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Parshat Bemidbar

"Parshat Bemidbar “No Justice, Peace; No Peace, Justice” – May 22, 2015"

By Rabbi James Gibson

He sat on a stool in the Jerusalem restaurant, reflecting on how hard his message was to take. He was addressing American ministers and rabbis, fired with idealism and hope, eager to take away a message that they could transmit with enthusiasm to their congregations back home. He knew it in his marrow; after all, he was born in America, too.

He knew what they wanted; a beautiful picture of the next White House lawn signing ceremony that would usher in a period of security, justice and well-being for Palestinians and Israelis alike. And in our lifetime, to boot! And he sighed. Because he realized he just couldn’t do it.

Yossi Klein Halevi, internationally renowned journalist and author, looked at the bright faces, set his gaze and said, “Americans want balloons. They want ribbons and streamers and smiles to go with the handshakes after the peace agreement is signed. You know what I’m going to do when a peace agreement is signed? I’m going to go into mourning, a deep mourning.”

Someone asked if that meant that he was against a two-state solution, meaning that peace would never come. And he continued, “As a religious Jew, I am connected to the city of Hevron, a city in which Jews have lived for thousands of years without interruption. It the second holiest city in Judaism, after Jerusalem, with Tiberias coming in third. Peace and a Palestinian state will mean that I will have to give back this city that is so much a part of my Jewish religious heritage and history. How could I do anything but mourn?”

“But,” he said, “I know that I’m not the only one who will be in mourning. You see, I know Palestinians who have longed to return to Jaffa since the establishment of the state of Israel. I have interviewed Palestinians all of the territories and Gaza. And I know that they ache with a longing for their former homes with the same passion that I have for Hevron. And the day a peace agreement is signed, my Palestinian friends are going to go into mourning, too. For they will have given up, once and for all, any hope of returning to their homes in Jaffa and Haifa and Lydda and so many other places.”

“You see, my friends,” he said, looking right into our astonished faces, “peace, if it comes, will enshrine a profound injustice as a permanent part of our landscape. And yet, it may well be worth it. Peace is worthy many compromises, even risks. But please don’t ask me to celebrate it, especially when it can only come with such harsh injustice to the causes of both sides.”

As he paused to take questions, I tried to take in what he was saying. As an American, a child of the civil rights era, I had been fed on the mantra of “No Justice, No Peace; No Peace, No Justice.” How many times have you and I heard this chant from the streets of Selma, Birmingham and, more recently, Ferguson, Baltimore and Manhattan?

But what if these two ideals were fundamentally incompatible? What if the price of insisting on justice for both sides was a never-ending continuation of the conflict? What if ideologues on both sides, who clung to their extreme positions to right old injustices, were themselves the primary obstacle to peace in the region? The new thought filled my mind and disturbed my heart.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a friend of mine. I was inclined to accept his message, even if I didn’t want to, as he is an astute observer of Israel and the entire region. But accepting his message required a re-focusing of head and heart.

If he was right, the work was not in redressing old wrongs, whether they be the massacre of Palestinians at Lydda, Deir Yassin or of Jews in Hevron, Gush Etzion and Jerusalem. No, the work would be to prepare people to accept what had been unacceptable, to promote peace despite injustice, peace despite unhealed wounds, peace despite freezing in place the harms of years gone by. This peace might not ever be called friendship or amity, but it might well stop the cycle of violence that has riven the land for more than 100 years.

If Yossi Klein Halevi was the only person I heard this from, I could respectfully disagree with him and call him an outlier, a pessimist who refused to affirm the necessary linkage between peace and justice.

But two days later I, along with other rabbis and ministers from the Interfaith Partnership for Peace, met a Palestinian farmer named Ali Abu Awad from the West Bank, in the area known as the Gush, short for Gush Etzion. Ali Abu Awad is, frankly, one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met. He was speaking to us from a tent of reconciliation pitched on disputed territory that was named Heaven’s Field Farm.

His partner in presenting to us was a settler, an Orthodox Jew named Shaul Yudelman, who had made aliyah from Seattle with the express intention of settling in the West Bank, the supposed future home of a nation called Palestine.

Ali Abu Awad’s story was breathtaking, at least to me. He was raised in a politically aware family, one that supported Fatah, the nationalist Palestinian movement. His mother was arrested and went to jail in the first Intifada in 1987. When the second Intifada broke out, he and his mother both were involved in acts of violence and both went to jail. At the same time, he discovered that his brother had been killed by the Israeli security forces.

He was riven with hatred and the desire for revenge. The desire for justice burned inside him. He said that in prison, you have a chance for a university level education, that’s the intellectual level of those imprisoned there. He could have easily been tutored into a life of hatred and revenge.

Instead, he discovered Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead of plotting revenge for his brother’s death, he helped lead a 17 day hunger strike that forced the Israelis to at least listen to him and his group’s demands.

When he got out of jail, he made the choice to learn about Jews and Israelis and see if he could bridge the yawning gap between them. Through an intermediary, he asked a settler if he wanted to get together and talk. He started with Chanan Schlesinger, a committed Zionist rabbi settler who wants to consummate Judaism and Zionism in the land where our history began.

In the current climate, meeting seemed impossible, much less talking meaningfully to each other. Rabbi Schlesinger said that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live 99% completely different lives even though they live right next to each other, where they are either invisible to each other or merely nuisances.

What unfolded between them was a remarkable sharing which caused Rabbi Schlesinger to realize the extent of the human experience of suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. He was surprised just how much the narrative meshed with his understanding of Jewish history, when Jews were oppressed in countless places over countless years. And although he didn’t change his mind about the rightness of the settlement project, for the first time it dawned on him that someone else just might be as attached to the land as he was.

And it seemed to Ali, who now counted Chanan as a friend, that their friendship should be in service of a mutually beneficial goal. It was not the marriage of two peoples in peace. But there could be an amicable divorce, with the recognition of the humanity and standing of the other on the same land. Ali Abu Awad said that any solution must affirm both groups’ connection to the land.

Ali Abu Awad was asked if there was end game to all of this. Was he going to fight for a nation of Palestine to come into being? We, ministers and rabbis, were shocked to hear him say, no, he was going to fight for understanding and co-existence, even if that meant there would not be a nation of Palestine for the foreseeable future. He said that their cause was, indeed, just. It was simply not worth the precious lives of God’s human family.

When someone, echoing Yossi Klein Halevi, suggested that this might be a terrible injustice, Ali Abu Awad agreed. “Yes, it would be an injustice, but I choose peace,” he said. “Can’t there be both?” someone else asked.

He answered by saying that even nation-states were artificial constructs that might or might not be permanent. What is enduring, he declared, “is the people who live on this land, and we must find a way to get along and respect each other’s person and property.”

Peace without justice. Justice making peace impossible. Not what we are comfortable hearing in our country, where we have interwoven the notions together so tightly we can’t imagine one without the other.

Yet there is an inkling of this understanding in one of our earliest rabbinic texts. When deciding on creating humanity, God asks the angels of heaven what they think should be done.

In Genesis Rabbah, an early midrash, we read,

Rabbi Shimon said, “When the Holy One, blessed be God, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, “Let him be created,’ while others urged, “Let him not be created…Love said, “Let him be created because he will dispense acts of love. Truth said, “Let him not be created because he is compounded of falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will perform righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he is full of strife.” What did God do? God took truth (justice) and cast it to the ground.

By a vote of 2-1, the angels supported God’s creation of us. But they did so at the price of truth. Why? Maybe peace only has a chance when our truth is not around to inflame us, making it impossible to compromise. Maybe peace is only possible if we understand that truth is not indivisible. It is made of countless strands of event and narrative meaning and memory.

Here and in Israel, we often only hear narratives of those who are loudest and most strident.

We hear the right-wing Zionist narrative that sees the Bible as the first and last arbiter of political borders. After all, they say, just read Genesis – the land is ours by right and forever.

This very sentiment was offered this week by Tzipi Hotovely, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel. Speaking to the Israeli diplomatic corps, the Times of Israel reported that she said:

“Of course the world understands Israel’s security needs, but arguments of ethics and justice will trump security arguments. “It’s important to say — this country is all ours. We didn’t come here to apologize for that.”

Citing Rashi, the 11th-century Bible commentator, Hotovely affirmed his view that,

“…the Bible’s focus on the story of the Jewish people’s origins in the Land of Israel and its exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land was meant to shore up the Jewish claim to the land in subsequent generations.”

According to the account,

Diplomats were shocked at the speech, the Haaretz daily reported, and many “raised an eyebrow” over the reference to a Jewish Biblical right to the land.”

I’ll bet they raised their eyebrows. Such politicians and ideologues speak from a certainty that can ignore both reality and possibility. But most diplomats can’t simply quote sacred text to support land claims. If it is all right for Jews to do so, why can’t others quote their sacred text to support their political positions? Then we can really get medieval and dispute each other over whose theology is more correct.

The same thing happens on the other side, the hard left that refuses to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy, much less its legitimate claims as a nation repeatedly attacked by neighbors. Those who loudly claim that Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) is the only way to confront Israel are prisoners of their ideology as well.

But this ideology isn’t more true or righteous just because their advocates repeat it louder. BDS represents a fundamental rejection of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state and as such we must fundamentally reject it and combat it wherever it is advocated. The right of Jewish sovereignty in Israel is not subject to international plebiscite and it is morally unacceptable to claim that it is.

On the ground, in Ramallah and Gush Etzion, divestment is not being championed by Palestinians I met with. Nabil Sha’ath, a negotiator for the Palestinian Authority for years, said it had limited effectiveness if any, because it entrenched Israeli fears of isolation.

Ali Abu Awad declared that the best way to embarrass the Occupation is more investment and involvement, not less. He went to say that BDS is an outside movement. In response to a question, he said, okay, maybe BDS was better than suicide bombing, but it would not materially improve the lot and life of Palestinians. Like Nabil Sha’ath, he said that the more Israeli Jews are pressed, the more the right wing is strengthened. And so Ali Abu Awad opposes divestment.

So, how might we and others invest more in peacemaking, the ultimate ideal of our little band of ministers and rabbis of the Interfaith Partners for Peace?

We might start be looking beyond the headlines, beyond the set pieces and speeches that politicians and hard-liners on both sides declare for the public. If we look closely enough, we might find:

Rachel Hadari and Souha of the Peres Peace Center in Jaffa. They work tirelessly to bring Gazan children to Israeli hospitals for much needed treatment. They have perfected their system to the point that they can get a Palestinian child with his or her parents legally into Israel for treatment in less than four hours.

Once there, the Palestinian families sit in waiting rooms with Israeli parents worried about their children. Inevitably, they begin to talk and share their worries. In many cases, they not only start up friendships, but the Israeli family will work to make passage for the Palestinian family easier for follow up visits. We need to invest in this program of the Peres Peace Center.

We might also find Meredith Rothbart and Muhammed Joulany, who head the Kids4Peace initiative in Jerusalem. They find young people, Israeli Jews and Palestinians from East Jerusalem and, starting at age 12, and teach them how interact and get along with other. They work with these young people for 6 years until they finish high school. They must commit to an intensive schedule of meetings, outings and retreats and are dismissed if they don’t fulfill their commitment.

After 6 years, these kids from all over Jerusalem have not just learned to talk together, they know their way to each other’s houses in neighborhoods that were prohibited or invisible to them before. They are prepared to look at the world differently the previous generation. They are prepared to maintain friendships instead of create enemies. We need to invest in Kids4Peace.

We would find my new friends, Ali and Chanan and Shaul of the Shorashim project, deep in the heart of Gush Etzion, winning friends painstakingly, one at a time. Their goal is to eventually bring 70 Jewish leaders into this work and match them with Palestinians, creating such a sense of shared humanity that the murderous stereotypes each side has of the other will finally disappear. This is the beginning of the sulha, the reconciliation both sides so desperately need to move forward with their lives.

We need to support Ali Awad, who said to us, “Don’t be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Be pro- solution.” We need to invest in their project, called Shorashim, or Roots and hope that the roots of their efforts take hold and outlast the brutal winds of hatred in the region.

We might find two sparkling individuals, whose names I am not even supposed to share, who spearhead the Shades Negotiation Project. This is “an innovative program bringing key Israeli and Palestinian young leaders together for a year-long leadership and negotiation skills program with the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation.”

Using books like William Ury and Roger Fisher’s Getting To Yes, they spend their time in Israel and abroad, in the homes of ambassadors and on campus, learning how to present and listen, how to expand one’s horizons to include the concerns of the other. We need to invest in the Shades Negotiation Project.

Peace is found in caring, committed relationships. The great secret here is that this is where justice can be found as well. Not justice for the past, but insuring justice in a shared future. Remedying the injustices of Deir Yassin and Hevron will not be found in unearthing the pain and tragedy of the dead. It will be in sowing plants that have roots deep into the human heart.

Obviously none of this is easy or assured. Sovereignty is thorny, ideologues are relentless and unblinking certainty is plentiful. We are in a wilderness, like our ancestors in the Torah entered this week. The wilderness is brutal and without mercy. We can only tolerate it by knowing that it is but a stage of our people’s life, as they finally make their way to the Land of Promise. There are scorpions and wild animals, there is heat and drought, there is every reason to despair.

But we are not the people of despair. We are the people of hope. Beyond the wilderness of the Torah portion, there is the poignant verse from the Haftara, from the prophet Hosea:

And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground; and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land, and will make them to lie down safely.

And I will betroth thee unto Me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion.

And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness; and thou shall know the Lord.

And it shall come to pass in that day, I will respond, says God, I will respond to the heavens, and they shall respond to the earth;

And the earth shall respond to the corn, and the wine, and the oil; and they shall respond to Jezreel.

And I will sow her unto Me in the land; and I will have compassion upon her that had not obtained compassion; and I will say to them that were not My people: ‘Thou art My people'; and they shall say: ‘Thou art my God.’

In the end, I believe that Palestinians and Israelis are children of the same God. The God who desires relationship. The God who insists on compassion. The God who wants us to love each other as God loves each of us. This God seeks peace, even at the cost of justice. For without peace, to whom will anyone be just? To whom will anyone be just?

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784