When I was a child in Cleveland, Abba Hillel Silver was my rabbi. Along with Stephen S. Wise, Rabbi Silver was the major leader in America who lobbied for Israel’s statehood. He represented Israel when she was accepted by the United Nations in 1948. One might therefore say that I was a Zionist by osmosis, and Silver’s influence was partially behind my choice to enter the rabbinate.
In June of 1966 I went to Israel for my third year of rabbinical studies. It was a tense time. There was an economic recession, more Jews were leaving the country than coming in, and neighboring countries were in various stages of hostile acts against Israel. But for me, that year was the beginning of my love affair with the country and her people.
The end of that year culminated with the Six-Day War. I volunteered as a teacher during the call-up of Israeli men during the two weeks prior to the war. At the end of that two-week period, I was housed at Hebrew Union College on King David Street. On Wednesday, June 7, 1967, from the vantage point of the balcony of Hebrew Union College, I saw the Israeli soldiers penetrate the fortress surrounding Migdal David, the center of Jordanian Legionnaire resistance. Suddenly I heard the sound of a distant trumpet, and I watched as the blue and white Star of David was slowly raised over this fortress. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, Jerusalem was united.
I now view that moment as both a miracle and a curse. If we had lost the war, Israel might have been destroyed. That possibility, following the events of the Holocaust, might have been too much for the Jewish people to endure. That we won was the miracle. But the curse is the Occupation that has become a cancer for the state and people of Israel. Slowly but surely, the Occupation has helped erode Israel’s democracy and has increased the power of the settler movement.
My love affair with Israel and her people is as alive today as when I first went there in 1966. My life since then has been filled with work and devotion to the country, both as the executive of the S.F.-based Federation and then as head of National UJA. I was privileged to help bring almost a million new citizens to Israel from the Soviet Union. More recently I have helped lead the New Israel Fund, which works to strengthen democracy in Israel.
My problem is with the present Israeli government, which seems to be moving inexorably toward annexation. As has been stated so many times, if the West Bank were annexed, Israel would have to chose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one. Although the Israeli people are firmly against annexation, the status quo appears to be creeping toward that end. Moreover, the majority of this government seems to favor a “one-state solution.”
I am relieved and grateful that Israel has survived and flourished in this complicated neighborhood; her 70th birthday should be seen as a blessing to Israelis and people everywhere. My hope is that over the next period of time, the Occupation comes to an end and that once again Israel can enjoy the moral high ground while strengthening its democracy.