It is difficult not to feel anxiety…
Man kann sich seines Schicksals nicht entrennen
(You cannot elude your fate/destiny)
It is difficult not to feel anxiety about the events surrounding Gaza, the battle over evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, and the clashes around the Al Aqsa Mosque. The 24 May statement of our Social Justice Action Committee is hard-hitting. For like many others I too “watched with horror” as the violence escalated in Gaza, “mourn the loss of innocent lives,” and “was appalled” at the number of rockets fired by Hamas at civilian targets inside Israel, and the brutal response by the Israel Defense Force. For me the issue this raises is less of how to deal with the cycles of violence, because there is a war going on, and until a lasting peace is found, it seems to have a way of repeating itself every few years, but rather of how to place in perspective the responses on the part of segments of the the Jewish community, with divisions hardening between those who unconditionally support the Jewish state and those who openly, sometimes brutally condemn its actions. Put bluntly, the key question may well be if one can still be a Zionist given the repression of Palestinians Arabs in the territories and East Jerusalem, and the perceived brutal responses of the IDF to the events of May 2021. Maybe one’s loyalty to the Jewish state can no longer be taken for granted, even as we see it coming under attack in major Universities in Britain, the U.S. and Canada, and in progressive intellectual circles world wide.
It used to be said that it is hard to be a Jew (Shver tsu zajn a Yid), but it may be increasingly hard to be a Zionist, which is the question I want to address. To be clear, anti-Zionism is hardly a new feature in Jewish communities, here or in Europe. The Russian/Polish Bundists were anti-Zionist, as was the entire British-Jewish establishment that tried mightily, but failed, to stop the Zionist blandishments that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Closer to home, the son of one of my ancestors, Philip Simon de Vries, was for decades the one lonely pro-Zionist Rabbi on the Rabbinical Council in my native Holland (100,000 Jews 1920-1940). Does it matter whether the cause was acute fear of undermining Torah, or the smear of being caught in a position of dual loyalty between one’s country and Eretz Yisrael? Whatever it was, their rejection did not stem from indifference.
Although I admit to reservations about the somewhat operatic tone of the rabbinical and cantorial students’ statement, and more pertinently about the complete absence in their appeal of any geo-political context or assessment regarding the deadly Gaza exchanges, what I want to emphasize is the necessity for forging bonds between increasingly divided elements of the community. In my view there is no room for Us versus Them. On the contrary, we may have to work hard and pull all our forces together, not to bring about peace, which for the past 100 years has been out of reach, but to make Israel itself a more fair and equitable place. We can strive to do that first by helping neutralize some of the increasingly fanatical voices both on the part of the Haredim (Israel’s ultra-orthodox right) whose greatest fear is to have their influence diminished, or their funds cut, and the Settlers on the hilltops whose interventions in civil life have become a threat to the state’s already brittle civic cohesion. I was deeply moved by Rachel K.’s invocation of justice and her prayers for healing for the children of Avraham and Ishmael. Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s admonition towards an “embrace of peace and justice,” on the other hand, much as I admire him as my mentor and teacher for 40 years, seems genuine but gratuitous. Any solution to the ongoing violence has so far eluded the two sides to the conflict, and the world’s best would-be peacemakers as well. It takes two to tango, and until the two partners meet and agree on painful, much-needed compromises, violence will prevail and with it flagrant injustices.
If we feel empowered to stand in this together, we can make a difference. By raising our voices, we may help prevent incursions by Israeli authorities into the area surrounding the Al Aqsa mosque, just as we may help convince the political leadership (that may be changing this very Sunday) that the eviction of 20 plus Arab families from their homes in Old Jerusalem should be rescinded, no matter the outcome of the pending court case. Israel is no less precious to us because it has been repeatedly found to be trampling on human rights. The U.S. through its appalling Criminal Justice system cruelly keeps tens of thousands of innocent black men and women in a state of intimidation, and more often than not in state or federal incarceration. Canada hasn’t done well, to say the least, in the way in which it treats its indigenous peoples, and both commit iniquities that are semi-permanent and real. Of course two wrongs don’t make a right, but with Israel now comprising more than half of Judaism, and as economically vibrant and culturally alive as it is, we cannot afford to just look away as if they are not part of us, and we not part of the K’lal Yisrael.
As a child survivor of the Holocaust I still have vivid memories of the look and sound of Germans in green uniforms and tall boots marching, and if it hadn’t been for some incredibly brave souls, mostly young women, I too would have ended up where nine tenths of my family was forced to go. Auschwitz would have been the destiny of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael as well, if Rommel’s Afrika Korps hadn’t been stopped by British and Australian troops just barely a day’s march (60 km) west of Alexandria. We may be free now, even to the extent of feeling free to commit indefensible injustices against the Palestinians in the territories and Gaza, who should be our cousins and friends, but aren’t and never were. But we are a threatened species, with our Israeli cousins living in a country smaller than the state of Vermont, while our main enemy has us in in its cross-hairs (not to mention its nearby proxies Hamas and the much more lethal Hezbollah in Lebanon), promising to extirpate us. With its dreams of bringing back Persia’s past grandeur, its conventional armed forces far outmatching Israel’s, and its vast and gorgeous country 100 times the size of Israel, with ten times its population, it is a persistent threat to the Jewish state. Just 40 km to the north of Israel lies Damascus where the President (another of Iran’s proxies) just finished killing one half million of his own inhabitants and forcing 6 million into exile. This is not a friendly neighbourhood. Like most survivors I cannot begin to fathom a possible future without Israel in my life.
I am proudly of the generation of “Am yisrael chai,” but also of “Zog nit kain mol,” the Partisan song whose author did not survive the Shoah, but whose song, “fondor zu dor” (from generation to generation), written in 1943 amidst troubles that were insurmountable, speaks of a bright future. Reb Zalman often spoke about a “Paradigm shift” that was, he claimed, happening in our generation and the next. Could it be that we are just a link, a “trait d’union,” whose principal task is to pass on the message across generations even if we haven’t succeeded in fully articulating it yet?
The transformation that many of us have in mind can only occur when all parts of the puzzle are included, and to achieve that we have to take on the more reactionary elements in Israel, and take a critical stand towards its less admirable advocates. We need to engage, rather than crying “Oy gevalt,” that just isn’t good enough. The split to which our Social Justice Action Committee refers is about two very different perspectives on the Gaza conflict, but also and just as much about the two conflicting views within Israel’s Jewish population. By weighing in on the issues we can be instrumental, collectively and personally, in bringing about much needed change and by forging bonds between increasingly divided elements of the community. Maybe the announcement by the “Change” government (a good name but will it deliver?) that non-orthodox services at the Kotel will get the go-ahead, which includes a green light for the “Women of the Wall” is a small sign that real change is coming, minuscule or incremental, but not to be denied.
Member of Mile End Chavurah
June 11, 2021