Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
A few nights ago I made a presentation for ‘Noar Shorashim’, the Roots Initiative youth group that brings together high school age kids from the Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion and from the neighboring town of Beit Umar and nearby Palestinian villages. They meet three times a month, planning their own social and educational programs. I talked to them about the personal transformation that I had undergone in meeting the Palestinian ‘other’ just three years ago, and about how we founded Roots with the mission of bringing the two sides together to deeply get to know the other and thereby create understanding and empathy.
As I was speaking I came up with a metaphor that had never crossed my mind before. I told them that Roots is like a psychiatric clinic. Both our communities are sick, our perceptions of reality are skewered. Each day there are thousands of positive and friendly interactions between Palestinians and Israelis – business and humanitarian connections – but they do not register in our consciousness. Each day hundreds of thousands of us pass by the other and do them no harm, but we fail to notice. Hundreds every day call for peace and reconciliation, but we do not hear. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder prevents us from responding normally to these daily occurrences.
The behavior of a small minority becomes for ‘us’ proof of how ‘they’ all think and act.
Each side is possessed by its demons that tell of the cruelty and callousness of the other side. Each side sees only evil and violence on the other side, unable to perceive there humanity or legitimacy. The elaborate conceptions each side has constructed concerning who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are have become unquestioned truisms. PTSD has made Palestinians and Israelis blind to the other, blind to what their own side does to the other, and blind to what all this is doing to all of us. Neither side sees ‘them’ as they really are, and neither do ‘we’ each see ourselves as we have become.
We have become sick, traumatized, controlled by fear, and in need of healing. Roots is a clinic that helps make us healthy again. Through meeting and listening to the other, ignorance and mistrust are replaced with understanding and mutual support, despair is replaced with hope. (Perhaps the Roots facilitators ought to see themselves as doctors, doctors of the soul, and Roots participants as patients undergoing therapy.)
Yesterday all the residents of Alon Shvut Gush Etzion where I live received an email from the rabbi of the settlement, reminding us among other things of how wonderful our community is, how vibrant and healthy it is, how our young people are the cream of the crop, contributing disproportionately to Israeli society. I recalled many similar things I have read and heard from within the settlement movement about how the settlements are at the forefront of Israeli society, filled with people reaching out to help people, imbued with morality and Jewish values and leading the way toward the next frontier of Zionist fulfillment. We are justifiably proud of our sacrifices for the good of the collective
Cognitive dissonance. How do I relate to the community of which I am a part? Which is it, are the members of my community sick or are we healthy? Do we in Alon Shvut embody human understanding, empathy and loving-kindness or has our trauma made us impervious to the pain and suffering of those around us?
After a moment of existential confusion, I catch myself. We are both extremely sick and extremely healthy at the same time. Both perceptions are true. I know it because I have experienced and continue to experience both poles.
Some see one truth. Others see the opposing truth. I see both. But it so hard to dwell in the two truths at the same time. They butt heads within my soul, endeavoring to silence the other while striving for ascendancy, like Jacob and Esau in the womb of Rebecca. But I will not allow that. Like in the case of the ancient study houses of Hillel and Shamai, “Both these and those are the words of the Living God”.