Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Rediscovered Abundance of Goodness & Living with Missiles: The Complexities & Challenges of Aspirational Zionism

Two powerful articles by two leading rabbis and important voices in modern Israel.
Daniel Gordis exhorts the Prime Minister to seize the moment and exploit Gilad Schalit's release to unleash all the good (and stamp out much of the evil) bubbling under the surface of a hardened Israeli society.
Donniel Hartman encourages us to meet the challenges of living in an abnormal world (and neighborhood) by aspiring to the best of Jewish values, Jewish intelligence, and Jewish humanity.

"We defeat terror when we continue to build a society of values, when we not only worry about whether we will be, but about who we will be. When issues of social justice, loyalty, and kindness, democracy, and Jewish identity reverberate throughout our public conversation and policies we are building foundations of strength which no terrorist can destroy."
Donniel Hartman

A rediscovered abundance of goodness

A letter to the Prime Minister regarding Schalit's release.

Mr. Prime Minister, Before the Schalit deal fades entirely from view, many of us are hoping that you have noticed what you unwittingly unleashed. I don’t mean the next wave of terror or the terrible decisions that Israel must make before the next kidnapping. We knew about those even before last week. But last Tuesday, all of us – those opposed as well as those in favor (and there were persuasive arguments on both sides) – rediscovered something magnificent about this country.

It would be tragic if we returned to business as usual without pausing to take note.

In addition to Gilad Schalit, we received one more thing that few of us could have expected; we got a reminder of the abundant goodness that still resides at the very core of this society. It could be seen everywhere.

Compare the speeches on our side, celebrating life and freedom, to the bloodthirsty Palestinian harangues calling for renewed terror and additional kidnappings.

Compare the respectful restraint of our press to newscaster Shahira Amin’s immoral and abusive interview in Egypt. But more than anything, we saw this reservoir of goodness in the streets – in the people so moved that they could hide neither the tears in their eyes nor the lumps in their throats. We saw it in the throngs in the streets, people who wanted Schalit to know that they, too, celebrated his long overdue freedom. And we saw it in the hundreds of people in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila who continued dancing long after he’d entered his house and closed the door.

We all felt it. It was innocent, pure and thoroughly decent. We were witness that day to an entire country believing in something again. Those young people outside the Schalit home were singing not only about Schalit, but about this land, this people and about a future in which they still believe. Did you see them? Women and men, religious and secular dancing with abandon in celebration of freedom? Did you hear them singing “Anahnu Ma’aminim Bnei Ma’aminim…” “We are believers, the children of believers, and we have no one on whom to depend other than our Father in heaven”? You didn’t miss it, did you? Hundreds of people from all walks of Israeli life, proclaiming without hesitation their belief in something bigger than themselves? The reason that the prisoner trade was so wildly popular, Mr. Prime Minister, wasn’t ultimately about Gilad Schalit. It was about Israel. About a country desperate to transcend the cynicism, that still wants to believe that it’s worth believing. Shouldn’t we – and you – therefore ask ourselves what can we do next to justify people’s belief in this place? What will it take to make this a country that its citizens can love even when we’re not freeing a captive?

How about if we start by eradicating evil? Take but one example and deal with it.

There’s a small but vicious group of kids living over the Green Line who bring inestimable shame on the Jewish people. They burn mosques, tear down olive trees and sow fear everywhere – all with the implicit support of their rabbis. And they make many young Israelis deeply ashamed of this entire enterprise. Last week you showed us that you know how to take decisive action. So do it again. Rein them in. Arrest them. Cut off funding to their yeshivot. If you show this generation of Israelis that your government stands for goodness even when that means making tough domestic decisions, you’ll unleash a wave of Zionist passion like we haven’t felt here for a generation. It wouldn’t be any harder to do than what you just did, and it would do even more good for Israel than getting one soldier back.

And beyond goodness, there’s also Jewishness. No, we shouldn’t make too much of that “Anahnu Ma’aminim Bnei Ma’aminim” song, but admit – it’s not what you expect to see lots of secular people singing. Yet they did. Because this is a strange and wondrous country; not so deep down, even “non-religious” people aren’t “non-religious.” Just like their observant counterparts, they’re searching, struggling, yearning – and at moments like that, they know that the well from which they hope to draw their nourishment is a Jewish well.

That’s why it was wonderful that you quoted from Isaiah in your speech. It was your suggestion, I hope, that at its core, this society must be decent, but it must also be Jewish. You know what the main problem with the summer’s social justice protests was? It wasn’t the na├»ve embrace of high school socialism or the utter incoherence of the demands. It was the fact that there was simply nothing Jewish about their vision for Israel. Daphni Leef and her comrades could have given the same vacuous speeches at Occupy Wall Street. Or in Sweden, for that matter. Those inane speeches were testimony to the failure of our educational system and of Israel’s religious leadership.

The Yoram Kaniuk affair and the court’s willingness to let him declare himself “without religion” is a reflection not on him, but on the appallingly uninteresting variety of Judaism that the state has come to represent. Can you – or anyone else – name even one single powerful idea that’s come from any of Israel’s chief rabbis in the past decade or two? Me neither.

But lo and behold, it turns out that Israel’s young people still want to believe in something. We haven’t given them the tools to articulate it, but they still intuit that whatever we become, it’s got to be Jewish. So ride that wave, too, Mr. Prime Minister.

What would it take to shape a country where the profundity at the core of Jewish tradition became once again the subject of discourse in our public square? Does Judaism in the 21st century suddenly have to become dull and backward, or can we restore the intellectual and moral excellence that once characterized it? Can you take this on, too? Appoint the right people? Build the right schools? Can you help make this a country that encourages those young people now searching for Jewish moral moorings? For or against the swap, hardly a single one of us is not thrilled that Gilad Schalit is home. He deserved his life back. But so, too, does this country. Schalit, hopefully, will now get better and stronger with each passing day. Israel must do the same. It needs to get better – we need to be honest about the evils lurking in our midst and we must exorcise them. And we must become stronger, which we can do only by engaging with the roots that brought us back home in the first place.

Can you do this? Many of us hope so. Because if this fails, it will in the long run have made no difference that Gilad Schalit came home. But if it succeeds, we might just come to see his liberation as the turning point in our collective return to believing in ourselves.

The writer is president of the Shalem Foundation and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He is now writing a book on the defense of Israel and the nation-state, and blogs at

Living with Miissiles

It’s a strange thing, having to live with missiles. Even though it has happened so often, it just doesn’t feel normal. One would not expect that the citizens of a normal country would be subjected from time to time to a barrage of missiles which terrorize, maim, and sometimes kill. One would not expect that a country with Israel’s power would find its hands tied and unable to provide for its citizens the security that is their inalienable right.

Terror has become “normal,” and when kept to a certain degree, tolerable, in modern society. We have come to learn that there are evil and deranged people and groups walking in our midst for whom the language of ethics and sanctity of life are meaningless. But we tolerate them mostly because we don’t know where they are. They emerge and inflict their harm, and what we tolerate is not so much them, but the price they extract from us.

The case of the missiles being fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip has a bizarre twist, for the terrorists are neither hidden nor unknown. They hide in plain sight in the midst of a civilian population and cloak their evil under the mantle of the generic Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing “cycle of violence.” They roam free, openly declare their intent, and from time to time, on the basis of a schedule known only to them, decide to spend a few hours terrorizing southern Israel.

It’s not normal, and the situation is profoundly intolerable. How should we - the sovereign Jewish State of Israel - respond to this abnormality? On the one hand, sovereignty entails the acquiring of power and both the ability and right to exercise it in self-defense. Sovereignty provides us with a military option. The challenge of a sovereign people, however, is to distinguish between the right to use this option and when it is right to do so.

The nature of asymmetrical war and a conflict not merely with a terrorist organization but also with a population which embraces terrorism is that one’s options are profoundly limited. Neither political overtures nor concessions, or conversely, sanctions will transform the population of Gaza from foe to friend. They have fed themselves a steady diet of evil ideology from which only they can free themselves. At the same time, a reoccupation of Gaza will not alter the reality on the ground but at best merely freeze it for a short time. When one has the power and confronts a situation in which one has the right to use it, it takes great strength to avoid the temptation of succumbing to the short-term comfort associated with using it and the just feeling of revenge which it provides. We come from a tradition
which has taught that true strength is sometimes to be found in self-control.

So, where does that leave us, we the sovereign Jewish State, with our powerful army and a just cause?

I don’t know. But what I do know is that when one doesn’t know, it’s best not to pretend that one does. This has been the policy of the Israeli government over the last number of years, and despite my frustration, I commend it for having the ongoing wisdom that it has exhibited in not pretending that it possesses a magic bullet.

While I don’t know, I wonder whether a policy of targeted assassinations of leadership would not move the status quo slightly in our favor. I mention this consideration only because it is self-evident that neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad, nor other rogue terrorist groups that call Gaza their home, are potential peace partners. The same logic, which guides the United States policy against al-Qaeda, should be assessed as to whether it would be constructive here.

Israeli society must double and triple its efforts to ensure that those in harm’s way feel that their danger and pain is shared by us all. The citizens of the south do not need empty gestures of solidarity but the real allocation of all the resources necessary in order to ensure their safety to the best of our ability and significant financial compensation to offset the hazard under which they find themselves on an ongoing basis. If life in the south is precarious, then those living in the south must be treated as the pioneers and heroes that they are.

If we cannot destroy our enemy, let’s isolate them. An Israel which initiates peace discussions with those Palestinians who can be peace partners strengthens them, marginalizes the terrorists, and creates a political environment in which Israel has more resources at its disposal to protect itself. Allowing the terrorist reality which is Gaza to define our perspective on our neighborhood is to give them a victory they neither deserve nor warrant.

We need to learn to live in an abnormal world. Our people’s embracing of sovereignty entails a willingness to live within the realities of realpolitik and alas, terror is a part of this reality. To be either passive on the one hand, or to succumb to the fantasy that for every problem there is a military solution, is to perpetuate the childlike naivete of our pre-sovereign existence. Sovereignty has its gifts and its challenges, and as a mature people we have to embrace both.

We need to learn to live in the Middle East. By live, I mean that we cannot allow our neighborhood to define or control our world. While we must learn to respond to their dictates, our priorities and values cannot be exhausted by them. We prevent terror every time our technology knocks one of the missiles out of the sky. We defeat terror when we continue to build a society of values, when we not only worry about whether we will be, but about who we will be. When issues of social justice, loyalty, and kindness, democracy, and Jewish identity reverberate throughout our public conversation and policies we are building foundations of strength which no terrorist can destroy.

It’s a strange thing, having to live with missiles, but live we will.

1 comment:

George Jochnowitz said...

The Hamas Charter rejects any sort of dealing with Israel at all. For example, in Article 13, we read, “There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility. The Palestinian people are too noble to have their future, their right and their destiny submitted to a vain game.”
The deal of exchanging 1000 Hamas prisoners for one Israeli sounds like a great accomplishment for Hamas. Nevertheless, it is a defeat for them. They made a bargain with the enemy that they are simply and unambiguously committed to destroying through force and violence—not through deals, however advantageous.