Supporting Israel From Afar

With all that’s going on in Israel, I wish I could be there. That’s not only because my son Josh lives there, or because my son Benji is on a summer program touring the country, or because my in-laws just arrived at their home in Israel for a six week stay, or because Amy and I have extended family members there. I wish I could be there because there’s a crisis going on and part of me feels strongly that being a Zionist, even a Zionist who doesn’t live in Israel, should support Israel by being in the land. Of course, the IDF (Israel’s armed forces) doesn’t need me, nor do Israelis need my personal encouragement to cope with the stress of living under the threat of attack. But each day that the war with Gaza goes on, each day that millions of Israelis have to endure the threat of missile attacks launched by terrorists motivated by ideological hatred of Jews and the State of Israel, I feel that I want to be in Israel. I’m not able to be there now, but I would be if I could.

So I read with special interest the story in this week’s parasha about the proposal by the Reubenites and the Gadites, made to Moses and the elders of the community, that they settle not in the Land of Canaan (later to become Israel), as God promised the people, but rather in the lands east of the Jordan river. As the narrative tells it, these two tribes wished to settle east of the Jordan because those lands “were a region suitable for cattle” and they had a lot of cattle. Moses responds to their request with bitter criticism, chastising them for being no better than the people who supported Korah in his rebellion. He says, “Are your brothers to go war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them?” Clearly, Moses is concerned that if the Reubenites and the Gadites don’t cross the river and fight to inhabit the land along with the rest of the people, they will send a message that the land can’t be conquered. Others would then want to follow suit and remain on the east of the Jordan where they think it will be safer. The Midrash also questions the motives of the Reubenites and the Gadites, citing that their proposal to Moses prioritizes grazing for their cattle over building homes for their children.

In the end, the two tribes promise to fight alongside their fellow Israelites and then return to settle on the land to the east of the Jordan. What can we draw from the story? Perhaps the message here is that the Reubenites and Gadites erred by separating from the rest of their people. Perhaps their motivations were not so pure and instead were based on financial gain, as the Midrash suggests.

But perhaps we can read the story from the perspective of those who love Israel but live in the Diaspora. Perhaps it is a story about people who care deeply about the fate and welfare of their people, despite wishing to live outside of Israel. The Reubenites and the Gadites offered to support their fellow Israelites despite the fact that they ultimately chose to live elsewhere. Rather than condemn them, we can understand them and appreciate their good intentions.

Fast forward to the days we are now living through. Israel is facing a serious threat, with no end in sight. I hope and pray that a cease fire will be declared and Israeli soldiers and civilians will not face the danger and threat of missile attacks, just as I hope and pray that all innocent people caught up in this terrible tragedy are spared any further pain and suffering. I hope that the community of civilized nations will finally accept the fact that Israel faces a threat to the safety and security of her citizens, and will abandon their petty and close minded criticism of Israel’s military response to terrorists. I hope that one-sided and biased reporting of events in Gaza will be replaced by a more comprehensive and even-handed perspective about a tragic situation made necessary by terrorists firing missiles into Israel.

Until then, what can we do? Like the Reubenites and Gadites, who opted to live outside of Israel but continued to care about their people, their nation and their land, we can offer Israel our love and our support. We can contribute to the emergency campaign organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. We can attend the Solidarity Rally sponsored by our Federation on Monday, July 21 at 9:30 AM…I plan to attend and I hope you will as well. We can be informed advocates for Israel, able to answer her critics and enemies with accurate information. We can support organizations that seek to support and advocate for Israel.

I want to be in Israel, but I can’t right now, so that is what I’ll do.

A Token Kippah

You can tell a lot about a person from the kippah they wear.  There is the 4-panel suede kippah.  It’s fairly inexpensive and comes in a wide variety of colors, so it’s commonly given out at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration and used by institutions that put their name and logo on it.  There’s the black velvet kippah worn mostly by the ultra-Orthodox.  There’s the black satin-like kippah (white on the High Holidays), given out by synagogues and funeral homes to people who probably didn’t bring their own to a religious service.  I like to wear a kippah s’ruga, a crocheted kippah made with thin yarn and small stiches.  The kippah s’ruga is worn by modern religious Jews.  In Israel, it’s worn by religious Zionists who are proud to be Israelis, are interested in being religiously observant, and want to engage in politics, academics, science, technology or business.

While in Israel last week, I stopped to buy a new kippah at one of the shops on Ben Yehudah in Jerusalem.  The store has every color and design of kippah imaginable.  There are kippot with personal names, names of sports teams, colleges, television shows, cities and more.  I was looking through piles and piles of kippot for just the right color and shape when another customer entered the store and began looking for a kippah.  “Yesh l’cha kippah asimon?” he inquired.  He was asking the vendor if he had a “kippah asimon,” an especially small kippah about the size of a silver dollar pancake, perhaps two or three inches in diameter, barely bigger than the clip needed to hold it in place.  The kippah gets its name- asimon- from the Hebrew word for token (before everyone had a cell phone, Israelis had to put “asimonim,” tokens, in pay phones because the cost of a making a call fluctuated so frequently and the price of an asimon could be changed more easily than recalibrating the phone to take more coins).  The man next to me chose a dark green kippah asimon, paid his 20 shekels and left.

The kippah asimon doesn’t meet the minimum size requirement according to Jewish law for a kippah (one quarter of the circumference must be as long as the span of three knuckles on the upper part of your hand).   So why would someone wear something so small?  It turns out that the kippah asimon is a message kippah, an item worn to send a message about being both religious and a Zionist.  Someone who wears a kippah asimon is saying that they reject some of the principles espoused by religious Zionists in Israel today.  They’re just about ready to distance themselves from that segment of Israeli society, found among many religious Zionists, that embraces religious values but also includes a particular view of Zionism.  They want to wear a kippah, in keeping with religious values and practice, but they want to send a message that they are not aligned with some of the positions and actions taken by religious Zionists, so they wear a kippah asimon.

Being a Zionist means actively supporting the right of the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel in safety and security.  Zionism, especially when nested in Jewish religious values, also means espousing compassion and justice, not only for Jews but for all humanity.  Yet some of the statements and positions of some religious Zionists reveal a different view of Zionism, one that is unyielding in its nearly exclusive emphasis on the rights and needs of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.  When I was in Jerusalem last week, one event that made headlines was a protest against the Kerry peace initiative held at the Western Wall and attended by numerous people who identify as religious Zionists, including Knesset members.  It’s one thing to have reservations about some of the proposals and ideas in Secretary of State Kerry’s framework for a peace deal.  But it’s something else altogether to portray Zionism as unconcerned with the dignity, rights and future of an entire people.  The heads of certain Yeshivot, who spend their days teaching Torah to their students, simultaneously hold views that do not take into account any moral concerns about occupying another people.  I wonder about religious leaders who love the people of Israel and the land of Israel but whose Zionist views limit that love exclusively to Jews.  If religious leaders won’t stand up for justice, who will?

I am a proud Zionist who loves the land of Israel and the State of Israel.  I recognize that Israel faces some genuine threats from those who wish to undermine or destroy her, and I am concerned.  The BDS movement and initiatives to delegitimize Israel are gaining momentum.  Anti-Israel campaigns on college campuses are getting stronger and more popular.  There is no doubt that Israel must be cautious in the current negotiations.  But the occupation of the Palestinians who live in the West Bank is itself a threat to the future stability of the State of Israel, and every government of the State of Israel for the past 20 years has said as much.  Shouldn’t it be that religious leaders say so as well, not only because it serves our needs but because it is right?  If they don’t, it may be time to switch to a different kippah.