I’ve always been proud of Israel, but the brutal Gaza assault requires Jews worldwide to be honest, not nationalist
A Palestinian boy comforts his father, who medics said was wounded by Israeli shelling in Shejaia, at a hospital in Gaza City, July 30, 2014. (Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
My heart is broken as I witness the suffering of the Palestinian people and the seeming indifference of Israelis. All my life I’ve been a champion of Israel, proud of its many accomplishments in science and technology that have benefited the world, insistent on the continuing need for the Jewish people to have a state that offers protections from anti-Semitism that has reared its head continuously throughout Christian and Islamic societies, willing to send my only child to serve in the Israeli Army (the paratroopers unit-tzanchanim), and enjoying the pleasures of long swaths of time in which I could study in Jerusalem and celebrate Shabbat in a city that weekly closed down the hustle and bustle of the capitalist marketplace for a full 25 hours.
And though as editor of Tikkun I printed articles challenging the official story of how Israel came to be, showing its role in forcibly ejecting tens of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 and allowing Jewish terrorist groups under the leadership of (future Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir) to create justified fears that led hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians to flee for their lives, I always told myself that the dominant humanity of the Jewish people and the compassionate strain within Torah would reassert itself once Israel felt secure.
That belief began to wane in the past eight years when Israel, faced with a Palestinian Authority that promoted nonviolence and sought reconciliation and peace, ignored the Saudi Arabian-led peace initiative that would have granted Israel the recognition that it had long sought, an end to hostilities, and a recognized place in the Middle East, refused to stop its expansion of settlements in the West Bank and imposed an economically crushing blockade on Gaza. Even Hamas, whose hateful charter called for Israel’s destruction, had decided to accept the reality of Israel’s existence, and while unable to embrace its “right” to exist, nevertheless agreed to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority and in that context live within the terms that the PA would negotiate with Israel.
Yet far from embracing this new possibility for peace, the Israeli government used that as its reason to break off the peace negotiations, and then, in an unbelievably cynical move, let the brutal and disgusting kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens (by a rogue element in Hamas that itself was trying to undermine the reconciliation-with-Israel factions of Hamas by creating new fears in Israel) become the pretext for a wild assault on West Bank civilians, arresting hundreds of Hamas sympathizers, and escalating drone attacks on Hamas operatives inside Gaza. When Hamas responded by starting to send its (guaranteed to be ineffective and hence merely symbolic in light of Israel’s Iron Shield) missiles toward civilian targets in Israel, the Netanyahu government used that as its excuse to launch a brutal assault on Gaza.
But it is the brutality of that assault that finally has broken me into tears and heartbreak. While claiming that it is only interested in uprooting tunnels that could be used to attack Israel, the IDF has engaged in the same criminal behavior that the world condemns in other struggles: the intentional targeting of civilians (the same crime that Hamas has been engaged in over the years, which correctly has earned it the label as a terrorist organization). Using the excuse that Hamas is using civilians as “human shields” and placing its war material in civilian apartments, Israel has managed to kill more than 1,000 civilians and wounded thousands. The stories that have emerged from eyewitness accounts of hundreds of children being killed by Israel’s indiscriminate destructiveness, the shelling of United Nations schools and public hospitals, and finally the destruction of Gaza’s water and electricity, guaranteeing deaths from typhoid and other diseases as well as widespread hunger among the million and a half Gazans most of whom have had nothing to do with Hamas, highlights to the world an Israel that is rivaling some of the most oppressive and brutal regimes in the contemporary world.
In my book “Embracing Israel/Palestine” I have argued that both Israelis and Palestinians are victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. I have a great deal of compassion for both peoples, particularly for my own Jewish people who have gone through traumas that have inevitably distorted future generations. Those traumas don’t exonerate Israel’s behavior or that of Hamas, but they are relevant for those of us seeking a path to social healing and transformation.
Yet that healing is impossible until those who are victims of PTSD are willing to work on overcoming it.
And this is precisely where the American Jewish community and Jews around the world have taken a turn that is disastrous, by turning the Israeli nation state into “the Jewish state” and making Israel into an idol to be worshiped rather than a political entity like any other political entity, with strengths and deep flaws. Despairing of spiritual salvation after God failed to show up and save us from the Holocaust, increasing numbers of Jews have abandoned the religion of compassion and identification with the most oppressed that was championed by our biblical prophets, and instead come to worship power and to rejoice in Israel’s ability to become the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East. If a Jew today goes into any synagogue in the U.S. or around the world and says, “I don’t believe in God or Torah and I don’t follow the commandments,” most will still welcome you in and urge you to become involved. But say, “I don’t support the State of Israel,” and you are likely to be labeled a “self-hating Jew” or anti-Semite, scorned and dismissed. As Aaron said of the Golden Calf in the Desert, “These are your Gods, O Israel.”
The worship of the state makes it necessary for Jews to turn Judaism into an auxiliary of ultra-nationalist blindness. Every act of the State of Israel against the Palestinian people is seen as sanctioned by God. Each Sabbath Jews in synagogues around the world are offered prayers for the well-being of the State of Israel but not for our Arab cousins. The very suggestion that we should be praying for the Palestinian people’s welfare is seen as heresy and proof of being “self-hating Jews.”
The worship of power is precisely what Judaism came into being to challenge. We were the slaves, the powerless, and though the Torah talks of God using a strong arm to redeem the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, it simultaneously insists, over and over again, that when Jews go into their promised land in Canaan (not Palestine) they must “love the stranger/the Other,” have one law for the stranger and for the native born, and warns “do not oppress the stranger/the Other.” Remember, Torah reminds us, “that you were strangers/the Other in the land of Egypt” and “you know the heart of the stranger.” Later sources in Judaism even insist that a person without compassion who claims to be Jewish cannot be considered Jewish. A spirit of generosity is so integral to Torah consciousness that when Jews are told to let the land lie fallow once every seven years (the societal-wide Sabbatical Year), they must allow that which grows spontaneously from past plantings be shared with the Other/the stranger.
The Jews are not unique in this. The basic reality is that most of humanity has always heard a voice inside themselves telling them that the best path to security and safety is to love others and show generosity, and a counter voice that tells us that the only path to security is domination and control over others. This struggle between the voice of fear and the voice of love, the voice of domination/power-over and the voice of compassion, empathy and generosity, have played out throughout history and shape contemporary political debates around the world. Because almost every single one of us hears both voices, we are often torn between them, oscillating in our communal policies and our personal behavior between these two worldviews and ways of engaging others. As the competitive and me-first ethos of the capitalist marketplace has grown increasingly powerful and increasingly reflected in the culture and worldviews of the contemporary era, more and more people bring the worldview of fear, domination and manipulation of others into personal lives, teaching people that the rationality of the marketplace with its injunction to see other human beings primarily in terms of how they can serve our own needs and as instrumental for our own purposes, rather than as being deserving of care and respect just for who they are and not for what they can deliver for us, this ethos has weakened friendships and created the instability in family life that the right has so effectively manipulated (a theme I develop most fully in reporting in my book “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right” on my years as a psychotherapist and principal investigator of an NIMH study of stress and the psychodynamics of daily life in Western societies).
No wonder that Jews and Judaism have had these conflicting streams within our religion as well. In the 2,000 years of relative powerlessness when Jews were the oppressed minorities of the Western and Islamic societies, the validation of images of a powerful God who could fight for the oppressed Jews was a powerful psychological boon to offset the potential internalizing of the demonization that we faced from the majority cultures. But now when Jews enjoy military power in Israel and economic and political power in the U.S. and to some extent in many other Western societies, one would have expected that the theme of love and generosity, always a major voice even in a Jewish people that were being brutalized, would now emerge as the dominant theme of the Judaism of the 21st century.
No wonder, then, that I’m heartbroken to see the Judaism of love and compassion being dismissed as “unrealistic” by so many of my fellow Jews and fellow rabbis. Wasn’t the central message of Torah that the world was ruled by a force that made possible the transformation from “that which is” to “that which can and should be” and wasn’t our task to teach the world that nothing was fixed, that even the mountains could skip like young rams and the seas could flee from before the triumph of justice in the world? Instead of this hopeful message, too many of the rabbis and rabbinical institutions are preaching a Judaism that hopes more in the Israeli army than in the capacity of human beings (including Palestinians), all created in the image of God and hence capable of transformation, to once again become embodiments of love and generosity. They scoff at the possibility that we at Tikkun and our Network of Spiritual Progressives have been preaching (not only for the Middle East, but for the U.S. as well) that if we act from a loving and generous place, that the icebergs of anger and hate (some of which our behavior helped to create) can melt away and people’s hearts can once again turn toward love and justice for all. In an America that at this very moment has its president calling for sending tens of thousands of children refugees back to the countries they risked their lives to escape, in an America that refused to provide Medicare for All, in an America that serves the interests of its richest 1 percent while largely ignoring the needs of its large working middle class, these ideas may sound naively utopian. But for Judaism, belief in God was precisely a belief that love and justice could and should prevail, and that our task is to embody that message in our communities and promote that message to the world.
It is this love, compassion, justice and peace-oriented Judaism that the State of Israel is murdering. The worshipers of Israel have fallen into a deep cynicism about the possibility of the world that the prophets called for in which nations shall not lift up the sword against each other and they will no longer learn war, and everyone will live in peace. True, that world is not already here, but the Jewish people’s task was to teach people that this world could be brought into being, and that each step we take is either a step toward that world or a step away from it. The Israel worshipers are running away from the world, making it far less possible, and then call their behavior Judaism and Israel “the Jewish state.”
No wonder, then, that I mourn for the Judaism of love and kindness, peace and generosity that Israel worshipers dismiss as utopian fantasy. To my fellow Jews, I issue the following invitation: use Tisha B’av (the traditional fast-day mourning the destruction of Jewish life in the past, and starting Monday night Aug. 4 till dark Aug. 5) to mourn for the Judaism of love and generosity that is being murdered by Israel and its worshipers around the world, the same kind of idol-worshipers who, pretending to be Jewish but actually assimilated into the world of power, helped destroy our previous two Jewish commonwealths and our temples of the past. We may have to renew our Judaism by creating a Liberatory, Emancipatory, Transformative Love-Oriented Judaism outside the synagogues and traditional institutions, because inside the existing Jewish community the best we can do is repeat what the Jewish exiles in Babylonia said in Psalm 137, “How can we sing the songs of the Transformative Power YHVH in a strange land?” And let us this year turn Yom Kippur into a time of repentance for the sins of our people who have given Israel a blank check and full permission to be brutal in the name of Judaism and the Jewish people (even as we celebrate those Jews with the courage to publicly critique Israel in a loving but stern way).
For our non-Jewish allies, the following plea: Do not let the organized Jewish community intimidate you with charges that any criticism of Israel’s brutality toward the Palestinian people proves that you are anti-Semites. Stop allowing your very justified guilt at the history of oppression your ancestors enacted on Jews to be the reason you fail to speak out vigorously against the current immoral policies of the State of Israel. The way to become real friends of the Jewish people is to side with those Jews who are trying to get Israel back on track toward its highest values, knowing full well that there is no future for a Jewish state surrounded by a billion Muslims except through friendship and cooperation. The temporary alliance of brutal dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and various Arab emirates that give Israel support against Hamas will ultimately collapse, but the memory of humiliation at the hands of the State of Israel will not, and Israel’s current policies will endanger Jews both in the Middle East and around the world for many decades after the people of Israel have regained their senses. Real friends don’t let their friends pursue a self-destructive path, so it’s time for you too to speak up and to support those of us in the Jewish world who are champions of peace and justice, and who will not be silent in the face of the destruction of Judaism.
And that gets to my last point. Younger Jews, like many of their non-Jewish peers, are becoming increasingly alienated from Israel and from the Judaism that too many Jews claim to be the foundation of this supposedly Jewish state. They see Israel as what Judaism is in practice, not knowing how very opposite its policies are to the traditional worldviews most Jews have embraced through the years. It is these coming generations of young people whose parents claimed to be Jewish but celebrated the power of the current State of Israel and never bothered to critique it when it was acting immorally, as it is today in Gaza, who will leave Judaism in droves, making it all the more the province of the Israel-worshipers with their persistent denial of the God of love and justice and their embrace of a God of vengeance and hate. I won’t blame them for that choice, but I wish they knew that there is a different strand of Judaism that has been the major strand for much of Jewish history, and that it needs their active engagement in order to reestablish it as the 21st century continuation of the Jewish tradition. That I have to go to non-Jewish sources to seek to have this message printed is a further testimony to how much there is to mourn over the dying body of the Judaism of love, pleading for Jews who privately feel the way I do to come out of their closets and help us rebuild the Jewish world in which the tikkun (healing and transformation) needed becomes the first agenda item.
Above all else, I grieve for all the unnecessary suffering on this planet, including the Israeli victims of terrorism, the Palestinian victims of Israeli terror and repression, the victims of America’s misguided wars from Vietnam through Afghanistan and Iraq and the apparently endless war on terrorism, the victims of so many other struggles around the world, and the less visible but real victims of a global capitalist order in which according to the U.N. some 8,000-10,000 children under the age of 5 die every day from malnutrition or diseases related to malnutrition. And yet I affirm that there is still the possibility of a different kind of world, if only enough of us would believe in it and then work together to create it.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, http://www.spiritualprogressives.org and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership in which also brings you a subscription to Tikkun Magazine). RabbiLerner.Tikkun@gmail.com.