1967 + 40 -- Years of Deepening Spiritual Disorders: Can We Heal Them?

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, it is clear there have been ethical disasters on all sides.

[Taking them into account, I want to ask: What spiritual disorders led to this series of ethical disasters? What might help to heal them?

[The war itself, the 40-year occupation, and the frequent choice of terror attacks on civilians to "resist" the occupation were all both the results and the causes of disastrous ethical and practical choices by the Arab states, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian leadership.

[Yet some events taking place now to mark the 40-year period have celebrated one "side" and focused on the misdeeds of the other. The Shalom Center has refused to take part in such one-sided events (for example, uncritical celebrations of the "reunification" of Jerusalem, which ignore the oppressive and destructive behavior of the Israeli government toward Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and uncritical attacks on the occupation that do not mention the way in which terrorist forms of "resistance" to it have actually strengthened it).

[Instead, this essay tries to unearth the deep spiritual roots of the ethical disasters on both sides.

[I first visited both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories -- West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem – for the summer of 1969. I came back to the US convinced that only a two-state peace settlement with boundaries very close to the 1967 truce lines, with some territorially minor but emotionally major modifications in the Old City of Jerusalem, would lead to peace and security for both Israel and the Palestinians.

This essay examines why, more than a generation later, we have still failed to achieve such a settlement. *]

There are two profound spiritual disorders that underlie the stubborn and self-destructive attachment of Israel to the forty-year occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and the similar attachment of some Palestinians to the use of violence to resist the occupation.:

The first of these disorders is bound up in the failure of both Israelis and Palestinians to learn from the teaching of Torah, repeated over and over in slightly different forms, that "You must not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Tight and Narrow Land."

This is of course wise teaching. But why does it appear so often? Parents and teachers know that when they must insist on a command over and over, it is because their insistence is not being followed.

Why not? Because the simplest response of the oppressed, the abused, is to garner so much power to protect themselves that they can easily fall into oppressing, abusing, another. Every moment of risk, even marginal risk, calls to mind and heart and body the most terrible moments of the past.

For Jews, every threat arouses the post-traumatic stress in which some of us still see ourselves as powerless victims, reexperiencing extreme fear as if we were still in death camps rather than owners of one powerful state and possessors of great wealth and considerable power in another – the latter, the most powerful state in history.

Many Palestinians, seeing themselves also as victims of the past and certainly in the present, also turn to using whatever force and violence they can command, in the hope that this will protect themselves from or avenge themselves on their oppressors. This response also reproduces the experience of being abused by acting abusively, and ignores the wisdom of the command to learn from being oppressed as a stranger not to oppress the stranger.

Two terribly abused peoples, thrown into a room together to act out their traumas on each other.

The Torah, out of the distilled experience and sacred wisdom of many generations, tries to teach us that this will not work. That indeed we will love our neighbors "as ourselves" – that if we treat our neighbors with violence, it will recoil upon our heads.

The second spiritual disorder is the classic one, always hovering in all peoples and all persons, of idolatry. Idols always begin as useful tools and instruments of life, and become idols only when we invest Ultimate Significance in them. In this case, many Jews have turned a tool that is useful under very limited circumstances – military force – into an idol around which we build our sense of identity and worth.

Perhaps even more insidious, some of us stand on the verge of turning the State of Israel itself –- which was intended to be an important tool of Jewish self-protection and of renewing Jewish culture -- into an idol.

That is why some Jews could accuse others, who had raised questions about the Ultimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, of enabling anti-Semitismåç or even being anti-Semites themselves. These accusations were flung even though – or even precisely because! – these same accused were making major contributions to the renewal of secular and spiritual Jewish life. Notably, most or all of these accused – Tony Kushner, Adrienne Rich, Daniel Boyarin, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz -- were involved in questioning the roles and rules of Jewish gender and sexuality. Among these "rules" were the old assumptions of male dominance and heterosexual dominance and also the rules and roles that are only a century old in Jewish life, the glorification of the military as the masculine ideal.

What is the cure for these spiritual disorders? In the short run, certainly it is struggling for political alternatives to the occupation and to the addiction of some Palestinians to violence as a way of resisting the occupation. And in the short run, one way of dealing with two traumatized peoples locked in the same room is certainly to bring into the room others from the international community -- especially the United States -- with far more compassion for both peoples than has been the case so far.

AND -- in the longer run, spiritual disorders can only be addressed by lifting up truthful spiritual alternatives – which means devotion to the One, the Breath of Life, Who intertwines all peoples and all life-forms on our planet.

The only way to restore the state of Israel to its rightful and reasonable place as a tool, an instrument, of Jewish self-protection and renewal is to lift our eyes to a sacred task beyond ourselves.

The Jewish people created Israel in order both to protect Jews and renew Jewish culture. In the 21st century, the greatest danger to Jewish survival is not a danger to Jews alone but one we share with all the other peoples and all the other life-forms. It is the human race's self-destructive attack upon the planet that sustains us.

There are within Jewish culture as we have known it – our symbols and metaphors, our festivals and life-cycle rituals, our sacred texts and daily practices – the threads of a transformed Jewish culture . We could from these threads weave a new Jewish culture that could work alongside other cultures to affirm our earth. We could from these threads weave the tzitzit – the fringes on the corners of our garments – that could connect us in peace with our neighbors.

All we have is threads, so far. The weaving of a new sacred garment of Jewish peoplehood is up to us.

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org) and author or co-author of many books on public policy and Jewish thought and practice, including most recently The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Beacon, 2006). This essay was written at the invitation of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, and is part of a collection of such essays on the 40tha nniversary of the 1967 war and the occupation. For the collection, see—