THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
This week, our Torah Commentary consists of my Yom Kippur morning sermon, Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict.
Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict
There is a lot of conversation about the conflict in the Middle East. On television, in newspapers and magazines, on the internet, and in conversations, the subject of Israel’s policies and predicaments occupies a tremendous amount of our attention. And yet, I find that the story is too often told in simplistic terms—terms that obscure rather than clarify the issues that Israel, its neighbors, and the world are facing.
The actual situation is quite complex, and, in some ways, it is similar to our predicament on Yom Kippur. Plagued by the guilt that appropriately rumbles around in our souls, and inspired by the passages in our prayer books, we realize that our actual lives—our foibles and missteps, the reasons why our basically good selves have made such mess of things, and the ways that we must behave if repentance is actually to happen—are complex and are not reducible to quick and obvious answers. The reasons why we sin, the effects of our sins, and the ways for us to navigate off the sinful path require serious thought and extended work. If it is true for each of us, would it not also be true for nations?
And so, I would like to look at Israel, considering some of the complexities of the situation. I do not have solutions, but whatever those solutions will be require due diligence in understanding a number of truths. In general, I believe that the narrative of conflict—between Israel and the world, between American Jews and Israeli Jews, between the Jews and the Palestinians—obscures the actual issues and works against clarity in understanding some very serious situations. I would like to look beyond this narrative of conflict. Please consider the following:
(1) The Conflict Between American Jews and Israeli Jews: All of the varying opinions held by American Jews are also held by Israeli Jews. In Israel, there is a vigorous discussion about every issue and every decision. Whatever the views—pro or con—of Jews in America are mirrored by Israelis and Israeli organizations, and they are subject to constant debate, rebuttal, discussion and rehashing. Yes, the Israelis may live closer to the difficulties, but that does not prevent them from holding the full panoply of opinions on every decision and policy. Rather than focusing on “the divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews,” the real question is that of how to solve each particular problem.
(2) The Conflict Between Israelis and Palestinians: This question of Palestinian rights or national aspirations is remarkably complex and multifaceted. There are lots of different groups within the polity identified as Palestinians, and they have as many different opinions as do Jews. Moreover, the question of the freedom and legitimacy of Palestinian elections needs to be asked and answered before anyone can legitimately speak of what the Palestinians want—as opposed to what will be forced upon them by terrorists like Hamas. I have heard regular Palestinians refer to Hamas and even Fatah as thugs. There are also real doubts as to whether national sovereignty will actually improve the lives of individual Palestinians. The famous statement of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” looks a lot different from a country that basically pulled off democracy. Consider on the other hand the sovereignty experiences in Syria or so many African countries. The massacres and genocides which have happened over and over again in developing countries cannot be discounted if we are really concerned about people and their rights. And, then there are those values which are so vital in our liberal enclaves of the First World, values such as Feminism and LGBTQA rights. Will women, in the anticipated Palestinian state, be accorded the rights and autonomy and equal pay and protections that Feminism holds dear? Will LGBTQA individuals be respected and affirmed and welcomed to pursue their lives freely? Looking at current Arab and Palestinian society, both in Judea and Gaza, I wonder. No. I doubt it seriously. As nice as the principle of national sovereignty or autonomy sounds in theory, the current and probable social oppression of millions should not be dismissed. What will life be like for the individuals who will actually live under the hoped-for regimes?
(3) The “Conflict between Israel and the World:” There is no doubt that Israel is often involved in controversies in a number of areas, but the notion of a universal conflict between Israel and the world is a constructed narrative that ignores a lot of actual facts. Israel participates actively and positively in many international efforts. The EuroVision Song Contest is just one example. Israelis are also involved in humanitarian and rescue efforts, in scientific research and conferences, in technology development, in musical and cultural endeavors, in competitive athletics, in police and military training, and in international trade. Why just this past year, one of my Israeli nieces was part of a sizable delegation representing Israel at a conference in Turkey. Turkey! Under Erdogan! She is in the food import and export business, and lots of Europeans and Asians eat Israeli fruit and vegetables every day. Later that year, that same niece and her husband went on vacation in Montenegro, and they found kosher food! So often the attention is focused on a group objecting to Israel, but the objection is only possible because Israel is out there, participating actively in the world.
(4) Israel’s Enemies: Israel has real enemies—existential enemies who are not just competitors. Many are working against Israel’s very existence. Let us not forget that, for some opponents, the issue is not just the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and much of the PLO want Israel gone. They don’t want just Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem; they want Tel Aviv and Beersheva and Haifa and Tiberias. Next time you listen to a public discussion, pay attention to the subtleties and what exactly is being sought.
(5) The Distinction Between Critics and Enemies: Some of these enemies may be hiding. Take, for instance, groups such as BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions effort. There are BDS people who are supportive of Israel but who object to some of the policies of the Netanyahu regime—particularly the occupation of the territories captured in the 1967 war. They think that boycotting Israeli companies will pressure the government into changes and improvements. There are also those, however, who are against Israel’s very existence, and they see boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as a way to weaken and eventually destroy Israel. When we have discussions with BDS, Jewish Voice for Peace, and similar organizations, understanding the motivations and goals of the individuals is vital.
(6) The Value of Relationships: Conversation and camaraderie are not only nice; they can help move toward improvement. There are dozens and dozens of groups on both sides working for cooperation, mutual respect, and peace. There are groups working for community improvement, regardless of the generally told story of conflict. Let us not forget that the peace being built brick by brick is of great importance and has great potential for influencing the larger situation. Let us therefore beware of communication strategies that are impatient or castigating. Are leaders and speakers trying to communicate or to cut off relationships? Are they trying to find solutions or vilify their opponents? Let us also beware observations that overly simplify the approaches and concerns of interested parties. Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, there are just two kinds of Arabs, or two kinds of Jews,” or, “Well, our choices are simple: either we do this, or we do that,” I know that the analysis is born either of the speaker’s fatigue or of the assumption that the listeners are too tired to think clearly.
When examining any human imperfection, a good analysis looks at as many factors as possible, extending to the imperfect individual both firm judgment and compassionate kindness. As Reb Nachman of Breslov explains, even the worst human actions have at their core level some spark of goodness. That the goodness has gone terribly astray is the tragedy. That it can be fanned and redirected toward repentance is God’s gift. Improvement requires real understanding of both the past and of the possible future.
In regard to Israel, there are certainly lots of “shoulda’s and coulda’s” on both sides. Mistakes were made. Responses were controversial. Facts were reinterpreted or misinterpreted. New facts arose. Though the Palestinians have only been a “people” since 1964, the fact is that now there is a large group of Arabs called Palestinians, and they deserve respect and human rights. Similarly, we can argue about the settler movement in Judea and Samaria, but the fact is that some 400,000 Israelis now live there, and they deserve respect, as well. And, of course, there is also the fact that most of those “settlers” are living in metropolitan Jerusalem—in the natural growth of an urban area like every other city in the world. Solutions need to address reality and the human dimension inevitably involved in every real estate or security issue.
Against the narrative of conflict, I am happy to report to you that there are thousands of Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims and Christians, working toward peace in both small and large increments. Look for these stories and support these efforts. Beware the narratives that obscure. Look for the narratives that lead to solutions.