THE BLOG
12/27/2012 11:45 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Israel, Palestine and Torah: Toward a Deeper Understanding

For me, the most important physical danger threatening the Jewish people, as part of human civilization and the web of life on Earth, is the climate crisis; and the most crucial vision and values the Jewish community can offer the world are those that help us all walk away from the Climate Cliff. So if addressing that issue is both most urgent and most helpful, why do I still spend time on Israel-Palestine and related matters?

Because the right-wing Government of Israel and its state-supported right-wing Orthodox rabbinate, with considerable help from many other Israelis and from the official leadership of most American Jewish organizations, are trying their best to poison the bloodstream of Torah. Above all, to pervert and poison the very value, rooted in biblical and rabbinic wisdom, that is crucial to healing our planet and our society: "If you have power, Do Not Over-reach! Do Not Domineer! Seek communion, not domination!"

Perhaps I and others should have expected that. To draw on one aspect of the Hanukkah story, I have often said about the Emperor Antiochus' ancient order to enforce idolatry, that it is the very job description of a king: Make the people bow down to idols -- first of all, the Idol of the king himself. Torah saw that power tends to addict, and absolute power addicts its holder absolutely. (See under: Pharaoh.)

So I am disgusted but not surprised when the Prime Minister, whom some Israelis call King Bibi (I prefer, in honor of Jonathan Swift & Gulliver, "King 'Yahu"), carries out a whole series of aggressive and violent acts calculated to prevent any negotiations that might possibly lead to a free and peaceful Palestine alongside Israel. (Nothing assured -- some Palestinian officials have their own record of rejectionism -- but possible openings are now being slammed shut by 'Yahu.)

A crucial question: Why has the Israeli people elected 'Yahu and kept moving to the right? (After Likkud's recent internal primary and its alliance with "Yisrael Beiteinu," its slate and the next Knesset will be even much further to the right than this one.)

I understand this process as rooted in the dark underside of the best teaching of Torah, "Love the stranger, the pariah, for you were strangers, pariahs, in the Land of Egypt/Narrowness."

Its dark and bloody underside is this: It is repeated 36 times in the Torah. Why? Because to repeat the command so often means it is being rejected, disobeyed.

For the first impulse of those who have been abused and enslaved is: "I will grasp as much power as possible to prevent such enslavement ever again, and if that means enough power to abuse and oppress others, so be it."

But the Torah out of the experience of many generations comes to warn us: That response is a profound ethical and practical mistake. It turns our empowerment to free ourselves into top-down power over others, and into arrogant Over-reaching.

And that leads not only to spiritual but also to political and physical disaster. Remember, "Pharaoh's Army was drownded, deep in the Red Red Sea."

Far wiser to empathize with the oppressed than to identify with the oppressor.

Hard to learn, but crucial.

For the Torah, that oppression was Egypt. For Israeli Jews today, it was the Holocaust. And the policy of some Israeli political and cultural forces has been to reiterate and deepen that post-traumatic response. For those Israelis who have been cozened by the restimulation of the trauma, I have great compassion -- though that does not diminish my strong opposition to the policies that flow from it.

The Palestinian people has also experienced a deep trauma, and for some of them too, that leads to unethical and self-destructive violence and rejection. Again, what I feel is both compassion and strong opposition.

What we need instead, for both peoples, are spiritual and cultural and political practices aimed to transcend trauma, not to intensify it.

The trauma continues among some American Jews, but American society encourages a more generous direction.

In the story of the Maccabees, much worse than the Imperial edict ordering idolatry was that parts of the Jewish community obey the power-addicted King/Emperor Antiochus, and bowed down to idols. It was only when some in Mattathias' own home town bowed to idols in the public square that Mattathias went berserk, or sane, and went underground to organize a guerrilla rebellion.

Just so, I am most outraged when some among my own "kinfolk" -- that is, not only the donors and leaders of some "official" American Jewish organizations but even some who claim to be seeking to renew Judaism -- bow down to the Idol of power-addiction and aggressive violence in the Israeli government when they would never justify such actions by any other government, including that of the USA.

Some American Jews are driven internally into this idolatry by their own traumatization. Others, especially some among the "official" leaders, know and will say in private that they understand the Israeli government's policy is leading to disaster, but perks of prestige and money dispensed by King 'Yahu and his courtiers keep them captive, far more supportive of the King than are the grass-roots members of their own organizations.

For example, some in America justify the Israeli government's murder of a Palestinian leader, General Jabari of the government of Gaza, who was preparing to sign a long-term truce agreement that the Defense Minister of Israel had approved. The murder came precisely to prevent his signing, and precisely because the killers knew it would lead to a violent response. Both means and ends were violence, intended to prevent a cease-fire that could lead toward peace. (For a careful investigative report on this event, see Israel's leading newspaper, Haaretz.)

Even though the murdered Palestinian had been violent before, the murder cannot be justified. Suppose an angry Palestinian had murdered the former terrorist Menachem Begin, precisely to prevent his signing the peace treaty with Egypt when he became Prime Minister of Israel. Would that have been condonable on the principle that Begin had been a terrorist?

Were the ancient rabbis not talking about precisely such a case when they described God, about to save Ishmael's life in the wilderness, being challenged by the angels: "Don't You know how he behaved toward Your people in the past, and how his offspring will in the future?" And the Holy One responded, "Where is he NOW, THERE, RIGHT NOW?" The angels admitted he was not being violent. So God saved his life, and that is why a seemingly extraneous "Sham, THERE," appears in the text (Genesis 21:17).

Moreover, some have asserted it would have been ethical and legitimate for the government of Israel to prepare a truce agreement and pretend to be willing to affirm it precisely as a ruse to trick General Jabari to appear in public so that he might be more easily murdered. Reading such a statement, words fail me. Indeed, my bowels and belly fail me.

This was in fact the strategem of Dina's brothers when they pretended to welcome the men of Sh'chem into their community through circumcision and then, on the third day when the Sh'chemites were in most pain, murdered them (Genesis 34).

As their father said to them, "You have made my name stink!"

Do we any longer have a sense of smell sensitive enough to know when our names begin to stink?

Shalom, salaam -- Arthur. My Hebrew name is "Avraham Yitzchak Yishmael Yam: Abraham Isaac Ishmael Ocean." I am proud to bear ALL those names, even through it is hard to bear the pain when the children of the first, through the children of the second and the third, murder each other.