March 30, 2020

Sorry, Israel Is Complicated

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 25: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference on March 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to speak at the conference, but cut his U.S. trip short after a rocket from Gaza struck Israel. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Throw 25 rabbinical students from the major streams of Judaism on an Israeli tour bus for a week, and what do you get? A complicated situation. This is exactly what the AIPAC Lefell Fellowship aims to accomplish: bring together future rabbis in a space that permits discussion, disagreement and love for the Jewish state. 

 As a recent rabbinic mentor on the Fellowship, I witnessed firsthand the intricacies, nuances and sensitivities of America’s future rabbis; different political, religious and social backgrounds, all with a distinct view on the land of Israel.

The terms apartheid state, colonialist, and BDS are thrown about by the media to describe the Jewish democratic state. To the rest of the world, it appears black and white. While it’s easy to stand on a pulpit and shout platitudes to a congregation, how do you speak about Israel when you witness the complications of daily life?

Just several examples I experienced, and you too will quickly understand: It’s complicated. 

At the Wolfson medical facility in Tel Aviv we met Ahmed, a young boy from the Palestinian town of Nablus who has a heart defect and, as a participant in the Save a Child’s Heart program, is treated by top Israeli cardiac surgeons. The doctor explained the first meeting between Ahmed’s family as tense. Yet, when asked to now describe their relationship, Ahmed’s father exclaimed, “We love you, Dr. Ilana!” 

It’s complicated.

An hour later, we met Chen, from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, located one mile from the Gaza border. Before she began her tour, she laid out the safety precautions we must take if a siren sounded: Run to the closest safe room within six seconds. Standing in her lush, green backyard, she opened a closet, expected to be full of lawn toys for her grandchildren. Instead, she pointed to different items that regularly land in her yard: Qassam rockets, shrapnel, incendiary kites and balloons, all which continue to fall. Finally, she took out a board game called Makom Bituach (Safe Place). It looked like Chutes and Ladders, but had a different twist. It was a game allowing children to express their feelings after going through a “red alert,” when they are required to hide under a desk as a rocket flies overhead. As we left, Chen nonchalantly remarked, “By the way, yesterday, two families applied for membership to our kibbutz. It’s a great place to live.” 

It’s complicated.

The next day, we sat in the Millennium Palestine Ramallah hotel and met a top Palestinian Authority official, who critiqued Israel and the United States. A credible Palestinian pollster explained that the young population feels as if they have only two choices in this conflict with Israel: violence or boycott, divestment and sanctions.

It’s complicated.

Later, we sat with Mayor Oded Revivi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. He shared his pride in the friendship he has built with his Arab neighbor, Raji. At that moment, Raji called to let the mayor know of an attempted stabbing at the Gush Etzion junction.

The one guarantee is that tomorrow will be more complicated than today. 

Later that day, we learned that the soldier who intervened in the attack was the American brother-in-law of our tour guide. The injured terrorist was transported and treated at a Jerusalem hospital. Who was his doctor? The wife of our tour guide — the sister of the soldier who injured him. 

Simply put, it’s complicated.

I have visited Israel more than 20 times — as a child, as a student and as a rabbi. Each visit is more complicated than the one before. 

While I arrived at the Fellowship as a teacher, I left as a student. 

At our final banquet, I shared a simple teaching: 

Israel will always be complicated. The one guarantee is that tomorrow will be more complicated than today. And that is why we must continue to love Israel more tomorrow than we do today.

 Am Yirsael Chai!


Rabbi Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.