One great thing about traveling, at least for me, is that traveling helps me to see things more clearly, to put things into a new or different perspective.
Our trip to Israel this summer did just that, and then some. It helped me—and others, I believe—better understand the nature of the conflicts: between Jews and Arabs—Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, as we learned to distinguish; between Jew and Jew. I returned with new insights and energy for the important work that must be done to help bring about greater tikkun, repair and healing between those groups that are warring with one another. I returned buoyed up with hope.
And then, the events of last week happened: the murder of a teenager who had attended the Pride Parade in solidarity with her LGBT friends, the serious wounding of others at the parade, and the horrific murder of an Palestinian infant as a result of a fire that had been set to his home, along with severe burns suffered by his parents and brother. I know that there have also been terrible events in this country—the death of too many African Americans at the hands of police—and I hope that I, and we, will address those in the near future as well. But I experienced the events in Israel and the West Bank like, well—I really don’t know the right metaphor. A punch to the stomach isn’t strong enough. Like most Jews throughout the world, I was and am horrified that Jews could behave in these ways.
And then I read an article about the Jewish extremists who are allegedly responsible for these and other acts, such as setting fires to Christian churches, and my horror grew and turned into moral outrage and indignation. I had known that there were those with extreme views, but I had not known the specifics of some of their beliefs and plans. I hadn’t known the extent to which they disavow the validity of Israeli law, the extent to which they see themselves fulfilling God’s will by taking matters into their own hands, doing whatever was necessary—including murdering innocent people because they see them as acting immorally—in order to bring about the new “Kingdom of Israel,” one that is ruled by the laws of the Torah—at least as they interpret them.
I found myself filled with such anger and hatred toward these people who are trying not only to highjack the State of Israel, but also all of Judaism with this extremist ideology. Filled with such anger and hatred that I wished that they’d just be wiped off the face of the earth. The same way that they wish those things for others, who do not share their ideology. And then I felt shame for feeling and thinking such things, knowing that this is precisely what they think and feel, and then act upon. This is not the way to move forward.
But what is?
The actions of the past week have galvanized Israeli Jews, and Jews throughout the world, forcing them, and us, to do some serious soul-searching. People are asking: Have government policies and rabbinical authorities inspired or at least allowed a radical fringe to reach new depths of depravity? Who interprets Jewish law and Jewish values for the Jewish state? How did it come to this?
A number of politicians in Israel have spoken out, saying that more must be done than just issue condemnations. At a rally held following the attack at the Pride Parade, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said: “These flames, which are consuming all of us, cannot be extinguished with weak condemnations [by politicians]. These flames cannot be extinguished with solidarity rallies. Not even with this rally. . . These flames cannot be extinguished with posts on Facebook and statements in the media. These flames cannot be extinguished with repression, denial and disregard. Incitement, ridicule, frivolity, laxity and arrogance of the heart cannot extinguish the fire, but only allow it to burn stronger, with fervor, to spread in all directions, and permeate all walks of life.”
“We must be thorough and clear,” he said, “from the educational system, to those who enforce the law, through to the leadership of the people and the country. We must put out the flames, the incitement, before they destroy us all. We will not be zealots. We will not be bullies. We will not become an anarchy.”
Peace Now called on its supporters to pressure Finance Minister Moshe Kahalon to cease all government support for these extremist organization. Apparently these groups have been receiving government support.
There have been many more constructive responses to what happened—both in Israel, and around the world.
So what can we here in Seattle do? What should we do?
My first response is: something. We must not simply be filled with anger or a sense of powerlessness, thinking that we here can have no effect on what happens there. We can. We just did, as was demonstrated in the vote for delegates in the World Zionist Congress elections that just took place a few months ago. Just to remind you, The World Zionist Congress is a 500-person representative body of the Jewish people that wields substantial control over three key institutions with significant assets at their disposal: the Jewish National Fund, which owns some 13 percent of Israel’s land; the Jewish Agency for Israel, which deals with immigration and absorption, and education; and the World Zionist Organization. The congress helps formulate the organizations’ policies, appoints some of their leaders and has a say in how their money is spent. Of the 500 representatives, 190 come from Israel, 145 from the United States and 165 from the rest of the world combined. This year, the Reform Movement undertook an all-out effort to mobilize people to vote, and as a result, leaders from the Reform and Reconstructionist movements will comprise almost 40% of the U.S. delegation. This delegation will travel to Jerusalem in October to express their—our—commitment to ensuring that Israel is the kind of country that we believe it can and should be. And now, also, ensuring that the types of extremist groups that are committing such horrific acts will no longer be supported with any government funding, that those who violate Israel’s laws will be subjected to the harshest possible punishments. We can communicate to our delegates that this is important. No—that it is imperative.
We cannot allow these extremist Jews to hijack Israel or Judaism. I will not. I will do what is within my power and my ability to make sure that they do not. I hope you will join me.
At one of the gatherings following the murders last week, a guitarist, Asher Krueger, led everyone in songs of grief and hope. He said: “Both names, Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsheh, are names that are going to be etched in Israeli history as a trigger point. And time will tell. Is this going to be a tearing apart,” he asked, “or a pivot point of people trying to understand each other, trying to live together?”
I know what I hope it will be.
Friends, in just over a week, on Sunday, August 16th, Jews around the world will enter into the month of Elul, a period of reflection in preparation for the High Holy Days. I hope and pray that it will be a period of deep questioning and collective soul-searching. How have we let it come to this? What can we, what must we do?