Rabbis Without Borders
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This piece may anger many people because it challenges some of our most deeply held beliefs about our own goodness. It is always hardest to see our own fallacies, especially when we have built the edifice of our own self-understanding upon them. At times, too much is at stake to evaluate ourselves fairly…
I am against violence like most of us. It disgusts and horrifies me. But I am no pacifist, meaning that for the purpose of self-defense I believe that violence can be justified; I would kill an assailant to save my own life or the life of an innocent bystander. Such is the law of the Talmud: On the one hand – “Thou Shalt not Murder,” but on the other hand – “He who comes to kill you, rise up first to kill him.”
Sounds simple. However, it is anything but. Radical pacifism is simple and straightforward. But once we admit that taking a human life may be justified under certain rare circumstances, we necessarily find ourselves mired in the quagmire of ascertaining where to draw the line between the forbidden and the permitted.
The appalling murder in cold blood of Ari Fuld (may his memory be a blessing) less than a month ago – he was stabbed in the back in broad daylight while doing his shopping at the mall here in Gush Etzion – touched and enraged many of us. For many people, it was just another confirmation of what everyone already knew: that we cannot trust our Palestinian neighbors. Coexistence is an illusion and every Arab is a potential terrorist.
Where are the Palestinian voices of condemnation, it was asked. If none among them can stand up and say, ‘this is wrong,’ then they are all responsible and there is no way we can ever make peace with them.
I am happy and proud that the Palestinian partners in Roots did react. They wrote statements of condemnation and letters of condolences distancing themselves from such immoral violence. Two of the letters were sent to the mayor of Efrat, the town in Gush Etzion that Ari hailed from.
But writing these letters was really hard for most of them. Some strongly disagreed with the very idea of offering condolences and certainly with condemning the act. Others supported the concept but wished to tone down the language of condemnation. Some were afraid of the negative personal ramifications in Palestinian society.
We asked them to explain the difficulty to us. Here is something of what I understood:
Of course, murder is forbidden. However, Palestinians feel very strongly that resistance to the assault on their very existence is permitted and necessary. In 1948, the Palestinians lost 78% of their historic homeland to the Zionists. Most of their people became refugees. The fabric of Palestinian life was ripped and torn asunder. Since 1967, when Israel captured the remaining 22% of Palestine, the violence continues unabated, with Israel implementing an oppressive, racist legal system against us that makes a mockery of our humanity and tramples our dignity. The State, and the settlers, encroach daily on what is left of Palestinian land, building more and more settlements and exclusively Jewish neighborhoods. Soldiers stand guard over the settlers and abet them in their aggression. A war of attrition is being waged against Palestine and its people, who are gradually being removed from their land. The possibility of ever establishing a Palestinian state is being killed. Do we not have the right to stand up and defend ourselves, they cry out.
But, we protest, you certainly cannot condone the murder of innocent civilians! They challenge us: Who is an innocent civilian? Every settler is part of a citizen’s army that is doing violence to our land, our culture, our dignity, and our lives each day that passes. And many of you are literally armed, they add, pointing out that in nearly every picture of Ari Fuld on social media he has a gun slung over his shoulder and appears darn proud of it. You Israelis saw him as a swashbuckling hero! Well, he died in the fashion that he lived!
Just last week an innocent Palestinian woman was killed by a rock thrown through the window of the car her husband was driving. Her husband saw the perpetrators, settler youth standing on a hilltop by the side of the road. Our Palestinian interlocutors point to this tragedy as another in a long string of settler violence from which they suffer. How can we condemn the killing of Ari when our own people are being killed all the time and Israelis take no notice? they say. How can we recognize your suffering when no one recognizes ours?
This rhetoric is extremely hard for us Israelis to hear, especially when it comes from the mouths of our friends and partners and is spoken while we are sitting next to each other and looking each other in the eyes.
Now our partners don’t embrace this line of reasoning to justify murder. However, reflecting as it does the near-consensus of their society, it pulls at their heartstrings and they struggle to overcome it.
And you know what? As repugnant – and frightening – as I find these arguments, I have to admit that I empathize with the internal struggle of my Palestinian partners.
So many Israelis and especially settlers, (the closer we are the less we see!) don’t see the violence that we are doing to the Palestinians every day, but I do see it. It is real. Houses are searched and ransacked without a search warrant. Men, women, and children are arrested and held without the due process of civilian courts. A blanket prohibition is imposed on all building on Palestinian land under Israeli control. Left with no alternative, they build illegally and are promptly served with demolition orders. Only a fraction of the demolition orders are carried out; however, that is but small consolation. Thousands of homeowners live with the threat of losing their homes hanging over them and their families every night when they tuck their kids into bed at night. A whole village – Khan al Ahmar – is being destroyed as I write these words. And yes, in the course of raids and arrests and demolitions, violence erupts and Palestinians – often Palestinians unconnected to the violence – are killed.
Palestinians feel their lives, their culture, and their dignity are under constant attack. And they have no recourse and no hope. They feel that they have tried everything and nothing has worked.
And so it is difficult for our Palestinian partners to come out unequivocally and publicly against the murder of Ari Fuld.
I believe that one of the factors that helped bring our Palestinians colleagues in Roots to feel the need to condemn his murder was the fact that through the Roots partnership with Israeli settlers, they have seen humanity and truth and justice not only on their side but also on our side. (Just as we have come to see humanity and truth and justice on their side.) They have heard and come to respect the 3000-year-old Jewish connection to the land. They understand that our presence in this land from the river to the sea, including Judea and Samaria, is not all wrong. They have come to understand that they are not the only victims and that not only they live in fear. They have become deeply cognizant of the complexity and have experienced empathy, without compromising their own identity.
Our Palestinian partners are coming to terms with the realization that such violence is both wrong and unproductive. (Just as the Israelis in Roots are struggling with our own newfound insights.) It only corrodes their own humanity and entrenches us Jews in our prejudices and fears, thereby further distancing a solution to the conflict that will bring the Palestinians closer to gaining their rights and their dignity.
Dialogue complicates. Which means that, however slowly, it works.