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On the Origins of Kehilla

RabbiBurtby Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Note: This is the fourth of a series of personal essays that I am publishing in Kol Kehilla. In each article I will share the origins of one of the ideals and/or values that motivated me to start Kehilla. The essays are adapted from the manuscript of the book I am in the process of completing, tentatively titled There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.


Israel and Palestine

I visited Israel in 1968, soon after the Six Day War. At the time I knew nothing at all about the claims of Palestinian Arabs to the Land of Israel. I believed that the Arabs were cruel and unfeeling toward Jews, and I assumed that in the recent war Israel had been attacked, had beaten back its foes, and had occupied biblically-mandated territories that would now be included in its borders.

During that visit a friend took me to meet Aryeh Lova Eliav (1921-2010), a member of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s cabinet. Eliav was a mainstream Labor Zionist. He had been the captain of one of the ships that had illegally brought Jews from Europe to Palestine during World War II. When my friend and I sat in his living room, though, Eliav paced the room nervously. He had just returned from a fact-finding mission in the West Bank and Gaza, commissioned by the Prime Minister herself. He told us about the long-term danger of occupying the West Bank and Gaza. The situation of the Arabs living there was dire and potentially explosive. Eliav told us that he was in contact with King Hussein of Jordan, who was willing to incorporate the West Bank into Jordan. But Golda Meir wanted to hold on to the “liberated territories” and she would not allow Eliav to negotiate with Hussein. I was shocked as I listened to Eliav’s assessment of the situation, and I didn’t quite know what to make of what he was saying.

By the time I read Eliav’s book, Land of the Hart in San Francisco a few years later, I felt betrayed and enraged. Eliav was the first mainstream Israeli politician to admit that there was truth in the Palestinian Arab narrative about what had occurred in 1948 and 1967. And now Israeli military forces were cruelly subjugating an entire population. Eliav wrote that the only righteous solution would be the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Yes, of course, I thought. But as I read the book, I became more and more furious. Why had I learned nothing about the Palestinian narrative in my Seminary history classes? Had our people continued to exist for so many millennia and survived the Holocaust only to oppress another people as we had been oppressed?

At the same time, however, I felt disloyal and guilty, for I had been taught to stand by Israel, the only hope for the Jewish people after the Holocaust. At the time I contemplated the possibility of becoming a public advocate for a two-state solution, but I felt quite ambivalent about taking a position that seemingly opposed the interests of the Jewish people. Nor did I want to be demonized by my fellow Jews. But the Jewish conscience I had been raised with required me to stand up for the truth regardless of the consequences. I lived with this internal conflict for many years. My reflections on the history of Zionism, Israel and the Palestinians certainly contributed to the sense of alienation from Judaism and the Jewish people that I experienced during that period of my life.

In the early 1970s I discovered that the great Jewish philosopher and Zionist, Martin Buber, had stood for Jewish-Arab cooperation all through his long life. Buber firmly believed that Jews returning to the land of their forbears ought to behave in a just and moral way toward those who had been living in the land for centuries. The Jewish people should “take part in the redemption of the world” by being “a nation which establishes truth and justice in its institutions and activities.” In 1925, Buber joined with other Jewish intellectuals to form Brit Shalom, an organization which sought peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews through the creation of a bi-national state where Jews and Arabs would have equal rights. Buber also proposed the formation of a federation of Middle Eastern countries that would link the Jewish state with its neighbors. After the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, Buber argued that Israel should take steps to ease the plight of the Arab refugees. Until the year of his death, Buber continued to press for a massive Israeli initiative to solve the Arab refugee problem, and he protested the military rule that denied Israel’s Arabs their basic rights as free citizens.

One of my most important motivations in starting Kehilla Community Synagogue had to do with the Middle East. Buber’s stance gave me the courage I needed to take a public stance in regard to the Israel/Palestine issue, but I knew at the time that no synagogue would consider hiring me as their rabbi with the views that I held. I felt that there should be at least one synagogue in the world that stood for justice for the Palestinians and security for Israel.

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