On a recent Tuesday even-ing, 24 hours before the arrival of Yom HaShoah, I attended a symposium in Jerusalem on a subject both intriguing and urgent: "To Acknowledge the Suffering of the 'Other': Religious Obligation, Psychological Challenge." The sponsor was Oz VeShalom-Netivot Shalom, a religious Zionist peace group. The moderator was a prominent religious feminist; the panelists, all male, were an eminent left-wing Orthodox rabbi and a well-known Muslim theologian-educator, both of them active in interfaith work; a "knitted-kippah" Jewish psychologist specializing in Holocaust trauma, and an Israeli Arab research psychologist who teaches at the Hebrew University. Here's how the evening went:
The rabbi presented a wealth of rabbinic sources -- enough for several seasons of uplifting sermons -- extolling and mandating peace and compassion. There was a midrash on Genesis 31:8 showing that Jacob was more distressed about the prospect of taking life than afraid for his own life; a passage from Deuteronomy Rabbah forbidding the Jew to abhor the Egyptian; a Talmudic dictum (Tractate Beitzah 32b) that he who is not merciful is not a real Jew of the seed of Abraham; Maimonides' ruling (Laws of Kings 10:12) that one must visit the sick even of idolators; and a raft of halachic opinions and responses by Palestinian (i.e. pre-State Jewish) chief rabbis prohibiting excessive military force and establishing the protected status of Christians and Muslims in the incipient Jewish polity. I found the rabbi's words very inspiring and wrote down all the references. But, I wondered, what good are they when Arab gunmen fire at Gilo?
The Muslim educator, an Israeli citizen who holds positions at two leading Jewish institutions, began by recalling the respect in which Mohammed held those whom the prophet called "The People of the Book." He noted the widespread impression that Islam, when it comes to issues of war and peace, is mainly about jihad, holy war, conversion by the sword -- but this, he said, is not so: the Koran has much to say in support of making peace, even with pagans and other nonbelievers. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the texts of all the great religious traditions can be adduced in support of war or peace, vengeance or accommodation. (Herein, I hardly need add, lies the root of so many of our troubles.)
"Both sides," the educator said in flawless Hebrew, "have suffered enough. Let's not compete in counting the number of dead and wounded. The time has come to stop and ask, where are we galloping? I say this to the other side too. Both must hear a different music." And yet, he went on, can we speak of symmetry in our current situation? When Israel, in retaliation for Palestinian fire, destroys homes in Gaza, how many 5-year-olds will be left homeless? And where will that 5-year-old be when he is 25? This is how terrorists are born. "Can a people that presents itself as a 'light unto the nations,'" he concluded, "close its eyes?"
The answer, of course, turns out to be yes. "I'm not so sure, said the Jewish psychologist, who was the next to speak, "that we always want to understand the suffering of the Other." He too, he conceded, sometimes feels self-protective, angry, violent. Israelis are "prisoners of unprocessed traumatic events" -- the Yom Kippur War, the Gulf War -- and "the black hole of trauma pulls everything into its vortex." Current events invoke past traumas, and trauma makes one narcissistic. We cannot see the suffering of others because we get caught up in our own experiences. We draw on religious metaphors -- the eternal enemy Amalek, Jacob versus Esau, Isaac and Ishmael.
I sat there, trying to process this talk about processing. The Holocaust, as everyone knows, looms enormously in the Israeli consciousness. Can it ever be "processed"? Can Jewish fear ever melt away in the face of peace-mongering rabbinic prooftexts and Arab assurances?
Now came the Arab psychologist's turn, and he told a story. Because I speak Hebrew perfectly, he said, I am often taken for a Jew. One day my car was in the shop and I took a cab from the Hebrew University to the garage. The driver said to me, there are two kinds of people I never pick up: alcoholics and Arabs. And how, I asked him, can you tell that a person is an alcoholic? I pull up a few meters ahead, said the cab driver, and I can see how he walks. Ah ha! And how can you tell if someone is an Arab? (The audience by now was on the edge of its collective chair.)
"That's easy," the cabbie said. "By the smell."
"I'm sorry to tell you, but it would appear that your sense of smell has let you down today."
"What do you mean?" the cabbie said.
"I'm an Arab."
"No way," said the cabbie (let's imagine him eyeing his passenger -- suit, tie, no mustache, European demeanor -- in the rear-view mirror, then pausing before speaking again). "Then you must be a good Arab."
You see, said the Arab psychologist, the driver could not change his mind about Arabs, so he had to make me into an exception. To ice the cake, when he got to his destination, he gave the cabbie a ten-shekel tip.
Where do we go from here? "We have no other country," said the Arab psychologist, employing a common Israeli expression. When both sides say this, they are right. We are engaged in a real dispute. Our problem is political, not emotional. Where do terrorists come from? They are the sons and grandsons of the refugees of 1948. But each side is inhibited from acknowledging the suffering of the Other for fear that such acknowledgment weakens one's own claim on the land.
The only way out is to recognize that this isn't so, that empathy doesn't diminish your political rights. But to be empathetic, you have to know the Other, and Jews and Arabs -- even Israeli Arabs -- don't. The Arab psychologist surveyed 300 Israeli Arab kids, ten- and eleven-year-olds, who reported their dreams. Only two or three had dreams with Jewish characters. (Palestinian kids in Gaza, on the other hand, I would guess, might have nightmares about Israeli soldiers and Jewish kids bad dreams about terrorists.)
Tolerance is OK, said the Arab psychologist, but it implies the Other is wrong. Pluralism is a step up, because it acknowledges value. Best of all is partnership, multiculturalism, "a feeling that without the Other your life would be missing something." This is a wonderful notion, and it is good -- no, crucial -- that people of good will can still sit together and discuss such ideas. But can Jews and Arabs ever again feel this way about each other? I would think they did in medieval Spain, and more recently in Casablanca and Alexandria -- but that was then and this is now.
"Now" means the next night, Yom HaShoah, as millions of Israelis watched on TV the deeply moving ceremony held yearly at Yad Vashem. Holocaust survivors lit torches and their wrenching stories were told in video clips. And in the background, boom. Boom. BOOM. What is that? asked my kids.
A sonic boom, said my wife.
But we knew better. Yet another night of faceless violence. Israeli artillery pounding Palestinians in Bethlehem, a few kilometers down the road. Arabs shooting at Jews near Rachel's Tomb, where the gentle matriarch weeps, as ever, for her children.
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