Israel (5 of 7)

Friday, August 13, 2021 | 5 Elul 5781


Dear All,

The second day of the 2005 Israel Ride was on Thursday, May 12th.

The day before we had ridden from Jerusalem to Ashkelon. Now we were riding to Mashabeh Sadeh, alongside the northern tip of Gaza.

That day was Israel’s Independence Day, i.e. a public holiday. And it was the year of the proposed “hitnatkut” – the withdrawal from Gaza.  So we rode alongside an enormous traffic jam of Israelis flying orange flags (the color associated with the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza), protesting against the withdrawal. Miles and miles of cars with orange flags.

And it was important to see this. Most liberal American Jews, at the time, seemed to feel: “of course I support the withdrawal. What’s Israel doing in Gaza in the first place? The sooner Israel leaves, the better.”

But huge numbers of Israelis were against the withdrawal; and the Israelis in favor of the withdrawal had a rather different perspective from the Americans: “on balance I’m in favor of the hitnatkut. But I pray that the Gazans, after we’ve withdrawn, don’t smuggle in heavy weapons. And if they do, and G!d forbid they lob a missile into the center of Tel Aviv which kills five thousand people, then this will have been a tragic mistake…”

When I’m there I invariably find Israel complex, fascinating, inspiring, challenging, moving, troubling, funny, striking, baffling and contradictory. I remain baffled by how sure some people outside of Israel can be, that they are right and everyone else is wrong. (Yes, there’s a Jewish Zen koan in that sentence. Not going there now.)  And especially, when it is other people’s lives that are at stake. When they – we –  tell Israelis that they must do X or shouldn’t do Y, we may have forgotten what the neighborhood can be like and what it’s like to live in it.

I remember in the first intifada I took a wrong turn – I was trying to go from Ramat Eshkol to Hebrew University in Jerusalem – and drove by mistake into Isawiya. Palestinian teenagers fired rocks the size of grapefruits at the car – me, my then girlfriend, and an old friend from Manchester. The windshield and the back window held, but everything else was smashed out. We drove out under a hail of fire, bleeding from small cuts and with shards of glass everywhere. Despite how scary it was, even then I had the sense that we were lucky, because no effort was made to stop us from getting out. Two weeks later an Israeli soldier, caught in a car by himself in equivalent circumstances (also a wrong turn) was burned to death in the car.

It was maybe a dozen years later that Marla Bennett was murdered at Hebrew U. We had just been together for a Passover seder three months before and I remember that day very clearly. Note also this, from the NYTimes, the following week:

Last Wednesday was a day of celebration for many in Gaza City. They handed out sweets and thousands danced in the streets. The cause: seven Jews, five of them American, had been massacred by a remote-control bomb at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

People who so casually assume that Israel “just” needs to withdraw from the territories are making extraordinary presumptions about other people’s lives. Israelis – Muslim and Christian, as well as Jewish – live in relative peace and safety because the IDF is there to protect them.

And: No, of course I don’t think all Palestinians are murderous. Yes, I agree that conditions in Gaza are awful. Yes, I think Israel has made a whole series of mistakes over the years. Yes, there are Israeli politicians whose views I find abhorrent. I was one of three founders of NIF, in the UK, 28 years ago, because I felt then as I do now that Israel was amazing and inspiring and also messed up in umpteen ways, and that those of us who care about the future of Israel have an obligation to try to support positive change. Note that launching NIF was an expression of love and commitment, not of hatred.

The piece I wrote two weeks ago, about the tradition endorsing Beit Hillel because they could first explicate the position of Beit Shammai, is a useful frame in relation to Israel today. We have to strive to explicate the merit of the positions of those we disagree with.

Israeli Palestinians are as sensitive as any of us would be to discrimination, minor or major.  And if Palestinians in the territories spend huge time going through checkpoints even as the government allows the expansion of Jewish settlements it will engender further frustration and maybe hatred. Some years ago I was at an AIPAC dinner in Southern California. I was chatting with the woman on my right, and she was saying a series of things which I found, frankly, rather strange. At a certain point I asked her, when were you last in Israel? To which she replied (I should not have been surprised though, genuinely, I was), “oh, I’ve never been to Israel…”

So how do we move forward?

Well, let’s think about… Hatikvah. I grew up singing Hatikvah, and I find it emotionally powerful – and did so long before I first heard the famous audio of survivors at Bergen-Belsen, singing it on the first shabbat after their liberation.

But if I were an Israeli Palestinian, I might not sing Hatikvah. If, in Britain growing up, there’d been a national anthem that somehow excluded Jews, I’d not have wanted to sing that either.

The issue of the national anthem is a fine way of striving to follow Beit Hillel, as it were, in seeing the other perspective first. Jews should be able to understand why an Israeli Palestinian citizen of Israel might not want to sing it. Palestinans, Israeli or not, should be able to understand why Hatikvah is so resonant for Jews. So could we, at some point in the future, have more than one national anthem? And on the one hand, this one “little” topic is so huge and hard, precisely because of all the history and emotion bound up with this song. And yet, on the other, it’s a good topic to allow us to think through change, and the perspectives of many different people and perhaps in due course finding new both/and rather than either/or solutions.

This is why I personally think it’s a useful exercise to think through the notion of a single state. Israel, for me, is unique because it’s the only country in the world that has Hebrew as its national language and celebrates shabbat on a Saturday; because it closes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It brings Jewish life back to three dimensions, having been just two-dimensional throughout the exile. But it also has Arabic as a national language. If you speak Arabic, if you celebrate the sabbath on a Friday or a Sunday, if you celebrate Eid or Easter – that enriches my world, it doesn’t diminish it. It’s not so easy, in the foreseeable future, to imagine a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But if that’s the case then won’t Israel need to give Palestinians the vote? Or develop some kind of confederation?

If you find these scenarios hard to imagine…. Well, so do I. But a “two state solution” is a bit hard to imagine, right now, also – other, perhaps, than code for “I genuinely care about Israelis and Palestinians and want to find a peaceful way to the future.” And that’s not minor.

But what gives me hope, genuinely, is something less visible: the extraordinary fertility on the ground, in unexpected places. New generations of Israelis and Palestinians are growing up hating each other, or afraid… but a growing number are also growing up open, wanting to experiment, wanting to meet, wanting to do stuff.

And let’s remember: De Klerk & Mandela; Begin & Sadat; Rabin; Sharon; Nixon-in-China; Gorbachev. Radical change is impossible to imagine… until it happens, often spurred by some combination of brave leaders who have come up in their respective tribes, allied with subterranean shifts in mood or consciousness that, in the right circumstances, burst forth.

Those of us who are not in Israel: our task is to lean in. Listen. Learn. Be curious. Try to meet people. Read things. Be flexible. Be open. And, constantly and always, avoid hatred. Avoid attacking people. Avoid pushing people – or countries, or leaders – into a corner.

Fundamentally, this is about our conception of education. Far too much of my education in school and college was, in retrospect, not wholly useful. I did have four years of compulsory Latin. Obviously that’s stood me in really good stead, over the years. (The only time I went to Vesuvius I said to the woman at the ticket counter, Caecilius est in horto. That was about all I could remember. She was not impressed.)

But the one class I took for which I remain forever grateful was Politics and Religion of Jerusalem, with Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, at Hebrew U. This was in 1985, which you might think was a world long gone by, and in so many ways it was. No internet. No mobile phones. We traveled by donkey and wrote missives using quill pens and cuneiform clay tablets.

But some things don’t change all that much. The way the course worked was we spent one day in class and then one day out, meeting people. We met with Faisal Husseini, when he was under house arrest. We met with Menachem Froman z”l in Tekoa. We went out to the West Bank to spend half a day with Jewish settlers; then we met with a Palestinian academic who specialized in land seizure on the West Bank.

That class was within my own context. Hebrew school, previous trips to Israel, Friday night dinners in Ma’alot Dafna. Upon all this it complexified my understanding of Israel. It gave me empathy for many different people, and kinds of people, and perspectives. And wasn’t it Emerson who described a foolish consistency as being “the hobgoblin of little minds”?  If you’re not confused, you’re not paying enough attention. If you think there’s an “easy” or obvious solution – ditto.

And this is how and why this loops back to Hazon’s work on Israel.

We have done 19 Israel Rides; two Siach trips (plus a further three with Israeli and diaspora leaders at Isabella Freedman and in Budapest and London); a Hazon Heschel Hike Bishvil Yisrael; five Israel Sustainable Food Tours; a Hazon Romemu Sustainable Israel trip;  and at least 10 separate Hakhel trips, focused on kehilot mesimatiot, intentional communities. Nearly 40 discrete trips overall. Each one a huge amount of planning, commitment, money, etc.

And each of them far more important than what I’m “in favor of” or against. What’s important is creating multiple contexts to learn first hand. Learning about water issues, about the Bedouin, about inter-group relations, about what’s happening in East Jerusalem. Learning about Israeli music, tech, intentional communities, veganism in Israel, housing issues, public transport, the future of the healthcare system. Hebrew words and roots. Street signs. The art scene. The evolution of the Ultra-Orthodox communities. (Check out, if you’ve never read it, Tzarich Iyun.) Israeli Palestinians in the health care system. Change in the Druze communities. The periphery. Anyone who’s been catching up on Israeli TV and film during Covid has a sense of just some of this – if not, try Hashoter Hatov which is stupid and funny, totally un-PC, and a reminder that comedy itself is a window into how different people and communities can be.

The “environment ” as an issue is at the heart of this. The Arava Institute in particular, and the Israeli environmental movement in general, is extraordinary. A huge range of people who are addressing a slew of real challenges. And because everything is quite literally interconnected, they’re connecting.

On every single one of Hazon’s trips we have complexified people’s understandings. We’ve introduced people to problems and challenges in Israeli society that people aren’t aware of – and of change-makers who are trying to address those challenges, in umpteen different ways.

Even though it seemed to me obvious that we do this, it stands out now as close to unique. Almost none of the Jewish social justice groups, unless they are specifically focused on Israel, connect to Israel or take people there. It has started to become commonplace, among younger or more liberal groups, to conclude that Israel is too complicated, too controversial. “Let’s not go there” – metaphorically as well as literally. There are some people who want to boycott Israel.  A lot more who are equivocal or confused. Many who feel strongly connected to Israel, or feel that the country is being unfairly attacked – but who don’t want to raise their voices in environments where it is now uncomfortable to do so. And so a tacit organizational silence has started to become the new de facto position.

It’s on all of us to struggle with this. Israel is messy. The Jewish community is messy. But we have to relearn muscles of actual argumentation – l’shem shemayim (lit. for the sake of heaven), i.e. done with respect and with love and with humility. We have to relate to Israel, and Israelis – and Palestinans and Jordanians and everyone else – with the understanding that they’re as complex and multidimensional as we are; not just an “issue,” not a cipher, not a symbol. If this email is long and self-contradictory and confusing… then it’s just a tiny fractal of the immense and complex whole. But if you want just one thing you could do — join us on a future Israel Ride. Or learn about and connect with the Israeli environmental movement. And if you’re leading a Jewish Federation or a foundation and want to make a difference – this is especially a place to lean in.

I end by noting that this week’s Torah portion Shoftim starts with the lines in Devarim 17:14-20 which are astonishing, their own little political eco-system. What if we want a king, like other nations have? The Torah essentially says, well, it’s not ideal; probably you shouldn’t do this; but if you do do it, make sure you circumscribe their powers. Make sure the king doesn’t have too much money. Make sure he reads the Torah pretty regularly, so there are checks and balances. I paraphrase, but when you read these lines, and their commentaries, you get a clear sense of it.

It is about balance. It is about trade-offs between the ideal and the real. It is about human psychological needs, and how they play out in the political sphere, and the things that make us feel safe.

So… I send love to everyone in Israel right now. I hope the health service handles this Covid upsurge. I wish this new government well, and I hope they make judicious decisions. I hope Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinian territories are well, and the settlers, and the soldiers. I hope everyone is safe. I hope that Israelis and Palestinians, person by person, family by family, start to build relationships of respect. And I hope that those of us outside of Israel, who love this place, and love these people, are blessed to be able to visit, to learn, to listen, to support… and in whatever ways we can, to help make things better for future generations.

Shabbat shalom,