, and for oppression and for doing violence”. “Woe to him”, he once proclaimed long ago, “who builds his house by unrightousness and his chambers by injustice”. I wonder, would he use those words again? In our day?

Rabbi Lau has written, “There are self-described prophets in our own day who proclaim that none of this matters, that the Jewish state will never be weakened by these distressing violent actions; and that to call attention to the social issues of the Jewish State is to weaken the security of the Jewish State – to be in effect, an enemy of Israel. However, Rabbi Lau continues, “Such proclamations only serve to put us to sleep and make us forget our weighty responsibility to be deserving of this house, this Jewish State”. That is the inheritance of all of us in this room tonight; he states that in the spirit of Jeremiah, true Zionists are moved always by a sense of justice and sympathy for the weak.

There will be many Rabbis speaking on Israel this Yom Kippur – and most, I would suppose will address the security needs of the Jewish State; there has been great concern for the security of Israel these past weeks, and for good reason. Israel is surrounded by enemies who plot her destruction. I understand completely those who worry deeply about the security of Israel; I worry deeply myself. I myself, am deeply torn over whether or not the agreement with Iran is in the interests of the Jewish State; I want to believe it is, but Israel is my family and when family is concerned, when family is threatened, promises from political leaders are sometimes not enough; and yet, in the days of Jeremiah as well, enemies surrounded Israel and yet he did not refrain from wanting to build a society founded on justice and rightousness and unity. Can we not do the same?

In Chapter 31 of the Book of Jeremiah the Prophet declares to a people unsure of what is to come:

mini kolech m’bechi, yesh tikvah le-acharitech, Hold back your tears, there is hope for the future yesh tikvah
There is hope for the future.

I believe those words are true today. I believe that the spirit of Entebbe, the spirit that motivated a nation to do the impossible still lives. We can protect the State of Israel from those who wish to do her harm and we can create an Israeli society as Jeremiah demanded founded on justice and righteousness; and we can do this in a spirit of unity and love for one another.

If we can travel 2500 miles to rescue our children from the hands of the oppressor and bring them to safety, we can create within Israel a just society surrounded by secure borders and safe from harm.

yesh tikvah

There is hope for the future.

Yesh tikvah because there are many people like Rabbi Lau who are working to build a just and moral Israel that lives out the values of our people. If you go with us on our next congregational visit, you will meet some of them. I am announcing that we are going on a congregational trip in February, and if you join me, you will have the chance to meet with Israelis who are, in the words of Rabbi Lau, working to shed light and goodness in the Jewish State. We will meet with those assisting African immigrants in the poorest neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, with innovators creating economic bonds between Jewish and Palestinian farmers; with those who are helping the poorest Jews who have fallen through the cracks of society, with those building relationships between Jews and Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem. We will have the chance to meet with those entrusted with defending the borders of Israel.

Yesh tikvah: I have hope because just this past year, two young members of our Temple Emanu-El family, young people who became Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmed on this Bimah made aliyah to Israel, each wanting to participate in the Zionist dream. I believe that despite the challenges, despite even the disagreements amongst ourselves, yesh tikvah, There is always hope for the future. After all, we are the people of Hatikvah, are we not?

Hashiveynu Adonai eleycha venashuva
Hadesh yameynu kekedem
Return us to you O Adonai and we shall return, renew our days as of old.


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