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The Israel Pendulum: Empathy and Caution

Over the summer I met a woman who grew up in Israel, served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and witnessed the complicated effects of the conflict first hand. Let’s call her Talia... Her entire life, Talia was taught not to trust the Palestinians, as if every Palestinian person were dangerous and wanted to do harm to all Israelis. She believed these things to her core, because she was never able to actually meet Palestinians, or learn what their lives were really like.

When she was old enough to serve in the IDF, Talia was stationed in the Gaza strip. That is where she encountered the difficult reality that Gazans face on a daily basis; access to clean water was lacking, sewage not properly maintained, and electricity spotty at best. When I asked her how seeing Gaza changed her opinion of the conflict, Talia replied “in every way.” She went on to share that it changed the way she perceived Palestinian people, and the Israeli government, and ultimately it changed the way she voted.

In Yossi Klein Halevi’s book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, he writes that he believes that Jewish history left his generation of Israelis two non-negotiable “commandments.” “The first: to be compassionate, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The second: be alert, when your enemy says they intend to destroy you, believe them.” Both of these sentiments are clear in Talia’s story.

Halevi’s non-negotiable commandments describe the competing emotions I experience on a regular basis. My understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict lives on a constant pendulum swinging between empathy and caution.

In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Adonai your God is giving you. The Israel that the Torah refers to is an ancient Israel-- an unforeseen Promised Land. Jewish tradition teaches, “the repetition of the word tzedek emphasizes that the pursuit of justice is vital to Israelite society. It expresses a recurrent theme in Deuteronomy, that the failure to follow God’s instructions will result in the loss of the Promised Land.” The verse calls on us, as a whole people to actively seek justice. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Judaism is spiritual chutzpah... [we must] insist that life involves not only the satisfaction of selfish needs, but also the satisfaction of a Divine need for human justice and nobility…Who is a Jew?” Heschel asks. “A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.” By Heschel’s definition, pursuing justice ought to be inherent in the moral makeup of all Jewish people.

Establishing a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples is dependant upon the Jewish pursuit of justice for all people. As Americans we believe in democracy, and for centuries, American Jews have pursued justice not only for themselves, but for all vulnerable populations.

One striking example in American Jewish history was prompted by “the initiative of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In 1963, the Jewish community had begun to explore strategies to address the plight of Soviet Jews. Their mission was to articulate the Jewish community's concerns for Soviet Jews, and to engage fellow Americans in their defense. The Soviet Jewry movement brought together survivors of the Holocaust, their children and their grandchildren. It energized Zionists and non-Zionists as well as secular and religious Jews. Rabbis spoke from the pulpits of synagogues, and came down from them; and they were joined by Christian clergy of many denominations.” In the late 1980s, “the floodgates opened and hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews arrived in Israel and in America. The movement was able to claim what few social movements ever can, that it had unequivocally achieved its goal.”

Right now we are witnessing American Jews standing up for the rights of immigrants in our country. Jews have lobbied members of Congress, and participated in protests at airports and in front of detention centers...carrying signs in Hebrew and English that read “v’ahavta leracha camocha” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “v’ahavta et hager” “You shall love the stranger.” Protestors have been injured and arrested, but the protests have not ceased.

This commandment to pursue justice is so central to American Judaism, you can find it in the mission, vision, and value statements of almost every American Reform synagogue. So why is it so complicated to discuss pursuing justice for Palestinians within progressive Jewish spaces?

We all inherently hold biases against people and places that we do not fully understand. In order to pursue justice for the Palestinian people, we must first try to understand their history. Many of Israel’s great successes are considered great catastrophes for the Palestinian people. There are a few moments from my Israel seminar class where this success - catastrophe dichotomy became crystal clear.

One of our trips focused on the experience of Arab-Israelis. We went to a forest to hear the story of an Arab-Israeli family who had been forced out of their village in the 1940s. When we stepped off the bus we were in awe of the tall trees that stood around us with the sun beaming through their bright green leaves. We all snapped photos to capture the beautiful moment so we would never forget it. Then our guide began to share his story with us. His family had lived on the very land we were standing upon for several generations. He pointed into the woods showing us the remnants of the village his family once lived. When they were forced out, the village was demolished, and a forest was planted over it. The beautiful trees surrounding us became a painful symbol of the catastrophe for this village, and others like it.

Growing up, we had a JNF tzedakah box in our kitchen. The rule was that if we found change lying around the house, it went in the box. At some point my parents would send the money in and we would get a thank you letter letting us know how many trees we helped to plant in Israel. I always felt so good about this… until the moment I found myself standing in that forest hearing its painful history, wondering how many villages my trees were planted atop.

Near the end of our year of study in Israel, we took a tour, guided by our professors, through the archaeological section of the Kotel, the Western Wall. Standing just below the platform for Robinson's Arch, the egalitarian section of the Kotel, we looked up to a brick several feet above us at a few letters etched in the side of the wall. I confess that I do not remember what the etching said, but I do remember the explanation of how it got so high up on the wall… In 1967, just after the Yom Kippur War, Israel gained control of the Jewish quarter of the Old City, and promptly destroyed the homes along the Western Wall to create the prayer space that we now call the Kotel. Our professor explained that the writing on the wall was likely from before the destruction of the Arab village whose ground stood atop the rubble of the First and Second Temple’s .

Praying at the Kotel took on an entirely different meaning for me. Knowing that people were forced out of their homes so I could pray at a wall of ancient stone… well it makes for a complicated mix of emotions.

These stories reflect my empathy towards others who have suffered, but my empathy does not erase my knowledge of attacks on Israel like the Yom Kippur War, the Jerusalem Bus Bombings, and Israel's current predicament, the constant rockets and fireballons being launched across the border from the Gaza strip. Last spring, when I attended the conference for APIAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, I heard the story of a kibbutz that sits next to the Gaza border. The children in this community are forced to grow up quickly. As soon as they learn to walk and run, they learn how to get to the shelter when a siren blasts. Shelters are everywhere... in schools, near homes, on playgrounds. Many parents in this Kibbutz have been asked why they don’t just move, but most of the families have lived there for generations and can’t imagine going anywhere else. My pendulum swings back towards caution as I remember that we must also consider the security of Israel and her people.

I have met Palestinians who openly shared their fear and hatred of IDF soldiers, which often translated into hatred all Israelis. Some of this fear and anger comes from their personal experiences, and some is inherited through generational trauma.

On my first trip into the West Bank, I met a Palestinian Businessman, Mr. Nassar. I listened to him answer questions about his life and his opinions of the conflict. When asked if Israelis and Palestinians could live side by side, and if he believed there was room for a violent resistance in the conflict, he said “We must have a Palestinian state, but I can see people living together. We do not have the right to go back and push the Jews out of their homes. Many generations have lived there now and I do not want to see any more violence.” However, he said, “everyone has a right to make that choice, violence is a result of the Israeli government.” As quickly as he showed compassion for the generations of Israelis who have lived in the land, he validated the violence perpetrated by others in his community.

The reality is, Israelis and Palestinians are constantly faced with deciding between moral and existential fears, between being compassionate towards the other, and protecting their own. They too exist on a pendulum, floating between empathy and caution. The generational trauma runs deep in both of these peoples, but the current generation has an opportunity to change the narrative.

On my first tour of East Jerusalem, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood, I met Sulaiman (soo-li-man) Khatib, who after a difficult childhood, helped to start a peace movement. Sulaiman began his life as a young Palestinian boy living just outside of Jerusalem. The poor treatment that his family endured inspired him to join a violent resistance movement, and at age 14 he stabbed an Israeli soldier and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He told us that while he was in prison he taught himself English and Hebrew so he could read the news. Eventually, he began to study the history of the Jewish people to try to understand our perspective. Sulaiman came to the conclusion that the only way to solve the violence and distrust was to work together. After ten years, he was released from prison, and “In 2006 he helped establish ‘Combatants for Peace’ an organization started by Israelis and Palestinians who laid down their weapons to work together after having taken an active role in the conflict. This organization was founded on the belief that the cycle of violence can only be broken when Israelis and Palestinians join forces.” This is just one of many examples of Israelis and Palestinians working together to create a more peaceful future for themselves and for future generations.

Near the end of his book, Yossi Klein Halevi writes, “Israeli Jews need to convey to Israeli Arabs that we see their place in our society not as a problem to be managed but as an opportunity for Israel to uphold its own moral standards. By integrating Arabs into Israeli identity, we are taking a step toward integrating Israel into the region.” I would add that we as American Jews have our own role to play in the stability and the future of the state of Israel.

As an ally of the United States, Israel plays a critical role in the stability of the Middle East. As Americans we have the right and responsibility to participate in the US political process, which includes voting as well as educating elected officials and community leaders.

We have the opportunity to change the way we talk and teach about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By sharing stories of people who have been directly affected, we can humanize the conversation. While we might not be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can choose to embrace the pendulum of empathy and caution as part of our reality, and allow it to guide and inspire deep learning of this complicated Jewish issue.

Shanah Tovah


Delivered on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780


Halevi, Yossi Klein, "Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor"

WRJ "A Women's Commentary"

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