By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
October 2, 2020 – י”ד תשרי תש”ף
This week marks an important milestone. On September 29, 2000 – 20 years ago this week – then leader of the opposition Ariel Sharon walked onto the Temple Mount. It was a planned move to assert his dominance in the Likud Party. He was accompanied by an excessive entourage of 1,000 police and security forces. That said, Sharon always held a special place in his heart for the Old City of Jerusalem and for Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount. He, in fact, maintained an apartment in the Muslim Quarter in which he slept exactly zero nights, but he draped a large Israeli flag from the window displayed prominently for all to see to assert Israeli hegemony over all of the Old City.
Weeks earlier, the Oslo negotiation process fell apart with an anti-climactic and unresolved summit at Camp David between President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Chairman Yasser Arafat. Much has been written about the collapse of the negotiation process, and in 20-year hindsight, we may intellectually have internalized specific lessons but failed to apply them.
We know that in the immediate hours after Sharon alighted the Temple Mount violence broke out there resulting in Palestinians branding this Intifada (meaning “uprising” or “shaking off”) with the symbol of the El-Aqsa Mosque (i.e. The El-Aqsa Intifada). We also know that the first casualty of this war came on Sept 27, 2000, when Sgt. David Biri, was fatally wounded in a bombing near Netzarim in the Gaza Strip and on Sept 29, 2000, when Border Police Supt. Yosef Tabeja, was shot by his Palestinian counterpart on a joint Israeli-Palestinian patrol near the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. Evidence also came to light that Chairman Arafat used the time after the failed July 2000 Camp David summit to strategize and plot a violent response rather than lay the groundwork for a final-status arrangement. While there is much blame to place on each side for its shortcomings, looking back on the last two decades, we can make a few specific observations:
- There is still no peace (to state the obvious) between Israel and the Palestinians. The Occupation continues. The Palestinians still won’t get on the bandwagon for peace even after two Gulf States normalized relations with Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, has nearly completed his 15th year of a four-year term, and there continue to be inconclusive rumblings of a succession plan as the Palestinians try to navigate the split society between Hamas and the PA.
- One lasting effect of the Oslo accords divided the West Bank into three areas (A, B, and C), with the Palestinian Authority maintaining critical security cooperation with Israel to avoid major violent outbreaks. This is essential and should be maintained at all costs.
- Israeli society remains deeply polarized. This is, of course, nothing new as the 1993 Oslo accords passed the Knesset with a narrow 51% majority, and the anger and polarization within Israeli society led to the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin 25 years ago.
Coming off Yom Kippur beginning the holiday of Sukkot, it is this ever-deepening polarization that I would like to address. As Israel sits amidst a lockdown during the most social time of the year, it faces deep division. The question of who is allowed to hold public prayers and who is allowed to hold public protests highlights the religious-secular divide. It should be noted that many of us in the Reform Movement see value both in public prayer and public protests.
The ability to look into one’s own soul and find a way to apologize and ask for forgiveness is certainly not easy. However, we are allowed to do so at a safe distance (especially during a pandemic). A text message, tweet, email, or even a phone call allows us to send apologies and forgiveness without having to be in close physical proximity. Teshuva is relatively easy compared to Ushpizin. Ushpizin, the practice of welcoming guests into one’s Sukkah during the week-long festival, forces us to break down the barriers and sit across from one another to talk. What would it be like to invite someone with whom we disagree? This year, Sukkot, the outdoor holiday, might be the perfect opportunity to (at an appropriate social distance) reconcile with another person, to patch a relationship, and offer public rapprochement to our ideological foe. To invite someone else into our space as a gesture of rebellion against the forces of a pandemic which encourages us to remain apart. This season of protest and peril, with a heated U.S. election and continually polarizing politics around Israel and the Middle East, is an opportunity to reach out and understand the views of the other – however abhorrent they may be.
Easier said than done.
There are, of course, some conversations that are beyond reconciliation. I am not going to invite a White Supremacist into my Sukkah nor anyone else with irreconcilable views.
The question of peace-making came to the fore this week again as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) backed out of participation in an event that will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin. Her refusal to participate on grounds that Rabin used strong and unfortunate language regarding Palestinians in the late ’80s, and was accused by some of being “a war-criminal,” demonstrates her allegiances or, at the very least, her ignorance of the significance of Yitzhak Rabin in the long history of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
She failed the test of Ushpizin – to come and express differences or even raise questions face to face instead of refusing to show up – and made a serious mistake.
Many liberal Jews and progressive Zionists hoped that she would be a formidable ally with us on the cause of peace; that together we could speak out against the same extremism that led to Rabin’s murder. That too, sadly, seems to be too controversial a statement and has caused many in the camp to evaluate whether she and some in her camp are approachable and could sit in the same Sukkah, or would it be better to focus our attention on those liberal politicians with whom we can have a productive conversation. I would argue that, in this case, it is critical to invite AOC and her followers to sit and talk with us in order to have a productive conversation about so many issues with which we agree and some of which we do not.
20 years after that fateful moment of Ariel Sharon setting foot on holy ground – ripe with controversy and tension – we may not be better off today. I hope that we use this Sukkot as an opportunity to seek out one another, take the time to “visit” one another’s Sukkah (virtually or otherwise), and practice the art of listening.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,