By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Friday May 21, 2021 – י’ בסיון תשפ”א
In 2001 as the Second Intifada was raging, Israeli popular singer Mookie came out with his hit single “מדברים על שלום” (Talking About Peace). The song is a cry for the forlorn and oppressed in which the refrain goes like this:
“כולם מדברים על שלום ואף אחד לא מדבר על צדק לאחד זה גן עדן לאחר גיהנום, כמה אצבעות על ההדק“
“Everyone talks about peace, but no one talks about justice. For one it is the Garden of Eden, and for the other, it is hell, how many fingers on the trigger…”
Mookie, of course, based his lyrics on those of the Jamaican Reggae singer Peter Tosh who penned:
“Everyone is crying out for peace, none is crying out for justice.”
In today’s world the two most often used words – “peace” and “justice” – are among the most amorphous and least understood. The word shalom, “peace,” is included in every Jewish ritual. We greet each other with it in both Hebrew and Arabic. We end our prayers with it daily and nightly. And we doggedly emphasize justice! In the Reform Movement, we place justice before us always. We put it in our statements, in our budget lines, and we carry its messages on placards at protests, bumper stickers, and swag. We quote verses like:
(הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה טּוֹב וּמָה יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱלֹהֶיךָ” (מיכה ו:ח”
“God has told you, O human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.”
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (דברים טז:כ)
“Justice, justice shall you pursue…”
But when it comes to America and Israel, justice and peace often mean different things to different people.
Many Americans, and many American Jews, understandably see the world through American eyes. And they seem to assume that the issues – the debates about race, class, gender, etc. – should play out the same way elsewhere as they do in the American context. As Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote:
“….there is nothing that compares the horror of the racial situation in this country [the U.S.] to the rather complex, nuanced, frustrating, and emotionally exhausting situation in Israel/Palestine.”
For many stateside, the situation seems so very clear. As justice activists, we stand up for justice everywhere. Wherever there is oppression, supremacy, and dominant culture, we speak out. Specific terms such as “colonialism,” “imbalance of power,” and “oppression” are taken from the American context of over four centuries of systemic racism and applied simplistically to the Israeli-Palestinian context.
This oversimplification makes the picture clear: Israel is the “European colonialist” and is oppressing the “indigenous” Palestinian minority. Israel, they claim, is another case of dominant White culture oppressing people of color. Then they quote King’s 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Don’t get me wrong. There is a great deal of injustice in Israel – both regarding the Palestinians as well as Jewish minorities. Sadly, the current barometer by which the American left assesses one’s support for social justice is based solely on how ardently one decries Israel, or fails to do so.
What is seriously lacking in much of the rhetoric coming out of an American understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian interrelationship is nuance. Nuance is cavalierly sacrificed on the altar of the soundbite and the hashtag. Will those who preach liberal politics and tolerance based on their American experience also be willing to understand the nuance of the realities of the Israelis and Palestinians? Will those who easily condemn Israel at every turn be prepared to engage with complexity in this long and arduous story?
One important Middle Eastern difference is that while many Palestinians are suffering under occupation and facing serious challenges, Hamas is not a peace-loving activist organization fighting for justice. Hamas is a terrorist organization working to exert its power, to control the Palestinian Authority, and destroy Israel.
We ask, “Don’t Jews also deserve to be the recipients of justice?” Apparently, Hamas never needs an excuse to shoot rockets, missiles, and mortar shells into Israeli communities with the express intent of killing civilians. No country, however weak or strong, should be expected to turn the other cheek to such violent attacks.
The difference between the left-wing justice-oriented activists in the U.S. (and elsewhere) versus those in Israel is clear: Zionism. For many on the left in Israel, the issues of police brutality on the Temple Mount, property rights and evictions of long-time Palestinian residents in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and even the occupation are all part of justice issues that plague the State of Israel and pose a threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. Israelis on the left are continually fighting for justice and equal rights of Palestinian citizens, for Palestinians under Israeli military control, and for democracy and human rights generally in the Jewish State.
But for some on the American Left, Israel itself is the problem. The very notion of a Jewish State, when oversimplified and seen as the oppressor, is viewed as racist and imperialist.
“See, we told you so,” they say. “We told you that if you keep your boot on the neck of another people for so long it will come back to hurt you.” “We told you that the evils of Occupation will unleash a torrent of violence that will bring you your comeuppance. You can’t evict people from their homes and defile the sanctity of their holy of holies and not expect vengeance.”
Others say: “We told you so. We told you that they will never accept us here. This is not about the ‘Occupation of 1967’ but about the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. We told you that Hamas is out to destroy Israel and that their Islamo-fascism cannot be countered by vigils, sit-ins, or singing kumbaya. Nor will they rest until they succeed in their so-called ‘resistance.’ They do not want, nor will they accept a two-state solution. They do not want, nor will they accept the existence of a Jewish State. They persistently divert resources to attacking Israel while pushing the populace of Gaza further and further into the abyss of destruction, desolation, and despair.”
In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides taught:
“People like the opinions to which they have been accustomed from their youth; they defend them and shun contrary views: and this is one of the things that prevents people from finding the truth, for they cling to the opinions of habit.” Guide for the Perplexed 1:31
Is it not time for us all to let go of our ‘opinions of habit’ and seek to understand complexity in the Israeli-Palestinian situation? Constructive engagement with the sharing of our respective narratives may enable us to let go of our long-held prejudices and work together for real equal justice and real peace. That’s the ultimate meaning of the priestly benediction in this week’s parashah:
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ
May God bless you and protect you!
יָאֵ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
May God deal kindly and graciously with you!
יִשָּׂ֨א יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!