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Fault line number one: Israeli and Palestinian.
The question I have been asked most often since my return is what precipitated the present round of violence. What was the spark that set the situation on fire? I have no answer. Everyone has their own theory: the dispute in Sheikh Jarrah, El Aqsa Mosque, Israeli elections, Palestinian elections, grass roots incitement, outside extremists. I have no idea; it was probably a combination of a few things and nobody will ever know for sure. The more interesting question in my mind, however, is the question of how it is that nobody saw this violence coming. Within the last year, we saw the signing of the Abraham accords – a new chapter for a new Middle East, or so we thought. Iran, not the Palestinians, was Israel’s problem. The last few weeks have made clear that what happens at Al Aqsa does not stay in Al Aqsa, but has profound implications in Gaza, in Jaffa, in Lod, and in Akko. I do not believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict holds the key to peace in the Middle East, nor for that matter do I believe that the arrival of a two-state solution will prompt some sort of kumbaya recognition by Hamas of Israel’s right to exist. What I do believe, now more than ever, is that the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, in Gaza, and in Lod see their destinies as intertwined; the hurts felt by one give rise to a response by another. This latest conflict brought these tensions into violent relief – tensions that have been simmering beneath the surface for some time, tensions that we brush under the rug at our peril.
And what makes this first fault line all the more troubling is that neither side is presently inclined to figure out how to break out of the cycle. Israel’s secret power is its resilience: We saw a school in Lod that was damaged in a riot but has since been cleaned up and is already back in session. Admirable as such resilience may be, it also risks papering over the question of why the riots came about in the first place. And the political mood of the moment does not help. No different than we here in America, leaders are more interested in shifting blame elsewhere or glossing things over and moving on than in doing the introspective work of how things could have been handled differently and how similar events can be avoided in the future. Case in point is the troubling observation our group noted that even over a month after 45 people were killed and 150 hurt at Mount Meron, there have been no charges, no arrests, and no findings of negligence. Case in point is the news item in the last twenty-four hours that right-wing groups are organizing a provocative Jerusalem rally akin to the incitement at the start of this latest violence. My fear is not just that Israelis and Palestinians are living through some interminable Groundhog Day where every few years rockets are fired from Gaza, the Iron dome is deployed, and pictures of Palestinian casualties used by Hamas as human shields are plastered onto the front page of the New York Times. My fear is that things are getting worse, not better; that systemic issues are becoming more intractable; and that there is no political will or incentive for anybody – Israeli or Palestinian – to do anything about it.
If the first fault line is between Israelis and Palestinians, the second is among Israelis themselves. Our group was honored to hear from two members of Knesset, one from the right-wing Likud party and the other from the centrist Yesh Atid party. What struck me about their debate was that they represented not just two different political platforms, but two fundamentally different world views. The Yesh Atid Knesset member understood Israel’s mission to be that of addressing the condition of the stranger, the marginalized, the individual at the periphery of society. The Likudnik understood Israel’s mission as the sole Jewish refuge in a world that offers a Jew only assimilation or antisemitism. Two totally different understandings of Israel: a dystopian world where the choice between self-preservation and concern for the other is seen as binary. We visited an organization called Maoz, whose mission is to bolster socioeconomic resilience. Our speaker shared the fact that if not presently, then pretty imminently, twenty-five percent of Israeli society will be Israeli Arab, and twenty-five percent of Israeli society will be Haredi. This means – and I will do the math for you – a full fifty percent of Israelis a) don’t like each other; b) don’t like the other fifty percent; and c) are not Zionists. Israel may or may not be able to fix its political system to stop the endless cycle of elections and the disproportionate power of political minorities. But the systemic issues are not going anywhere: Israel is a balkanized society in desperate need of a common national conversation. The trends are not good, the fault lines growing more profound, and an alarming number of speakers we met alluded to the fact that neither the first nor second Jewish commonwealth lasted forever, and each lasted only for about as long as Israel presently has been in existence. If the first stage of Zionism was to drain the swamps, followed by the stage of defending the state against her Arab aggressors, and so on and so forth, then maybe the next urgent stage of Zionism should be devoted to figuring out how to sustain Israeli society despite its fractious nature.
The third and final fault line is that between Israel and the rest of the world. When we were in Lod, we were honored by the presence of Michael Miller, the outgoing head of New York’s JCRC, who joined our group for a few hours. There was a break between the local speakers and, given the presence of over twenty New York congregational rabbis, Michael gave us an update regarding the antisemitic violence and vandalism back in New York, his dialogue with the NYPD, and the work yet to be done to protect our own communities. It was an out-of-body experience. There we were in Israel, showing solidarity for an Israel yet again being depicted as the aggressor, and yet we were and remain deeply concerned about our own vulnerability due to a precipitous rise of antisemitism back home. We met with the journalist Matti Friedman; you should all read his most recent article in The Atlantic. Matti had a great line: When Putin invades Ukraine, nobody adds security guards at Russian Orthodox churches around the world. But for some reason, and let’s just give that reason a name – antisemitism – when Israel is in conflict with her neighbors, Jewish institutions around the world are put on high alert. I am not an alarmist, nor for that matter, do I believe that Israel always does the right thing. But what this latest conflict, conflagration, war, or whatever you want to call it has done in my mind, is laid bare the lie that there is no connection between acceptable anti-Zionism and rank antisemitism. Be it violent attacks by Palestinian-flag bearing thugs, rocks thrown through the windows of kosher eateries on the Upper East Side, or front-page headlines in the New York Times, in the eyes of antisemites, Israel has come to represent a story of Jewish malevolence. Now is not the time to mince words; now is not the time to stay silent; now is not the time for neutrality. Anyone who would dumb down the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict as yet another racial wrong in need of being righted doesn’t understand Israel, doesn’t understand Hamas, doesn’t understand the conflict, and doesn’t understand the slippery slope of antisemitism that their ignorance gives way to. We are having a few programs this week on speaking to our children about Israel and antisemitism, but it is a conversation not just for this week nor only for our children. Who we are as Jews has always been measured by our willingness to take up the cause and condition of our people as our own. Now is the time to be informed. Now is the time to be active, to be vigilant, and to be engaged in the defense of our people’s interests – here, in Israel, and around the world
Three fault lines – Israel and the Palestinians, Israelis among themselves, and Israel and the world. Things look pretty grim. My scouting report, admittedly, is more doom and gloom than courage and optimism. And yet . . . Israel is the land of miracles. Deflated as I was upon my return, the events of the last few days have mitigated my pessimism just a little. A president-elect with deep ties to American Jewry. A coalition government in formation with a broad spectrum of parties including an Arab Israeli party, a right-wing party, and a left-wing party, and excluding an extremist party. The possibility – and it is still only a possibility – that this fragile coalition can hold is testimony not only to the vibrancy of Israeli democracy, but to the continued hope, however slim, that there are Israeli leaders who love Israel more than their own political agendas. It is not much, but it might just be enough to make me, in Heschel’s words, an optimist against my better judgment. As we learned from our Torah reading, when it comes to the fate of the Jewish people, despair is simply not an option. So let us choose hope – tikvah – and turn that hope into active engagement, so that one day, please God in our lifetime, we will be able to say as did Joshua and Caleb in theirs: Ha-aretz asher avarnu bah latur otah, tovah ha-aretz me’od me’od. The land which we traversed to scout, that land is very, very good. (Numbers 14:7)