From Israel #2: Center-right Triumphalism

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 7/23/2004

For three weeks this summer (2004), I studied Torah in Israel: the Torah of the text, the street, and "the situation." As the song says - "Hamar v'hamatok" - the bitter and the sweet.

From hour to hour on the street, sweet Torah: children jabbering in Hebrew, streets named for ancient rabbis great and small, floods of automobiles on Friday afternoon shrinking to a trickle on Shabbat. And shadows of fear: When was the last terror attack? Are we home yet?

From day to day in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, bitter mixed with sweet: Neighborhoods sundered from their schools, hospitals, cemeteries, because the Wall (five times my height, gray blank slabs of concrete - a wall, not a fence) ran through the organic center of a town. Homes demolished because they had no building permits, permits unavailable because the municipal authorities of Jerusalem had not since 1967 written a zoning plan for this neighborhood; without an urban plan, no homes at all permitted.

What was sweet? The tears shared by visiting Jews, Israeli and American, with homeless Palestinians. Tears for the six-year-old boy in a red shirt who was showing his friends the photos of his demolished home, because he had no home to show them.

Delicious Torah-study with other American rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

And the bitter taste of discovering "center-right triumphalism" a celebratory national myth that ignores many uncomfortable and dangerous facts.

All communities - even synagogues, neighborhoods, social clubs, let alone nations and semi-national cultures create such myths of self-justification and self-glorification, ignoring whatever facts don't fit. But it is precisely the task of social critics, surely including rabbis, to point out where the facts don 't fit and call the community to reexamine itself and make more justice, more truth.

This "center-right" myth celebrates present Israeli public policy and public action as a triumph of ingenuity and ethics.

For example: Rabbi Donniel Hartman, speaking to American rabbis at the Hartman Institute, said there has been a great burst of Israeli volunteer energy in the past year, to meet the needs of the poor. He did NOT mention that this burst of energy occurred because the Sharon/Netanyahu government has cut to shreds the government budget to meet social needs. Nor that part of the reason for these slashing cuts has been the search for money to pay for the costs of the military and settler presence on the West Bank and Gaza.

What have these cuts meant? For perhaps the first time in Israel's history, there are homeless people on the streets of Tel Aviv. Orthodox rabbis who on issues of settlements and the Occupation are "right-wing" have demonstrated in the streets against these cuts as both violations of Torah and abandonments of their poverty-ridden constituents.

As in most countries where Thatcherization or Bushwhacking has become public policy, private groups have tried to help the poor and desperate who have been abandoned by their government. But never in any such country have private charities, however hard they try, been able to meet the social needs the government has shrugged away.

To tell the fullness of the story might raise doubts about the mythic triumph of Israeli ingenuity and ethics.

Other aspects of the triumphalist myth:

The new "Separation" policy becomes not a last-ditch effort to cope with a profoundly puzzling challenge to Israelis' personal security but a triumphant rejection of both "right-wing messianism" that had thought it possible to conquer or deport the Palestinians, and "left-wing messianism" that had thought it possible to make peace with them.

According to the myth, the Palestinians in 2000 rejected out of hand the possibility of a peace settlement; so nothing Israel did could bring peace from implacably murderous Palestinians. There is after all "no one to talk with."

What are the ethical and practical facts that cast doubt on this celebratory description?

Not only does it make no ethical distinction between conquest and peacemaking; far from replacing "right-wing messianism," Separation a la Sharon institutionalizes it through large elements of conquest. These are embodied in huge Israeli settlements that make up de facto annexations of large parts of the West Bank, together with special roads and sections of the Separation Wall itself that isolate Palestinian cities from each other and make coherent Palestinian self-government impossible.

As for "Rejection 2000" and "No one to talk with": Serious Israel diplomats and scholars have specified failures of Israeli as well as Palestinian diplomacy, imagination, and will, and have noted aspects of the 2000 negotiations in which Palestinians as well as Israelis did make strong efforts toward peace. But their writings spark discomfort - and so they are ignored.

In the triumphalist myth, the Wall is a great victory for Jewish ethics and self-restraint, since the rage and "hatred" that most Israelis feel toward the Palestinians who have sent their children to become murderers is being channeled not into genocidal attacks or expulsions but into Separation and the Wall.

More specifically, this ethical self-restraint brought Israel to obey when its own High Court named specific places where the Wall violates Palestinian needs more than Israeli security requires.

But if ethical self-restraint were really in place, why was the Wall's route not made to follow the originally proposed maps along the Green Line that would have protected Israelis without shattering Palestinians?

Why did the center-right of Israeli society NOT restrain itself by ethical concerns? The answer is obvious: Fear. Fear of the murderous bombings that might easily come anytime, anywhere. Fear so strong that it leads to support for policies that go far beyond defense against such murders and indeed may well sow the seeds of more such murders in the future.

Certainly Americans, Spaniards, and others who have been coping with such fears since 9/11 (or before) can understand and have compassion for the Israelis who walk around in such fear.

Yet it is possible to have compassion for those who walk around in fear without supporting the policy decisions that flow from their fear. Let alone
celebrating them as magnificently filled with ethical restraint.

The capstone of the center-right myth is rejection of foreign criticism as inspired by crass politics or by anti-Semitism. The International Court of Justice decision against the Wall has met that fate in much of Israeli opinion.

But the ICJ did not condemn the entire Wall, only those pieces of it that depart from the Green Line and penetrate Palestinian territory. Its decision mentioned Israeli needs for security, but asserted that this need cannot legally be met by violating international law. It adjudged the Wall's sequestering of large chunks of Palestinian territory to be a violation of international law.

The Court's decision has been distorted and demonized in the Israeli public mind. That does NOT mean the decision was as wise as it should have been. It could and should have been far more thorough in probing the ways in which Israel's right of self-defense should be balanced against these violations of international law. It should have pursued the facts that might have shown whether specific arms of the Wall in Palestinian territory were or were not justified by the need for self-defense.

The one dissent written by Thomas Buergenthal, an American Jew, the youngest survivor of Auschwitz said just that. The existence of the dissent was cited in many places as evidence that the Court was hostile to Israel, motivated by sheer politics or maybe even by anti-Semitism. But the dissent also said:

"I share the Court's conclusion that international humanitarian law ... and international human rights law are applicable to the occupied Palestinian territory and must there be faithfully complied with by Israel. ... I agree that the means used to defend against terrorism must conform to all applicable rules of international law and that a state which is the victim of terrorism may not defend itself against this scourge by resorting to measures international
law prohibits. ...
"Paragraph 6 of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention does not admit for exceptions on grounds of military or security exigencies. It provides that 'the occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.' I agree that this provision applies to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and that their existence violates Article 49, paragraph 6. It follows that the segment of the wall being built by Israel to
protect the settlements are ipso facto in violation of international humanitarian law. Moreover, given the demonstrable great hardship to which the affected Palestinian population is being subjected in and around the enclaves created by these segments of the wall, I seriously doubt that the wall would here satisfy the proportionality requirement to qualify as a legitimate measure of self-defence."

Perthaps the most dangerous aspect of the center-right triumphalist myth is what happens when people crioticize it. I saw a small moment of this process at the Hartman Institute, Rabbi/ Dr. Arthur Green - a world-renowned scholar of Hassidism and Kabbalah and theologian, one of the founders of the American havurah movement, former president of one rabbinical seminary and the motivating Dean in the creation of another urgently called upon rabbis to engage in independent moral criticism of Israeli policy.

He startled the hundred or so rabbis present - and angered about half of them by saying that when he sees a Palestinian town totally surrounded by a wall that has two doorways, each under intensive and sometime humiliating personal checks by Israeli soldiers, he cannot help but think "ghetto."

Even though Green said again and again that he strongly supports the Israel Defense Force in protecting Israel against terror attacks and that he thinks the Wall might be necessary and legitimate if it were located to do so and to avoid creating such "ghettos," a large part of the audience clearly had a hard time in hearing what he meant and responding to it as a legitimate question about facts and values.

Many American rabbis present seemed shocked and angry that any Jew would question decisions of the Israeli government about how best to protect Israelis, or that any Jew would treat Palestinian lives and livelihoods as important Jewish values.

Myths can give a community a sense of purpose and joy. But when they are filled with falsity, they are dangerous to the community that refuses to examine them. It is the task of rabbis to speak out the truth about myths celebrated by a Jewish state when those myths evade the truth, and to boldly criticize the policies enacted by a Jewish state when they are unjust.

All of these comments do not deny the EQUALLY TRUE TRUTH that much of Palestinian society is ALSO in the grip of a national myth in which no fact is allowed to penetrate the myth of its own purity as victims, and the myth is then used to justify mass murder, corruption, and internal tyrannies.

Indeed, what is most depressing of all is to watch those on each side who cannot comprehend even one iota of the way in which the other's life-understanding is a cloudy mirror of its own.

Thus I have heard some Israelis speak passionately of their own hatred for Palestinians who have killed their friends and might kill their children. Yet they showed no hint of understanding that Palestinians who have suffered the loss of their own children at the hands of Israeli violence might harbor the same kind of hatred. And some Palestinians understand their own hatred but not the upwelling hatred in Israeli hearts.

On each side there are some who allow this hatred to dictate their actions, and some who restrain it. Few Palestinians have met or know about the Israelis who restrain themselves; few Israelis have met or know about such Palestinians. I met them in the Jews who wept for the homeless Palestinian six-year-old in the bright red shirt, and in the Palestinian mayor who responded: "These tears remind us we are all made of flesh and blood, all human. Let us return to our homes remembering this flesh and blood."