Thank you for writing to me. It means a great deal that you confided in me about the conflicted feelings in your heart about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza.
I don’t have any answers for you, other than to tell you that I’m thankful that you’re conflicted. I would be worried if you weren’t.
I do think it’s important to remember that Israel withdrew from Gaza four years ago, and did not get the peace it hoped for, and that Israel has a deeply humanitarian ethos at its core–witnessed by the fact that Israel is sending food to Gazan civilians even as its planes target Hamas. But others can tell you about the history and politics and military strategy and human rights issues far better than I. What I can offer is my own experience dealing with this sense of turmoil as a Jew, an American, a citizen of the world, and a person of faith.
It seems to me from your letter that one of the main roots of your discomfort is a question about identity: With whom do you identify most? Are you first and foremost a humanitarian, and therefore chiefly identify with the suffering children of Gaza, who have never known hope? Or are you first and foremost a Jew, and therefore primarily connect with the suffering children of Israel, who can’t go to school for fear of rocket attacks? I hope your heart aches for both of them, because you cannot be a good Jew unless you are a good human being. My heart aches for Gazans confined to a densely-populated hell hole, who have lost so much they no longer have anything to lose. And my heart aches for the Israelis of Sderot and Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beer Sheva, who have worked so hard to achieve a normal life, and now watch as a fourth generation grows up knowing war and terror.
Yet we have to act. We cannot be paralyzed by seemingly mutually-exclusive longings. So how does one go about that process of discernment?
For me, the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis is very helpful as a means of reflection. As you may remember, Jacob dressed up as Esau in order to fool his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s special blessing. After this, Esau wanted to murder Jacob, and so Jacob fled. Twenty years later, Jacob returned, only to find Esau approaching him with 400 men. At this point, the Torah relates that “Jacob feared greatly and it troubled him.” (Gen. 32:8) The great medieval French commentator Rashi picks up on the redundancy in the verse: why did the Torah need to state that Jacob both feared greatly and it troubled him? One phrase would have been sufficient. Rashi states: “He feared that he would be killed, and it troubled him that it he might have to kill others.”
At this moment, we can sense the paralysis of Jacob, and it feels like our own paralysis. What are we supposed to do? What is Israel (the name Jacob would later assume) supposed to do? Rashi answers the question in the next line of his commentary, when he says that Jacob prepared to meet Esau with diplomacy, war, and prayer. There are many lessons here, but chief among them is that when we are forced into a no-win situation, we prepare for all possibilities and pray that our decisions are right and just. And by prayer I don’t mean a superficial utterance, but a deep introspection conducted with a sense of humility. The answers to these questions are impossible, truth elusive. Yet we live in a world of time and space, and so we must act.
But I haven’t yet answered the question of how one chooses with whom to identify. As I stated earlier, one can’t be a bad human being and a good Jew. So how do I choose in a case like this?
It is clear to me that while I deeply sympathize with the plight of the people of Gaza, I identify with the people of Israel. Why? It’s an accident of my birth that I was born a Jew. Like you, I could just as easily have been born a Palestinian. And when I was your age, the arbitrariness of that identity grated on me and made me chafe at it. Why should I feel a kinship to Jews when the only reason I’m Jewish is because my parents and grandparents and ancestors were Jewish? In this day and age, that’s not a good enough reason to maintain an identity.
I still believe that. If the only Jewish identification a person has is through their genes, then they’re scarcely better than the enemies of the Jews who defined us the same way. But that genetic identity can lead to a larger sense, a sense that I am connected to people before and after me who shared and will share a story, a language, and a culture. And that story, language, and culture are thick and complicated and beautiful and challenging. They are inspiring. And so the bond I share–the bond we share–through the accident of our birth and the consciousness of our education is powerful, and for me at least, inescapable, and worth defending.
That doesn’t mean I give Israel a blank check. If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that we Jews are imperfect, and our leaders especially so. But even when I might disagree with the decisions of the Israeli government, I am acting on my care and concern for Israel, my bond with Israel, a bond that I don’t feel towards Palestine.
My teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg once said of the failure of American Jewish religious denominations to speak out against the Holocaust in the early 1940s, “It doesn’t matter which movement you belong to, as long as you’re ashamed of it.” Taken from a different angle, one can answer the question, To whom do I feel most connected?, by answering the question, “Which actor in this conflict are you more proud or ashamed of?” I don’t feel a sense of pride or shame about Hamas; I do feel that way about the IDF. So if I disagree with or critique the Israeli government, it is out of a deep love and loyalty to the state and, more important, the Jewish people.
The name Israel was given to Jacob because he had wrestled “with God and with men, and proved able.” This is perhaps the greatest legacy of the Jewish people, that there is always a question to be asked. Our eternal struggle against idolatry is the struggle against complacency and surety. We must always be wrestling. But we must also know who we are. That is the challenge, and the beauty, of your birthright.
With prayers for peace in Gaza and Israel,