For Israel, this summer marks the 50th anniversary (June 10, 2017) of the end of the Six-Day War and the beginning of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
And that historical marker quickly follows another one: the 69th anniversary of Israel’s statehood, commemorated by Israelis as Yom Ha'Atzma'ut (May 1 and 2).
Yom Ha'Atzma'ut is usually translated as "Israeli Independence Day." That English word means “not hanging on.” But the Hebrew would be more accurately translated as "Day for Standing on One's Own Feet, Day of Affirming One's Own Essence" (Etzem, the linguistic root of “atzma’ut,” means “bone, skeleton, internal essential structure.”)
From that deeper perspective, the 50th anniversary of the Occupation casts a deep pall of doubt upon the 69th birthday of the State. Has Israel really been independently “standing on its own feet” or has it for five-sevenths of its history been simultaneously standing in military boots on a subjugated people and depending (not “independing”) on the military and money support of the United States government to do so?
The present Israeli government, elected just two years ago, is by far the most right-wing — politically, economically, and religiously — in Israel’s history. It has taken many steps to set in steel and stone its occupation of the only land on which a self-determining peaceful Palestinian state could be built. Yet till very recently a majority of Israelis (and Palestinians) still looked wistfully toward liberating both peoples by negotiating a secure and peaceful Palestine into existence alongside a secure and peaceful Israel.
“Till very recently?” Till the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency and his appointment of David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel — a religiously and politically ultra-right-wing Jew who does not even dissemble his hostility to Palestinian statehood alongside Israel and who sneers at and slanders Jews who do support that vision. Possibly a majority of Israelis and Palestinians still share that vision, but if U.S. power is mobilized against it, what hope can there be of achieving it?
Now Sheldon Adelson, funder of both the Israeli and the American racist heads of state, stands like the Colossus in a trans-Atlantic Roman Empire — one leg perched on the White House and the other on Herod’s throne in Jerusalem.
The one hope we can glean from the erection of that Billionaire Colossus is the clarity of the need to tear it down. Until the moment of Friedman’s appointment, U.S. governmental support of the Occupation had masked itself behind querulous complaints. Now it is clear, and the clarity should call forth a demand for U.S. commitment not merely to complain about the Occupation but to end it.
Since the State of Israel claims to be “the Jewish State,” and since its actions certainly affect the world’s understanding of the Jewish people (and for many Jews, our understanding of ourselves), it is hard for Jews anywhere to ignore the meaning of this 50th anniversary. Since I have invested my own life in drawing upon the past wisdom of the Jewish people, shaping its present, and transforming its future, I certainly cannot ignore these events.
In this I am hardly alone. There have been myriad analyses and essays about both the last Israeli election and the last U.S. election, and about the governments emerging from them both. Both are now committed to impose settlements on Palestinian land that will make a viable Palestine impossible.
Almost all these analyses have focused on the political implications — for Israel, for Palestine, for the Middle East, for the United States.
I feel drawn to think and feel in a different dimension. So what I have written below looks into the moral and spiritual meaning of the election in the light of Torah. What is the meaning of the Yom ha’Atzma’ut we have recently passed? What is our own essence, what are the feet of our own on which we might hope to stand?
So I raise these questions:
- Israel is also the name of a people. What does it mean, deeply and fully, for the People, as well as the State, to be named “Yisrael” or "Godwrestlers"?
- What have been the different effects of post-Holocaust-traumatic-stress on Israeli and American Jewry?
- Why does the Torah repeat so many times the command, “Treat strangers with justice and love, for you were strangers in the Narrow Land (Egypt)”?
- What are the relationships among respect, love, and idolatry directed toward the State?
What actually happened in the 2015 elections and negotiations toward choosing a new government? The Israeli electorate — especially the majority of its Jewish majority — voted for an extremist right-wing government. Its victory, though hair-thin, makes visible three sides of the State:
- Increasing impulses among its Jewish citizens toward repression of Palestinians, the poor, and human rights groups that criticize this repressive urge.
- The existence of another large part of the Jewish citizenry, mostly confused and only semi-coherent, always thwarted, wistfully wishing for peace with a Palestinian state, equality for non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, and far greater support for the poor.
- Greater political adeptness among the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are of Palestinian origin and culture, who are formally tolerated in the political system but held at 20 cubits’ distance from actually exercising political power.
And among the Palestinians under siege in Gaza, under Occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a baffled rage and a constant sense of humiliation that occasionally burst out into acts of terrorism.
These developments raise not only a political issue but an ethical issue — a moral issue, a Torah issue.
I. The Godwrestling People
We must remember that there is an "Israel" broader than the State. "Israel" is also the name of a People.
And we must renew for ourselves the meaning of calling ourselves the People Israel.
That name comes from one of the crucial stories in the Bible. It was the story of our ancestor Jacob. His name meant "heel," and he was indeed a heel — a sneak, a greedy grabber, a liar, a thief.
But at a crucial moment in his life, he was moved by fear of the brother he had cheated and by guilt for his own behavior to turn from struggling against his brother to wrestling with the God Who, he felt, had shaped his world into impossibility.
"Why," he demanded, "was I caught in the trap in which to become the person I truly needed and intended to become, I had to lie and cheat? Why was the universe set up that way?"
To raise that question meant to wrestle God. And from that wrestle he rose with a new name: "Yisra'el," or in English "Israel," "Godwrestler."
Once "Jacob" had become the Godwrestler, he was able to feel compassion for the brother he had feared, and he was able to inspire compassion from the brother he had robbed. That moment opened up for us the possibility of a new kind of peoplehood.
For more than two millennia, we have called ourselves the Godwrestling folk. At this crucial moment in our lives, we need to turn away from robbing our Palestinian cousins and lying to ourselves. We need instead to wrestle with the God Who offers us a choice: On the one hand, the trap of being the liar, the robber, the oppressor; on the other hand, the open path of freedom.
"Min hameytzar karati Yahh; anani ba'merchav Yahh. From the Narrow Place I cried out to You, the Breath of Life; You breathed back into me the breath of broad and open possibility." (Psalm 118)
First we need to cry out, to Wrestle and take the chance, even the likelihood, of being wounded as our forebear was. From knowing our own wound, learning to know the pain of others who are wounded. Becoming the Wounded Healer, not the heel.
In the last Israeli election, the majority of the Jewish majority chose to betray its own name and to act like the Heel Jacob rather than the compassionate Godwrestler. They chose the moral and ethical disaster of choosing an Israeli government that acted even before the election with contempt and venom toward the Palestinian people.
Since in that election and beyond, the State called "Israel" betrayed its name, the People Israel must renew its meaning.
We must begin with both compassion and firm correction for our brother "Jacob."
II: Compassion for both the "Us” and the “Other”
The Torah insists 36 times that we must act justly, compassionately, or even lovingly toward the "foreigner" among us — because we know what it was like to be foreigners, slaves, and pariahs under Pharaoh in the Land of Narrowness.
The repetition of the command so many times points to its surpassing importance. But it also points to something else: The command had to be repeated so often because the people were ignoring it, and instead were taking the oppressive experience of slavery under Pharaoh as a reason to press down anyone who might conceivably endanger them. Taking their painful experience as a reason to raise their fists, saying: "Never again — for us!"
We know that this is indeed one response of those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress or from having been abused: reenact the abuse on others.
And that is the response that is poisoning the heritage of the Holocaust in the culture that has powerfully shaped and been shaped by the Jews who are citizens of Israel.
The Torah reminds us again and again that even if we keep coming back again and again to this way of acting, it was and is a mistake. Morally, ethically, and practically, it is a mistake.
Compassion for the Traumatized Self
What to take away? Both compassion for the traumatized sufferers who out of trauma impose suffering on others, and insistence, as the Torah says, that this response is NOT wise, NOT permitted.
And here the wisdom of "Israel is the name of a People also" is important. For the two great Jewish communities on Earth have had very different social experiences during the last 70 years:
It is easy to see why many (not all) Jews of the State of Israel, at first surrounded by enemies, only slowly acclimated to the possibility of a chilly peace with their nearest neighbors, traumatized again and again by terrorist attacks, became unable to see their own role in the spiral of abuse. Unable to change their behavior. Unable to put down their fists and open their hands to those Palestinians and others in the neighboring peoples who were ready to clasp their hands in peace.
But the Jews of the United States have had a very different experience in the last 70 years. The Holocaust mattered to American culture, but in a different way. It so deeply horrified most Americans that it dried up almost all the anti-Semitism that had existed in the U.S. before World War II.
Until very recently — again that foreboding phrase! — we had been fully accepted into the American culture, economy, politics, and society. The Holocaust has played an important role in some aspects of American Jewish culture, but that role has been greatly softened by the experience of acceptance. There is far less post-traumatic stress among American Jews than among Israeli Jews.
However, Trump’s campaign and victory unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic as well as anti-Islamic acts that have shocked many American Jews to ask for the first time in their lives whether they are safe.
Even so, American Jewry could — if we chose — speak with compassion and clarity to Israeli Jewry:
"We understand your pain and fear, but Es passt nicht. This doesn't pass muster. It doesn't go. You must not behave that way.
You must instead act justly, compassionately, even lovingly, toward those you think of as foreigners, strangers, pariahs.”
Not just because Torah says so: for Torah says so because human experience, distilled and enriched through encounter with the ONE Who breathes all life, says that is far wiser than the traumatized response.
This attitude of “compassion and rebuke” also speaks to whether attempts to change Israeli government policy should adopt the position of the main committees calling for “BDS” — Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions — aimed at all of Israeli society. The main BDS committee also intends to continue BDS until Palestinian refuges from Israel and their millions of descendants can exercise their own right of return to what is now Israel.
I have had one strategic and two ethical objections to the campaign for total BDS. Strategically, I thought the energy spent on it by churches was far less effective than an all-out religious campaign to change US government policy would have been. Ethically, though its eschewal of outright physical violence is a great advance over previous use by some Palestinian groups of murderous terrorism, I think it does not accord with “compassion and rebuke “ because it defines all of Israeli society, even cultural institutions committed to support for peace with Palestine, as the oppressor, and because its “right of return” demand makes achieving a peace settlement impossible.
My strategic objection is now void because the Trumpist U.S. government has made clear there is no point in urging it to shift to an anti-Occupation US policy. Ethically, I think a strong and focused campaign for laser-beam boycott and divestment aimed against direct involvement in the Occupation would embody “compassion and rebuke.” That kind of laser-beam boycott policy is far more urgent now than before. Even ethically obligatory.
Forcing Narrowness upon American Jews
But at least till very recently, most American Jews were unable to face Israeli Jews squarely and speak that truth of “compassion and rebuke.” And even now, most of the large organized structures of American Jewry are not only unwilling to say so, but are likely to expel from their midst American Jews who do say so.
Thus Hillel International, the organization intended to serve American Jewish college students, has imposed a set of political litmus tests on every local Hillel house on every campus. In doing so, it forces out of the Jewish community even — or especially! —those Jews who are not only the possible future, but are likely to be the most creative, the most lively, the most future-oriented.
And when some students responded by founding "Open Hillel," invoking the name and symbol of a great Jewish teacher known precisely for his openness to a wide range of ideas, Hillel International sued to prevent what it saw as a "trademark infringement."
This was not only an attempt at political oppression but an attempt at cultural kidnapping — annexing Hillel himself under State-of-Israel hegemony as if he were part of the West Bank. (As if George Washington University were to sue every business, every college, every street-naming town or city that named anything after President George Washington.)
III. The Deadly Danger of Idolatry
This kind of effort to squash a broad range of criticism of the State, to lift the State into sacrosanctity, has a Torah name: idolatry.
The Ten Utterances of Sinai teach us that to carve out a piece of the Great Sacred Flow and bow down to that carved-out partial piece as if it were the Holy One is what it means to worship idols.
The Talmud tells a story about idolatry: Some of the rabbis went searching for the yetzer hara, the impulse toward evil, that breeds idolatry. They thought if they could find it, they could kill it — and thus end idolatry.
They hunted and hunted, and finally found it hiding.
Where? In the innermost sacred place, the Temple's Holy of Holies.
The story tells us it is easiest to turn something worthy and holy into an idol. Indeed, when the American Jewish "community" — that is, the organized structure — tries to make the State of Israel sacrosanct, it is turning its legitimate love and admiration for the Israel of 1948 into idolatry toward the Israel of 2017.
But the deepest Jewish wisdom is that idolatry kills:
"The idols have noses but breathe not, eyes but see not, mouths but speak not, ears but hear not, hands but touch not, legs but journey not. Those who make them and those who put their trust in them become like them — dead. " (Psalm 115)
How do we distinguish between something worthy and something to be worshipped? Another Talmud story:
In the days when Rome ruled ancient Palestine, a Jew came to a Rabbi, saying "I have bought a home from a Roman. Behind the house is a pleasant pool of water, and at the water's edge there is a lovely statue of a woman. I think it may be the Venus whom some Romans worship. Is the statue an idol, so that I must destroy it?"
"It depends," said the Rabbi. "If the statue was sculpted to add more beauty to the pool, it is a sculpture merely: Enjoy its beauty. But if the pool was dug to celebrate and glorify the statue, then it is an idol and you must destroy it."
What is the State of Israel? Is it something we ourselves, the People Israel with the help of other nations, have sculpted, intending that it embody compassion and creativity? Then when some claim it fails to do so, when some critics say the hands have become fists or even that the whole design is flawed, the sculptors must take the critique seriously. They must act to repair the flaws.
They must even open themselves to hearing those who say the sculpture's design is so flawed that it must be replaced with a new instrument for compassion and creativity.
The critics may be right or wrong. But they must be heard, and then we can make our judgment. Our judgment will be wiser if we listen.
To wall the critics out, even to say that some of them, nit-picking, are legitimate but others, more questioning of the root, are not — that is to put an impenetrable wall around our sculpture, to insist that all the pools of tears that have been shed for her are only forms of adoration. That makes the State into an idol. And idolatry kills. Godwrestling wounds, but idolatry kills.
And making the State of Israel into an idol is exactly what some American Jewish institutions are doing when they kneel before a President who appoints a white nationalist to be his chief strategist, when they turn their eyes away from that President’s encouragement of not only Islamophobia and xenophobia but anti-Semitism — all for the sake of the Israeli Occupation.
We say the Occupation is not Jewish. They don’t care — because it’s not what is Jewish they support; they support the Occupation while they scorn what is most Jewish about the Jews. The newest version of right-wing anti-Semitism.
What then can we, must we, do?
The election and all that led up to it must not seduce us into despair, and not into a wistful empty-headed hope. We, the People Israel who are committed to wrestle with the God Who is the Breath of Life, must turn to do creative work.
The Israel of 1948, of the Declaration of Independence that foreswore racism and that chose democracy, may be dead. If so, it is not "despair" to sit shiva (seven days of mourning) for that state. Sitting shiva is an act of living. Something new can, must, will, be born through shiva — if we will it. "If we will it, it is no mere dream," as Herzl said about the State in the first place.
Grief is not the same as giving up. Shiva is not suicide.
We American Jews can see before us, in our selves and in others, two models of how to live through a history far worse and far longer than the distortions and oppressions of the State of Israel — and how to live and work beyond that history.
1) The Godwrestling People Israel who suffered and died through the Holocaust were able to birth a vibrant State — the Israel of 1948 — and a vibrant American Jewry.
2) African-Americans who suffered outright chattel slavery for 350 years and terrorism at the hands of the KKK for a century after that and the contempt of the Supreme Court of the United States all that time, from 1789 to at least 1954 (and perhaps once again right now) were able to transmute their suffering into "Go Down Moses" and "Go Tell It On the Mountain," the many forms of jazz, "I Have A Dream," a challenge to the "deadly triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism" (Martin Luther King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam,” at Riverside Church , April 4, 1967), and Black Lives Matter.
With models like this of transformative courage before our eyes, we should be able to imagine what to do to bring to birth a new version of the Godwrestling people.
Perhaps it means a spiritual-political alliance of American Jews, Muslims, and Christians to face down the domineering governments of Israel, Gaza, and the U.S. by invoking with active hope the Holy One Who is the Breath of Life and who as our traditions say renews life for the dead. How? By demanding the next U.S. government convene and chair an Emergency Conference on Peace in the Middle East, at which the U.S. resurrects from the dead the regional peace settlement proposed by the Arab League that includes a safe Israel and a free Palestine. By insisting the US commit itself to use all America’s influence to bring about that settlement.
Perhaps it means raising money for Israel and putting it in a special escrow fund till there is a two-state peace treaty, or a regional peace treaty that creates full recognition and safety for Israel with full recognition and freedom for Palestine. And demanding that the Jewish Federations in the U.S. do the same.
Perhaps it means deciding, as some Israelis, some Palestinians, and some American Jews have, that Israeli settlements on the West Bank have finally made it impossible to separate the two peoples into two states, and that instead the goal must be a democratic “Land of Abraham” from the River to the Sea.
These suggestions are hints toward creativity. Hints toward wrestling. But only hints. They are suggestions for new tactics or new strategies toward a different future for Israel and Palestine.
Wrestling God/ History/ Reality
Beneath such suggestions must come the more radical question: Are we prepared to "wrestle God" as our forebear Jacob did, to challenge the structure of Reality that seems to pin us in a self-destructive dilemma.
Are we willing to wrestle God’s Own Self by asking: Does the fulfillment of our own sacred identity require us to rob our cousins and lie to ourselves? Is there no way beyond that destructive dilemma?
Our ancestor Jacob wrestled God's very Self to get beyond his own destructive dilemma, his own seemingly obdurate reality. Through that ultimate Wrestle, he turned himself from a robbing, lying Heel, to a compassionate Godwrestler.
If we are serious about naming ourselves "Israel" after his transformed self, we can, as the People Israel, take on the task of wrestling with the seemingly obdurate reality of our own day — the task of moving beyond this destructive dilemma.