GAZA: Beyond Conversation

I asked a Jewish-American friend to cover the situation in Gaza. This is what she wrote in response explaining why she can’t do it. I found the text fascinating and responsive to the difficulties of a sensitive, ethical and intelligent person trying to talk about the issue– precisely the type of voice much needed in today’s discourse. I asked to publish an excerpt from her email. Here it is, with permission:

“In answer to your question, I have been considering writing on the Gaza question for weeks. But I don’t think I will. There’s a whole part of my past that I have to process, about being raised in a synagogue that was rabidly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. The things that were said there would not pass muster thirty-odd years later, and attributing them to their speakers would probably count as defamatory. That’s really my story: the part I can add that is not the past fortnight’s worth of partisan pontification, which I believe is available in copious supply already.

Since you asked for details of my private experience: My childhood rabbi in the 70s had three sons in the Israeli army, and you could not be a more committed Zionist than him unless your name was David Ben Gurion. He gave blistering hour-long sermons on the Palestinian question, during which comparisons of Yasir Arafat to Adolf Hitler ran rampant. I can just imagine his take on the current war between Israel and Hamas. The rabbi’s thought ran a little as follows. The sons of Ham, including the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, and their descendants, including the Philistines, are the subject of God’s promise: that they will be annihilated so that the Israelites can occupy their land. This the Israelites shall accomplish themselves, by force of arms, aided by the Power of God. The promise shall not be in force when the Israelites backslide, and worship other gods — hence the destruction of the Temples and the exiles. Nonetheless, if the Israelites are in good standing with God, the promise will be fulfilled, and the sooner the Hamites are destroyed, the sooner we will approach the time of the Messiah, when the Third Temple shall be erected, God’s presence will dwell among us, and the dead will be brought back to life.

My rabbi would have been perfectly happy had the Israelis devised a neutron bomb which could annihilate all of Gaza at one blow, and had the inhabitants of the West Bank been similarly wiped out, he would not have shed a tear. It is questionable to me whether he would have been satisfied with the 1967 borders of Israel, or whether only some greater geographical area would have sufficed. I think that he would not have cared one whit about whether any other country, ours included, would have gone along with this plan. He would have lobbied with all his might to have America recognize this outcome as just and right, but, had that failed, the presence of God on Earth in His Holy Temple would more than make up for America’s billions in foreign aid. At times, he quoted the Psalms:

Put not your trust in princes,
Nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his dust;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the Lord his God.

It might even be that the turmoil caused by Israel’s extermination of the Palestinians would be particularly propitious for the coming of the Messiah. Surely the countries of the earth, or “the isles,” as my rabbi poetically called them, would league against Israel, and the ensuing battle, which Israel would win with God’s help, would raise Israel to pre-eminence over its past tormentors, and silence its critics. All would see that God had wrought wondrous things, and that His judgment was not to be questioned.

With some chagrin, I note the resemblance of my former rabbi’s thought to some of the “end-times theology” that today is so prevalent in evangelical circles. This includes all the double-think — that there can be such a thing, after the Holocaust, as the morally justified wiping out of an entire race or ethnicity, and that the difference was that the Holocaust was based on the authority of the evil, mortal, and fallible Adolf Hitler, whereas the extermination of the Palestinians was based on God’s authority, as revealed in the Bible. It also includes the doubtful conjecture that today’s Palestinians are the descendants of the tribes marked for excision in the Bible; at best, this is a degenerate case of the kind of analogical reasoning, which many religious Jews accept, that transforms a prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother’s milk into a prohibition against eating a turkey sandwich within six hours of drinking a milkshake. But I was exposed to this kind of thought all during my childhood, and I have to avoid falling back into it.

On one level, I am ambivalent about Israel and Israelis. The myth that I was taught back in the day, that Israel was a happy socialist (yet American) land eternally free of anti-Semites has not withstood scrutiny. It is not a place to which I can flee if anti-Semitism ever, God forbid, reaches America. Israel is a theocracy by design, where being as secular as I am, and having intermarried, would be the source of real stigma and discrimination. It is also a bullying culture. I worked in an Israeli company for a year, and did not get along at all with the aggression, the shouting, the cruelty. Cronyism is rampant, as are under-the-table means of getting things done. Bill Clinton continually used the phrase, “people who work hard and play by the rules.” There is a word for such people in Israel: “freier,” or “sucker.” Such people are ridiculed.

That being said, I am a Jew — it must be said, a believer in the God of Spinoza and Kafka as well as in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to mention Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah  — and I believe many contradictory things that you would not find in Lukasiewicz. If you would excuse it in Benjamin, you are invited to excuse it in an epigone.

I love the Jewish people, and would no sooner see an Israeli harmed than to experience harm myself; we may be estranged, but we are still siblings. Israelis are capable of great generosity to their fellow Jews; an Israeli neighbor of mine once heard me say that I had no Passover matzos of my own, because the supermarkets were out of stock by the time I had returned from visiting my family across the country, and she gave me two boxes from her own supply. The shock, injury, and death that rocket attacks and terrorism bring would shake me to my core, if I were there, and would likely make me hate those responsible. At the same time, the shock, injury, humiliation, and death that occupation brings would, in turn, make me hate those responsible as well. Hatred begins with a feeling of helplessness, and the force with which the Israelis have settled and displaced, backed by the full power of the state, cannot help but bring on that initial feeling of helplessness, which is in turn followed by anger and the desire for revenge. This can only be cemented by the eliminationist attitudes of some Israelis, both the religious variety so forcefully articulated by my former rabbi, and the secular variety.

In my opinion, the threat of the Palestinians is not solely a morally justifiable response to occupation. Arab states have been using the Palestinians as proxies for the destruction of Israel for many years. It does not matter that the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve sent have gone for graft; as a Pakistani nuclear scientist recently said on the BBC, about the Saudis’ long-term funding of their research to develop the atomic bomb, “they did not do so out of a love for nuclear physics.”

I believe that the destiny of the Jewish people is bound up with Israel, and that Israel will survive, whether at others’ expense or its own. I think the tragedians would be hard put to depict the gnawing plagues on both houses; they re-infect the other. They are like divorcing, abusive parents who take out restraining orders on the other which neither has the capacity to enforce, and all the judge can do is to re-issue the order on a meaningless piece of paper. And yet I believe that Israel will emerge, perhaps without American money, perhaps with the moral onus of being called an apartheid state, and that something will come out of that — that eventually Israel will be a place that welcomes and tolerates people like me, and people like the ones it is now bombing. This is likely a Messianic hope, and you can see the lions taking a nap in the sheepfold as I write. But so I still believe, and it is a part of me I will not repudiate. Perhaps the anti-Zionist rabbis, the Munkacs and Satmar rebbes, were right, and the State of Israel was a secular first draft that needed to be scrapped. But that does not stop me from hoping for future revisions, in our time or the Messiah’s.”