Israel: A Challenging Love Affair

Being happily married for 38 years, I may lack some credibility to use the analogy of a spurned lover but, in my defense, I’ve seen a lot of movies.  I have had a love affair with Israel that goes back, at least 50 years. But, it ain’t always easy. It is especially challenging for someone who identifies as a political progressive and who has spent a large amount of his rabbinate working to advance human rights and social justice.

This article was published in The Times of Israel on June 13, 2021.

I was on the first flight to Israel that a US airline allowed after the suspension due to the shelling of Israel by Hamas. During the 11-day conflict, I watched an increasingly familiar political drama play out among the stakeholders. Supporters of Israel blamed Hamas for firing over 4000 missiles into Israel and claimed that Israel has a right to defend herself. Supporters of the Palestinians pointed to a variety of provocations by the Israeli government that targeted Arab Muslims and castigated Israel for disproportionate retaliation against Gaza that resulted in the death of 232 civilians, as compared to 12 deaths in Israel. A significant number of progressive American Jews drafted and signed statements about the conflict. In the past, I have been a signatory to a good many such statements. This time, I found the ones that crossed my desk too one-sided to support.  Israel is far from blameless in this conflict, but Hamas continues to build tunnels and missiles and embed rocket launchers in civilian neighborhoods, even as residents of Gaza lack housing, clean water, food and proper health care. Meanwhile, the conflict led to another significant jump in anti-Semitic activity and attacks on Jews all over the world.

During my time in Israel, I had the chance to meet with many friends and professional colleagues, spanning the spectrum from senior U.S. officials at the U.S. Embassy, to keen observers of Israeli politics, to Palestinian-Israelis who have been at the forefront of efforts to advance shared society in Israel. Here are three of my biggest take-aways.

First: The 11-day “war” with Hamas was really two different conflicts that became conflated in most media reports in the West. One conflict revolved around the relationship between Arabs, some citizens of Israel, some residents of East Jerusalem who refuse to take Israeli citizenship, and Israeli authorities. This has always been a fraught relationship, as many Israelis view Arabs as a fifth column inside of Israel and Arabs believe that they have suffered from discriminatory treatment ever since the founding of the State. In early May, 13 Arab families, longtime residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, were once again threatened with eviction. Such evictions have already taken place in past years, with Jewish settlers taking over these homes. A final ruling on this matter by the Israeli Supreme Court was supposed to be issued on May 10th but was postponed to lower the rising tensions.

At the very same time, tens of thousands of Muslims were making their way to the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque for the pilgrimage associated with the end of Ramadan. Many observers deemed the Israeli police presence during these days to be extremely heavy handed, including the use of stun grenades and, at one point, the shutting down of the loudspeakers used to broadcast prayers to the Muslim worshippers. Buses transporting thousands of Israeli Arabs from all over the country were turned back by Israeli police in an effort to minimize the growing crowd on the Temple Mount. As expected, there are many different versions of these events depending on who saw what and where they were, but overall, Arabs experienced this as Israeli harassment during the most solemn Muslim festival of Ramadan.

While it is true that the Hamas shelling of Israel started just as tensions in Jerusalem were rising, most analysts think that Hamas’ agenda was less about coming to the “defense” of Israeli Arabs and more about showing the Arab street that they were defending the honor of Arabs in ways that the Palestinian Authority was not doing. Hamas has a charter that commits to destroying the State of Israel, but the more likely, short term objective, is for Hamas to lay claim to be the true representative of the Palestinian people.  

Many Israelis believe that Benjamin Netanyahu was engaged in a similar strategy of political machismo. As he has done in previous elections when he was on the ballot, Bibi raises tensions with Israeli Arabs on the eve of elections to stir up fear, knowing that many Israelis will then vote for him as the prime minister who can be counted on to ensure Israel’s security. If the respective analyses of motivations by Hamas and by Bibi are true, it makes the loss of life in the service of cynical political manipulation all the more tragic.

Second: While Israelis have gotten used to periodic shooting wars with the likes of Hamas or Hezbollah, what especially alarmed Israelis this time around was the violence in mixed cities throughout Israel between Arabs and Jews. This has never happened before. While the high- profile conflict between Arabs and Israeli authorities in Jerusalem might have been the precipitating issue, tensions have been rising in recent years in cities throughout Israel because of a movement called Garin Torani. These, mostly young, religious Zionists, move into cities as a group to establish a yeshiva and an observant neighborhood. They often buy property in or near Arab neighborhoods where housing is affordable and they get State funds to support their efforts. In many cases, tensions between longtime Arab residents and the new, Jewish residents, ensue. When violence erupts and police intervene, it is the Arabs who get arrested. In many locations during the recent conflict, it was this history that fed the fury of both the Arab and Jewish rioters.

I sat with my friend, Mohammad Darawshe, in his office at Givat Haviva. Mohammad is one of the leading activists promoting Jewish-Arab co-existence in Israel for the past few decades. He told the story of driving to Afula during the recent conflict to visit a friend of his who was in a hospital. As he approached the city of Afula, the road was blocked by kipah-wearing Israelis who were stopping each car, asking of the driver: “Arab or Jew”? He knew from news reports that to answer “Arab” would result in him being pulled from his car and being beaten up, if not lynched. Fortunately, Mohammad’s Hebrew is good enough that he answered “Jew” and was allowed to continue to his destination. The story filled me with shame and a desire to apologize to Mohammad for my co-religionists.

Tens of thousands of Israelis-both Arabs and Jews—have benefitted from programs that Mohammad has helped to create and run. And yet, he told me, he can’t do it without the cooperation of the government. One statistic he shared with me tells the story: 20 years ago, the Israeli Ministry of Education spent 62 million shekels per year on shared society programs.  Under the Netanyahu administration, that investment is down to 2 million shekels a year. As a comparison, in Northern Ireland, the government spends 160 million euros to promote peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Protestants for a population one-fifth the size of Israel. The sad comparison between the Israeli and Northern Ireland per capita spending is 1/1,750!

Third: The divide between Israelis and American Jews has been getting wider for some time. There are many contributing causes, too numerous to review here. But the different ways the two communities understand Israel’s defense needs is a huge disconnect. Many of the Israelis I spoke with are not at all shy about criticizing policies of the Israeli government. But there is an amazing consolidation of national spirit and unity in Israel when facing a crisis, whether it is a wave of terrorism, the beating back of Covid 19 (which Israel did more effectively than almost any country in the world) or shelling from Gaza. There is little tolerance for armchair analyses from thousands of miles away, criticizing Israel for how it seeks to defend its citizens.

My daughter lives in Tel Aviv on the top floor of an apartment building. On the first day of shelling, a neighbor who she never had met before, knocked on her door and said: “When the air raid siren goes off, come to my apartment on the ground level. It is safer in my apartment. You will sleep with us.” And she did, for several nights. It is heartening to know that there are some places in the world where the phrase, “Jewish unity” is still operative.

Even more heartening were some stories about how the families of victims of the violence between Arab and Jews in Israel during the conflict, agreed to donate their organs to save the lives of the living. In more than one case, the organs of Arabs killed during the conflict saved the lives of Israeli Jews and the organs of Jews who were killed, saved the lives of Palestinian citizens of Israel. On our last night in Israel, we walked on the tayelet along the beach in South Tel Aviv, just a tad north of the Jaffa port. Two weeks earlier, we were told, the tayelet was empty, a consequence of the shelling from Hamas and the high tensions between Arab and Jewish communities. Only a week after the cease fire was announced, the tayelet was packed, Arabs and Jews co-mingled, enjoying the sea breeze and a beautiful sunset.

We are a long way from peace in Israel/Palestine. To achieve it, will require political will, moral courage and hard work, on both sides. At present, there is little evidence that leaders on either side have any of those qualities. Until that day comes, people who care about the fate of the Holy Land will need to be a bit more humble about what they think they know and how they express it in the public square.