Yom Chamishi, 20 AdarI 5781
Thursday, 4 March 2021
Parashat Ki Tisa 2011

Parashat Ki Tisa by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
19 February 2011

Is Israel our Golden Calf? Once a central metaphor for prayers, poetry, hopes and latterly ideologies for Jews throughout the ages, whether living in good times and especially when living in threatening environments; the State of Israel is a reality. It is no longer a dream. It is no longer the stuff of fairy tales that could define it as the Cinderalla struggling against the ugly sisters, or biblically of David fighting Goliath. The State of Israel is not mature but it is maturing and as with teenagers, there is often some incredible productivity balanced by some grotty behaviour.

It took a good while for the Diaspora as a collective to truly appreciate the importance of the State of Israel to their lives. There were collections for the nascent State, appeals to support communities and towns establish themselves, to drain the Land of swamps and to bring blooms to the desert and vegetation to feed the population. There were also Zionists, a new breed of ideologues generally imported from Eastern and Mainland Europe to the Jewish Communities blessedly untouched by the Shoah – the Holocaust.

But the new immigrants to Britain and America also brought a focus on the aftermath of the Shoah. The necessity to rebuild lives devastated by murder and pillage placed on the victims and the communities that had to assimilate them a demand that did not always allow the distraction of Israel. Israel was more in focus for those still living under oppressive regimes. Israel’s focus was on Jews in the Arab States and not on the comfortable western Jewish Communities.

Perhaps that all changed with the existential wars of the State of Israel: the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War. They created a new sense, that of the need to support and protect our fellow Jews in Israel, with many from western countries flying in to support the war effort. And the aftermath of the Six Day War presented a cause that united Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora, that of the refusniks, those Soviet Jews who applied for emigration to Israel and were denied it. During the Cold War Soviet Jews were thought to be a security liability or possible traitors. To apply for an exit visa, the applicants (and often their entire families) would have to quit their jobs, which in turn would make them vulnerable to charges of social parasitism, a criminal offense. Jews encountered institutional antisemitism that was too close to that experienced in the Shoah to ignore. New characters such as Natan Sharansky were our Mandela figures and refusniks included Jews who desired to emigrate on religious grounds, Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel for Zionist aspirations, and relatively secular Jews desiring to escape state-sponsored Antisemitism. There was a Jew for everyone to identify with. Our idenitifcation with world Jewry and the State of Israel had been solidified by existential threats to a State and to Jewish People of a State.

This unification brought with it a general solidarity in the way that Diaspora Jewry interfaced with Israel. Whilst in the privacy of our homes their might occasionally be some disquiet expressed, externally there was a united support and if necessary defense of Israel and its actions. Israeli politicians did not have much call to admonish their Diaspora. I grew-up in a time when all I heard about Israel was good. When I visited Israel I saw pluralism, Jew and Arab living side-by-side, the market-places alive and thriving, the deserts alive with Biblical interest and astonishing oases of growth where nature would say it were not possible. Gleaming new boulevards, Egged Buses as the Kings of the Road, the bringing together of East and West that reminded one of ancient trading routes. Scientists, musicians and poets, engineers and mystics, secular and religious all had an integrated place that allowed them to thrive. There was a particular narrative that basically blamed Israel’s problems on the surrounding Arab nations and a few terrorists. As a child I wanted to wear an army uniform of the IDF. Israel, Jews and the world were still in love with the miracle that was the State of Israel.

Perhaps it was the Lebanon Wars and intifadas, too many to ignore, that opened our eyes and minds to the inequalities. We knew that there had been poverty, we knew there had been exclusion but our narrative would not allow us to accept dissonance. Suicide bombings created a new reality and the Separation Wall too easy to make comparisons with the Berlin Wall that had been torn down a decade or so earlier. Israel seemed to be in reverse gear as the developed world around it moved forward.

Now in particular we were told by Israeli politicians that if Diaspora Jews wanted to talk about Israel, especially critically, they only had the right to do so if they came and lived in Israel. Now Jewish Communities leaders in the Diaspora launched Solidarity Tours and urged the quieting of dissenting voices. I initiated and led a trip for Liberal Judaism to Israel aimed at better understanding the situation. But now that I think of, we were still led by the old narrative. We did not meet an Arab or Palestinian, the only challenge to meet a Jewish Settler of the West Bank with whom it was difficult to agree with but also difficult to contradict.

But thoughtful critique cannot be long ostracised or debate hushed-up. New narratives appeared and our Jewish Community of the west grew confident with their own standing and whilst initially trying to silence them, could not hold back the stream of evidence to suggest that alternative narratives were not a fictional invention of self-hating Jews.  Nearly on a weekly basis this viewpoint is being challenged, most notably by Tzipi Lvini, the leader of the Opposition in Israel who stated last week that Israel needed to listen to its critical friends.

For some, the State of Israel may have felt like a golden calf, a burden to protect or a burden of guilt as critical views were kept internalised. There is no need to build-up a golden calf as a complete alternative to living in the Diaspora, for the Diaspora is a mature and accepted state of Jewish living. It is certainly not exile. There is no need to build a golden calf to worship for Judaism itself is now so firmly established that, despite the doom-mongerers, it will not die out. Now there is no need to have this burden for the Diaspora is having its own enlightenment in relation to Israel. A plurality of voices are heard and they are concentrated, not on myths or inherited narratives but by reality, hard evidence and the thoughtful debate that should spring from them. We can talk about the existential threat to the State of Israel from Iran and its sponsorship of terrorist groups and in the same breath talk about the need for the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel. We can all throw our hands up in the air and say, honestly that we have no solutions for Gaza. We can talk about the dangers of there being ultra-Orthodox enclaves of Israel whilst acknowledging that Progressive Judaism and pluralism have made irreversible strides in the past few years. We can defend Israel’s right to exist and at the same time acknowledge the right of the Palestinians to their own State. We can scream about the unfair treatment of Israel in our media and yet know that we can also place forceful advocates.

This new, mature and open approach is exemplified by the work of our Zionist Youth Movement, LJY-NETZER. For our young people, Israel Tour is as much a rite of passage as Bnei Mitzvah and Kabbalat Torah. Last night I overheard the excitement of two young adults in our Community discussing the summer they intend to spend in Israel. They can celebrate what is wonderful about Israel and excites them without embarrassment. They can also talk about their desires for continuing change in Israeli society towards the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

We no longer need solidarity trips but trips that can play a part, no matter how small in defining the future of Israeli society. We need not worship Israel as a mythical State that can do no wrong but can engage with it, to support it to become the State based on the deepest Jewish values that contain universal truth. Mature engagement.

I am delighted to announce this morning that we will be sharing a trip to Israel in late October early November with out Methodist neighbours. We will go and try to understand the past but more importantly understand the present and the part that we can play together to support a peaceful and prosperous future for all Israelis, Jews, Muslims and Christians, Druse and Bedouin. Indeed, to create projects that all our members, children, women and men can engage with and feel proud that they have played a small part in creating the Israeli society that we dream of.

I pray that my children will grow to experience Israel and Palestine and their neighbours without need to resort to myth or exclusive narratives. I pray that they will have no need of, or feel burdened by golden calves. I pray that Israel will be a light to nations and that we as Jews, together with our partners from other faith groups and none, will have done our part in lighting beacons for the future. An Israel that is central to our being and a Diaspora whose support, criticism and live, is welcomed by an Israel that is a home for those who want it to be and comfortable with a Diaspora not in exile.