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Israel, UN, and the Obama Administration: Facts, Fictions, and Feelings Parshas Vayigash

A week and a half ago, a group of us in shul completed a book that we have been studying for almost two years, the Kuzari, a masterpiece written in the 11th century, by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi is one of the staunchest Zionists to have lived; in his writings he elevates the status of Israel beyond any previous Jewish writer.

He concludes his book with a plea to his brethren in the diaspora. He writes that although there are many dangers travelling to Israel, one should risk their life to settle in the land of Israel. He himself did exactly that. He travelled from Spain, by boat, by horse, by foot, until he made it to the Jewish People’s ancestral land.

And although many Jews living in his time did not heed his impassioned call, over the past sixty years, his book has become one of the most important pieces in Religious-Zionist literature, and now almost a thousand years later, his plea for aliyah is being heard by countless individuals.

One such individual is Rafi Lisker. Rafi made Aliyah from the United States, and moved to the city of Efrat, where he and his wife Shoshy have raised their family. He works in strategic planning and business development with Israeli-based high tech companies.

Rafi and his wife Shoshy have a beautiful custom to take a short walk every Friday night. They do so after Rafi returns from Shul on Friday nights before sitting down with their family for their Shabbos meal. Husband and wife steal away a few quiet minutes after a long week; they talk freely and together, they begin to ease into the spiritual, calming atmosphere of Shabbos.

Two weeks ago, their serene stroll was horribly interrupted by a blow to Rafi’s upper back and shoulder. One blow then three rapid blows – with a knife. He was stabbed four times. Rafi didn’t know what was happening until he heard his wife screaming that it was a terrorist. Later doctors would explain to Rafi that the purpose of the 1st blow is to knock him to his knees and the next rapid three are to puncture his lungs. In what Rafi attributes to an open miracle, he somehow stayed on his feet, pushed his wife to safety and turned to face his attacker. He screamed for security and the terrorist ran away. The only thing, Rafi later said, that kept running through his mind was that he would not let his children become orphans and his wife a widow.

Rafi was rushed to Shaarei Tzedek hospital and was well enough to be discharged by the early hours of the next morning. He returned home and lit the Menorah for the first night of Chanukkah. This all happened at 6 PM Israel time, which was roughly noontime in America. Two hours later, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel for building settlements, one of which is Efrat, with lip service towards not even Palestinian terror, but generic terror, implying that it is not a Palestinian issue but a regional one.

Over the past two weeks, I experienced a wide range of feelings about the UN and the Obama administration; feelings of anger, frustration, and exasperation. I imagine many of you have felt the same way. But having two weeks to think about it, I’ve also realized that while there is a whole lot that I feel, but there is not so much that I know. And I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss a number of different sentiments that relate to Israel, the “settlements”, and the current administration’s treatment of Israel, and to distinguish between what I know, what I do not know, and what I feel; facts, fictions, and feelings.

#1) The failure of peace talks is Israel’s fault. Fact, fiction, or feeling?

Well, the international community may place the blame on Israel. The United States may have a higher standard for Israel than they do anyone else. But to blame Israel for the failure to make peace is irrational and just plain wrong.

The peace talks in Camp David between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat in which Gaza and most of the West Bank were offered, otherwise known as the Clinton Parameters – rejected by Arafat.

The disengagement from Gaza – Hamas, an avowed enemy of the State of Israel took control.

Olmert’s offer of an unprecedented 97% of the disputed territory – rejected by Mahmoud Abbas.

So you tell me, Israel is to blame?! That is patently false.

That being said, is Netanyahu genuinely interested in a two-state solution? Probably not. It sure doesn’t seem like he is with his current coalition, nor with the building permits he’s issued. Most analysts assume that what he is interested in is the status quo. And again, who can blame him? If he were to use history as a guide, negotiations for peace are a big waste of time.

So is the current administration in Israel to blame for a lack of peace; fact, fiction – probably somewhere in between.

Which is closely related to the next point and that is,

#2) The status quo with what is known as the West Bank is untenable; fact, fiction, or feeling?

Well, to not do anything would ensure that Israel continues to be ostracized by the international community. Although this resolution has not had an impact on Israel’s economy and the like, the trajectory of the international community’s sentiments are not in Israel’s favor, and who knows where that will lead. More importantly, there are millions of Arabs struggling, and while many of them, and certainly their leadership are to blame, I would imagine that many more are not. That’s a moral issue that we cannot ignore endlessly.

So if and for how long the status quo can be maintained is anyone’s guess.

Which leads us to the next point and that is, #3) There are no good solutions to the issue at hand.

To give up the land and go back to pre-1967 borders, as is proposed, would seem to me to be a form of suicide, considering what happened in Gaza, considering the fact that the PA cannot be considered a true partner in peace.

Then again, there are countless former generals, people who unlike most of us actually know what they’re talking about in matters of security who claim that giving up that land would not put Israel at risk and would actually ensure peace.

So are there solutions? I personally feel like there are none, and I am pretty sure many of you agree. But there are important, knowledgeable, lovers of Israel who disagree, so at the very most I will leave this once again, as a feeling.

#4) The fact that President Obama through Samantha Powers did not veto the most recent UN resolution is indicative of the fact that he is an anti-Semite. Fact, fiction, or feeling?

It is a fact that President Obama is anti-Netanyahu, a hot mike in Paris caught him saying that quite clearly. Antisemitism is defined as hostility, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews, which would make any double standard to Israel an expression of antisemitism. However, anti-Semitism is a serious charge and by throwing it around lightly it cheapens the term. There is most certainly a blind-spot in the eyes of the international community, an inexplicable view that holds Israel to a standard that is different than any other country but I would argue that this is NOT antisemitism. I am incapable of suggesting a precise definition of antisemitism which does not include this type of anti-Israel bias, but antisemitism it isn’t. And I know many of you disagree with me, and so I will humbly leave my sentiment as a feeling.

And lastly, #5) giving up land for peace is against Jewish Law. Fact, fiction, or feeling?

There is a clear-cut Biblical prohibition against giving up any part of the land of Israel. On this basis, many great sages have argued that trading land for peace, even if it was feasible, would not be allowed. However, there have been some, most notably former Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who argued that if military commanders believe that giving up land would save lives, as some do, then pikuach nefesh, the saving of people’s lives would override the prohibition, thereby making land for peace not only acceptable but mandatory.

And so, this question too, is far from simple.


I feel like Israel cannot be blamed for the stagnation of peace talks, but I understand that it is not so clear. I feel like the status quo with these disputed territories is the best we will ever see, but others think it will eventually collapse and should collapse. I feel like ceding these lands will bring more bloodshed, but others argue that it will bring peace. Some believe that giving land is allowed and others argue that it is forbidden. These are sentiments, feelings, at the most, they are perspectives.

Now let me tell you what I know. For a fact.

Later today, a few of us will be concluding the Book of Joshua. The book of Joshua is a historical account of the conquest of the land of Israel by the Jewish People, our ancestors, making the land of Israel rightfully theirs, the same way every other country in the world came into being.

Well before the establishment of Britain, France, Spain, some of the countries that voted against Israel last week, Israel was a flourishing Jewish country. The first Jewish king was seated on his throne over two thousand years before the English monarchy was established.

Or how about the following? New Zealand, another country that voted against Israel, like the United States, struggles with an uncomfortable feature of their history – indigenous people; natives of the land who were mistreated and expelled from their ancestral. The United States, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, all these countries are trying, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully to acknowledge the past and make amends. So tell me, why are the Jewish People not considered indigenous to the land of Israel? Why isn’t 3,500 years of uninterrupted living in the land enough to give us a claim to what is rightfully ours? Why does the murky history of the past hundred years involving a country that did not exist – Palestine, supersede history dating back to 1300 BCE?! That I do not understand.

What I do understand and what I do know as a FACT is that Israel belongs to the Jewish People; it always has and always will. The international community may sanction the State of Israel, the State of Israel may decide that it is in their best interest to give up parts of the land, Jewish law may even mandate giving up parts of the land of Israel, but none of that effects the FACT that Israel is ours.

There is no West Bank, there is Yehuda and Shomron. Yerushalayim is a Jewish holy place, and was so well before the Crusaders or the conquest of Saladin. Borders of pre-’67 don’t hold a flame to borders listed in the Torah, borders that were inhabited by Jews throughout the millennia.

History has a funny way of repeating itself. We just finished celebrating Chanukah. After the Maccabees successfully routed the Greeks, Antiochus VII, ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, demanded that Simon, who led the Maccabees in their struggle for religious freedom, return to him the “illegally occupied” cities of Jaffa, Gezer and the coastal towns, which had previously been controlled by the Syrian-Greeks. Talk about chutzpah!

Listen to how Shimon responded. In Maccabees 1 Chapter 15: “We have not taken strange lands, nor are we ruling over foreign territory. We have returned to our ancestral inheritance, from which we had been unjustly expelled by our enemies. And now that we have been blessed with the opportunity, we will hold onto our ancestral land.”

For all the confusion, for all the ambiguity, this is a fact: It will forever be contested by Jew and gentile alike, but Shimon the Maccabee was right, from the time of revolutionaries like Abraham through the times of warriors like Joshua, from the kingdom of King David through the kingdom of the Maccabees, from the time of dreamers like Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi through the times of actualizers like Rafi Lisker, there will be those who stand in our way. Decisions have to be made, tough decisions have to be made, but regardless of what anyone says, regardless of what they do, regardless of what ultimately happens, Israel is our ancestral land. And so I conclude with words that you all know, words that are today a prayer, a hope, and in the future they will be a fact. Please join me:

עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ, ‘Od lo avdah tikvateinu, Our hope is not yet lost,
הַתִּקְוָה בַּת שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִם Hatikvah bat sh(e)not ’alpayim, The hope of two thousand years,
לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ, Lihyot ‘am chofshi b(e)’artzeinu, To be a free nation in our land,
אֶרֶץ צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם. ’Eretz-Tziyon viy(e)rushalayim. The land of Zion and Jerusalem.


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