By Rabbi Michael Berk
I think if you want to understand the complexity of Israel as it celebrates its 67th anniversary on Thursday, it’s important to understand two lessons Jews learned throughout their history.
First, throughout most of Jewish history Jews had no state and no power. They were existentially vulnerable, dependent on the kindness of their hosts for safety and security. From the numerous persecutions and expulsions, Jews learned to never forget that evil exists and that there are people who will, out of blind hatred, seek your destruction. Or, as Israeli author and commentator Yossi Klein Halevy has said: Don’t be naive.
From the central story of the five books of Moses, the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, Jews learned another lesson. Their liberation taught that God wants people to be free. And scriptures will reinforce that by repeating a command more than any other commandment in the Bible: remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Don’t ever forget what was done to you when you had no power to protect yourself. And don’t ever treat those living in your midst that way.
These are the lessons from Jewish history: don’t be naive and don’t be brutal.
We need both of these ideas. With only one of them, the discussion about peace in Israel is doomed. Sadly, that is the nature of the political polarization both in Israel and among Americans. The two lessons have been separated. Everyone is certain about what they know, but they only know the non-negotiable of one of the lessons. We have separated into the “don’t be naive camp” which says to those with whom it disagrees: don’t be fooled, the Arabs are all out to kill us. There is no one to talk peace to. And there is the “compassionate” camp which says, don’t be brutal; be compassionate; make peace; end the occupation now and withdraw from the territories.
This is the conundrum Israel is wrestling with on this Israeli Independence Day. How do you synthesize the two lessons? How do you show compassion and care for the stranger in your midst when that stranger, whom we are commanded to protect, seeks to displace us and deny our right to a land. It’s hard to live in a place where there are no easy answers.
If you ask the average Israeli what she thinks about a Palestinian state you will see how they struggle with this complexity. Despite what you may hear or read, your average Israeli is a little to the left when it comes to the occupation and a little to the right when it comes to the peace process. They are somewhere between the two powerful lessons of Jewish history — they have compassion for the Palestinians, but they don’t want to be naive about Arab readiness to live in peace with Israel. If you ask, they will answer with a paradox: on the one hand, they will tell you a Palestinian state is a necessity. It would free Israelis from a terrible occupation and from being perceived as a pariah state. It would ease the concern over the problem of Israel being both democratic and Jewish. However, they will also tell you that a Palestinian state prematurely created would be a threat to Israel’s security.
So a Palestinian state is both an existential need and an existential threat. That’s why Halevy famously said last summer that he has two nightmares: One, that there will not be a Palestinian state; and two, that there would be a Palestinian state.
What did Israel do this last summer in Gaza? Israel was not naive; the threat from Gaza had to be met with the use of military power. No nation could tolerate the barrage of rockets aimed at its civilians. But Israel also knew that the Jewish state ought not be brutal; to allow some measure of compassion to influence the conduct of war. We are all aware of the extraordinary actions the Israel Defense Forces took to minimize civilian casualties during the war last summer. Israel demonstrated how a Jewish society could defend itself against terror without becoming the evil empire.
Israel makes mistakes. It’s in the nature of power that it will be abused. The challenge for Israel is to combine the strands of the two lessons learned from Jewish history and create a policy that is both compassionate AND that insures the safety and security of Israel.
As Israel celebrates its independence, we have a lot to worry about. We cannot help but note the out-of-control growth of anti-Semitism and the virulent anti-Israel sentiment in so much of the world. Jews themselves have been torn apart like never before regarding our homeland. We can hardly speak to each other about Israel. Open your mouth with concerns over the suffering of the Palestinians and the other side accuses you of not loving Israel. Speak to the terror and security issues that make a two-state solution seem like a pipe dream and you’re a fascist racist.
Throughout most of history Jews were a minority group living in places at the pleasure of their hosts. Really, all they wanted was that the non-Jews would leave them alone. Now Jews have Israel. Now Jews have power. Now Jews have the extraordinary opportunity to show the world not only that Jews need a place to live in safety and security, but that they deserve one. The State of Israel gives Jews the opportunity to show how Jews take responsibility for the power they wield. And how they are guided by the values that have sustained them for two thousand years. And from scriptures Jews have learned that Israelite sufferings at the hand of the Egyptians should caution us about how Jews treat others when they hold the reins of power.
Having power finally gives Jews the responsibility to build a state that is just and that lives up to the ideals Jewish tradition has held dear for thousands of years concerning justice and decency.
Building a state that’s worthy of the Jewish people, Israelis struggle with the burdensome and complicated responsibility of power and the imperative for justice.
Michael Berk is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: