The One True Narrative of Israel
A few weeks ago, I was working with a bar mitzvah child as he prepared for his simchah. At some point, we were discussing the terrible events that had been going on in Israel this summer. After this talk, his mom pulled me aside and said to me, very simply, “It’s hard to be Jewish at this time. It’s just so hard.” I think she expressed a sentiment that we all feel as we enter this Jewish New Year. It began with the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar. Next, some Jew, in retaliation, decided to murder a Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir. And the terrible theme of this summer, along with the missiles and the world condemnation of Israel, was the murder of children and other innocents. Hundreds of children in this conflict as a result of the Hamas policy to place the innocent in as much danger as possible and use the innocent as human shields knowing the power of these deaths and images to tear at our souls.
Here at home, we have watched in horror and fear as missile after missile was fired at Israel, relieved at Iron Dome’s effectiveness, but still deeply terrified, knowing that their aim is to kill our people--men, women, and children. Our fears and heaviness have only multiplied as the world, it seems, has chosen to utterly vilify Israel as a cruel and vicious oppressor. And our hearts were breaking knowing that so many innocent Palestinians were dying because of Hamas’ cruel tactics--and because of Israel’s need to defend itself nevertheless. I’m sure many of you join me in feeling like the world is going mad. Everywhere, we are moving to extremes, hatred, and violence. The specter of Anti Semitism is springing up all over the world again. We are all so scared, and indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now.
While I so wish I could point to a clear way out of the pain we all feel right now, what I can do for us this Rosh HaShanah is to at least point us in the direction of hope. And indeed, that message of hope did rise up in Israel this summer--and many of us may have missed it in the shuffle of events of the summer. After the Palestinian boy, Muhammad, was murdered in retaliation for Hamas’ murder of the three Jewish boys, something remarkable happened. Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barakat paid a shiva call to Naftali Fraenkel’s home. While there, the Mayor called Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy’s father, and suggested that he speak to the family. The uncle of the slain Jewish boy got on the phone and had an emotional conversation with the father of the Palestinian boy. “We expressed our deep empathy with their sorrow, from one bereaved family to another bereaved family,” Yishai Fraenkel reportedly said. “I think it’s very good they seem to have found the culprits. We expressed our absolute disgust with what had happened. He accepted our statements, it was important for him to hear it.” The Fraenkel family also issued an official statement: “There is no difference when it comes to blood. Murder is murder; there is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for any murder.”
In these extraordinary actions and words, the seeds of a way out of the out of control hatred and violence were planted…
There is simply nothing in our human experience more despicable than the murder of children. Such murders send shockwaves through all of humanity, engendering not just horror and anger, but the deepest of fears. The fallout from such murders--be they by kidnappers or by Hamas’ tactics--turns otherwise good and decent people into extremes of fear and judgment--on both the political left and right about Israel.
On the left, Israel has become the ultimate villain of western imperialist domination, one of the great impediments--literally and symbolically--of all oppressed peoples in the world. In other words, age-old anti-Semitism, dressed in progressive liberal drag, has invaded the left. For those of us who are proud Jewish liberals, this has felt like an incredible betrayal. This insidious anti-Semitism--that so perverts true liberal values of compassion for all troubled peoples on all sides--has effectively muzzled those of us who feel that current Israeli policies and approaches deserve criticism in a respectful and democratic fashion.
On the political right, as well, fear and rage have pushed not only some Israelis, but many here as well into ever-more hateful vilifying of all Palestinians, and delegitimizing of valid Palestinian claims. As much as Israel has every right and need to defend itself, I have heard too many Jews callously write-off the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children as collateral damage; who refuse to acknowledge the horror and immediately deflect the conversation away from the children to hatred of Hamas and Palestinians. The great tragedy of Israel these days is not just the war casualties--it’s the very humanity of all people in their fearful reaction to this war. This diminishing sense of the humanity on all sides is also a betrayal of what it means to be Jewish, and the deepest Jewish value that every human life is sacred.
Indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now….
At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics. We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place. On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things. Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice. In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “...unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke...to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “ 'The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
Our own Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for the Atlantic, brought in a quote where the famously left wing writer Amos Oz--one of the founders of Peace Now, in fact--poses two questions to his interviewer at the beginning of an Interview with Deutsche Welle:
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
And indeed, with this apt metaphor, we, the Jewish people, pass the simple truth onto the world.
There is a stark contrast between the two foundational documents. There is no moral equivalence between Hamas and the Israeli government. And yes, Hamas’ aims are terrifying. Their hateful, barbaric, extremist ideology, echoes the barbarism and contempt for human life we have seen from ISIS. Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler. But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children--we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level. Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism. If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must NO LONGER be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians anymore. It is NOT about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace, and those who do not yearn for peace.
What must rise up from the terrible ashes of this summer is that Jew and Jew, left and right, Jew and Muslim, Jew and Christian, religious and secular, Israelis and like-minded Palestinians-- must all come together with voices joined to speak out against extremism on all political sides. We must recognize that not all Palestinians are evil. Hamas and their ideology are evil. There is a famous story in midrash Tehillim (Psalm 104) about how there were once “ruffians,” or evil people living in the neighborhood of the great Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir began to pray that these evil-doers die. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Meir’s wife, Bruriah, was outraged. She quoted the 104th Psalm to him, that says, “Yitamu Chataim min ha’aretz” which means “May sins be uprooted from the earth.” She said to her husband. It does NOT say May sinners be uprooted from the earth, rather their sins. “Pray that the sinners repent of their ways, NOT that they themselves would perish.” Bruria reminded her husband that the role of the Jewish people in this world is not to seek the death of others, but overcome sins and all sources of evil. The story ends that Rabbi Meir took his wife’s advice. He prayed on behalf of the evil-doers, and lo and behold, they ceased to be evil.
Judaism tells us over and over again--all hope for Tikkun Olam--repair of the world--MUST begin with us, the Jewish people to create a world that is whole and just. In Kabbalah, we are taught that our role as the Jewish people is to respond to every kind of brokenness that we encounter in this world, to redeem the broken shards of every brokenness, and to liberate the spark of the Divine in every shard so that that spark may return to its source in God’s Oneness . We have to break the chain of hatred and see through our fear to the real humanity of the other. And, equally importantly, we must DEMAND that others must recognize our humanity as well!
It is essential that we, like the Fraenkels, grieve the loss of innocent Palestinian children as much as we grieve the loss of our own. We must learn from the Fraenkel and Abu Khdeir families, and realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world. There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself. The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, “...for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, "My parent was greater than your parent". Remarkably, it’s not only the Talmud that teaches this wisdom. There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself! The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam. Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts--but as a religion it is not evil. It is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.
Now is the time, more than ever, for us to lift up Judaism’s message for all peoples of the world: We are one human family--the children of Abraham--Jews, Christians, Muslims, and together with all families of the earth, we are all the children of God. And our Torah teaches us that the Land of Israel contains the seeds of turning the hearts of brothers and sisters, parents and children toward one another, recognizing the sanctity of life and God’s creation. This summer, the Fraenkels and the Abu Khdeir families lived this truth. Now we must all do it. We express this vision every day when when we say the Aleinu in our services: that the nations that today seem so scattered and dissonant, will one day come together and recognize the oneness that we all share. We can and must hold our heads high and speak the truth of what Israel can and will be to this world. It is most clearly summed up with the words that we end every Kaddish with in our Machzor:
“Oseh Shalom bimromav,” “May God who makes peace in the Heavens above,” “Hu Ya’aseh Shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel,” “May God bring peace upon us, upon all Israel, and upon all inhabitants of this world,” “V’imru Amen”!