Reflections on a Yom Kippur Sermon

A rabbi chooses Yom Kippur to deliver a misguided sermon on Israel.

The rabbi of a suburban Washington, DC congregation chose Yom Kippur to deliver a sermon on Israel.  He correctly identified the divisions within Israeli society and expressed concern about the increasing polarization between what he termed the “exclusionists” and the “inclusiveness.”  Unfortunately, in an otherwise admirable and instructive sermon, he displayed his naiveté when he expressed the view that Israelis could never make peace with the Palestinians as long as Benjamin Netayahu was Israel’s Prime Minister.

The rabbi correctly deduced that only an Israeli political leader from the right side of the political spectrum, and only one with the courage to stand up to Israel’s ultra-conservatives, would be able to reach a peace agreement with the Arabs.  What little progress that has been made towards achieving peace has been made by right wing Israeli political leaders, namely, Menachem Begin, Yitzak, Rabin and Ariel Sharon.

The rabbi also believed, as too many American Jews naively do, that Netanyahu was the impediment to reaching a peace agreement.  He gave no credence to Netanyahu’s reminder of the Arab saying that you cannot applaud with only one hand.  The rabbi seemed to be of the opinion that if the Israeli government made enough concessions, at some point the Arabs would reach across the table to embrace the Jewish state, and Israelis and Palestinians would live happily ever after in a land of milk and honey.  This is as delusional as thinking that Barack Obama is a friend and strong supporter of Israel.

When Colin Powell was Secretary of State he asked General Tony Zinni to try to negotiate a peace agreement between Sharon and Arafat.  In spite of the fact that Hezbollah was firing rockets into Israel from Lebanon and Hamas was sending in “martyrs” with explosives taped to the chests, Sharon, who was under enormous political pressure to stop the slaughter of innocent Israeli civilians, made a good faith effort to reach an accommodation.  Arafat, who had previously been offered almost everything the Palestinians had demanded during negotiations with Barak, could not bring himself to reach out to Sharon and come to an agreement.  As Zinni recalled in his book, Leading the Charge: Leadership lessons from the battlefield to the boardroom, Arafat reminded him of what had happened to Sadat and Rabin, men who had tried to make peace. Arafat said, “I’m not going to do that.  You’re not going to walk behind my funeral….I’m still the only undefeated Arab general.”  With Hamas in control of Gaza, and the so called Arab Spring turning wintry, Abbas is in an even more difficult position than Arafat was.

One of the things that the United States is expected to do is lead the wayward Israelis and Palestinians into a new beginning—a time of peace and prosperity.  Every American president and presidential candidate assures American Jews of his unwavering support of Israel and his commitment to bringing the two sides together.  To understand how little real influence we have in that part of the world you need only look at Iraq and Afghanistan.  All of the blood and treasure the United States has spent and continues to spend cannot get the Iraqi and the Afghan governments to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Until the West recognizes the need to combat, not just with weapons but also with ideas, the fundamentalist view of Islam that Saudi and Emirate funding is spreading around the world, we, not just the Israelis, will live with the constant threat of terrorist attacks.  I believe the West needs to energetically and enthusiastically seek out and support the efforts of Muslim leaders who preach pacifism and the value of hard work, men, for example, like Ahmadu Bamba, the Senegalese Sufi cleric who founded the Mouride Brotherhood, and was called by his followers a “re-newer of Islam” and a “Servant of the Prophet.  Rather than a clash of cultures, we need to spark a clash within Islam between the fundamentalists and the revisionists.  We need to help initiate an Islamic Reformation, one that will reshape Islam the way the Protestant Reformation reshaped Christianity.  It would be naïve to think that one day the world will be rid of all the hard core fundamentalists, but right now they are in the ascendant, and if the world is ever again to be a safer place, their ideas and their core beliefs must be challenged.  We need to beat them with ideas if we ever hope to be able to stop fighting them with bombs and bullets.

On Yom Kippur, Jewish rabbis ask their congregations to pray for peace, not just for themselves and Israel, but for all the world.  If Israel and the West are ever to know peace it will only come when Muslim imams stop urging their flocks to jihad, which according to the prominent Islamic lecturer, Abdur-Raheem Green, means to fight a holy war to establish “Allah’s rule in the lands of the unbelievers.”  To counter the preaching of men like Green, the West needs to find and support courageous Muslims who will rise to the challenge of bringing Islam into the 21st Century through a religious reformation.

Al Kaltman holds a PhD in political science, and is the author of Cigars, Whiskey and Winning: Leadership Lessons from General Ulysses S. Grant.  He teaches a leadership studies course at George Washington University.