“Israel” is the Name of a People Also.
It means We Wrestle even God –-
Are we Allowed to Wrestle with the State?
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli Occupation of the only land –- the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem -- where an independent and peaceful State of Palestine could arise to live alongside Israel.
In facing this moment, I also face my own long struggle with the Occupation since 1969 -– just a few months after my first serious engagement with Judaism, through creating the original Freedom Seder. That summer, for the first time I visited Israel and for the first time met with Palestinians. I came home clear that we needed to end the Occupation and make peace possible between Palestine and Israel.
And I cannot avoid facing the fact that twice in my life I have been pushed out of working for presumably liberal Jewish institutions because I criticized the Occupation. So I am especially sensitive to the ways in which establishment Jewish organizations today are trying to enforce Jewish support for the Occupation and an increasingly right-wing, repressive Israeli government, by punishing those who criticize it.
The Occupation makes utterly clear the knife edge between winning one’s own freedom — winning for one’s self enough empowerment to assert and protect that freedom — and letting the hunger for empowerment became an addiction to power — power that becomes the subjugation that destroys the freedom of another. It is all too easy for human beings to move from one side of that knife edge to the other.
The danger afflicts not only Israelis but us all. Notice how many of those Americans who voted for Trump to win their own freedom from economic disemployment and cultural marginalization crossed that edge into trying to subjugate others — immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, independent-minded women among them.
Realizing how easy is the slop-over and how hard it is to balance on the edge of the knife should call us not to the complicity of silence but to the caring of compassionate rebuke, challenge, opposition.
As this 50th anniversary approached, I wrote two essays not only on the meaning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but even more about its impact on the American Jewish community. .
One of them, “Atzma’ut 69, Occupation 50: Does That Add Up?” has just been published in a special issue of Tikkun magazine. My article is available at
The whole issue is valuable, and I encourage you to buy it. Click to --
My article begins this way:
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?
My essay looks into the moral and spiritual meaning of the Occupation in the light of Torah.
- What is our own Atzma’ut, our own essence, the feet on which we might hope to stand?
- Is it possible to have compassion both for Israeli Jews traumatically imprisoned in the history of their own abuse and in the fear of continuing attacks, as well as for Palestinians caught in the torment of being abused right now?
- What does it mean that Israel – the word means "Godwrestler" -- is the name of a People also, not only the State? When we face the State that is no longer wrestling God and history by struggling toward an ethic of justice, must the Godwrestling People take up that task?
And I also wrote an essay, published by the Forward, which is available under the title “A Tale of two Hillels,” at
That one focuses on what the Occupation is doing to American Jewish life, where some “official” organizations are trying to occupy and subjugate the minds of American Jews, forbidding serious criticism of the State of Israel.
It looks especially at how Hillel International has banned from campus Hillel buildings any deep critique of Israel -- shoving away from Jewish life precisely the most exploratory and creative young Jews at precisely the time of life they are likeliest to choose or shun Judaism.
In both essays, I take as central the question, When and how may admiration or love for the State of Israel become idolatry?
I suggest that prohibiting criticism of any institution is precisely what makes it not lovable, not admirable, but an idol.
And I recall that Psalms 115 and 135 warn that those who make or put their trust in idols become like them –- dead.
And yet –- 48 years after I called out the need for peace between Israel and Palestine, there is still an Israeli military Occupation of Palestine, now much more brutal and much more self-corrupting than it was 48 years ago. And much more both threatening to and inspiring of Jewish creativity in America -- already forcing many Jews to think anew and far more deeply about their relationship to the State that calls itself Jewish.
So at this moment I cannot hold my tongue, even though I continue to believe that our most urgent task as Jews, Americans, and human beings is to heal the Earth, including all humanity, from impending climate chaos.
In my two recent articles, I not only explore the present conflict from a transformative-Torah perspective, but suggest how to shape a path forward. I welcome your comments – either on our Website or in reply to this letter.
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom alenu – v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol Yishmael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel.
May the One Who makes harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe teach us to make peace within our selves, among our selves, for the Godwrestling Children of Israel, for the God-hearing Children of Ishmael, and for all who dwell within this planet.
Ameyn selah! -- Arthur