My heart is broken. I am not sure when it officially broke, but broken, lying in a ditch flowing with tears, the poetic result of far too much heartache, echoing the refrains of the Spanish Medieval poet, Yehudah Halevi, “My heart is in the East and I am in the West” is where it lays. Or as modern day, American Jewish poet and songwriter, Dan Nichols, riffs on HaLevi’s 500 year old poem about Israel, “My heart is in the East, libi b’mizrach. I want to know you felt peace tonight.”
But peace is so far from what Israel feels and so far from what I feel as well. I had felt it but its been fading steadily for 22 years. I remember like it was yesterday. I was a first year rabbinic student living in Jerusalem, the City of Peace, and watching Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat sit at the same table, sign the same document and shake each other’s hands. There was so much hope, so much belief in the impossible being possible, so much biblical prophecy, seeming to come true right before our eyes. So much leeway and forgiveness and reassessment of priorities for so many Israelis and Jews around the world. It seemed. I prayed. I believed. I know you remember it too – as much as some of “you” might prefer to pretend it was all a fantasy. You may have preferred to believe that all of the worst accusations of Arafat’s duplicity, the inability or fundamental unwillingness of the Arab world to affirm the rightful place of Jews in these lands was all true. Some of “you” screamed and picketed and boycotted! You held up signs and placards and effigies depicting Rabin and other Labor supporters as “Nazis,” as “Traitors,” as “Rodefs” (pursuers who must be killed rather than be allowed to cause the death of another). And on that fateful day, when Yigal Amir killed Prime Minister Yithak Rabin, who was at that very moment, singing Shir Lashalom (A Song of Peace), a another biblical prophecy repeated itself, Kol d’mei achicha tzoakim elai, “Your brother’s bloods cry out to me from the earth!” (Genesis 4:10)
But I held on to my faith that im tirtzu ein zo agada, “If we will it, it is no dream.” That Rabin would become like JFK and Bobby and Martin and Jon – in his death, this phoenix of a new day would dawn so we needed to be even more patient. Despite the reports that Arafat spoke peace to the Jews and Jihad to the Arabs, we were to keep in mind the realpolitik of this moment. We had to understand that a language of aggression and the psychology of victimhood and oppression (as honest as it was come by) take time to recede (on both sides). But once we saw that the billions of dollars of investment in industry, in schools, in children moving in an upwardly mobile direction take hold, only then we would see the majority tide begin to turn. My best friend at the time, a Lebanese Christian, whom I met while living in Paris during my Junior year abroad, and I exchanged letters (yes, letters way back then in 1993, 94, 95) and they were filled with our dreams that we would someday soon meet up at “The Good Fence.” He, having driven straight from Beirut and I, having driven straight from Jerusalem and we would argue over whose coffee was better and who would pay, for the Israelis accepted the Lebanese Pound and the Lebanese accepted the shekel! In our dreams.
And I stayed true to my beliefs. I stayed true to my affirmation, that the Arab boys and girls I had met and played with in one of many towns as I traveled with fellow Rabbinic students or the American High School students my wife supervised, that there was no doubt that these Arab mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, wanted the same for their children as I did for mine and what Israeli parents wanted for theirs. And so I railed against the Israeli and American politicians and Jewish community leaders who claimed loudly and clearly, “You can’t trust them!” For Rabin’s words echoed in my mind, over and over, “One doesn’t make peace with his friends, only with his enemies.” And Bibi was right there, watching and egging on the lambasting foisted on Rabin. Oh, it was so cynical.
And yet, here’s the thing that kept me always on guard. Always quite unsteady. That no matter the peaceful efforts made by the Israeli Left, the Americans, the Europeans and the UN guarantees, the Palestinians kept doing two things that gave me pause and partially dismantled mine and my best friend’s dreams of peace. That was the fact that neither Arafat nor Fatah nor the PA ever willingly engaged in a full scale effort to improve their own infrastructure, and that their children were and remain today expendable for the “cause.” And what is the cause? This is the most difficult part of this whole thing. The cause, unless there is someone who can prove otherwise, is to make Palestine “judenrein.” (Free of Jews.) I so wish I didn’t have to express this but I’ll never forget a meeting I had post 9-11 with representatives of the Birmingham Jewish Federation and local representatives of Birmingham’s Islamic community. We were discussing healthier ways forward following a terribly rowdy and uncivil panel of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders on the subject of how we move forward post-911. This meeting was meant to seek to heal the riff that had gotten deeper as a result of this panel discussion. And a 60-ish, grey haired Palestinian American Professor at UAB who had moved to the US in the 1960’s leaned over to me and said, “Rabbi, we understand that the Jews are in Palestine now and probably will be for some time. But, we are patient.”
My Facebook feed is today flooded with articles and videos that swear up, down and sideways that this is all the Arabs’ fault and if it weren’t for their inability to give up their Jew-hatred, none of this would be happening today. That their leadership’s failure to embrace opportunities to do what is best for their people is what has led to this moment. And of course the other articles and videos insist just as loudly that if it weren’t for the Israeli’s inability to curb their voracious appetite for land, their own xenophobia and their own myopic miscalculations, none of this would be happening today. And I find myself stuck. Not between these two extreme positions though. But still somewhere in the middle between my passionate belief that no matter the truth of history, a light unto the nations cannot abide a long term situation that keeps millions in poverty and suffering and the truth that Jew hatred is an inextricable ingredient in the world’s absurdly imbalanced approach that leads the world to call Israel “racist, apartheid and genocidal.” Is anyone else bothered by the enemies of the Jews at the same time denying the truth of the Holocaust as well as using it (with actual footage in tow) as the example for what should be done to the Jews once again, only more effectively? And since when did “Apartheid” become an adjective? “Apartheid” was a systematic and institutionalized disempowerment of black South Africans from any and all of the power structures of South Africa. “Apartheid” was the law of the land, de facto and de jure. I have great respect for so many colleagues and friends who so desperately want two things: peace and the end of anti-Semitism that they are willing to go so far as connect “Apartheid” with the State of Israel, even if its just an “ish.” You want to talk about Israel’s warts? Fine. About the many and varied stories of individuals and even groups that have acted insensitively, vindictively against minority populations? You want to talk about the terribly uneven distribution of wealth in Israel and the fact that there are too many Israeli Arabs in poverty in comparison to Israeli Jews? Fine. Let’s talk about that. Israel is not the perfect and best version of itself. Not yet. But don’t you dare use the word “Apartheid” to describe a country where at any one time half the country publicly disagrees with the ruling coalition with no fear of personal or familial, government induced, institutionalized revenge.
I get these floods of emails that seek to offer a rationale, in essence, for why, no matter what, the Jews are still reviled in the world. And I completely understand my peers desire to intellectualize the political process, to discover and insist on a rationale of “if only.” If only Netanyahu or Sharon or Begin or Bush hadn’t pursued their myopic approach to Jewish security, Oslo and Camp David and Copenhagen would have come to much more than they did. And in certain ways, they’re right. Israel and America have broken too many promises to disinherited people in the name of “freedom and democracy and security for peace loving people everywhere.” Israeli films, TV shows, movies and newspapers are filled with “Jews gone bad” stories. Yes, the great injunction of Jewish history, “to care for the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is a hard lesson to learn. Clearly. Which is why our entire religious tradition rises and falls on this central premise. And the best people to look to for Israel’s foibles? Her own people who can speak out loudly, clearly and freely and do declare “J’accuse Mr. Netanyahu!” without fear of being picked up and never seen again.
And I can do this self-investigation and self-accusation all day long. But at some point, it becomes a fool’s errand. And far too often since 1993, I resent “the other side” for making me look like a fool. And it feels as if my foolishness hit new heights at Durban. For me, the UN Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001 has become “Ground Zero.” A “Ground Zero” that despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR, anti-Semitism, well, let’s call it what it is, Jew hatred is as alive and well in the world as it was for the Church and Chmelniki and Hitler. It was in Durban, South Africa, within the context of a worldwide “effort” to combat racism, that for sale was the most virulently anti-Semitic text written in our time, perhaps only bested by Mein Kumpf, “The Protocols for the Elders of Zion.” But who was really surprised by this? This was a worldwide convergence of nations prior to which was a preparatory meeting which took place in Tehran, Iran and set out as its main agenda topic the effort for the UN to affirm “Zionism as Racism.” If it hadn’t been as tragic a moment as it was, it would have been laughable. In a world where Israel was then and still is the only country in the Middle East in which the minority population is so free that exercising its vote could represent a palpable threat to an amazingly incumbent administration, where are the world’s leaders? Why are they unwilling to say, “Israel isn’t perfect but do we really believe that a better way exists as long as its neighbors still insist on not declaring a permanent, fully recognized, legitimation of even just the UN’s 1948 partition plan (less land than that which is within the Green Line)?
My broken heart is in the East. There is a powerful movement amongst so many of my peers that Israel is just going to have to go it alone. That we’ve done all that we can do and she just can’t get out of her own way. But so much of what modern Judaism is today presumes that even if anti-Semitism isn’t dead, we’ll be able to recognize it this time when it rears its head. I will not relegate all of the worst of the news these days to anti-Semitism. But to ignore that it is still here and it is real and it is the primary engine driving so much of the world’s pivot away from or against the Jewish nation, is to stick our heads in the sand and recite Niemoller’s poem incomprehensibly until the last line, when its too late
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.