Fifty years ago, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israeli forces in the Sinai desert and Golan Heights. It was on this very day of Yom Kippur in 1973. Israel suffered terrible losses especially in those initial days. American Jews awakened to war. Rabbis hurriedly adjusted their Yom Kippur messages. Israeli soldiers on the front lines were ordered to break their fasts. Reservists’ names were read from the pulpit. In one synagogue, a young man stood when his name was called. His father embraced him and refused to let go. The rabbi descended from the bima and quietly said, “My friend, your son’s place is not here on this holy day.”
I recall my parents’ worry. I did not share their concern. At the age of nine I had already imbibed the legends of Israel’s bravado and its Six Day War success. I did not understand their fear. From day one I had confidence that Israel would be victorious in the face of even unimaginable odds. It was led by Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan after all. I believed Israel would prevail—quickly and decisively. The war lasted for nearly three terrible weeks. In the end, and in part because of an American airlift of supplies, Israel pushed the Egyptians beyond the Suez Canal and the Syrians from the Golan. Nearly 2700 Israelis were killed and over 7000 injured. The Egyptian and Syrian war dead were estimated in the tens of thousands. Our enemies attacked us on the holiest day of the year. We, however, persevered.
Or this is how we like to tell the story. This is how we like to hear the tale. Our enemies are evil. We are righteous. They are unimaginative. We are ingenious. They are treacherous. And we are forever faithful. The Yom Kippur War confirmed everything we believed about our enemies. The truth, however, is not always as we tell it. The truth is far more complicated. Myth is neat and tidy. They are the stories we tell nine-year-old’s. History is messy.
The Yom Kippur War was in fact a terrible military blunder. Go see the movie “Golda” to learn more, but in a nutshell, Israel’s leaders were not as surprised as we like to believe. The Mossad had clear evidence that Egypt’s attack was imminent. Golda Meir and Israel’s leaders hesitated to call up all the reserves. Moshe Dayan in particular was complacent. Others were overconfident. The secret listening devices that Israeli commandos had risked their lives to install in Egypt, and that would have given Israel the exact timing of the attack, were not turned on for fear of being detected. Israel’s leaders were blinded by arrogance and even at times, negligence. Had they called up the reserves a few days earlier the tragic costs to Israel would have been far less. Soldiers lost their lives because their leaders delayed. I know. We don’t like to say such things out loud.
We prefer to idealize our heroes. We mythologize the past. Truth telling, however, is how we better ourselves.
In Israel the trauma of the Yom Kippur War is still discussed and the mistakes that were made are openly debated. The Agranat Commission, established soon after the war, investigated the debacle and insisted the IDF chief of staff, David Elazar, be dismissed. Mass protests forced Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to resign. Here we paper over the foibles and hubris of Israeli leaders. We want Israel to fit neatly into our myth making and storytelling. And so, on this Yom Kippur I am thinking more about our inability to speak about past mistakes rather than the mistakes themselves. I am thinking more about our unwillingness to speak uncomfortable truths, most especially about what we hold dear.
Exactly when we most need to dig deeper into our flaws, we start mythologizing even more. Look at the discussions here about the American sin of slavery as an example. It is changing before our eyes from a story not about oppression and subjugation but instead into “Well, that’s how things were back then” or in the eyes of some, “Actually Blacks learned beneficial skills on plantations.” Look to our nation’s forefathers. On a recent trip to Washington DC, Representative Steve Israel, who knows a great deal about American history, taught us that George Washington always grimaced not because of the myth we were all taught, that he was outfitted with false wooden teeth but because he wore teeth taken from enslaved Blacks. In some instances, they were even taken from people when they were alive.
Reckoning with the past in an honest way that confronts the ugliness, and yes, even evils, of our historic wrongs is the only way we become a better nation. We think the notion that acknowledging past wrongs makes us less great when in fact it makes us even greater. These truths should be part of every single curriculum. Just because these facts make us uncomfortable are no reason to shy away from airing them. That’s exactly when we should be talking about them. Sure, it might make you uncomfortable and might even produce feelings of guilt. But guess what? Guilt is the feeling of the soul that wants to make amends and do better. Guilt is not debilitating but instead ennobling. It is about the soul’s realization that it has fallen short. Until we acknowledge the ugly truths standing before us, we cannot better ourselves, we cannot ensure that Israel live up to its democratic ideals.
In the mouths of Israel’s current leaders, democracy has become not a bedrock foundational principle but a useful tool to create the Third Jewish Commonwealth. I am wondering about our inability to confront this ugly truth. Why can’t American Jews mouth the words, “Prime Minister Netanyahu is wrong. His attempts to remove judicial oversight over legislators’ law making is a betrayal of Israel’s ideals.” Why can’t we say, “Many of the lawmakers in the current ruling coalition represent views that are an anathema to the values we so cherish, namely pluralism and tolerance. They do not respect differences whether they be those of Reform Jews, women, LGBTQ Israelis or neighboring Muslims.” Why are we unable to shout, “These Knesset Members see democratic elections as a tool to foist their fundamentalist worldview on others. They do not view democracy as a principle by which to organize their lives and protect the rights of those with whom they disagree or even those with whom they do battle.” These are the words we should be saying. And we seem unable to do so. Bibi is after all the Prime Minister of the Jewish state, and the Jewish state is arguably our people’s greatest success.
We are terrified to criticize our beloved Israel. AIPAC, the defender of Israel in the US Congress and whose advocacy I support, studiously avoids offering public criticisms of Netanyahu’s government. Recently it offered lukewarm platitudes applauding Israel’s vibrant internal debates while reserving fire only for Israel’s external threats. But what of the organization’s arguments that it is our shared democratic values that bind America to Israel and that guarantees America’s continued support of Israel’s defense? In our imaginations Israel appears to represent not some real place but instead a repository of our dreams. We worry that our truth telling will make common cause with Israel’s enemies and our antisemitic haters. We become despondent that our loving critiques will unfetter the already weak bonds our children feel towards Israel. We deflect and say things like, “Israel is fighting against countless enemies and not just those on its borders.” Or “Look at some of the speakers from this weekend’s conference at the University of Pennsylvania.” Or “Can you believe the double standard the United Nations applies to Israel?” And so, when we need to be talking, and debating, our own present flaws we double down on our enemies’ wrongs and haters’ injustices. We turn away from the uncomfortable. We look back to yesteryear. Instead of confronting today’s ugly truths, we find solace in our myths. We even start rewriting past wrongs. Then it occurs to me. We have been doing this for a long, long time.
Take but one example from our history and tradition. King David is the greatest of kings. “David melech Yisrael chai, chai v’kayam. David, the king of Israel lives, and lives forever.” He was a mighty warrior and fierce general. David led the Israelites in battle and most importantly united the Southern and Northern kingdoms. He established Jerusalem as our eternal capital. He was a poet who authored the psalms. He is revered as the line from which the messiah will one day come and save the world. As Shabbat leaves, and we extinguish the Havdalah candle, we sing “Eliyahu Hanavi.” We invite Elijah’s presence who will announce the coming of the messiah. “Bim’herah beyameinu yavo eleinu im Mashiach ben David. May he come soon in our own day with the messiah son of David.”
And yet, if you read the Bible, as we did this past year, you quickly discover that the David Melech myth does not exactly match the man. David is guilty of adultery and murder. He sleeps with Bathsheba while her husband Uriah is off fighting the king’s wars. And then when she becomes pregnant has this loyal soldier murdered by instructing his commanders to leave Uriah unprotected and alone when facing the enemy. What happens next? The prophet Nathan marches into the palace, confronts David, and castigates the king. When looking at the Bible, David seems like the most unlikely of figures to give rise to the future redemption. Then again perhaps redemption is discovered more in the prophet Nathan’s truth telling than the David Melech myth we so love to sing about.
Somehow David emerges unblemished and untarnished after millennia of storytelling. People choose to forget the biblical tale. In truth his unified Jewish kingdom only lasts for thirty-three years. Even his greatest success is short lived. The modern State of Israel is now seventy-five years old. It stands on precarious footing. Its democracy appears fragile. Of course, there are legitimate criticisms of Israel’s judicial system, but to remove the only check and balance that Israel’s system offers is antithetical to its democratic foundations.
When the State of Israel was established its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, authored its Declaration of Independence. That document states: “The State of Israel 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.” But those beautiful and inspiring words never gained the force of law. Ben Gurion resisted attempts to call a constitutional convention and enshrine these words as law.
And who stood in opposition to the Ben Gurion we so often idealize? Menachem Begin. He argued, and lost, for the need to write a constitution that would guarantee Israel’s democracy. Begin said, “We have learned that an elected parliamentary majority can be an instrument in the hands of a group of rulers and act as camouflage for their tyranny.” Begin rightly believed that the majority can have anti-democratic impulses. He understood that democracies are not so much about majority rule but instead about ensuring the rights of all citizens. They are about protecting minorities with as much vigor as rulers.
Think about this. The man who founded the very party that Bibi Netanyahu now leads was one of Israeli’s greatest proponents of democracy. The man who is responsible for leading Israelis to independence and nationhood sidelined early attempts to write a constitution. History is oh so messy. Ponder this fact. Begin, the guy who ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel when it served as the headquarters for the British Mandate was a leading advocate of democracy and Ben Gurion, the revered founder of the modern state the authoritarian’s silent accomplice. The truth is never so tidy. It does not fit into the compartments we like to build. t does not square with the stories we so love to tell.
On this Yom Kippur, I am holding on to the image of two Israeli flags. In one I am looking towards East Jerusalem, that territory captured by Israel in its Six Day War victory. I see there an oversized Israeli flag hanging from a Jewish home in the Arab village of Silwan that sits alongside the Old City’s Dung Gate. This flag can be seen for miles. The right-wing Jewish residents hope their flag will overshadow those of their opponents, and their apartments will soon overwhelm those of the Arab villagers, many of whom have lived there for generations. In another, I look out at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan intersection on any Saturday night over the course of the past thirty-eight weeks. There are tens of thousands of Israelis protesting the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul. They stand in what the Tel Aviv municipality has now renamed Democracy Square. The majority of Israelis support the protestors’ views that the government’s proposals undermine Israeli democracy. A significant percentage of Israelis, including those from the right and the left, secular and religious, air force pilots and leading scientists, have all participated in these protests, week after week. They believe that the ruling coalition does not have the power to change Israel’s fundamental character. Many of these protestors have literally wrapped themselves in Israeli flags. They see their protests as expressions of their patriotism.
Which flag do you choose? Which Israel do you wish to support? We can no longer have both. We can no longer sip coffee in Tel Aviv’s cafes or stroll along Jerusalem’s beautiful promenades while ignoring the other Israel that is being fashioned a few short miles away. The current government harbors Jewish racists. Itamar Ben Gvir, whose extremist views and violent activities deemed him unfit for army service, cares little for the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority and only about Jewish sovereignty. Last year in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem he told the police they should shoot Palestinians if they throw stones at Jewish settlers. He said, “We’re the landlords here now.” This leader speaks in the name of a tradition I hold dear. This man is now the minister in charge of the police. Imagine an Israel where a Ben Gvir gains even greater power. We should worry about an Israel without the check and balance that judicial oversight offers.
We need to choose which Israeli flag with which to wrap ourselves. They are no longer one and the same. The idea that we can remain on the sidelines and that we are better served by staying neutral has passed. The notion that this is only a debate for Israelis is no longer relevant or meaningful. Israel is a project of the Jewish people. The Jewish and democratic state of Israel needs us to stand with the protestors and for democracy. Love of Israel means standing for its democratic ideals. Israel does not just need us to make sure the IDF has the best armaments or that its right to defend itself is upheld on the college campus. It needs us to stand up for its democratic values and founding principles.
Some of those sitting on the other side of this debate will say democracy is not even a Jewish idea. There is no real Hebrew word for it. Rabbis should not even talk about this. It is a foreign idea implanted within the hearts of liberal Jews; they will offer. We must respond. Our people’s greatest successes—here in America with the most vibrant Jewish diaspora history has ever known and there in Israel with the reestablishment of our Jewish homeland in the face of unimaginable odds—are made possible by democracy. We must offer this honest retort. Some of our greatest hopes emerge from the outside.
Back to King David from whom the messiah will descend. Guess what. His great grandmother is Ruth who out of great affection for her mother-in-law Naomi, and out love for God and the Jewish people, chooses to become a Jew. She is born a Moabite, one of ancient Israel’s foremost and avowed enemies. Take this to heart. There is a direct line from our past enemy to our future redeemer. Look at the twists and turns of history. Behold the convoluted paths of our stories. How messy. How imperfect.
And yet Judaism embraces this imperfection. Our tradition teaches that we can be simultaneously imperfect and great. That is what these High Holidays are all about. To be great does not mean to be flawless. Myth making lessens us. Truth telling uplifts us. And truth telling is what upholds this fragile human project called democracy. A nation requires truth telling more than myth making. And so, one final true story.
When the Yom Kippur War broke out a young Leonard Cohen, who wrote the “Halleluyah” song that is so familiar to many of us, jumped on a plane. He felt called to be with Israel in its pain. He traveled to the front lines of the Sinai desert with a few musicians and performed impromptu concerts for the soldiers, many of whom later reported they believed this would be the last songs they would ever hear. They thought their lives were lost. His concerts were not widely publicized, but the soldiers who attended, and who survived the war, remember them to this day. There he wrote, “Who by Fire,” a song based on the High Holiday prayer, “Unetanah Tokef—Let us proclaim the power of this day… On Rosh Hashanah this is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed…. Who will live and who will die.” Cohen reimagines the prayer of his childhood and sings, “And who by fire, who by water…. And who by brave assent, and who by accident/ Who in solitude, who in this mirror/ Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand/ Who in mortal chains, who in power/ And who shall I say is calling?”
Indeed, who shall I say is calling?
It is time for us to hear the call. It is time for us to stand for an Israel we can believe in. It is time for us to stand up for a democratic State of Israel that serves as a homeland for the Jewish people and a guarantor of the rights of its minorities. The Untenah Tokef prayer continues, “And so a great shofar will cry—tekiah. A still small voice will be heard.” It is time for us to answer the call.
A nation is lessened by myth. It is bettered by truth telling.