On the treacherous question of Israel.

israel palestine 9Some topics are so difficult, so treacherous and painful, that even notorious provocateurs like me navigate them trepidatiously, rarely, and noting with care who is listening. In my life, and the life of my family, Israel is such a topic. Oh, we think about it. We read about it constantly – nearly every day – and we talk to the many friends and family who live there. From time to time we talk about it among ourselves – more than talk, battle it out sometimes, bleed it out and heave it out onto the table. Tear out words like veins and plop them wet and crimson onto the slab to be chopped. But not often do we take the conversation outside of our inner little circle.

We are Jews in diaspora. Every group with a strong identity has something like this – a common pain, dream, or history; a tradition that pours like blood from the bone marrow. Israel is ours. For the Jewry of the world, it is the heart, the curse, and the obsession. The beginning and end of all arguments. The torturous, unanswerable question and the one sure answer to everything, dug out of holy ground with bare hands, broken fingers and torn fingernails. Gifted from times primordial and bought with a price indescribable. An altar, sacred to the ultra-Orthodox and the atheist, drenched with sacrificial blood. Our pride, our guilt, our last line. Even for the Jews who have never stepped foot on its land, Israel – ha-Aretz – is the kernel of what we are.

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I am writing this because recently I had a conversation about it with a friend who is not in any way Jewish. He is, however, one of the most brilliant and thoughtful young people I know, deeply engaged with the conceptual world he encounters, and he wanted to talk to me about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wanted neither to attack nor to dismiss but truly to understand, and so we talked.

For me, being honest about Israel also means being torn and confused. I told my friend how many of Israel’s actions I found unfathomable, abhorrent, and hurtful – and how well I fathomed those actions, the response to being, from its inception, abhorred and hurt. I see in this conflict an epitome of what every war contains: the deathly struggle of two sides in which both are righteous and both are mortally, sinfully wrong, locked over principles so core, so sacred and desperately bitter that none can be yielded or negotiated, none compromised. I told him that Israel, I fear, as a modern state maybe should not have been – not after two thousand years, not on this land now lived and rooted into by others. And yet, Israel had to be, couldn’t not be – especially after the Holocaust – and on no other land, only this. Jews know like no one else that a time comes when there is nowhere to run. No place but the one spot of holy ground, for which you fight back to back until you die.

And then I said something to my friend that bothered him beyond expectation. I see the main giving mission of the Jews now to be in diaspora, I said – out among the peoples of the world – and I often doubt Israel’s policy, and I get into raging word battles with my fellows who say dismissive or hateful things about Arabs, but support or condemn, wherever I live, whatever I think of what’s happening there, if and when it comes down to the final disaster – when the explosive fireball that is the Middle East finally reaches the point of no return – if Israel goes up in flames, I might very well go to burn with it.

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This was the sentence that stopped us in our tracks. We talked then, and then my friend called me, disturbed, to talk about it again, and we probably will again. This is the part he cannot understand. It sounds to him like a highly emotional nationalist response to a cultural narrative that is easy to manipulate for the very forces and power structures of which I disapprove. It sounds eerily familiar to him, I think. He is a historian, and he remembers, I’m sure, reading about the trains full of ethnic Germans from all over Europe pouring into the Third Reich, propelled by the nationalist call of the Nazi ideology.

“Can’t nationalism be very dangerous?” he asked.

Yes, it can.

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Some things are so difficult to explain that the temptation is strong to say, “You cannot understand this because you do not live it.” While there is a degree of truth to that, sometimes more than others, it is not a useful response for the sharing humanity, attempting to promote peace by deepening mutual understanding. It is not a useful response in seeking truth together, in common discovery, or in looking for love. I rarely talk about Israel outside my inner circle, but I am writing this now because I wonder if I’ve been wrong not to. We are Jews in diaspora – no one, not Israeli Jews nor Gentiles understand what I’m about to say – but maybe, we need to tell each other why we are what we are. More often. More honestly. And be less afraid.

What my friend perceives as my Israeli nationalism is both more and less than that. It is less because I am neither willing nor able to participate in Israel’s military or political action. My family did not move to Israel for a reason, but Israel invites any Jew to become its citizen. This “right of return,” however, does not apply to me anymore: I am told that on the citizenship questionnaire, a disqualifying question is “Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah?” Israel does not mind Jews who are atheists, Buddhists, or agnostic, but Christians, Muslims, and Messianic Jews need not apply. We are considered to have turned our backs on our Jewishness.

This makes my sentiment toward Israel less than nationalism: Israel doesn’t want me. Yet it is also more because the bonds that make me a Jew and tie me into a “nation” with every other Jew in the world – secular and practicing Judaism or whatever other religions, living all over the globe, looking now very different and speaking in a hundred languages – these bonds are much older than the state of Israel. They are ancient, partly historical and partly mythical; they go back to the tribal, arid times when identity was being invented. Like enormous umbilical cords, they stretch more than three millennia into the past, held whole by the continuity of tongue and tradition – generational memory – and along them runs the lifeblood of awareness-shaping imagery and culture-forming story, history shining with triumph and shuddering in horror, otherness forced and internalized, braided into identity, long in unbroken perseverance, with its living breath in half of the world’s civilizations.

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This heritage I was born into is unspoken and inescapable. Nothing I choose to do can make me not a Jew. The State of Israel is not my nation – the Children of Israel are. But the state, amid terror and war, is my nation’s tender, pulsating place, its unending cry, and its land is my nation’s Holy of Holies: ruined, bereft, but come back to out of Babylon, still there. Still beautiful. Still living. It belongs to me whether I choose it or not, because it happened – like a violent child; like a diseased, aching heart. I belong to it even if it doesn’t want me.

This is what brought my friend to his second incredulous question. “You are Christian!” he said to me. “How does this not go against everything you believe in? Doesn’t the Bible say, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile’?”

Yes, it does.

israel palestine 6In the letter to Galatians, Apostle Paul wrote thus: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In fact, this is one of my favorite lines. It conveys, I think, a true spirit of Christianity’s universality, egalitarianism, and iconoclasm. It says, we all are Children of God: Jewish, Arab, right and left wing, on both sides of the barricades. It says, every life and every tear is precious no matter to whom it belongs. A Palestinian life is as dear and complex as an Israeli one. The cries of both hearts are piercing, and their blood mixes together and burns through the earth. This line is about love. It is indeed the crux of my faith. Does it conflict with my brand of “Jewish nationalism”?

No, it doesn’t.

I will not, you see, fight just because a fight is Israel’s. Unless I believe I am compelled to a cause by love, I will not fight with it, certainly not against another. I will not inflict suffering in the name of my nation only because it’s my nation. That’s not what I’m saying. I am saying, we are inseparable, my nation and I. I live with it. If it lets me, I will help it. Should the time come, I will die with it.

israel palestine 7I am not inclined to fire missiles at civilians in Gaza any more than I am to fire rockets at Israel from launchers concealed in civilian apartments. Not that I could: I am way too Jewish for Hamas and not Jewish enough for Israel. I would, however, gladly go to broker peace, to rebuild or document, to render aid to the civilians wounded, damaged, and displaced by the rocket strikes, occupations, and terrorist attacks, and I would go to the ones I could reach or who need me more: Arab or Jewish, doesn’t matter. That’s what Paul’s line is about: spreading love across boundaries, not erasing identity. Paul could not have meant that all our uniqueness or belonging disappears in Christ Jesus any more than he could have eliminated the male and female sexes. We are still Jews, Arabs, Americans, women, men, Sikhs, children, adult, Buddhists, deaf, hearing, Muslim, poor, teachers, mothers, blind, recovering, celibates, Christian, wealthy, married, gay, and a million other things that make us different from each other. Love does not erase identity; it makes us valuable in each other’s eyes no matter what our identities are.

But one problem with my identity as a Jew is that the state of Israel – our heart and ache and altar – is quaking and boiling, an overheated pot with a cast-iron lid. And the fire is only getting hotter. And it is pushing up the lid and spitting out searing contents over the sides. And there isn’t anything I can do. There isn’t anything I can see to be done. There isn’t even a stand I can take for one against the other – Israel, Palestine – because both are standing in the fire and against the wall, on the last line, desperate and righteous, and mortally wrong. Both are the people I love. But one of them is…me. It’s not a question of taking sides. It’s a question of being inseparable.

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My friend is worried that my sentiment is dangerous, easy to manipulate. I want to try to assure him that it is not, and many more dangerous issues are on the table, but then… What do I know? I am on the inside of this one. We are the Jewry of the world – with all our dysfunction, still a single body, and Israel is our diseased, arrhythmic but still very much beating heart. There’s life left in it — beauty left and discovery and joy. But should the time come — if it comes — when the heart seizes in its final spasm, the body throws everything it has toward the organ: to feed, to save, to keep alive – and having failed, feels the heart stop beating and follows it then into the dark.

What will happen if Israel explodes into its Armageddon, I don’t know. More than likely, there will be Jews still left in the world, continuing the story of uncanny survival. But I know there are others like me, who are out in diaspora doing what Jews do – cultivating their yeast in the breads of their Gentile nations – who are not there in the Land fighting or taking sides, but who feel themselves the inseparable part of the body of Israel, poised to be thrown into the heart at the last gasp. We are the body that reaches around the globe, and when the time comes, gathers together to die.

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    • SAM on September 17, 2014 at 20:30
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    Thank you, River, for this powerful reflection and for speaking prophetically a message all of us need to hear, wrestle with and, with humility, open our hands and hearts to. May you know peace on your journey. SAM

    1. Thank you, SAM, for listening. That’s what really matters and means the most. Peace to you as well and my warmest blessings.

    • WKM on September 18, 2014 at 00:22
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    That was a highly moving psychological inventory. I’m sure your friend was impressed with the depth of your concern about the rightness of your own persuasion. I find the paradoxical loyalty to a group for which you both inexorably belong, and are (in the eyes of the group) fundamentally in exile from really Romantic and worthy of deep respect. It is the common lot throughout humanity that societies are rarely worthy of their most loyal and thoughtful members.

    • Peter Margolis on October 21, 2014 at 12:21
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    Leaving aside the indefensible moral equivalence between totalitarian, genoicidal Hamas and democratic, pluralistic Israel, it bears mentioning that there is more to Israel and Palestine than warfare. At this very moment, Israeli and Palestinian scientists and medical personnel are collaborating on strategies to deal with Ebola. Ongoing, substantive cooperation exists along a broad range of medical economic, ecological, and entrepreneurial initiatives. The drumbeat of blood-soaked imagery in this article diverts attention from the fact that most Israelis and (if the thriving of the Palestinian Territories is any indication), I am convinced, most Palestinians are prepared to reach a modus vivendi. And, while every life is precious, we should remember that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually a miniscule sideshow to what is happening in the Middle East and should be recognized as a conflict that is being managed — however poorly — with relatively little loss of life, given the neighborhood. There is much cause for painful reflection on all sides, but it’s not all blood, fire, and looming Armegeddon. While blood always gets the headlines (“if it bleeds, it leads”), there are actually some bright spots.

    1. Peter, thank you for your comment.
      I agree with you that Israel and Palestine are only a relatively small part of the vast tapestry that is the Middle East. This part, however, was the scope of this particular essay. I also agree that it is not all blood and violence, and life filled with everyday things of beauty, science, and achievement goes on there as it does everywhere else. Blood and violence were simply the topic of this essay, for obvious reasons. They are a ubiquitous fabric of existence in the region, and it is not ignorable, as you state yourself. I do not mean to take away from the good things that happen, only to make a single point.
      As for equating Israel and Hamas, I do not do so in every respect, but I do so within a framework of universally human suffering and the engines that drive wars and violence: desperation, conviction, misunderstanding, love and hatred… The value of human life. The terror of loss. These, I believe, have little to do with totalitarianism or democracy. This was the framework of my essay.

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