Friday, June 10, 2011

Beha'alotekha 5771 - Finding a New Narrative For Peace in the Middle East

When I was living in Israel in 1999, pursuing my own version of the Zionist dream, I spent a couple of weeks as a volunteer at a kibbutz, namely Qevutzat Kinneret. I worked several different jobs there: bagging and harvesting bananas, working the dishwasher with a Russian immigrant named Sasha who could barely speak Hebrew, much less English, and beekeeping. That's right, I spent two days working with the beekeeper, harvesting honey.

The beekeeper’s name was Noga Ben-Tziyyon, and her family was among the founding members of the kibbutz. Noga had been taking care of the beehives for many years, and she was fearless. We were all wrapped up in protective gear, completely sealed off, but Noga would occasionally take off her gloves and reach into an open hive to see if she could locate the queen. She told me that she was frequently stung, and she did not really notice. Sometimes, however, there were scorpions hiding in the hives. “Once,” she said, “I was stung by a scorpion. And that hurt.”

Anyway, we chatted quite a bit in Hebrew while we were driving around from hive to hive. She told me that her parents had immigrated from Russia to Palestine in the 1920s. “And do you know why they came?” she asked me. I did not. “Biglal ha-tziyyonut.” Because of Zionism, she said, soft and proud.

What she was saying was that her family did not come here because they were fleeing pogroms, Nazis, oppressive Arab regimes, poverty, or anything else. They came to fulfill an ideological dream, the dream that Theodor Herzl urged us to realize: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you will it, it is not a dream. They were pioneers who built the Jewish homeland, by coming to work the land.

This tale might have once been called a story. Nowadays, you might label it a “narrative.” This is a word that pops up a lot lately regarding Israel, in the context of the conflicting narratives of Israel and the Palestinians. We’ll come back to that.

The narrative that Noga Ben-Tziyyon shared with the ½ million Jews who were in Israel prior to World War II is slightly different from Herzl’s. As a journalist covering the Dreyfus affair, Herzl crafted a vision of political Zionism which sought a Jewish homeland that would solve the problem of anti-Semitism.

Noga’s narrative, however, was that of Ahad Ha’am, who sought to solve a different problem of European Jewry, that of assimilation. Ahad Ha’am’s vision was to forge a new culture in Palestine, one that focused on national Jewish consciousness, the Hebrew language, and Jewish creativity and would therefore serve as a merkaz ruhani, a spiritual center of world Jewry.

The experience of Noga's generation of olim (immigrants to Israel) was quite different from that of my father-in-law, Ervin Hoenig. Ervin survived Auschwitz and arrived in Israel during the War of Independence, where he was handed a gun and sent off to fight with the Palmach. His experience in Israel was that those who had made aliyah before the Holocaust often looked down their noses at the generation of survivors, and asked them, “What’s wrong with you? Why didn't you fight back? Why did you go like lambs to the slaughter?”

And yet, that has become the dominant narrative about the building the State of Israel: that the Jewish State rose from the ashes of Auschwitz. People have told me about how back in the day in Israel, you could get on a public bus and see numbers tattooed on many arms.

Yes, it is true that many Shoah survivors came to Israel after the war. But just as many came from Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Libya, and so forth; many of those Jews were refugees who were forced out of their countries. This is yet a third Israeli narrative.

Nonetheless, we reinforce the Sho'ah-based narrative over and over, and I do not think that this is ideal; the rebuilding of Israel in our time was already well in progress before World War II. While the Sho'ah certainly contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel, and in particular the UN vote on the partition plan of 1947, the wheels of statehood were in motion far before this. It is all too easy to forget this part of the story.

For example, a few weeks ago, five of our graduating seniors returned from the March of the Living. This is, in fact, a wonderful annual program that has been taking place since 1988. Right after Pesah, nearly 10,000 high school juniors and seniors spent one week in Poland (including Yom Hasho'ah / Holocaust Remembrance Day) and one week in Israel (including Yom Ha-atzma'ut / Israel’s Independence Day). The young adults who participated spoke at the Youth House two weeks ago about their strengthened Jewish identity and their deep connection with Israel. Any program that does this so successfully is tremendously valuable.

But the overarching theme of March of the Living is that the destruction of European Jewry led to the establishment of the State of Israel, when the reality is much more complex. No teen program spends a week in Morocco or Iraq or even Odessa and then a week in Israel.

The difference between a story and a narrative is that narratives usually come with agendas, and they can be dangerous. One narrative usually excludes another.

When President Obama addressed the Muslim world at Cairo University two years ago, what did he invoke as the primary Jewish claim to the land of Israel?

“Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust... Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction -- or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews -- is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

Although I credit Mr. Obama for asking the Arab world to lay off the Holocaust denial and the spreading of malicious lies about Jews, he did the State of Israel a disservice by pointing only to the history of anti-Semitism and not to the centuries of attachment to our ancestral homeland, the millennia of longing, Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2000 years. We have been yearning to return to Israel since the year 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Nowadays, we are hearing more about the Palestinian narrative. For example, here’s Mr. Obama again in Cairo, immediately after he invoked the Shoah:

“On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”

You might have heard about Palestinian commemorations of the Nakba (“catastrophe”) that they have publicized as the flip-side of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day. I had not heard of it before 7 or 8 years ago. And a new term entered the fray this week, one that I had never heard before this year: Naksa, or “setback,” which is now being used to describe the Arab take on the Six-Day War. June 5, 1967 was the day of the setback.

Last Sunday, June 5th, the same day that 200 of us from Temple Israel were proudly marching along Fifth Avenue in celebration of Israel, the Syrian government allowed hundreds of protesters to try to breach the Israeli border in the Golan. The IDF warned them in Arabic not to do so, then shot in the air, then shot at their feet when they continued to advance. Now, we all know this to be a cynical attempt by the Assad government to distract from the fact that they are killing their own people who are engaged in active rebellion. Regardless, this was how they commemorated the Naksa, the setback. The number of casualties is disputed, of course; also disputed is whether or not protesters were armed. Nonetheless, people died, and Israel looks like the bad guy once again.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are engaged in a war of narratives, a verbal war which has real casualties on both sides.

Here is the problem: if we are going to get anywhere in resolving the ongoing conflict within and around Israel, we must change the narrative. Because as it stands now, we are not winning this war of words.

The overarching message of the Arab Spring is this: that the status quo of the 20th century has changed. What has enabled the Tunisian people, the Egyptian people, and the Yemeni people to throw off the yokes of their tyrannical rulers? The prevailing narrative has changed. The word on the street no longer reflected the words of the ruling parties.

And there is now a sense of urgency. The Palestinian unity government has pledged to unilaterally declare statehood through a UN resolution in September. Ladies and gentlemen, they have the votes in the UN. And if it comes to that, it will only further isolate Israel.

We need to change the narrative. Theirs and ours. The time has come. And better to be pro-active, like Ahad Ha’am’s response to assimilation, then re-active, like Herzl’s response to anti-Semitism.

We read today in Parashat Beha’alotekha the line that we sing every time we take the Torah out (Numbers 10:35):

וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה: קוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ
Vayhi binsoa’ ha-aron, vayomer Moshe:
Qumah Adonai, veyafutzu oyevekha

When the ark traveled, Moses would say,
“Rise up, God, and let Your enemies be scattered.”

The ancient rabbis asked, “who are God’s enemies?” Midrash Sifre tells us that those who hate Israel, who hate the Jews, are the enemies of God. And we know that there are people who hate us, who want to kill us.

But there is more to the story. The enemies of God and Israel, in my mind, are the rejectionists on both sides; they reject peace because they are committed to their own narratives. Hamas and their supporters deny the right of Israel to exist, and therefore reject peace. Those within Israel and without who claim that we have no partners for peace are also rejectionists. One need only consider the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative, put forward in 2002 and 2009, to see that there are potential partners for peace.

Now is the time for those in power to show true leadership; we need a new narrative, one that unifies. This will not be easy, as there are both bees and scorpions in these hives.

Noga Ben-Tziyyon’s parents did not immigrate to Israel to displace anybody, or at the behest of the colonial powers. They came because Israel is the home of the Jews, and the merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center of world Jewry. Let’s not forget that story. And we have the power to guarantee it forever. All we have to do is change the narrative, try to ignore the bee stings, and scatter the scorpions.

Shabbat shalom.

And thanks to Rabbi Kate Palley for the tamtzit.


  1. Beautifully done! I wish I had been there to hear you give it over.