I came to find out where Judaism went. I keep reading about this “New Judaism,” with its Joe Liebermans and its Bibi Netanyahus and its Eric Cantors. I keep meeting young Jews who explain to me that I just don’t understand; Israel deserves special rules for how it treats minorities, because it’s always threatened, and… and… and towelheads. I keep hearing the American House Majority Leader, a Jew – you know, the ones who “make money like Presbyterians and vote like Puerto Ricans” – I keep hearing him talk about how we can only clean up after tornadoes if we slash the welfare budget.
And then I go back to my memory banks and there’s my rabbi, talking about the imperative to do the right thing even when it’s hard… the imperative to overcome fear and reach across the aisle and bring out the better angels of our nature. About understanding the person who you, at first, think is demented, who you think is trying to hurt you. We’re all fallible creatures, but we, the People of Israel, were Chosen. God chose us to have stewardship over the Earth, not so that we could subjugate it, but so we could have true power: the power to overcome the basest human instincts. The power to set free the captive, to clothe the naked, to give bread to the poor. The power to change things from bad to good.
Then I turn on my computer, and there’s Bibi… oh, Bibi. “Israel Mulls the Possibility of an Iran Strike Without US Support.”
Bibi believes he was Chosen to defend his home turf. He doesn’t believe in the larger good of Judaism; of stewardship over the Earth and its people. He’s thoroughly bought in to fear. He is a nationalist; he believes in a country alone. The fact that Jews live there is of secondary importance.
It takes a backward jump in evolution to turn the righteousness obsession of millennia of Jews – wise, educated and generally ambitious beyond their small numbers – to come up with the kind of selfish thinking that attacks a Muslim community center blocks from Ground Zero as an “act of aggression;” or that leads the world’s only superpower and strongest democracy into a war that costs it nearly all of its influence and prestige. Both of these efforts were started by Gentiles, but people like Joe Lieberman and Stephen Schwartz carried their water and became vocal supporters of aggression and intolerance. Clearly, Jews as a whole haven’t regressed (voting numbers of American Jews have never approached an even split), but there have been inroads.
It’s always easiest to resent people in your own group whom you think have co-opted your message (rather than outsiders who simply don’t understand the controversy), and Judaism is no different for me. The most visible (and most visibly Jewish) Jews in American and Israeli politics have been conservatives over the past decade or so, right when I was coming of political age. The biggest offenses, unsurprisingly, have been about Israel. Nothing makes our ape brains go crazy like TURF. Home, domain, territory, side… this is a concept we’re hard-wired to understand, and we’re not set up to think about it in a malleable way. Just the idea of allowing a TURF to become something it’s not, or to allow “enemies” in, or to change what your TURF stands for… this is the stuff we apes kill our neighbors over. Because when we were in caves foraging and hunting, turf meant survival. And we all think our tribe deserves – needs – survival.
We all feel edgy about our turf. The problem is, of course, that no one has a clear idea what “our” means. Israelis and Palestinians became independent of the British Mandate at the same time. Without rehashing the blood and terror and betrayal on both sides, even the inability to envision an endgame (let alone how to get there), the interested parties have agreed on exactly nothing since then. What could have been a uniting theme – “Hey, the British played us off against each other – they suck! Let’s build a great country together and show them how Semites roll!” – was, of course, never raised at all. Instead, we were all suckers for the British “divide and rule” strategy, just like white indentured servants and black slaves in America. We were told to hate each other, and we dutifully do so to this day.
That is Israel / Palestine’s original sin. So what can we do? We can embark on a shared project, together, to which we are both subordinate; we can create peace as a deliberate act. We can cleanse the sin deliberately.
We don’t, of course. Even for the Chosen people at their best, this level of self-awareness and ability to work together with rivals would be a challenge. But it is a challenge worthy of our covenant with God.
“Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its border, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands, and may the love of Your name hallow every home and every heart. Blessed is the Eternal God, the Source of peace.” – Gates of Prayer
Which goes nicely with something my rabbi used as the closing line to every service:
“Remember that we must pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on us.”
I come to J Street because I believe God wishes us to act Chosen and to seek peace actively; and at age 28, I’m lucky enough to have found a conference of Jews who believe the same. It’s easy to have blood-spattered eyes when you’re knee-deep in conflict, which is why I believe God asks us to pick ourselves up, wash off our face, and ask how we can stop all this blood from flowing.
I couldn’t feel right being a Jew if I didn’t step back and try to find a way out. And, as a political organizer for the past eleven years, I know better than to try to tackle anything this size myself – the very idea is laughable. So I go to hear the opinions of people who have far more hands-on experience than I do, to report back on their ideas, and to see what I can do to help.
I can’t wait. My conscience has been waiting since I first saw Ariel Sharon stroll around on the Dome of the Rock and deliberately set off an Intifada. I have to reconcile my Judaism with the phony sideshow act I see being acted out in my name. My Greyhound ticket is booked for 7AM from Montreal this Friday, and that night I’ll tell you what I find.
Thanks to Ben Murane and to Jewschool for giving me the opportunity to go and to report back on what’s happening. Just knowing I’ll be there makes me happier with myself. I hope I can contribute something, and that I can find a way to continue contributing long after the conference.
Lilah tov, and happy St. Paddy’s Day!