Sign In Forgot Password


03/16/2023 12:38:24 PM


Rabbi Batsheva Appel

Four years ago I took a small group of congregants on a trip to Israel. We had a four-session class before the trip to give them some background and to go over the itinerary. I would review some of the history of Israel and then would generally end with “It’s complicated.” A congregant told me, “Rabbi, you keep saying it is complicated. How complicated could it be?” When we were in Israel and traveling up to Jerusalem, as the guide explained the system of A areas, B areas, and C areas, the congregant looked and me and said, “Rabbi, you are right. It is complicated.” 

I went to Israel for the Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention at the end of last month. Our convention is in Israel every seven years. Having spent over a week there for my first visit in almost 4 years, I can tell you that it is now exponentially more complicated than it was the last time that I was there. 

You now know me well enough after 9 months together, to know that I very rarely preach on political things. I am conscious of people’s need to find sanctuary on Shabbat and political sermons do not always allow people to find the peace of sanctuary. It is a quirk of the timing of events that a few weeks after speaking with you about a Jewish view on abortion, that I am going to speak with you tonight about Israel. 

The challenge of speaking about Israel is not just the complexity, it is that the situation has nuances that are not always clearly communicated or even heard. I will share some of my thoughts about my trip and some of my concerns. I consider myself a Zionist and I am concerned by some of what I saw and some of what happened while I was there. If that sentence alone leads you to the conclusion that my concerns mean that I am not a Zionist, I am going to encourage you to examine all the responses that you might typically make to statements about Israel. The situation is developing and changing so quickly that answers you might give may soon no longer work for you. Statements like: “Sha, shtil. We shouldn’t criticize Israel.” Or “Israel is a vibrant democracy in a rough neighborhood.” Or “Israel’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals or of women is much better than other places.” Or “Israel is needed as a place of refuge for Jews all over the world.” 

I very much enjoyed being in Israel. I encourage people who are interested to receive a blessing on the bima before traveling to Israel because I hope that it is both meaningful to them and that it encourages other people to go. It is powerful to be in a place where Jewish identity comes to the fore. To be in a place of beauty and ancient history. To see a diversity of people speaking Hebrew. To see the creativity in the arts and in worship. I look forward to my next trip to the Holy Land. All going well, I hope to visit in 2024. 

Before this Convention, they conducted a survey asking us what we thought was the most important thing for us to learn about and to see while we were there. Overwhelmingly the response was the importance of learning more about situations where there is the possibility of conflict. They created a variety of tracks for us to look at some of these situations. I took one trip to a haredi, ultra-orthodox, neighborhood in Jerusalem, to learn more about that community. I took trip to a kibbutz that is 800 meters from the border of Gaza. Other sessions included hearing from Thomas Nides, US Ambassador to Israel, Members of Knesset, Gilad Kariv, Merav Michaeli, and Idan Roll; former Supreme Court of Israel Justice Elyakim Rubinstein. We also heard from leaders in the Israel Reform Movement, and I had time to speak with folks from the Reform congregation in Modi’in over home hospitality for Shabbat dinner.  

During my trip, many things happened in Israel as well.  

There was an incident in Nablus, where an attempt was made to arrest three individuals who were thought to be planning attacks against Israelis in the near future. It turned into a firefight with eleven people killed and scores of people injured. 

On the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar, a month of joy, there were scuffles as the Women of the Wall tried to hold the service that they have held on Rosh Chodesh every month for the past three decades. Students from yeshivas were bussed in to scream and push and spit on those who were trying to worship, including many of my colleagues. That same day, a group of hareidim tried to set up the egalitarian section of the wall with a mechitza to prevent men and women from worshipping together. They were removed. 

The day that I went to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, there were rockets fired from Gaza, very early in the morning. Of the six rockets, five were brought down by the Iron Dome. 

An unidentified Palestinian shot and killed two brothers, Hillel Menachem Yaniv and Yagel Ya’akov Yaniv, in Huwara, in the West Bank. In response to the shooting, groups of Israeli settlers, rioted, setting fire to cars, homes, and businesses. No one intervened, and an Israeli commander called it a pogrom. Bezalel Smotrich, who is now in charge of the administration of the West Bank, called for the town of Huwara to be wiped out. Smotrich, walked back his comments subsequently as being said in the heat of the moment. As it happens, he is currently in the United States as a speaker for an Israel Bonds program and there have been protests about his inclusion. 

The first reading of the bill containing judicial reforms happened in the Knesset. There are three readings of a bill before it can be passed and signed into law. Despite pleas from President Yitzchak Herzog and growing protests of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, Netanyahu did not withdraw the bill or consider negotiating changes. 

It is a lot to absorb. When I said that Israel is now even more complicated, it is because I left Israel with the feeling that it is at an inflection point, that things are developing quickly, and the possible outcomes are alarming. 

“Sha, shtil. We shouldn’t criticize Israel.” We have standing to criticize Israel because the effects of the actions of Israel are extended to all Jews and Jewish communities. We are asked for support for the State of Israel when possible. 

“Israel is a vibrant democracy in a rough neighborhood.” The vibrancy of democracy in Israel is very much under attack from the bill to overhaul the judiciary. Currently, the judiciary is the only check on the actions of the government. The effect of the bill would be to make it possible to overturn decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes in the Knesset. It would make the appointment of judges a partisan process rather than a non-partisan process. It would remove the only check on the legislative branch of government. It will be hard to call Israel a vibrant democracy if the bill goes through. This bill is why there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets throughout the country. This bill is why there is now division among the military. This bill is why some of the tech companies who have been happy to set up in Israel are now making noises about leaving. 

“Israel’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals or of women is much better than other places.” Once the judiciary has been muzzled, there are plans to pass laws affecting these groups. There are plans for greater gender segregation including more segregated buses. There are plans for amending the laws concerning LGBTQ individuals allowing for people to refuse service on religious grounds. 

“Israel is needed as a place of refuge for Jews all over the world.” There are plans to revisit both the Law of Return and the definition of who is a Jew. 

And all of this is internal struggle. With regard to the situation in Gaza and the West Bank, things are also intensifying rapidly, the current government wants to speed up the settlement in the West Bank, and I am uncertain where there are off ramps to peace.  

So where does that leave us as Jews in our relationship to Israel? 

I still believe that Judaism requires both communities, inside and outside of Israel, in the same way that in geometry an oval requires two locus points.  

There are people working for democracy and there are people working for peace. I saw an art exhibition jointly created between a photographer at the kibbutz on the Gaza border and a resident of Gaza. I heard from the mayor of that municipality, and he shared a plan to create a land port and manufacturing area between Gaza and Israel where tens of thousands of Palestinians could find good work and there could be free trade. He said that they now have the initial permissions to go ahead. There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting and speaking out and working to change the judicial bill. There is agreement that there needs to be judicial reform, negotiated reform, not a steam roller that changes the character of the nation. 

Over Shabbat dinner two weeks ago in Modi’in, our hosts asked us if we were going to speak about Israel to our congregations. My initial answer was “no”. Israel sermons are difficult to preach and to hear. There is a lot of nuance that can be lost along the way. I changed my mind in the last two weeks, so that you would hear about this from me. There is so much that we gain as Jews in Omaha, Nebraska from Israel. And there is so much that Israel can gain from us. Yes, things are more complicated than ever, and there is still some measure of hope. The national anthem of the state of Israel is HaTikvah, the Hope. That hope right now might be only a glimmer, but it is still there. 

Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here

Watch just the Sermon portion here

You can also watch the service from Saturday, March 11. 

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon. 


Fri, March 31 2023 9 Nisan 5783