Two Months In Israel: A Visitor's Reflections

Rabbi Arthur Green

Two Months In Israel: A Visitor's Reflections

By Arthur Green*

A two-month visit to the Land of Israel. One of many such visits, almost yearly, to the place where my heart dwells, even as I live out most of my days in the quiet and safety of New England. Why these two months? It just happened that way: an academic conference in May, a teaching commitment in July, and here I am, here to share in two of the worst, bloodiest, and most depressing months in Israel's long history of such times. A terrible period, I should add, in Palestinian history as well.

As one gaping-mouthed shopkeeper in downtown Jerualem said to me, staring in disbelief: "Mah, atah tayyar, 'akhshav?" — "What are you doing here now? Being a tourist?"

One of my favorite activities here is walking on the glorious tayelet, the walkway along the southern ridge of the city. I usually do it early in the morning. On arriving this time I was a bit nervous before going out, but everyone assured me it was quite safe, and indeed it is. But this week I did something different: I walked on the tayelet Friday evening, a time when I would usually, like most Israeli Jews, be busy elsewhere. Suddenly I was in a different city, one with a 95% Arab population. As I watched people along my walk, families with their hibachis on the grass, kids playing soccer, and lots of young men, promenading, joking, backslapping, I couldn't help thinking what a Jew (Israeli or not) thinks in such a moment. What would it take for these nice, relaxed-looking young men to pick up stones, or guns, for that matter? Why are they nodding back to my friendly "good evening," while their cousins in Ramallah or Jenin are shooting at mine? Mostly I was asking myself why those other young Arabs, surely no different than these, are willing to take up guns, shooting mothers driving along the road with their children, or to plant bombs, killing roomsfull of young people their own age, and not so terribly different from themselves.

No, I cannot accept the answer of some (not all, thank God) of my Israeli friends who say: "They're different from us. They just don't care about human life." That's a fancy way of saying what you hear on the street and in the market: "they're animals." I don't believe it.

But then I have to address the hard question. Why? What do they think they're doing? What do they believe they will accomplish by drive-by shootings or discoteque bombings? Ever so sadly, I think the answer is "Nothing." The shooters and even the suicide-bombers, I fear, are acting out of despair, knowing quite well, at least in the more rational quarters of their minds, that their deeds will accomplish nothing practical at all.

The killings are not about bringing about a practical goal. They are mostly about something else entirely: honor. Kavod In Hebrew; I'm ashamed to say that I don't even know how to say it in Arabic. The honor of the Palestinians is deeply, deeply wounded.

Everything that has happened in this conflict, the great defeats of '48 and '67, but especially the occupation, have ground their honor down to the earth. Nothing means more in this part of the world than honor, and the Palestinians have lost it. Lost it to Jews, mind you, who used to be a helpless minority. How can the Palestians raise their heads to look either their conquerers or their fellow-Arabs in the eye?

Middle Eastern culture does not give them many options, nor do the realities of international politics. This is especially true of the young people on the streets, kids like the ones I saw on the tayelet, those without the education that might lead them to some personal higher hope (often including emigration).

They thus fall back on the ancient recourse of violence and vengeance-killing. Yes, you can restore your fallen honor by killing the one who has taken it from you. Or else by killing someone else that person cares about. Here, as in so many parts of the world, manhood is proven by violence. The most sickening moment in these two months, from the Israeli point of view, was surely the awful proclamation by the Dolphinarium bomber's father that he was proud of his son and wished he had ten more sons who would do the same. From the Israeli point of view, a disgusting advocate of mass murder. From the uneducated Palestinian's point of view, a defender of Arab honor.

For Israelis to understand this loss of honor and respond to it will demand a change in culture as well. "What are we supposed to do? Honor them for being mass murderers?" And the next line, though not spoken aloud by the more educated Western Israeli, has something to do with Hitler and Amalek. It turns out that our Jewish culture doesn't give us many options for this situation either. We too are boxed in by our memories and the pain of old and news hurts.

But in order for real change to happen, we have to find a way to restore Palestinian honor. It was this that Ehud Barak failed to see, and that is why Oslo went nowhere. The question wasn't the terms of the offer. In the middle eastern market you can begin the bargaining anywhere, but you've got to do it with honor. Yes, even when you're negotiating with enemies, those with bloodstained hands. They too need to be treated with honor, to feel like they are warriors, not murderers. The "take it or leave it" of Camp David was not a choice. Presented that way, they had to leave it.

There are a lot of smart people in this country. Lots of think-tanks and institutes of strategy. Somebody has got to be smart enough to figure out how to give back Palestinian honor without the price being more and more dead bodies. Someone has got to figure out, finally, that to give honor in fact costs nothing at all. It simply requires the dignity and humility of regarding the other as a human being and acting accordingly.

I am not here to solve the Middle Eastern problem. I am not a politician or a statesman, but a mere theologian and scholar of religion. Others need to figure out the right things to do, the proper first steps. But let me offer a few thoughts by way of example, just to stimulate such thinking on the part of others.

1. Israeli has to recognize its role in causing Palestinian suffering, including the refugee problem. This admission will cost nothing in itself, but if done graciously and willingly, it will help a great deal. It will have to be followed, of course, by a generous territorial compromise and financial settlement. The process of negotiation will have to be conducted with honor, and the result will need to be a state in which the Palestinians can take pride.

2. Imagine an Israeli state in which the Nakba, the day of Palestinian defeat, could be recognized by the government as a national holiday, a memorial day observed by all Israeli Arabs. The president of Israel on that day should lead Arab and Jewish Knesset members and others in laying wreaths in memory of those Arabs who suffered and died in the struggle. (Don't laugh at this suggestion. It took my own country a hundred years of pain after the Civil War until both Union and Confederate cemeteries could be seen as part of our shared, single national heritage.)

3. Back to the tayelet. In addition to all the plaques that honor various wealthy contributors for their gifts, how about a modest plaque that says: "In honor of the gardeners who work daily to make this place so beautiful, thanks from a grateful public." That one might even have the Arabic first, followed by Hebrew and English. In fact I'm quite willing to contribute to that plaque. I look forward to hearing from the proper authorities.

Restoring honor. Giving people a little dignity. In fact, Reb Avrum, "restoring honor" is not bad as a campaign slogan. Because it turns out that it's not only the Arabs who need honor restored to them in this country. That's what Shas is all about, after all: restoring the wounded honor of Sephardic and Near Eastern Jewry. And the Russians — they too need some honor restored. That can be done without a big pricetag, but with a change of attitude toward them, their language, and their culture. Why shouldn't they have a television station? Whom will it cost? So too the Ethiopians, whose honor was stripped away in the difficult transition to this country. Some strong indications that the nation values them and treasures their heritage could save many lives.

And how about our Jewish tradition? It too has lost its honor. I wrote this article, in fact, because I was sitting in Jerusalem and writing a book about Jewish values. When I came to the verses "Remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt" and "Remember the day when you came forth from Egypt all the days of your life," I felt too deeply pained to go on. How can a Jew look these verses in the face in these days of an occupation that daily so degrades and humiliates the other? We too have lost our honor, and only we can give it back to ourselves.

*Arthur Green is Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University, currently visiting at the Shalom Hartman Institute.