Kol Nidrey Sermon Delivered by Rabbi David J. Goldberg—2001/5762

This sermon was delivered to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London.

For some, blood will always be thicker than water and no matter how disappointed, they will still say along with the prophet Hosea: "How shall I give up, Ephraim?  How shall I surrender you, O Israel?"

For other Jews, the gap between Israeli political actions and the Jewish ethical teachings will no longer be bridgeable.

"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, /and we are not saved."  It is lines like those, from Jeremiah, chapter 9, that make him, for many of us, the most poetical, therefore the favourite, of the prophets.  What a haunting image that is, and how apt for the mood in which we approach this most solemn and thoughtful of days, a day of self-awareness, self- scrutiny and self-judgment.  And this year, Jeremiah's image takes on added resonance, as we fearfully await the inevitable and justified response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, attacks that made us realize how unredeemed, how unsaved, human nature still is, despite the huge progress we have made in so many fields from Jeremiah's time to ours.

But this Kol Nidrey it is other lines of Jeremiah, from earlier in chapter 9, that I want to take as my theme.  "We looked for peace, but no good came;/And for a time of healing, and behold terror!"  Our fellow Jews in Israel must surely echo that sentiment.  Since July fifteen months ago, when at Camp David Prime Minister Barak went further than any Israeli politician had every gone before in making an unprecedentedly generous offer to the Palestinians, only to be rebuffed, - since then, Israel has been subjected to a second Intifada and a wave of lethal, suicide bomber attacks.  She offered peace, but was repaid with terror.  From Stockholm in the Spring of 2000, through Camp David in July, to the final negotiations at Taba early in 2001, Yassir Arafat did not accept a single compromise.  He and the Palestinians have been revealed in their true colours.  The Oslo Accords of 1993 were simply a stage in their long-term goal of dismantling Israel.  In the words of Professor Shlomo Ben Ami, the chief Israeli negotiator and former Foreign Minister, in a recent eight page article in the Ha'aretz newspaper, "For Arafat, Oslo was a huge diversion, which allowed him to conceal the political pressures and the terrorism he was activating to undermine the very idea of two countries for two nations."

That is now the generally accepted version of events, and has become the historical narrative.  No wonder a despairing electorate turned to Arik Sharon, as the hard man capable of at least bringing a modicum of security to the Israeli public.  Once again the Palestinians, who never miss a chance of losing an opportunity, have been their own worst enemies.  When will they come up with a leader who Israel can do business with?

Already I can sense your hearts sinking.  Not another sermon about Israel!  Can't the LJS rabbis think of something else to think about?  Would that we could.  Let me tell you that when I began considering possible High Holyday sermon topics a few weeks ago, an obvious one the forthcoming centenary of Liberal Judaism; or perhaps to follow up on the theme of postmodernism in my New Year article in the newsletter.  But what Harold Macmillan said was the biggest problem of government—"Events, dear boy, Events"—applies to a lesser extent to sermon writing too.  One simply doesn't know what will happen from week to week, and it is a foolhardy rabbi who plans sermons too far in advance.  Who could have imagined the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon?

But whatever the next few months will bring in the campaign against international terrorism, one thing for sure is that it will impinge on relations in the Middle East, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian problem, is inexorably as did the alliance against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War often years ago.  Once again, we are going to be called upon to show solidarity with a threatened Israel.  My own instinct is that it will be a defining, a pivotal moment in Israeli-Diaspora affairs.  If that is indeed going to be the case, then it behoves us to be properly informed about the issues, rather than relying on propaganda, either Israeli or Arab.  So please sit back and prepare yourself for some tough listening.  This is not going to be an emotional, rabble-rousing call to arms, but as well as I can possible make it, a sober, factual political seminar.

As I said, the Israeli version, which has been circulating for the past year as to why Camp David failed was given official status by Shlomo ben Ami, Prime Minister Barak's chief negotiator, in an article in Ha'aretz on September 14th, just 12 days ago.  You can read it on the Internet.  Likewise, you can read Palestinian versions of why Camp David failed from a number of sources, including Hanan Ashrawi, my friend Afif Safieh, and Abu Ala, the chief Palestinian negotiator.  All of them are, naturally enough, subjective interpretations.  We acted with the best of motives, our adversaries were duplicitous.  You can't expect the participants in a fight to be unbiased, so who can you trust for a reasonably objective assessment?  Well hopefully, the referee.  That is why the most significant of the recent plethora of analysis about the Camp David summit comes from an American source, Robert Malley, who was President Clinton's Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs at the talks.  He wrote a long article in the New York Review of Books of August 9th.  That too, you can call up on the Internet.  It is heavy going, but essential reading for anyone who wishes to be properly informed rather than bandying slogans.

The essence of Malley's narrative is that Barak was neither as generous in his original offer, or Arafat as obdurate in refusing it, as have been generally portrayed.  The historic compromise of the PLO at Oslo in 1993, when it formally recognised Israel, had been to relinquish its claim to 78% of Mandate Palestine, captured in the 1948 war.  The remaining 22% would be the basis of a future Palestinian state.  Barak's opening gambit at Camp David 2000 was to ask for 12% of the West Bank, to offer Palestinian functional autonomy for the outer rim of Jerusalem suburbs like Abu Dis, El Azariah and Beit Haninah, but Jerusalem proper to remain under Israeli sovereignty, Palestinian guardianship of the Temple Mount but Israel to retain sovereignty, and Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley for 3 years, with a military presence for a further 3 thereafter.  After two weeks of intense negotiation, proposals and counter-proposals, and despite enormous pressure from President Clinton, the gap between the two sides was too big to bridge, and the summit ended in acrimony and mutual recrimination.  Malley sums up as follows: 'Had there been, in hindsight, a generous Israeli offer?  Ask a member of the American team, and an honest answer might be that there was a moving target of ideas, fluctuating impressions of the deal that the US could sell to the two sides, a work in progress.......Ask Barak, and he might volunteer that there was no Israeli offer, and besides, Arafat rejected it.  Ask Arafat, and the response you might hear is that there was not offer, besides, it was unacceptable; that said, it had better remain on the table.'

So, after a further intervention by President Clinton in December 2000, by the time the two sides met together alone, without third party involvement, at Taba in January of this year, the gap had narrowed considerably.  By now, Israel had modified its demand to annexation of 5:5% of the West Bank, with the Palestinians counter-offering 2:34% and adjustments to the former Green Line.  Arafat accepted Israeli annexation of post-1967 Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, and Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City.  On the right to return for refugees dispossessed in 1948, the Palestinians proposed 150,000 per year for ten years, and Yossi Beilin countered with 40,000.  Both sets of negotiators felt that encouraging progress had been made, but by now it was too late.  Clinton was about to leave office, Barak having lost the confidence of the Israeli voters, was about to be trounced at the elections, and the PLO had lost control of the Intifada.  As his last, desperate, either/or throw to secure an agreement before polling day, Barak retracted all his offers; what that means in practice is that when peace talks eventually resume, as they undoubtedly will under American pressure as a quid pro quo to Arab states for joining the anti-Taleban alliance, Arik Sharon can rightly say that he is not bound by what his predecessor did or did not offer at Taba, whereas for the Palestinians that will be the marker, and their demands will begin where Taba ended.  So, my friends, both in the short term and the future, the prospects are grim, with the likelihood of more murders, more suicide bombings, more savage Israeli reprisals.

Now if you are with me thus far in what I hope has been a sober, low-key political appraisal, let me ratchet up the contentiousness a notch or two, but still sticking to facts.  Fact One, Israel is the last colonial power in the world.  The number of settlers on the West Bank increased by 80,000 between 1992 and 2001.  In 1981, how well I remember it , I was disowned by the ULPS officers and called alarmist for writing an article in ULPS News which criticised a leaked Jewish Agency report calling for 50,000 settlers on the West Bank by the year 2000.  Today there are 250,000 West Bank settlers.  Fact Two, The Palestinian standard of living has dropped by 20% since the second Intifada started, with over half the male workforce unemployed.  Fact Three, Israel is a democracy, but only for Israeli citizens.  On the West Bank, military law applies.  Torture, detention without trial, confiscation of land for security purposes, collective punishment such as the demolition of houses and the uprooting of olive trees is so routine as only to be reported by civil rights organisations like Peace now or B'tselem.

Fact Four.  It was the Palestinians who resorted to violence, but during Barak's tenure of office, the scale of settlement building actually increased.  To quote Malley again: 'If the fundamental equation is to be land for peace, how can it have any meaning and any relevance when, on the one hand, land was being taken away on a daily basis and, on the other hand, the peace was being maligned on a daily basis.' Fact Five.  Anyone who seriously believes that Sharon and a Likud government will willingly cede an inch of Judea and Samaria, or be more forthcoming than Barak in curbing new settlement and implementing withdrawal from Palestinian land, such a person must also imagine that the present pope is a Jew who will sanction birth control and married priests.

Yet this is the Israeli government we are going to be asked to support in the difficult times ahead with Diaspora rallies of solidarity—the first one took place last Sunday—and other manifestations of worldwide Jewish unity.  That is why, as never before, it will be a defining, a pivotal moment in Israel-Diaspora relations.  Why?  Because all of us, I hope, strongly defend Israel's right to exist within secure and internationally recognised borders.  But we also know that Israel continues to be a colonial power on another people's land.  She still occupies the land, but has long since vacated the moral high ground.  That makes our support conditional and causes a crisis of conscience for many Jews.  For some, blood will always be thicker than water and no matter how disappointed, they will still say along with the prophet Hosea: "How shall I give up, Ephraim?  How shall I surrender you, O Israel?"

For other Jews, the gap between Israeli political actions and the Jewish ethical teachings will no longer be bridgeable.  Loyalty on one's people is a mitzvah.  Loyalty to God's demands is a still greater mitzvah.  They will say that the time has come to annul this pretend marriage between Jewish nationalism—Zionism—and the Jewish religion—Judaism.  Let each go its separate way.  Jewish group loyalty above all to people and land, or an abstract loyalty to Jewish morality—that is the choice likely to face us once the dust has settled from the war against international terrorism.  I won't tell you how to decide, because Liberal Judaism is about informed choice and the individual conscience.  But be aware that the day is surely coming when each one of us will have to answer where we stand, and on that choice, and the choice of all other Jews, the very future of the Jewish state will depend.

These Yom Kippur hours of self-awareness, self-scrutiny and self- judgment give us the leisure to consider our response.  May we use the time well, bearing in mind the urgency of Jeremiah's words: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended,/And we are not saved."