Mourning for Gaza, Israel, and Palestine

Posted on May 16, 2018

by Rabbi Michael Lerner

On May 14, 2018 Israel raised the number of Gazan mostly unarmed civilians it had killed to close to 100, and the number wounded to several thousand. Its actions will go down in Jewish history as the height of the Netanyahu government’s ethical blindness and arrogance. All people of conscience should make May 14th an annual day of mourning for the Gazans and for the fate of all Palestinians living under occupation (whether in the form of military occupation in the West Bank or in the form of blockade and cutting off of electricity, food and medical supplies, and much more).

The excuses given by Israeli hasbara (explanation/propaganda) are pathetic:

1. “Israel has a right to defend itself.” Of course it does. But it does not have the right to occupy another people for 50 years and subject them to deprivation of freedom and self-determination. Moreover, there is no threat to Israel from the Palestinian people–Israel has one of the most powerful military forces in the entire world, and the Palestinians do not have an air force, a navy, tanks, or anything else that could over-run Israel.

2. “The army (IDF) was endangered by a few of the demonstrators who were armed with Molotov cocktails and were creating a smokescreen by burning tires” The IDF could have withdrawn a few hundred feet and would not have faced any danger. They were not facing missiles, but only what a few individuals could throw in their direction.

3. “The Gazans were intent on cutting through the border fence and would have then been a terrorist threat.” If Israel had warned Gazans that anyone crossing into Israel would have been shot, that would have prevented most of the deaths and injuries. Most of the Gazans were at the fence to demonstrate their desire to return to their homes taken by Israel in the aftermath of the 1948 war. It was not their intent to do that immediately. Most of those who would have crossed over the border would have been apprehended and imprisoned. The Israeli Army has a huge number of fighters at any given time and they could easily have stopped anyone crossing the border without shooting indiscriminately into crowds of thousands of almost all unarmed civilians, injuring and killing journalists, medics, women, and children.
In short, there was no security (bitachon) reason for the slaughter of innocent people.

There were provocative statements made by Hamas and by some of those at the demonstrations. We in the U.S. peace movement know about this. We’ve been at demonstrations in which some people call for the overthrow of the government or engage in acts of violence against people or property. It was these elements that made it possible for right-wing media to portray the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations several years ago as a group of violence-prone extremists and allowed police to disrupt the tent camps that demonstrators had set up. We would not accept killing and wounding random demonstrators as a legitimate response in these situations in the U.S. and they were not legitimate on the Gaza border either.

This is not to say that Israelis have no reason to be angry at Hamas and its followers. Hamas continues to insist that it wants to eliminate the State of Israel. In so doing, it provides a perfect partner to Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli ultra-right-wing, providing the ostensible reason for why ordinary citizens should be afraid. And over the past decades individual terrorists have killed some Israelis and Hamas managed to send missiles toward Israel in the summer of 2014, though happily most of them were destroyed before landing. Yet the Israeli people spent hours each day in bomb shelters, and that intensified their fears in a very concrete way. Just imagine if North Korea or Cuba had been able to do the same to the U.S. and tens of millions of Americans had spent hours each day for two months in air raid shelters–can you imagine what a boost that would have given to the militarists in any Western country the way 9/11 also did.

I do not raise this point to legitimate the Israeli army violence that is taking place on the border with Gaza. It is, let me repeat, ethically outrageous. There is no moral equivalency between the struggle of Palestinians for their own liberation and the policies of Israel to prevent that liberation. Israel has the power to create a solution that ensures its security and has the economic, political, and military power to do so. The Palestinians have no such power; what they do have is the growing support of people around the world, including many younger Jews in the West who genuinely care about the suffering of all people who have not yet achieved liberation, economic well-being, and security. In their arrogance, the Israeli and U.S. governments think that this moment of power will last forever, it will not. And sadly, both the American people and the Jewish people will pay dearly in the future for the immoral behavior of their governments and their silent complicity.

Our approach at Tikkun, however, is to ask not how do we throw blame but how do we contribute to the possibility of a transformation in consciousness. And our answer is this: we need to help people on both sides of that struggle recognize that each side has been unnecessarily provocative and each side has a legitimate story to tell. It does no good to only talk about the evils of one side or the other or to portray one side as the righteous victim and the other as the evil incarnate. To do so is only to guarantee more suffering on both sides of this struggle.

In my book Embracing Israel/Palestine (available at www.tikkun.org/eip) I tell the whole story from the beginning till 2012. I recognize every particular outrage in the context of a larger struggle that has been going on for the past hundred years, a struggle in which each side has taken actions that are ethically unacceptable and each side has legitimate reasons to be scared of each other. You might ask “How can the Israelis be scared of Palestinians when they are so much more powerful?” Well, do you doubt that many Americans were scared and many remain scared of “terrorists” after 9/11, even though the U.S. was and remains the greatest military power in the world, and with no country on our border supporting terrorism? That fear has been magnified by a discourse that comes from both Republicans and Democrats, and led Hillary Clinton to advocate not only for the destructive war against Libya in 2011 but also for being “tough” against Russia. Now imagine that you lived in a state that was a few miles away from where ISIS and Hezbollah and other groups were active, and where Iran was placing missiles that could easily reach your own home. That context makes it easier to understand how right-wing-militarists in Israel could convince people that they were in constant danger, and that part of that danger, given the experience of the summer of 2014, was coming from Gaza.

“But wait,” you might say, “the Gazans are protesting the Nakba, and that was the atrocity that created the State of Israel.” So the first point I want to make is that the Nakba was another ethically outrageous result of the 1948 war, and we at Tikkunwere the first US publication to expose the lies of the Zionist establishment that claimed that Palestinians had fled because their leaders told them to do so. We printed the accounts of the “New Historians” in Israel who had access to the IDF’s archives and who were able to show that many Palestinians fled because of legitimate fear of Israeli right wing terrorist groups that were seeking to spread fear. At least 100,000 of the refugees were forcibly removed from their homes and forced to move to what is now the West Bank and Gaza, and many others fled in fear that the same would happen to them. There was no legitimacy for these deportations. Moreover, when a cease fire was achieved in 1949, the Israeli government refused to let these civilian refugees return to their homes, a position similar to what India was doing with Muslim refugees, thereby creating the Muslim state of Pakistan.

This situation, however, was the outcome of the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership refusing to accept the U.N. proposal of 1947 which would have divided the area into a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state. Had the Palestinians accepted that proposal, which Israel did accept, there would today be a Palestinian state encompassing much more of the “Holy Land” than even the most optimistic of peaceniks now believes a two-state solution in the 21st century would give to the Palestinian state. This was a tragic decision on the part of the Palestinian leadership and their Arab neighboring states which would have averted a war.

Yet how could the Jewish Israelis, many of whom were survivors of the Holocaust, allowed this unjust outcome? So now go back to the decade previous to this moment, when fascism was spreading through not only Europe but also through parts of the Muslim world, and Jews were desperate to escape. The Arab states and the Palestinian leaders sought to prevent Jewish refugees from coming to Palestine, fearing that the Zionists wanted to create a Jewish state in some part of Palestine. The British, who had been given the “mandate” over Palestine by the League of Nations, needed Arab oil to be able to fight the war against the Nazis which began in 1939, and so agreed to enforce the will of the Palestinians to prevent Jews from coming to Palestine. This was not aimed at allrefugees, but only at Jewish refugees. And even after the Nazis were defeated in 1945, and the Holocaust was known to the world, the Palestinians, aided by the British, kept up their demand to keep Jewish refugees from coming. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were kept in “displaced persons camps” in Europe until on May 14, 1948 the British left and Palestinian Jews proclaimed themselves the “State of Israel,” allowing Jews to come there. Many of those who came felt deep anger at the Palestinians who had refused them entry while their families were being murdered. Palestine was the nearest country to Europe with a substantial Jewish minority that was not under Nazi rule. For the Jews in displaced persons camps, the Palestinian people’s refusal to allow them to come to Palestine was evidence that they hated Jews, who were a minority group.

Leftists have usually taken up the call for open borders everywhere, or at least for non-discrimination against refugees seeking asylum. Yet they do not ever recognize that a significant section of the Jews who created the State of Israel in 1948 were refugees for whom Palestinians had denied asylum. Many Jews in Israel and around the world joined with many of these refugees in deeply resenting the ethically unacceptable desire to keep Jewish refugees out. Just as Palestinians kept Jews out, when Jews had the power after the 1948 war, they were not willing to let the Palestinian refugees come back. I find their actions ethically unacceptable. At the same time, I understand the fear that arises when people imagine refugees taking over their land (this applies both to Palestinians before 1948 and Jews after 1948). Yet Leftists who are outraged at the way the U.S. and many European states are currently treating refugees fail to see and understand the significance of this historical truth – namely that Palestinians and other Arab states did all they could to prevent Jewish refugees from coming to Palestine. This was an outcome of a long history of Left-wing anti-Semitism that I analyze more fully in my book The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left. But you don’t have to read the book to get the gist—go to read the article by anti-Israel-Occupation “If Not Now” activist Benjamin Case on “Decolonizing Jewishness” in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Tikkun(which you can now read online at https://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/decolonizing-jewishness-on-jewish-liberation-in-the-21st-century). You will see there what I mean by Left-wing anti-Semitism (and no, it’s not being a critic of Israeli policies, which we at Tikkunhave been for the past 32 years).

“Still,” you might object, “wasn’t Zionism, the desire of the Jewish people to establish a homeland in Palestine, always simply a colonial project to aid European colonial ambitions against the indigenous people of the land, the Palestinians?” That question could only arise out of a lack of a full understanding of the history of the region. First of all, there are no indigenous people in the Middle East and certainly not in the land that the Roman conquerors named Palestine. All of those countries in the ancient world experienced one group or another conquering and settling those lands, moving populations, exterminating those who had previously conquered the lands, for thousands of years. By the time the Greeks and then the Romans conquered Judea two thousand plus years ago, there was a strong Jewish religious population in Palestine and when they were exiled from that land they made return to Zion (the hill on which their Temple had been constructed) a central part of their religion. When religiously practicing Jews hear lefties talking about the return of Jews to the land of Israel as a colonial project they shake their heads in disbelief at the lack of understanding that claim represents, because for two thousand years they have been uttering prayers for a return to Zion before there even were any European countries like England, France, Germany, or Russia. If in the last 19th and early 20th centuries that yearning became a political movement and sought support from European powers to accomplish that goal, they were no different from Arab states including Palestinian nationalists who similarly sought to win support for their efforts from colonial states and until the 1947 UN resolution calling for a two state solution, these Palestinians and Arab states had been relatively successful in getting colonial support as well (in part because the colonial states made conflicting promises to the Arab nationalists and the Jewish nationalists, as they did all around the world, dividing the populations they sought to dominate in order to conquer the lands).

So am I saying that “Jews had a right to the land of Israel?” No, I don’t think anyone has a right to any land in the world. Instead, I believe that all of humanity has an obligation to share the earth which other and to do so in ways that protect the fragile life support system of Earth. The ongoing military struggles between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, like the ongoing struggles among Arab peoples in Syria and Iraq, or between Shia in Iran and Sunni in Saudi Arabia, or between the U.S. and other forces in dozens of countries around the world—all of these are destructive to the possibility of saving the Earth’s life support system and all result in unnecessary human suffering and death, and hence are deeply unethical and ought to be stopped immediately.

How can that happen? In my view, it can only happen when all of the people of the earth overcome their nationalist demands to control some part of the earth, and move toward a consciousness of sharing the earth in a generous way. We at Tikkunand the Network of Spiritual Progressives have put forward two proposals that are first steps in this direction: the Global Marshall Plan www.tikkun.org/gmp and the proposed ESRA–Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution www.tikkun.org/esra which could be a model for many other countries.

To get to such a world, we cannot continue to side with one side or another in their endless struggles. Instead, we need to develop a compassionate attitude toward all peoples, and understand why they feel angry and threatened by others, no matter how irrational those fears appear to be from our perspective. It is only when we can approach all sides of these struggles with an attitude of what Cat Zavis, executive director of Tikkun’s interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, calls Prophetic Empathy can we hope to get people to move in this direction.

The prophetic part of Prophetic Empathy is the part that calls out those who are tolerating violence, injustice, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or anti-Semitism and insists that those behaviors must stop. The empathy part is that we combine our calling out of what is wrong with an empathic understanding of how people got to where they are now in their consciousness, so that we can convey the kind of respect that is the precondition for anyone even beginning to listen to the rest of our political ideas about how to achieve a different kind of world.

So to return to Israel and Palestine today, we must challenge the immoral behavior of the State of Israel toward the Palestinians and seek to mobilize against that behavior. Simultaneously, we need to project an understanding of the dynamics that have led all the different actors in this struggle to come to where they have come to, rather than appear to only care for one side or another.

This struggle is a manifestation of the inner struggle that goes on in almost every human being between the idea that we can best achieve our needs by dominating others (whether that be the Israeli desire to make all of Palestine a subordinate part of Israel or the Hamas desire to make all of Palestine including what is today Israel an Islamic state under the rule of Hamas with a compliant Jewish minority) or the voice that tells us that human beings have the potential to respond to generosity with a generous and caring spirit if they can believe that generosity would not be taken advantage of by others. It is my contention that this struggle is worldwide and our task as tikkunistas (those who seek to heal and transform the world) is to strengthen the voice of generosity.

Speaking now as a rabbi committed to the well-being of the Jewish people, I insist that our well-being can only be accomplished when every other religion and every other people, every other ethnic group, on the planet have also secured their well-being. There is no longer in the 21st century a path to security and justice for one people that does not also involve a path to security and justice for all peoples. My religion teaches me that this is the direction not only because it is in our self-interest as human beings, but because at a deeper level the truth is that every human being is a manifestation of the sacred and deserves to be treated as such. But if you don’t like language about the sacred, and most Israelis don’t because they hate anything smelling of religion because of the way the ultra-orthodox in Israel have forced religion down their throats, then accept the self-interest argument for a prophetic empathy approach to all struggles.

I deeply mourn and am outraged by the loss of lives and injuries of Gazans caused by Israeli soldiers and the ongoing blockade that makes life in Gaza untolerable and unlivable. And I believe that the path to peace and security for Palestinians and Jews alike rests in our righteous call for Israel to abandon its “domination over others” perspective and realize that it is only with a policy of generosity toward Palestinians, not murdering them, that can provide a path to lasting peace and justice for themselves. As a Jew I also mourn for Israel and for Judaism that has become associated with a nation state and hope to see a Jewish liberation movement develop that will make clear, as we’ve been doing in Tikkunfor the past 32 years, that Judaism must be divorced from the policies of the traumatized people who have allowed the State of Israel to become a manifestation of values that are antithetical to what Judaism has been for the past several thousand years. I call upon friends of the Jewish people in every religion and every national or ethnic group to join with Tikkunin challenging Israeli policies that simultaneously rejects shame and blame and embrace an empathic discourse as we critique these horrendous policies. Yes, it is a difficult path to follow. But if we ever hope to change the world, it is the path that is most likely in the long run to help us build the world we want and need. And in the meantime, we should also hope that both the Hamas regime will be overturned by the people of Gaza and that the Netanyahu and far right regime in Israel will be overturned by the people of Israel, so that a new regime in Israel and Palestine can negotiate a lasting and just, and humanly and environmentally sensitive and caring peace for all of the inhabitants of the region.

–Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-without-walls based in Berkeley, California.