Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

The king is in the field: What Israel is for us, what we are for Israel

I was advised by many people not to express these opinions, not to raise this topic. Everyone said that speaking about Israel is too dangerous a topic. We all have very strong opinions; we are all convinced the people to our right are crazy, people to our left are Antisemites, and that we are the only one with a valid opinion. But frankly, after this awful summer, a summer of Israel being attacked, a summer of rampant anti-Semitism, a summer of extensive Palestinian deaths, for us to gather on this day and not speak of our pain, our anger, and our resolve, to not look to the Torah for some light on what we should do and how we should conduct ourselves, and to strengthen ourselves for the struggle ahead, would be I think, a betrayal. So without your permission I am going to risk speaking about Israel, even though it is professionally a very bad move.

And I also need to make explicit that I am not writing as an expert in National Security. I am not speaking to you as a counselor to the Prime Minister of Israel or one of his advisors, nor am I a privy counselor to the White House or to Congress. I do not want to think from a political place, but from my heart, as a rabbi, to distill some basic principles of Torah recognizing that Jews can love Israel in a variety of ways and that there is more than one policy approach for attaining these principles.

This year begins a Shemittah cycle. Every 7 years the Torah commands that the fields attain an additional level of holiness, and that therefore we respect the kedushat Shemittah/the holiness of the sabbatical year, by refraining from using any of the produce of the fields. Throughout the Land of Israel that requirement will be operative this year. The practice of agriculture changes throughout the country. The laws of Shemittah pertain only to the Land of Israel. All of which is to say that this year out of every 7, we Jews around the world are commanded to pay special attention to the holiness of one place – the Land of Israel – and the launch of this Shemittah year coincides with the months of Elul and Tishrei, which are, as you know, the period leading up to these Holy Days and this month in which according to Hasidic tradition, we are told that the king leaves his palace and enters the field – Ha-Melekh Ba-Sadeh. When the king sits in his courtroom one has to go to the king, and one dreads the actual encounter: “What am I going to say? What am I going to wear? How am I going to behave in the presence of the Court and its officials.” The challenge of the Shemittah year is that once every seven years we’re told the King arises from the throne, leaves the palace, and ventures out into the fields. Those fields are Eretz Yisrael. Right now, Ha-Melekh Ba-Sadeh, the King is in the field. So the question we need to ask ourselves is, are we being good caretakers of the King’s fields? Good representatives of God’s love and justice? How do we expect God to find us, wandering in the fields during this Shemittah year? How are we demonstrating our love of Judaism, our fidelity to the values of Torah, our love of Eretz Yisrael, and our love of Medinat Yisrael? That is what I would like us to think about for a moment.

To help us answer those piercing questions, I would like to explicate 5 basic principles.

  1. The Jewish People have an absolute right to national self-determination. Let no one question that right. We have as much a right as any other people on the planet to our own nation and the right to govern ourselves. Nobody questions the French having France; nobody questions the English have England. Let no one question the resolve of the Jewish people to maintain our own free and democratic Jewish State in the land of Israel – that remains Principle Number One.   But my friends, there is a catch to Principle Number One. If we expect the nations of the world to recognize our right to self-determination, then we also must recognize the rights of others to national self-determination as well. That recognition of principle must extend to the Palestinians as well. How that Principal translates into policy, what those borders look like, I leave the implementation to the statesmen and the politicians. But if we rightly demand that the rest of the world to acknowledge our right to national self-governance, then we must recognize that right of the Palestinian and other peoples, too.
  1. We Jews have an ancient and continuous unbroken link to the land of Israel. We have lived in that land for thousands of years, and the only time we left that land was by military force and imposed Exile. Yet even when we we deported from the Land, we left in tears, crying and singing songs about the beauty of Eretz Yisrael and its hold on our hearts. For 2,000 years when many of us were living in exile – some of us farther, some of us closer – we recurrently turned towards Jerusalem, towards Zion, when we prayed. We kept our hearts focused on Eretz Yisrael because that Land remains the physical homeland of the Jewish People as a whole. No serious scholar has proposed anything other than that that land is our national home: it was the birthplace of our People, the place where we definitively expressed ourselves as a culture and as a civilization. We have a right to return to our home despite having been kicked out. And the world needs to know that we will not negotiate that right away. It is our home and we will live in it. But there are other peoples who have been living in that home for many years as well. And as a governing democracy, we have an obligation, well recognized by the State of Israel and enshrined in the State of Israel Declaration of Independence, that we will be a beacon of freedom, not just for the Jews living in Israel, but for all peoples: Religious freedom, equality under law, democracy, equal access to education. These are Jewish and Israeli principles and they must be applied to all the residents of the land: Jewish, Christian and Muslim; Israeli and Palestinian.
  1. Anti-Semitism is alive and well, and what was clear for all of us this year – again not a surprise for many of us – is that the bogus argument that you can separate Zionism from anti-Semitism is a lie. How many of us saw signs this past summer in Belgium restaurants in eloquent French, stating: We don’t serve dogs and we don’t serve Jews. In Europe, today, there have been protestors who have gone into stores in Great Britain and unshelved and destroyed store property simply because it was produced in Israel (not just from the settlements, but from within Israel proper). These self-appointed vigilantes loot and vandalize as though they have the right to steal and to destroy with impunity, in England! I saw a video of a Muslim student at one of the UC schools admitting, with cameras filming, that she agreed with Hamas that it was a good idea to gather the Jews into one place because it would make it easier to wipe them out. And she said it publicly, in California! There is a man running for the Senate in Kentucky, whose campaign posters are all about getting rid of the Jews. So for those who deluded themselves in thinking that anti-Semitism is no longer a live toxin – wake up! It is. And for those who excused it by thinking, “Well, Israel has somehow provoked anti-Semitism,” let me point out to you that many people were anti-Semitic before there was a State of Israel, and that hate and bigotry is never justified. Their hatred of us has an excuse perhaps in the State of Israel, but there are people who hate simply because they hate. Good people everywhere need to acknowledge that reality, and we need to maintain enough strength to turn those people back, whether they are Jihadists, whether they are Hamasniks, whether they are European Right Wingers – whoever they are. We need to be able to unify and then to repel them.
  1. We, and by ‘we’ I mean, us Zionists, us lovers of Israel, and Israel, we have an absolute right to self-defense. Nobody should think that they can lob missiles into our country, threaten our civilians, terrify our children, dig underground tunnels to murder people, and not face a massive response. And they need to know that – liberal or conservative, Jews across the world and across the spectrum are united behind Israel in its legitimate exercise of self-defense. That will not change and we will not waiver.
  1. Jewish Law enshrines two principles I wish to bring to your attention. The first is the equal human dignity of all people. By that assertion of equality the Torah admits no exception. The Torah goes so far as to command that if you see your enemies’ donkey struggling under a burden, you are commanded to help lift the burden of your enemy’s donkey, not of your friends. What that means is that when a Jew marches down the street shouting mavet la-Aravim/Death to the Arabs, that Jew does not speak for me, does not speak for Israel, does not speak for Judaism. If we expect the Palestinians to stand up and condemn Hamas (which I do), and we expect Muslims to condemn ISIS and Al-Qaeda (which I do), then we have an obligation to speak out against Jewish Fascists, Jewish racists, and Jewish calls to murder. It is unacceptable to besmirch the cause of Zionism with fascism. And we must be vocal in letting the world know that those fringe elements do not speak for us, do not speak for Torah or Jewish wisdom.
  1. Jewish Law also enshrines the right of non-combatant immunity. Civilians have the right to not be caught up in a conflict. Hamas has made a mockery of that principle by hiding their armaments under homes, under schools, in hospitals, inside mosques, and launching their missiles from those very places so that they endanger their civilians for the sake of some more deaths. And we were all horrified and in shock to discover the massive network of tunnels, which required such an enormous infusion of resources that could have gone to building homes and care centers, and education centers, but instead were purely designed to be able to one day spew death upon Israeli civilians from within. We cannot allow our legitimate rage at such venom and murder to turn us into their mirror image. We must continue to grieve the death of any innocent Palestinian civilian, adult or child. That person is being held hostage by murderous terrorists and political despotism. We must do what we must do to defend ourselves, but when the day comes that we can no longer shed a tear for even the necessary death of our enemies (and all the moreso for the civilians suffering on the other side), then we have stopped being Jews.   I remind you of the ancient rabbinic Midrash: as God caused the sea to close over the Egyptian soldiers the angels started to cheer, leading God to chastise them: “Don’t rejoice. My children are drowning.” That empathy doesn’t prevent God from closing the sea; and like God, we do what we must to protect our civilians. But the day comes that a Jew doesn’t cry over the death of a Muslim simply because they are Muslim; a Palestinian simply because they are Palestinian, then we have become a monstrosity, and we have abandoned our right to call ourselves Zionists.

I know I speak for many of us when I say: we stand with Israel. We believe that Israel is justified in defending itself, we believe that Israel has every right to flourish among the nations of the world as a Jewish Democracy, and we will continue to advocate, and to organize, and to speak on behalf of that right. Our faith in Israeli democracy, in our brothers and sisters in Zion goes so far as to believe that they will find the ingenuity to overcome the violence and the hate that permeates the Middle East, that they will be relentless in the pursuit of peace, because Israel recognizes as do we, that the only long-term solution will be two-states for two-peoples in that region. And so we must redouble our efforts.   First and immediately for Israeli security and safety; second, to be able to continue to sit at the table with anyone who will speak with us, so that they can know that we are always ready for a real peace. Not a paper peace, not a cosmetic peace, but a peace that ensures the security and the safety of Israel and of Palestine, so that both peoples can thrive, and that that region can once again be a source of Torah and light for the world.

The King is in the field, and the field is Eretz Yisrael. Are we being good caretakers? Are we showing the King a love for all of God’s children, and standing up for our heritage to be able to take our place among the peoples of the world as a free people —exercising compassion and justice in our own land?

This has been a devastating summer and fall. I know that like me, you have cried tears watching as our friends, our families, were forced yet again to take up arms, yet again to run into shelters, yet again to suffer discrimination, violence, and slander at the hands of bigots and ideologues around the world. I know that like me, you stood with pride at Israel’s courage, at the number of Israelis who went to attend the funeral of a young Muslim boy who was kidnapped and murdered by Jews because Israelis knew that their place was with the mourners. That is who we are – as a people – and that will be our greatness: Our creativity, our depth, our faith that our humanity and our vision can overcome their hate and their pettiness. We will try it. We have always managed to try it.

If we learn nothing else from the Jewish calendar and from the history of our people, it is that we are presented with the choice of whether to grow into our greatness or to allow other people’s assaults to make us small, vengeful, and petty. We know that it is easy to give in to the hate.

Brothers and sisters, my plea with you is to remember that being advocates for a strong, safe, and Jewish Israel invites us to our greatness, not to become like our enemies. Growing into our greatness means that the welfare of the population of our enemy is our concern as well. It means that in addition to safeguarding our borders and our civilians, we will care for their sick, their weak, and for their children. We will continue to worry about the safety of non-combatants, and we will continue to pursue any real avenue of peace, so long as it is not at the expense of our survival.

Let our enemies and our friends know that in our thriving as a people, Israel thriving as a Jewish democracy, and our loyalty to the highest values of justice, compassion, and peace, we are united as one.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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