Atonement in the Month of Awe

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Atonement in the Month of Awe

[Dear Chevra, In regard to the Israeli-Palestinian explosion, the most thorough intertwining of political history & ethical response in a spiritual context that we have seen in these recent weeks is this piece by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine. — Shalom, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center]

By Rabbi Michael Lerner

TIKKUN MAGAZINE is urging Jews and Palestinians to atone for their actions in the past days. On the Jewish side, we are contacting rabbis and others and urging them to support silent vigils and fasting in protest of the excessive use of force by Israel. And we are asking them to include a special section of the Yizkor (memorial prayer for the dead) in memory of the Palestinians as well as Israelis who have lost their lives in the current flare up of violence in the sturggle to end the occupation. And we are calling on Palestinians to take similar public actions of protest and atonement against those who are only responding with violence rather than seeking common ground. Yet we do not see these two as totally morally equivalent—the reality remains that the Palestinians have no army and are occupied by one of the most powerful military forces in the world. So the underlying analysis we believe should be discussed is the following:

Atoning for the Violence

by Rabbi Michael Lerner

There were vigils and moments of silence, there were demonstrations and protests, and in Israel a group of Israeli began the Yom Kippur fast five days early-all to communicate that many Jews do not identify with the reckless killings of Palestinians that followed an initial riot protesting the symbolic appearance of Ariel Sharon on the Temple Mount two days before Rosh HaShannah.

Days later, with dozens of Palestinians shot dead by Israel's overwhelming military force, Israeli Knesset chair Avram Burg, writing in the New York Times, purported to be puzzled at the Palestinian reaction. This was a willed ignorance characterisitc of many Israelis and American Jews who imagine themselves to be the height of reasoned liberalism and can't understand why everyone doesn't love them. After all, Burg argued, we offered them a peace agreement, and of course we would never give up our control over the Temple Mount (which just happens to be the site of one of Islam's holiest places of worship).

And so, the disconnect grew between many Israelis, who felt they had no choice but to cheer on Ehud Barak's massive use of unrestrained force against the rioters, and the rest of the world.

The world sighed in pain as we watched an innocent 12-year-old crouching down in his father's arms and crying for mercy before Israeli soldiers' buillets killed him. For a moment, even many Israelis wondered whether their government was going too far. But the policy of the Labor party has reflected the moral arrgogance of the weak-hearted doves in Israel throughout the past 33 years of Occupation. As a famous saying goes in Israel, they shoot and then they cry. Or perhaps their arrogance is captured best by a slogan used during the Intifadah and now revived by the defenders of the Occupation: "The thing we hate most about the Palestinians is that they force us to shoot them."

So, just for the sake of the record, a record which American Jews and many Israelis conveniently forget, lets remind ourselves of why it is that there is so much pent-up anger among Palestinians.

  • For thirty-three years, a third of a century, the Israeli army has occupied the West Bank and Gaza, preventing Palestinians from travelling freely, imposing taxes and tariffs, imprisoning Palestinians who protested and often keeping them in prison for months without ever formally charging them of any offense, sometimes engaging in acts of torture (the reports of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, often published in this magazine, documenting this torture are no longer denied by the Israeli government), and systematically harrassing and humiiating the civilian Palestinian population. For those who have subscribed to the TIKKUN list serve (by emailing to and putting the word 'subscribe' (in lower case) plus your email address), you have received monthly accounts of another aspect of the occupation: the destruction of Palestinian homes by the occupying army on the grounds that the homes have not been given permits for expansion (permits frequently given to Jews but systematically denied to Palestinians by the occupiers).
  • Ten years ago the Israeli government began a "peace process" which culminated in the Oslo Accords which promised a five year process in which a final settlement would be negotiated. The Prime Minister (Rabin) who signed that agreement was murdered by right-wing Jews who had been seeking to overthrow that government, and shortly thereafter Israelis elected Benjamin Netanyahu who effectively thwarted the implementation of the Oslo accord. Our magazine was among those who severely criticized Edward Said and other Palestinians who expressed skepticism about the Oslo process. We urged them to be patient and to allow the process to work itself out-and we assured them that the majority of Israelis would push for a solution to the problem which would allow genuine Palestinian national self-determination. Instead, the Barak government came to power led by a military general who was determined to show that he was strong. Though he had been elected with a solid majority supporting his promise to make peace, what ensued were a set of policies which further consolidated and extended Israeli rule over the territories. Settlements that had originally been created by Ariel Sharon with the express purpose of ensuring that there would never be a viable Palestinian state were given assurances by Barak that they would never be dismantled, and instead the Barak government built more roads to these settlements which indicated a clear intention to retain them as part of Israel. Moreover, Barak allowed the expansion of existing settlements.
  • Pressured by President Clinton to participate in peace negotiations at Camp David this summer, Ehud Barak proceeded to convince the Western press that Israel had made concession after concession but that Islamic intransigence over the Temple Mount made a successful conclusion of the negotiations impossible. In fact, the story is quite different. Israel has never been willing to acknowledge its moral culpability for expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the 1948 war, and today acknowledges no responsibility for the fate of several millin of their descendents still living in refugee camps around the Arab world and within the Occupied Territories. Though a Jew born in Brooklyn has an automatic "right of return" to Israel, and will be given financial support by the government of Israel, Palestinians who were born in Israel and subsequently expelled have no right to return, nor was much progress made on this at Camp David. Nor was Barak willing to dismantle the most provocative settlements (e.g. the hotbed of hatred and racism in Kiryat Arba)-he simply insisted that Palestinians would have to accept these settlements in the midst of a Palestinian state, possibly enjoying citizenship in Israel. It is simply not true that these key issues had been resolved at Camp David, certainly not in a way that would provide Arafat with a package that would satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.

    Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Banka nd Gaza went through yet another summer in which there was severe water rationing for Palestinians throughout the occupied territories-sometimes not enough water to wash more than once in three or four days in the sweltering heat-while settlers sat on proches of prosperous villas and squandered this precious commodity on watering their lawns.

  • Nor is it accurate to represent the Palestinians as irrationally seeking total ownership and sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Their concerns about the Temple Mount stem from the actual loss of access to their holy sites imposed by the Israeli government. For the past many years, Israeli control over Jerusalem has been used to effectively exclude most Muslims living in Gaza or the West Bank from steady access to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.Under the guise of shutting the area for "security reasons," West Bank and Gaza Muslims have only rarely enjoyed access to their holy site. We Jews who were rightly outraged at being denied access to the Western Wall during Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem between 1948-1967 (policies that were not created by the Palestinian people, but by the King of Jordan) have been doing the same thing to most religious Moslems for the past dozen years.
  • Israeli insistence on maintaining power and sovereignty over the Temple Mount is not based on some reigious necessity, but on nationalist arrogance. It was the secular leades Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben Ami who provided the massive military backup for the inendirary visti of Likud's secular leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount. That visit was not aimed at serving God but at provoking conflict. Sharon is well known as the murderous butcher responsible for hundreds of civilian Palestinian deaths, and his purpose was to symbolize that Israel would retain control-and hence continue to exclude most Palestinians from access to their holy site.

Most religious authorities have banned Jews from walking on the Temple Mount lest they violate the site of the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple-forbidden to anyone but the High Priest. These religious authorities believe that Jews should return to the area only when the messiah comes.

If Barak wanted to negotiate a peace agreement, he could have agreed to allow Palestinians interim sovereignty over the Temple Mount-interim until the Messiah comes (easy criterion, typically used by Jews to know that he hasn't been here yet: Isaiah's description of the messianic age is one in which the lion will lie down with the lamb and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore).

No, it was not religious necessity but the the macho, outdated notion of sovereignty (rooted in 19th century nationalist aspirations) among both Palestinians and Israelis that has shaped this conflict. Yet the biblical God supposedly respected by both sides make unequivocally clear that no one has a right to the Holy Land.

Over and over again, the Torah states that one can live and create a society in the Holy Land only if one is living a life in accord with the highest ethical values of justice and "loving the stranger." The very ownership of the Promised Land was forbidden, "because the entire earth is mine," says the Eternal One of Israel.

Even in biblical days, there were nationalists who heard God's voice in a different and more chauvinistic way. And to straighten them out, the prophet Isaiah heard God talking about the future of the Temple Mount this way: "My house [the Temple] shall be a house of prayer for all nations." (kee veytee veyt tfillah yee-kareh le'chol ha'amim).

But Ehud Barak and his government have nothing in common with the prophetic religion of the Bible: their orientation is pragmatic and power-oriented, and thus in the days before the eruption of violence Barak was publicly suggesting that he would consider creating a new unity government with Ariel Sharon and the Likud.

And then, given all this, Avrum Burg tells us that he can't understand why the Palestinians are not more grateful at all that the Israelis have offered them.

Perhaps he and his fellow "doves" in the Labor Party ought to ask the Arab citizesn of Israel why they joined in the rioting throughout Israel in October. Or perhaps he and other Labor "doves" might already know that these Arab Israelis, courted by Barak during the eleciton, were then told that their elected representatives could not be part of the Israeli government because, given the accepted level of racism in Israel, the presence of Arab citizens of the State of Israel would make the government appear to be illegitimate in the eyes of many Jewish citizens of the State. Imagine the outrage in the US if, after the riots of 1968, the national government had declared that it could not allow African Americans to participate in the government for fear that doing so would delegitimate it in the eyes of Southern segregationists (as it undoubtedly would have).

Or perhaps Avrum and his fellow doves, or the many good-hearted liberals of American Jewish life, honestly don't know that the Israeli government gives more money for social services to Jewish towns than to Arab towns, that it sanctions discrimination in housing against Israeli Arabs, and that most Israeli Arabs have felt increasingly like second class citizens in the State.

Well, if they didn't know any of this before, will they know it now? No! Instead they will manage to blame Palestinians for their irrational rioting. Rather than notice the context of occupation, torture, betrayed promises and arrogance, they will point to the teenagers with rocks and focus on their provocations. Clothed in self-righteousness, they will remain deaf to the cries of pain of those over whom they rule.

So, we Jews have much to atone in the conduct of the Israeli government and its cheerleaders in the United States.

But we at TIKKUN are also critical of the conduct of the Palestinian Authority and of many Palestinians. We understand the outrage that they feel-and do not diminish its legitimacy one bit.

But we do not believe that violent response is appropriate or sensible. On moral grounds, we oppose violence as a policy and believe that a principled commitment to non-violence is the only way we can ever build a world that will be sustainable.

Violence is morally wrong — even the violence of the oppressed.

And violence is counter-productive. The violence in October only managed to solidify major sections of the Israeli population behind Barak's represssive policies. Because Israelis are psychologically incapable of seeing themselves as the superior force with one of the best equipped armies int eh world, facing a group of mostly unarmed civilians, they need to see themselves as the besieged and the threatened. So when Palestinian Authority policemen use their light arms against Israeli soldiers, or when Palestinians throw rocks against the Israeli army, they give the Israelis precisely the excuse that they have been looking for to justify endless continuation of the Occupation.

So Palestinians are being both immoral and stupid when they engage in those techniques.

Far more effective would be organized and systematic non-violent civil disobedience. Yet despite efforts on the part of a few morally sensitive Palestinian activists, the vast majority of Palestinians have never beenwilling to try non-violent civil disobedience as the way to resist Israeli power.

Non violence has another advantage: it recognizes that transcendence and change is possible among the Israelis as well — and that touching their hearts is far more effective than threatening their lives. Most Israelis are not fascists — and the right kind of civil disobedience could play a role in breaking through the encrusted levels of fear and denial that are only strengthened when they see their own young men in the army confronting bricks and molotov cocktails. That's why Martin Luther King was so much more effective than the Black Panthers — because King kept reminding the "other side" that he would not let them forget their own humanity and their capacity to get beyond their own fears. This is what a spiritual consciousness can add to a struggle — and until the Palestinians can approach that level of moral vision they are likely to find themselves defeated on every other front.

Nor have the Palestinian people been morally clean at any point in the struggle. When Jews were refugees from Hitler's Europe, the Palestinians did all they could to prevent them from settling in Palestine-a morally unjustifiable response tohomeless refugees reminiscent of America's own immoral policy toward refugees today. The Palestnian people have never acknowledged that a majority of those supporting ultra-nationalsit poicies in Israel have been Jewish refugees from Arab lands who escaped a situAtion in which they were an oppressed and endangered minority.

Most important, the Palestinian people have never been willing to hear or acknwoledge the history of the Jewish people, and hence have been unable to acknowledge that the Jewish claim to their ancient homeland and their desire to worhship at the Western Wall (the lower part of the Temple Mount) is not a product of Western imperialism but a legitimate expression of national and religious longing. The inability to acknowledge Jewish claims to the Western Wall have revived fears that a settlement of Jersualem in which Palestinians had real sovereignty would produce a return to the pre-67 situation in which Jews were prevented from coming close to the Wall. Very few Jews will ever accept that outcome.

For us at Tikkun, there is much sadness in the situation. We have already experienced anger and loss of support for our willingness to speak the truth as we see it, without attempting to soften our message to make it palatable to the Jewish establishment — or to win friends among those who will oppose Israel no matter what Israel does. We are saddened also by the pathetic state of the Israeli left and by its lack of coherent vision or strategy.

But most of all, we are saddened by the endless suffering imposed on the Palestinian people, in the name of the Jewish people, and sometimes with the active cooperation of those who claim to speak in the name of God. From our standpoint, this is the ultimate chillul hashem, desecration of God's name.

We declare loudly and unequivocally: Palestinians are equally valued by God as Jews, that Palestinians are equally created in God's image as Jews, and that Jews and other peoples of faith can no longer shut our eyes or close our ears to the suffering of the Palestinian people. We want the world to know that in this dark period there were Jews who stood up and proclaimed their commitment to a Judaism that would fight for a world in which every human being is treated with the respect and sense of sanctity that are central to a spiritual vision of the world. So, Spirit Matters. As much in Israel as in the United States.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN Magazine and author of the new book Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul.

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