After Tisha B'Av: For whose sins does the Temple burn?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

After Tisha B'Av: For whose sins does the Temple burn?

By Arthur Waskow

Dear Chevra,

I am feeling more worried about the message of Tisha B'Av than I have for at least a decade.

(Sometimes I see the message focused on our planet as the Holy Temple in danger of destruction; sometimes I feel more frightened about the little local piece of it that is the locale of the story itself: Israel & Palestine. This year, both: but this letter is about the latter.)

The basic message of Tisha B'Av is, "For our sins the Temple was destroyed."

That is why, I think, the popular hunch was corrrect about keeping Holocaust Memorial separate from Tisha B'Av.

When we have power and responsibility, and act irresponsible, we are likely to get badly damaged. We must accept the responsibility for that. Fix ourself, heal ourself. (That's the teaching of the Jeremiah & Isaiah haftarah readings that lead up to Tisha B'Av, and the book we read on Tisha B'Av — Eicha, Lamentations — itself.)

If we are powerless, then the damage we suffer is really someone else's fault. Put our energy into stopping them, fixing them, healing them. (That's the teaching of Yom HaShoah.)

There might be a glimmer of a deeper teaching beneath them both, perhaps hidden in the way Isaiah & the book of Eicha/ Lamentations say God used the Babylonians to melt us down and get rid of the dross, and hidden in the way Wiesel puts God on trial for the Holocaust.

The deeper teaching may be, "Look beyond blaming and changing your Self OR the Other; look toward changing the system in which you are both embedded." (That's God. If we take God as real, not a literary or psychological fiction, then God is the Context in which we live, including ourselves as part of the context. And God can be changed: "ehyeh Asher ehyeh, I WIll Be Who I Will Be.")

But the deeper teaching does not excuse us from examining our own behavior, if we have power and responsibility.

And in our generation, the Jewish People does have power, and if we act irresponsibly then we must fix ourselves.

One truth is that both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples are traumatized by the recent and the longer past, and are BOTH acting out (on each other) their traumas, like some adults who as children were violently abused.

But (a) not all adults who were violently abused transfer the abuse to others; so we must learn how to "stop the karma" of abuse; and (b) in this situation, one of the parties has more power and therefore more responsibility to act.

Both have SOME responsibility, but one has more.

That's us. Us Jews.

I realize it's hard to get past the sense of victimization, especialy strong among Israeli Jews whose culture is built around the expectation of powerful anti-Semitism and the need for super-strength to resist it, to say that indeed Israel is much much stronger not only than the Palesatinians but — as of now — than the combined Arab world — and that the deepest danger is much more from our own misdeeds, our own unjust actions, than it is from any forces arrayed against us.

In the long run, of course, our own misdeeds help fuel the kind of resentment and rage from others that will strengthen our enemies and weaken us before them. But when others begin to complain, even friendly groups like —
the Danish public about Israelis' use of torture,

or the US's urgent effort to emplace a third-party monitor to report on both Israeli and Palestinian use of violence in the occupied territories,

or warnings in Belgium about indicting Sharon for war crimes in Lebanon,

or the New York Times' front-page, lengthy, detailed, well-evidenced article on the shared responsibility of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, & the US for the collapse of peace talks —
then the knee-jerk response is that all these criticisms are the expression of anti-Semitism.

If these criticisms ignored or justified all Palestinian violence or injustice toward Israelis, the argument that these criticisms are anti-Semitic would be easier to defend. But most or all of these critics are clearly and explicitly opposed to the use of terror by Palestinians, and many urge the Palestinians to pursue justice by just and peaceful means.

And yes, there is some anti-Semitism in the world, but there is also a realistic estimate that Israel is acting with far more violence toward the Palestinians than the Palestinians use toward Israel.

The naked death statistics — about 5-1 more Palestinian deaths in the last nine months to Israeli deaths — are one index. Even more disparate, the comparative numbers of permanently disabling injuries, like blindness or loss of a limb — more like 25 to 1.

One major argument is made by some Israeli and American Jews in defense of the argument that it is the Palestinians who are more unjust and more violent — that they use deliberate terorism against civilians, whilst Israeli attacks are targeted against the violent and hurt or kill civilians only by mistake or by accident or by "collateral effect."

First of all, this is not entirely true. Israel has its own "Hamas," made up of some settlers and others who use vigilante methods to kill Palestinians. Though the Israeli govt officially condemns these acts, it rarely or never finds their perpetrators and puts them in prison — while it bitterly criticizes the Pal Auth for condemning Hamas terror while rarely or never imprisoning the perpetrators.

Secondly, a drive-by shooting that kills the "wrong" person is not justifiable. If a drug lord dealt with business thru drive-by shootings and then killed a bystander, we would not say — "Sorry — collateral damage." The original attempted killing of the "right" guy is vigilante action — murder. Even if the shooters were police attempting a legitimate arrest, rather than a street execution, there would be a major uproar.

When unarmed civilians die over and over again in what is billed as efforts to strike at mortar bases, something is wrong — and must be criticized and corrected.

For the broadest of all indices about asymmetrical power and asymmetrical use of that power to enact injustice, look at the shattered Palestinian society and economy; look at hundreds of military check-points not only between Palestinian territory and Israel but inside the West Bank and Gaza, cutting off Palestinian turf into tiny pieces.

It is true that terrorist attacks on Israel have not only been ethically disgusting but have frightened away many tourists, so that the Israeli economy has taken some hits. But as visitors and Israelis keep reporting, nothing basic has been undermined. Foreign trade is still open and healthy, the sick are cared for, schools are open, people have jobs, they can travel as they like.

These assertions simply cannot be made about the nascent Palestine. And the controls imposed by Israel, which have strangled and are continuing to strangle Palestinian society, are shaped only in part to prevent terrorism. Most of the strangling actions simply have nothing to do with that, but with asserting control over the broader Palestinian popultaion — in order to defend the settlements that Israel has placed in the West Bank & Gaza.

Indeed, most of the Israeli violence is directed at protecting the settlements, while most (NOT ALL) of the Palestinian violence is directed against the settlers or the soldiers who defend them. Much of the debate over what side is using more violence in a more unjust way is based on a different assessment about the settlements.

For me, the determinant about the West Bank & Gaza is that this is the only territory on which a viable Palestinian state is possible — and I believe that in the long run there can be neither justice, nor peace, nor security, for anyone in the Middle East, including Israel, unless there is a viable Palestinian state.

The emergence of such a state will not guarantee peace or justice, but its being strangled will prevent peace and justice.

The land areas now covered by the settlements, their support roads, military checkpoints, etc etc are NOT necessary to the security of Israel, whereas these areas ARE necessary to the viability of Palestine.

The settlements prevent a viable Palestinian state. Their very existence is an act of daily violence.

That does NOT mean that it is OK for Palestinians to shoot settlers. If I push my child, or my sibling, inside the house of a "neighbor" who I know doesn't like me and has only recently & reluctantly agreed to abandon the claim that I have stolen my own house from him, I have irresponsibly and unjustly endangered my child's or sibling's life and have shattered the peace and justice I owe my neighbor.

But that does NOT mean my neighbor is entitled to kill my child, or my sibling.

So I am critical of Palestinians' use of violence to resist the Occupation. But I am far more critical of the prior and much bigger act of violence that is the Occupation itself.

If these are the facts on the rgound, how do some Jews jutify their assertion that the Palestinians are acting more unjustly than the Israelis?

This view is rooted in the assertion that although Israel is using more violence and causing more death and destrction now, that is because it has more power; the Palestinian DESIRE to use violence is greater, and if they had power equal to or greater than Israel's, they would behave much worse.

There is no way to test such a hypothesis, because Israel's power is much greater. It can just as easily be argued that most of the Palestinian rage is caused by the protracted violence of the Israeli Occupation, and will dissipate if the Occupation ends. There is no way to test that either, except by ending the Occupation.

But there are some indications:

On the dark side are the ways many Palestinian children are taught versions of Jewish history that strengthen their rage. (Many Israeli children are taught the same, and some leading Israeli political and religious figures have talked in ways that taint all Palestinians as less than fully human. Both sides could agree to have independent scholars assess their educational methods to distinguish legitimate national pride in themselves from hatred and contempt for the other.)

On the light side were the expressions of joy that came bursting from Palestinian throats when it looked as if the Oslo accords might lead quickly to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

By most measures of military power, the question will remain irrelevant because Israel, possessor of H-Bombs, can outmatch any separate Arab state, or all conjoined. If the Israeli army were to return to the Green Line border in almost all its details, the Israeli govt would still be able to defend against terrorism at least as effectively as it does now.

In much the same vein, some Israeli & American Jews assert that even if Israel is now acting more unjustly, the Palestinian Authority is so corrupt and brutal that it is unethical for anyone to assist it in imposing its power on the Palestinian community.

Maybe it is so corrupt and brutal as to deserve to be driven from power. But that is for its own people to decide, and to act upon. And the Occupation almost certainly makes things worse. For Israelis to decide who should govern instead — which is the logic of that claim — is to demand the right to install what for sure would be seen as, and probably would in fact be, a puppet govt.

If a Palestinian govt were to act brutally enough to justify multilateral international action, that is different from a single hostile state imposing its will.

What Israeli and other Jews and the world as a whole have the right & responsibility to ensure is the safety of Israel's own citizens, in its own territory. That is what every state asserts, and rightly. Not extraterrritorial privileges for thousands of its citizens on someone' else's turf. Not the right to impose a govt it likes on another people or country.

If Israel were to act in accord with that standard, by deciding to end the Occupation and to bring its soldiers and the settlers safely home, there would be no guarantee of peace.

For there are risks. Risks we must balance. In balancing risks, we should take seriously our ancient experience and our continuing wisdom — that acting justly, peacefully, decently mostly (not always) calls forth justice, decency, and peacefulness from others and blessings from the Weave, the Flow, the Breath of Life.

I do not see any way out of this mess except to act upon what Isaiah says: Zion must be redeeemed through justice. And it seems to me that means ending the Occupation as a body of institutionalized violence, and ending all such specific acts of violence as suicide bombings, assassinations or "field executions," attacks on civbilan neighborhoods, destruction of trees, demolition of homes, etc.

HOW we get to do this must involve "Karma-stoppers" that release both peoples from the traumas they have lived through in the past.

(I have learned the phrase from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Examples from Jewish tradition: The ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac was such a "karma-stopper," releasing Abraham from the previous traumatic patterns of his life; Yom Kippur is a "karma-stopper" for us all, releasing us from the burden of our past misdeeds, which otherwise would push us toward repeating them.)

Such karma-stoppers might include ceremonies of shared grief for the dead of both sides; acts of loving and firm nonviolent resistance to injustice; acts according kavod — honor and dignity — to those who have been starved of it; actions honoring and protecting and healing the earth that both peoples feel connected to; and so on.

The teaching of Tisha B'Av is that if we refuse to look inward and heal our own behavior, we will both weaken ourselves and strengthen our enemies. There could not be a clearer case of this danger than the one we face today.

May we hear this teaching, and move from the deadliness of destruction to renew our lives as the wellsprings of Rosh Hashanah approach!

Shalom, Arthur


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