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Breaking free: Israel, Shavuot and Peace 

05/17/2021 07:44:00 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Bamidbar Dvar Torah May 15, 2021

Whenever I hear the news about violence and suffering in Israel, I like so many of you, take it personally.  We have been to these cities, we have walked these streets and seen those faces before.  It hurts because this is our home too.  It is not just news of a far away country, whose people and land are foreign and strange.  This is familiar territory, and for better or worse, so are the stories told by both sides of the conflict.  

While the specific details that splash across the pages of our news feeds may differ in the details, we know exactly what to expect.  There is a spark, violence ensues, and there are protests and retaliations.  Its familiarity in no way makes the suffering, the loss of life any less painful.  In fact, the idea that this suffering can still be so easily, so quickly, made to awake is what makes it so profoundly horrible.  It hurts to know that the fire is always burning.

I mourn for the loss of life, for the growing fear and for all those who now cannot live in safety in their homes and on their land.

But I must admit, I was saddened over the past week to see the usual responses from local and national Jewish organizations which followed the same predictable trope:  “Israel has a right to defend itself”.  There may be another side, but when our people are hurt, this does not matter.  The history of the past week was laid out saying that the violence started when Hamas started sending rockets into Israel from Gaza.  Let me not mince my words.  What Hamas is doing is horrible, evil and wrong.  And there is no justification for attacking civilians, or shooting rockets into Israeli towns.  This is far worse than any act of self defense in which Israel may be taking part.

Unfortunately though, I refuse to ignore the reality of what came before these attacks.  During the “quiet” on the Israeli side of the past many years, there was growing pain and endless suffering for the Palestinians and for Arab Israeli citizens.  Even if we put aside the very real challenges of being a non-Jewish citizen of Israel or a Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza, these past few weeks should have been a wake up call that something was profoundly broken.  

Over the past few weeks, there were the attempts by Israeli settlers to evict residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, supported by the government because of old 19th century legal rules which clearly violate the basic human rights of those whose homes were destroyed.  No Jewish citizen of a different neighborhood would ever be treated in the same way.

Palestinians protested, not necessarily because they wanted to destroy Israel but because they didn't want to be kicked out of their homes.  Then there was the closure of the Damascus Gate, a favourite gathering place for residents of East Jerusalem, during most of the month of Ramadan.  Finally, the gates and the troops were finally removed in late April after Palestinian protests.  As Muslims gathered for the final Friday prayers during Ramadan in front of the Al Aska Mosque, tensions were understandably high.

In so-called mixed cities where Jews and Arabs have lived together for generations, such as Lod, coexistence has been turned into angry mobs with people from both sides turning on the other, torching buildings, and attacking neighbors in what some are calling the beginning of a civil war.  It is horrifying, and it is demoralizing.  Clearly, what we saw as a stable peace, was actually a simmering mess of brokenness underneath the surface.  Yes we can pick sides, and yes we can place blame, but while possibly unequal, both sides need to be recognized.

Israel has a right to defend itself.

Israel has a right to defend itself against the hatred of those who work to destroy it, of which admittedly there are many.  Israel has a right to be seen as a safe haven for the Jews after thousands of years of oppression, to be treated as an equal among all the nations of the world, and to not be demonized when it is doing so much better than so many other countries in the Middle East. Israel has a right to bomb the missile factories and the people that work to destroy Israel.  When Israeli citizens are threatened, it is true that Israel has to fight.

Yet, Israel also has a right to defend itself--against the dangerous path of ignoring the needs and self determination of an entire people.  The reality of the suffering and unequal status of not just Palestinians, but Israeli Arabs is real and painful.  There is no justification for this suffering any more than there is justification for the suffering of Jews.

Today as we mourn the loss of life over the past week and we fear more pain and violence, we recognize a day that I am sure is rarely even mentioned within the walls of most synagogues: Al Nakba.  While we had our celebration of Yom Haatzmaut a few weeks ago, the alternate narrative of Palestinian suffering is focused on this day.  What was to us a blessing, a Day of Independence, was to them a tragedy.  I bring this up, not to get into the details of truth and history, although I must say that there is plenty of truth and more than enough falsehoods on both sides, but to acknowledge the simple fact that there are two narratives, two histories, that don’t just need to coexist together, but need to inform each other before anything will change.  We can celebrate Israel, and still be proud Zionists, as I am, and still acknowledge Al Nakba.  In my mind it is wrong to think that our history and our vision for the future of Israel does not have room for some of these uncomfortable truths.

The story of Palestinians, the story of their lives, their land, and their suffering cannot simply be seen as the story of the other side.  It is an integral part of how Israel came to be, and their identity and desire for safety and self determination should feel familiar to us in a way that gives us no choice but to not just acknowledge their narrative but to also listen to it and act on it. Being Jewish but only being given one side of the narrative is unfair and dangerous to not just the “other side” but it also weakens our own identity.  

Let's get something straight.  We Jews became a people because of conflict.  From the arguments of Abraham with God with Sodom and Gomorrah, to the family challenges of Joseph and his brothers, to the Exodus from Egypt and the endless wars, the wins and losses.  We grew into the Jewish people because of what we overcame, and we never took the easy path.  The blessing of Israel as immortalized in Hatikvah is undeniably powerful, because we all know what we had to overcome to reach this final home. 

The hope of two thousand years,

To be a free nation in our land,

The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Yet, while we were reaching our hands towards Jerusalem, other people, other cultures, other human beings, were creating their own story.  There always was and will continue to be more than one story of Israel, and while our Israel narrative holds true for us, it will never give us the right to destroy or deny the humanity of those whose path exists right next to ours.  

Israel has a right to defend itself.  

These words no longer mean anything to me when they are taken to mean that we can do whatever is necessary to defend our story, our humanity, our homes and our lives, even if we deny it from others. During war, we can and should shut down every missile aimed at our homes, strike every terrorist who threatens to kill.  Yet during times of peace, defense does not mean the slow and painful death caused by evictions, racism, inequality and cruelty.  This is not the Israel imagined by its founders, by our faith, and this does not need to be the Israel which we must continue to defend. 

I want to pass on a story of Israel to my children that is proud, real and painful.  I want them to know all that we fought for to get this land, and to stand tall with the idea that we have a place of safety as a people that will also be there for us no matter what.  Yet with the same strength that I share the story of Israel, I believe I can also share the story of the Palestinians, and the reality of the blessings and the suffering of their story.  Future generations will believe in Israel only if we no longer hide the fullness, the reality of what stands behind the rhetoric.  This truth needs to come from our heart, not from the politicians, the journalists or the rabbis that give us the story they want us to hear.  If we know that there are two peoples on this land, then it is time that we start believing not just in Israel, but in the reality of hope and of pain that exists not just in taking sides, but in acknowledging our shared humanity.  Coexistence is not built only on self-defense.

Tomorrow night we celebrate Shavuot.  As we gather together on this day to remember the most Jewish of moments, the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, we receive an important reminder which I think is especially relevant today.  Let us remember that it was for a good reason that the Torah was received in the wilderness, in bamidbar, on the way to the Eretz Yisrael, so that the Jewish people could receive the ethical code, the rules of daily life, and the map for creating a just society before they even made it to the land. The Torah warns us “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in...beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage...and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’"(Deuteronomy 8:12)

Today as we prepare for this moment of community solidarity, joy and hope, we also mourn the loss and the pain that we see in front of us.  We need to celebrate our Judaism and the wisdom of so many generations.  We also need to remember the wars and the suffering that made us continue the fight to have a land of our own.

We celebrate the blessing of Israel, and in so many ways it truly is the culmination of the dream of thousands of years.  But this land can only be ours if we share it with the others who dream along with us, to live in peace, stability and safety.  I believe in the story of Israel enough that I know there is room for this too.

Mon, May 16 2022 15 Iyyar 5782