April 20, 2010
Israel at 62: The Limits of Debate
As Israel prepares to celebrate its 62nd birthday, the weather outside is chilly. The climate at home is not wonderful either.
Politicians, pundits and bloggers in faraway cafes deliver solemn verdicts on the future of Israeli-American relations. Pollsters conduct beauty contests, as if Obama and Netanyahu were rivals on “American Idol.”
A wide constellation of individuals and groups seek to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state, while an enemy country, run by Islamic fundamentalists, is on the verge of nuclear power. As Jews stake their claims in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, Muslim rabble-rousers accuse Israel of plotting to destroy Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque.
Jewish patriots excoriate human rights organizations and their donors. Provincial lawmakers propose loyalty oaths for Israeli citizens and question the Jewish identity of Jews-by-choice. No less worrisome, on the eve of Israel’s birthday, is that many Jews, in Israel and abroad, are losing the capacity for self-reflection.
Without the willingness to understand how we look to outsiders, we risk relegating ourselves to an ever-narrowing worldview. Seeking to sharpen our definition of moral clarity, we grow astigmatic around the edges, where other people live and love, dream and hallucinate, just as we do.
It’s a happy accident that Yom HaAtzmaut falls so close to Pesach — or maybe this is no accident at all. Perhaps the founders of Israel put the final touches on our Declaration of Independence, which ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants,” while under the influence of the strong moral lesson of the Exodus: never to inflict upon others the suffering we endured in Egyptian bondage. “You shall not oppress the stranger,” says the Torah (Exodus 23:9), “for you know the soul of the stranger” — nefesh hager — “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
There are Jews who would claim that “all its inhabitants” applies only to Israeli citizens, and not to the residents of Nablus or Gaza City, or to Arabs in East Jerusalem. Technically, some Jews will argue, the ger or “stranger” of Exodus 23:9 means “convert” (ger tzedek) or else a halachic category of non-Jew called ger toshav, a resident alien who plays by Jewish rules, but in any case not a hostile Palestinian.
To many other Jews, it seems obvious that when the Torah says “you were gerim in the land of Egypt,” it doesn’t mean Egyptians-by-choice or resident non-Egyptians — it means a persecuted minority. And of course there are those who agree with this reading but would rationalize with a heavy heart that, nowadays, with Israel’s very existence at stake, sympathy for the Palestinian cause is a luxury we cannot afford. We are reluctant players, they would say, in a zero-sum game.
Herein lies a serious pitfall. Our justifiable indignation — over anti-Semitism, delegitimization, terrorism, the hypocrisy of the United Nations, the smugness of leftist boycotters and preachers of divestment, and a plethora of other justifiable and righteous indignations — too often blunts our sensitivity to the suffering of others. It also drives us to confuse what is right and what is smart.
Does Israel have a legal right to build anywhere it wants in Jerusalem? Sure we do, say many reputable lawyers (though not all reputable lawyers would agree.) But is it smart to exercise this right at this historical moment? Is it good, for Israel and the Jewish people, given the costs and perils entailed? Making concessions to the Palestinians is something that the Palestinians (and the Americans and pretty much everyone else) want. But is this a reason not to do it?
If even the United States of America, Israel’s greatest friend, is sending signals that Israeli policies are harmful to U.S. interests in the region, what might this mean? Is it further proof (as some Jews believe) that the whole world is against us, that we can rely on no one but ourselves, and that “they” — the nations of the world — are going to hate us no matter what we do, so we may as well do whatever we want? In which case, what exactly do we want? What kind of Jewish country? A democracy for “all its inhabitants” or only some of them?
Israel advocacy is an urgent challenge, a great moral imperative for the Jewish people. It is too complex an agenda to be dominated by lawyers or professional explainers. There are many ways to be pro-Israel, not one or two. Israel, in a physical and spiritual sense, is both an ancient and postmodern text, to be argued over like a page of Talmud in the Beit Midrash. The study hall should be big enough to accommodate a wide range of arguers: students and teachers, poets and psychologists, rabbis and generals.
There are also proud Jews out there, educated and ethical people, including many who in their gut want to love Israel, who have come to believe that the Zionist enterprise, a moral necessity at its inception, has veered so drastically off course that it is now counter-productive for the Jewish people. Are such folks treif, per se? Or do these voices — angry, sad, anguished, confused — deserve a place at the table, too? Just as not every anti-Zionist is by definition an anti-Semite, nor every West Bank settler a xenophobe, neither is a Jew who is fixated on the suffering of Palestinians a self-hating Jew. If such critics are barred at the establishment door, what does that augur for the Jewish future?
There are even good Jews who believe that a single, bi-national Arab-Jewish democracy, quixotic or absurd though it may seem, is a goal worth striving for (pesky details to be worked out later.) Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Henrietta Szold supported such an outcome long ago, at the time of the British Mandate. Is naïve hope tantamount to heresy?
And what of committed non-Zionists, in Los Angeles or London, who believe that a vibrant and innovative Diaspora Judaism can thrive without Israel, and can prove it by their own example? Are we Zionists prepared to listen and learn, to be energized by honest dissent? Where and how one draws the lines of legitimate debate is itself a subject for our Zionist Beit Midrash. A good place to start the conversation is a passage from page 94b of Tractate Pesachim, the Talmudic volume that discusses the laws of Passover (with sundry digressions):
“The Sages of Israel maintain: The sun travels beneath the sky by day and above the sky at night; while the Sages of the nations of the world maintain: It travels beneath the sky by day and below the earth at night. Said ‘Rabbi’: And their view is preferable to ours, for the wells are cold by day but warm at night.”
In the Talmud, simply “Rabbi” means Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the towering sage who edited the Mishnah in Palestine around 200 C.E. What on earth is he saying? Both of these astronomical theories, we know today, are poppycock, but this is not the point. By favoring the position of the “nations of the world” over the Jewish claim, Rabbi is a role model for own time, a radical advocate of the wide-open Jewish mind. It is our duty, 18 centuries later, to keep it as wide as we can — but this, too, is open to debate.
Stuart Schoffman, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation, also writes and lectures widely on politics, religion and culture.