May 21, 2021
I have been perseverating about this drash all week.
What is a drash if it isn’t timely and in relation to what is going on, which meant to not address the situation in Israel would be irresponsible. I sat down to put pen to paper, with the understanding that “it’s complicated.”
Like many of us, I have a life-long relationship with Israel. I made aliyah at 22, lived and loved there for years, have family and friends there, and I know that I am safer in the world because Israel is there as my home base.
This round of the conflict feels different than previous ones. While the layer of imminent danger of the missiles falling was one component, the effect has been deeper within the circles that I run in. Not only has it grown into street violence between Jewish and Arabs Israelis, it is eating at bonds within the Jewish community, and at the American-Israeli political alliance.
I was in Israel for a month in 2015, when the last conflict started… I was working for the Hartman Institute at the time (a Jewish think tank focused on leadership and the major questions facing the Jewish people). You may remember that 3 teenage boys had been kidnapped, two weeks passed until they were found murdered and the county roiled… I flew home just as the missiles started to fall. In the afternoon before my flight I wandered around downtown Jerusalem where I had lived for almost 4 years. Jerusalem had changed of course but the change was less about the street configuration and the new light rail than about the range of viewpoints I saw on the streets. In my day, our energy was focused outward… bus bombings and grenades were aimed AT Jews and Israelis by Palestinian terrorists… That afternoon I saw two demonstrations by Israelis… the first was mavet l’Aravim (death to the Arabs) spelled out in candles with a large crowd surrounding them; and a second group of demonstrators waved flags that read Shalom l’kulam (peace for all). A clear divide between Israeli society was spelled out in front of me.
That gap has only grown, and now it is eating at the fabric of what it means to be both a Jewish state and a democracy.
This time around while the missiles present one form of danger, even more dangerous is the dissolution of unified Jewish support for Israel and the weakening of American support for her. Our idealism of the utopian Jewish state has come into conflict with the reality of making tough choices on the ground of real-life modern Israel.
I present to you a series of short vignettes as to the different perspectives and the where “hamatzav/the conflict” is playing out far beyond the Israeli borders.
My friend Smadar is of Yemenite descent, whose family fled to Israel in the 50’s. Smadar is safe in the world today because there was a Jewish state to give them refuge. A secular Israeli born kibbutznik whose family was not easily accepted into the Ashkenazic society created by founding fathers, Smadar now lives in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, in Israel proper, in an upscale Israeli neighborhood. She spent several nights in her building’s bomb shelter and was afraid to drive to her friend’s home nearby lest she be caught in the car when the missiles fell with nowhere to shelter. She has no Palestinian neighbors, and my sense is she feels the conflict deeply for its effect on Israeli society, and that her 17-year-old son will be called for army duty this fall. She works from within the system to make change but after 3 failed elections, she is disillusioned that we will ever find a political solution.
My friend David and I met just after we both graduated college when we lived and studied in Arad. An Ashkenazi Jew originally from Cleveland, he made aliyah at the same time as I. A Jerry Garcia look-alike, he stayed in Israel while I returned to the States. Over time he became more observant and now lives in Tekoa, in the West Bank, 20 km northeast of Hebron and 16 km south of Jerusalem. There are 4,000 people in Tekoa, mostly religious Zionists and secular Israelis. The former chief rabbi of Tekoa, Menachem Froman, maintained close ties with PLO and Hamas leaders. Rabbi Froman taught at the local hesder yeshiva headed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Which is to say, David has contact with his Palestinian neighbors. The 3 boys who were kidnapped and later found murdered lived in a neighboring settlement and were friends of his family.
When I visited David at his home in Tekoa in 2015. We drove through checkpoints, barbed wire and signs that read “This area under Palestinian Authority. The risk is yours if you get out of your car.” His wife carries a gun in her car when she heads to work outside of Tekoa’s gate. Always a ‘’”pot-stirrer,” he knows the dangers of living in the territories. I asked him why he lives in a settlement when his neighbors clearly don’t want him there. He said, “When you and I spent Passover together and we read that God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm and gave us the Land of Israel, I was the one who believed it literally.”
David wrote on his Facebook page this week…”If you could prevent a genocide by speaking up, would you? This isn’t a rhetorical question. My people are in danger of being slaughtered by angry mobs at the instigation of a leadership that thinks lobbing rockets into civilian population centers is ‘diplomacy’. If you would like to see millions of Jewish citizens of Israel deprived of their right to exist, just say nothing. If you would rather not see that happen, the time has come to speak up. What can I say, you ask? You might want to say Jews are people. They have rights, just like me. I would not expect my government to ignore rocket attacks and violent mobs, and I do not expect that of the government of Israel. He continued “I never post political stuff on SM. Unusual circumstances require unusual responses though. We saw millions of Jews die in Europe in WWII. We learned our lesson though. We will never again stand idly by and watch that happen.”
While David may face dangers every day, and I may or may not agree with his justification for living in the territories that God gave us the land, he is living in the land that keeps the Jewish people safe by its very existence.
This week 100 rabbinic and cantorial student from reform, conservative and trans-denominational schools published a letter in the Forward expressing sympathy for the Palestinians. It read in part “We can only make change when we replace our watered-down prayers for peace with tears of heartbreak. We can only build – and rebuild – when we start from our tears. For those of us for whom Israel has represented hope and justice we need to give ourselves permission to watch, to acknowledge what we see, to mourn, and to cry. And then, to change our behavior and demand better.”
For me, this letter was unprecedented, and I have very mixed emotions. Was it over simplistic and did it show a lack of deeper understanding and nuance? Was it treasonous? Was it brave? Will these folks ever find jobs in the mainstream Jewish community? Should professional concerns silence one’s willingness to speak out? Or will they come to represent a new mainstream view? Time will tell…
Last vignette (#4). One of my closest friends is a fresh-faced Indiana-born American homecoming queen who isn’t Jewish but used to be married to a Jewish man. She loves to garden, to cycle and to cook. Middle East politics is not her thing and Israel is something she pays attention to with only 1/2 an ear… so my BFF is now dating a lovely non-Jewish, Iranian-born engineer she met on Match.com. He fled Iran with the fall of the Shah and made a new life in California. They have spent last couple of years riding their bikes, drinking good wine and enjoying each other’s company. This week though, unexpectedly for her, he is VERY upset about what is going on in Israel. While he himself is not religious, his two sons are devout Muslims, and he has strong feelings in support of the Palestinians. He is flabbergasted that my BFF doesn’t know much about the situation and is on a learning curve. I walked into her living room Monday night to an hour-long barrage of questions that I am sure I answered differently than he would have. My point here is that “hamatzav/the situation” is reaching into American living rooms in Martinez, CA, into non-Jewish circles, in ways that it has not before, and we are seeing the effect in the erosion of support for Israel.
As I said, it’s complicated. I close with the paraphrased words of the American-born Israeli author Yossi Klein HaLevi, who wrote last week in the New York Times.
“The framers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence defined Israel as both Jewish and democratic: the homeland of all Jews, whether or not they were Israeli citizens; the state of all its citizens, whether or not they were Jews. An Israel that would no longer regard itself as a continuity of the Jewish story and protector of the world’s vulnerable Jews would lose its soul; an Israel that would no longer aspire to fulfill democratic values would lose its mind.
‘Balancing those two increasingly contentious but foundational elements of our national identity defines my Israeli commitment. There are voices on the left and the right who call for abolishing either Israel’s Jewish identity or its democratic identity. I stand with the large, if embattled, camp of political centrists that insists on holding both. We know that Israel’s long-term viability depends on managing the tensions inherent in our identity and reality.
For Israelis to form a shared civic identity, Jews need to fulfill Israel’s founding promise to grant full equality to all citizens and reassure Arabs that “Israeli” is not a synonym for “Jew.” Arabs need to come to terms with the fact that Israel will not abandon its Jewish identity and commitments.
In my building in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, nearly half the families are Arab Israeli. They are lawyers, doctors, civil servants, who bought apartments here because they want their share of the Israeli dream. The violence that erupted in the poor mixed neighborhoods would be unthinkable in middle-class French Hill. When Arabs and Jews meet in the parking lot, we sigh and reassure each other that things will get better because they always do and we have no choice.
Most Israelis — Arabs and Jews — are practiced in the habit of decency. But we are also practiced in self-justification. We know the routines of neighborliness, but rarely consider the other’s reality. We avoid the hard questions that threaten our certainties, our insistence on the absolute justice of our side. What is it like to be a Palestinian citizen of a Jewish state that occupies your family? What is it like to be a Jew who has finally come home, only to live under constant siege?
The current violence wasn’t triggered by any one event but, in part, by our inability to ask those questions. Perhaps we can begin building a better Israel from that place of shared brokenness. “