Finding Comfort by Facing Our Fears

One of the challenges of a weekly deadline post is that I write something a day or two ahead, it gets vetted, edited, formatted, and then gets published on Friday. In between that writing moment – usually by Thursday morning – and that sending moment, things happen. Usually they don’t profoundly alter my state and balance, but sometimes…

The last thirty-six hours have brought an emotional earthquake: two traumas of national significance for Israel and for the Jewish people. First, the violent hate crime by a Jewish fundamentalist – who was only recently released after serving ten years in prison for an identical crime - at the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Then the horror in Duma, the burning of a Palestinian family and the murder of 18-month old Ali Saad Dawabsha, again, apparently at the hands of Jewish terrorists.

Originally I had intended to write to you about how this summer marks the ten year anniversary of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, and about how Americans engage with Israel and strive to perceive it, including our own Christian clergy study tour who are in Israel this week and happened to be less than 20 feet from the Pride Parade attack (you can see three of the ministers in a photo that AP circulated). I’ve posted those reflections on JewishBoston. I also wrote a more personal op-ed yesterday regarding the Pride Parade, which I hope you’ll take the time to read on Times of Israel.

Instead, I’d like to use today’s post to amplify a conversation that many of us are already having about the dilemma of some settlements and of violent Jewish extremism.  I’m not offering a statement (beyond todays from CJP and JCRC) or recommending a “new” public position for our community today – to do so in haste and a moment of trauma would be rash and unwise.  Additionally, a shift in our public voice on these matters can only be strengthened by careful deliberation and building the broad support of community leaders, like yourselves, to address this in a meaningful way.

But we have to have this conversation.

The toxic atmosphere that led to the murder of this toddler is not new. Rather, it is an extension of a small but not insignificant movement in Israel that is religious, fundamentalist, extremist, and violent. Some would even say that its’ ideology is supremacist in preferencing Jews and Judaism over other faiths and peoples. Much attention has been given in our community to how moderates in other faith communities need to lead the struggle against their own cancerous extremists. The same obligation falls to us as well. I take heart in the powerful condemnations by Israel’s political leaders today but we need to do more to root out this cancer on the Jewish soul, to face without fear the darkness within us.

And we do need to have a serious conversation about the settlements – connected to this latest moment because the so-called Price Tag “rationale” is used by some in that community when enacting violence on Palestinians. Again, I recognize that talking about settlements is complicated and not without dangers. Too many in the international community, including disgracefully in Washington, have been quick to conflate and condemn all construction over the 1967 Green Line, as if somehow housing in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo is the same “obstacle to peace” as unauthorized construction in a remote community.  But at the same time, there’s a problem that needs to be faced – one that exacerbates the rising strength of Israel’s enemies, strengthens extreme elements within, and tears at us as we engage with Israel.  As David Horovitz presciently wrote earlier this week, before the horror in Duma:

“The root of our conflict with the Palestinians lies in their refusal to internalize and acknowledge thousands of years of Jewish history in this part of the world, and thus stake out positions, however reluctantly, in favor of a viable compromise to enable our two peoples to live in something approaching tranquility. But the root of our growing international isolation — which is accelerating even as we stand on the West’s front line against Islamic extremism in all its brutal guises — is the apparently untrammeled settlement enterprise. By enabling our soaring ranks of detractors to depict Israel as bent on a relentless West Bank land grab, we are empowering those who wish us ill, and baffling those who want to support us.

We make it easy for Palestinian extremists to recruit, and harder for the dwindling proportion of moderates.

And we do our own people a disservice.

By failing to distinguish between those areas we would seek to retain under any permanent accord and those we would relinquish, and by therefore failing to follow a coherent policy, we mislead the Israelis who live in and move to the settlements, and whose attachment to Biblically and historically resonant land naturally deepens year by year. We waste resources. We exacerbate internal divides. And we entrench our presence in areas that can only complicate any future separation — a separation from millions of Palestinians that is vital if we are to ensure that Israel remain both a majority Jewish state and a democratic one.

The confrontation at Beit El could have been far worse, but the alarm bells should be ringing. Three days after Jews mourned the destruction, the hurban of the two temples on Tisha B’Av — our divine focal point smashed as a consequence of baseless intra-Jewish hatred — an Orthodox man with a microphone urged an intra-Jewish hurban for the sake of two apartment buildings that Israel’s judges had determined were built on a Palestinian’s land. And like-minded others spat venom at the Israeli troops who sought to ensure that the word of the court was done. And the Israel government rewarded them.”

As I ask you to have this conversation allow me to note that this weekend is Shabbat Nachamu, the traditional “Sabbath of Comforting” that follows the Fast of 9 Av.  Synagogues will read the words of the prophet Isaiah foreseeing the return to Jerusalem at the end of the first exile and the restoration of a Jewish people in their land:

Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated…

Ascend a loft mountain, O herald of joy to Zion; Raise your voice with power, O herald of joy to Jerusalem – Raise it, have no fear;

As we enter Shabbat at the end of this week of trauma, let us find comfort in the notion that the strengths we have found within the Jewish people have always enabled us to overcome and endure, to carry on and see a better day. But let us also consider these dilemmas, our responsibility to face them, and the value and merit of how we speak tenderly to Jerusalem and with joy to Zion as we confront our challenges without fear.