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Shelach Lecha: Report on the mission 9.6.14

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

The theme of this week’s Sidra is the mission of the 12 spies to survey the Land of Canaan. The 12 spies set out with  high hopes. They were the leaders of their tribes and trusted by their people. There is a well-known saying that “power corrupts”. Here we have the best illustration of it in the Torah. When the spies returned they had become transformed. Instead of giving Chizzuk, encouragement, they gave an extremely negative report about the land and betrayed both the Almighty and our people. The consequence of their actions was that the whole generation had to remain in the desert for 40 years without ever seeing the land of Canaan.

I am happy to say that the Chief Rabbi’s rabbinic mission to Israel, a few weeks ago, was quite different. I would like to devote my remarks to it this morning. It was a very large mission which comprised 48 rabbis. I think it was the largest of its kind ever.  Rabbis of all ages went. Some were very young and had never been on a mission before. Others were retired rabbis, my colleagues, who have been on several previous missions over the years.   I can still remember my first mission with Lord Jakobovits, in the early 1980s, and many others with the previous Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The purpose of the mission was to give us ‘Chizzuk’, the encouragement to speak about Israel with knowledge and confidence and thus to improve our performances as rabbis. We know that commitment to Israel is often a way to draw people into the community and to engage them in Judaism. On many occasions, I have seen that people who are interested and enthusiastic about Israel also become involved in the community and its related activities.

Our mission was truly impressive and extremely well planned.   It was carried out with absolute precision. We were not given even a minute’s rest.  We were on the go all the time, from 7 in the morning until very late at night. As the Chief Rabbi said: he was determined to ensure that everyone of us would be completely exhausted, when we return to London. The mission was also successful in this respect.

During the mission, we were given the opportunity to see the great contrasts within Israel's population and within its society. We saw huge diversity of opinion. We saw many very interesting and outstanding people; both Jews and non-Jews; as well as religious Jews and secular Jews. We met and heard lectures from several eminent personalities, rabbis and politicians, diplomats and journalists, scholars and men and women of action.  To give you an idea of how different and challenging our meetings were, I would like to tell you about a lecture we were given by a Palestinian scholar. I had never previously spoken to a Palestinian. He presented his point of view regarding what Israel should do in order to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian State.   His presentation was friendly, but he made demands on Israel which, in my opinion, would be difficult for many Israelis to accept.  His talk was complemented by a most unusual event which we experienced on the last evening of the mission. We had supper in a very interesting and attractive restaurant in Jerusalem. There we met with a group of Palestinian businessmen. Each table comprised three rabbis and one Palestinian. On my table, we conducted a conversation with one guest who was a Palestinian who owns a large travel agency on the West Bank. He explained why it was time for Israel to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.   His style and friendly manner was captivating. The 10 Palestinian businessmen who came along, are part of a larger organisation, consisting of both Israeli and Palestinian business people who are working together to bring about the two-state solution.  For me personally, it was heartening to see that these Palestinian residents of the West Bank have become good friends with some Israelis.  Nevertheless, I knew in my heart that it was very difficult for us, the Jewish people, to give them what they want. Their answers regarding Hamas were completely unsatisfactory from my perspective. Another one of the participants of this group at the restaurant, was the daughter of the greatest rabbinic figure of our generation, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who passed away recently.   Rav Ovadia was famous for his views on the Palestinian issue. His views differed from many other rabbinic leaders on this issue. He believed that Jewish law required the signing of the peace treaty in return for parts of the holy land, since it could save many lives. It is more important to make peace than to hold on to land.  His daughter, who is an eminent personality herself, came along to defend that view.  

By contrast, we also met Danni Dayan, who is the special envoy of the Yesha Council and one of the leaders of the settler movement.  He represents the opposite view which is based on the religious ideology that the Jewish people have been entrusted with the land and that it is mitzvah to hold on to it, despite the possible dangers and loss of life.  Those who hold this view say that it is a positive mitzvah to conquer the land and to defend it in order to settle in it. They also argue that it is dangerous for Israel to allow the creation of a Palestinian state. The status quo is better.  

On our visit to the Knesset, we met Naftali Bennet, who is minister of economy and head of the party called ‘Haba'it Hayehudi’, ‘The Jewish Home’ party.   In the last election that party won 17 seats. Shortly before our mission took place, Bennet presented a new plan to Prime Minister Netanyahu, in which he suggested the annexation of the part of the West Bank which has a large Israeli population. He wants to make it part of Israel and to give complete Israeli citizenship to the 67,000 Arabs who reside there.  He rejects the two-state solution.  This is despite the fact that, by giving full Israeli citizenship to so many Arabs, the Jewish character of the state will be diluted.  We heard this week that Ya’ir Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, rejects this policy strongly. The policy of annexation will meet with  very hostile opposition on the part of the Palestinians who live in the West Bank. The Arabs do not want to become Israeli citizens and do not want to participate in Israeli life. They want independence. The policy of the Jewish Home ignores their wishes.  In the course of our conversations, we learnt that there is a population of 350.000 Arabs in eastern Jerusalem. This is larger than the Israeli population in the western sector of Jerusalem.  Eastern Jerusalem has been Israeli territory for many years now, since the Six Day War. All the 350,000 Arabs have the vote. Nevertheless, very few Palestinians vote for the mayor.  The irony is that if they would choose to exercise their right to vote, they could bring about the election of an Arab Mayor in Jerusalem.   We are fortunate that they are not interested to do so. The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

There are severe religious divisions in Israel. But on the positive side, there are also many people who are doing a splendid job in trying to help build bridges.
The first major division that exists in Israeli society is between Charedi and religious Zionists,  setting aside the secular population. These two factions have serious ideological differences which manifest in a number of crucial issues.  One of the issues is that believe Charedim that religious Jews should devote most of their time to learning Torah.   The Mishnah in the Ethics of the Fathers states that the world stands on three fundamental principles:  Torah, Prayer and Good Deeds. They take this statement literally and most seriously. Therefore, they refuse to devote any significant time to earning a living.   They argue that if they would go out and join the world of work, they would not have any time left to study Torah. There is some truth in this. In the modern world, the world of work is, indeed, all-consuming. Their alternative scenario to men earning a living, is for their wives to work, as teachers and social workers or even in IT. As a consequence of this philosophy, many Charedi families are very poor.   However even in this sector, things are changing and some organisations have been set up, in recent years, to train Charedi young men to take up jobs in conditions that are acceptable to them.

On the second day of our mission we had a breakfast meeting with the chief executive of the ‘Kemach’ Organization in Jerusalem.   Kemach means flour.  The name of this organisation is taken from the famous dictum in the Ethics of the Fathers: “If there is no flour, there is no Torah.”  There are many Charedi young men who are now realising that it is a curse to raise their families in poverty. They want to have the skills to support their families. The Kemach organisation is devoted to providing them with training and helps them to find the right jobs. The number of Charedim who are taking advantage of this is growing all the time.  

One of the amazing discoveries that we made was that we can no longer view people from a stereotypical point of view. Many divisions exist only in our imagination.  We went to the Knesset. There we had a session  with two members of Yesh Atid. One of them was Dr Ruth Calderon. She is a secular woman, but is passionately interested in learning Torah. She studies the Talmud and gives regular talks on this subject. She has even written a book about the Talmud.  Indeed, she devoted some of her remarks to us on the forthcoming seventh year of the cycle, the Shmitta year. She indicated that she may might yet become religious one day, but who knows? Next to her, sat the other member of Yesh Atid, Rabbi Dov Lipman. He moved from the USA to Israel, 9 years ago. He lives in Beth Shemesh and has taken it upon himself to fight religious extremism. We saw all kinds of combinations that were most surprising. In the early years of Israel’s existence these combinations did not exist.

We went to the office of the chief rabbis. They were not there.  For me, this was the greatest disappointment in this mission, because I was looking forward to seeing the two new chief rabbis.  I recall that when I was a child of seven, in 1953, Chief Rabbi Herzog came to our neighbourhood in Tel Aviv in order to lay the foundation of a new shul in the sandy road opposite our house.  I specially ran over to see him. I remember that I was very excited. The image of him wearing a top hat, is still embedded in my mind. It was most interesting to meet his grandson who bears his name and who is now the leader of the Labour Party. At the meeting in the chief rabbinate offices, we met leaders of many other religions, or operating in Israel. It was a fascinating encounter. One of them, in particular, was an exceptionally good orator in Hebrew. He was a Muslim cleric.

We met young Tribe and Bnei Akiva gap-year students for a buffet supper. We sang and danced with them in the Cardo, the Roman colonnade near the Western Wall. It was incredible to see how happy they are to be in Israel and learn Torah there. The chief Rabbi addressed them very beautifully. The whole atmosphere was extremely warm. I am sure that some of these young people will be the next generation of leaders of the United Synagogue. They are highly motivated.

We travelled all the way to S'derot, near the Gaza border. We saw some ugly shelters and experienced what it means to live in the shadow of Hamas rockets. Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant visit for us. We sat in the park and ate lunch before moving on.

We went to the Hebrew University. It is a beautiful place. We saw democracy in action with Palestinian students protesting about the peace talks. We met students from Puerto Rico, Burundi, Wales, Yorkshire and many other parts of the world, who were learning aspects of public health management. They spoke with a great warmth about the state of Israel.

It was a most fascinating and incredible mission. We did a great deal more than I have been able to describe. I was very pleased to be part of it. I enjoyed every aspect of it. I learnt a great deal about Israel. I saw places that I had never seen before. I met people I would never have been able to meet other than in the context of this kind of mission. I have tried to give you a glimpse of how I see things politically and religiously. I want to conclude by expressing my sincere gratitude to our dear chairman, to our dear wardens and to the other members of the board for agreeing that I should go and giving me support and encouragement.

Moses told the 12 spies before they left:  Be strong and take from the first, the very best fruit of the land. We were privileged to see so much good in the land. In the words of Joshua and Caleb in today’s Sidra: “The Land is exceedingly good”. May the State of Israel continue to be strong and give strength to all the Jewish communities throughout the world.

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