Meaning Well in a Tough Situation

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Editor’s Note: Directly below is a prayer from Cat Zavis regarding the recent outbreak of violence in Israel and Palestine. The piece by Jeff Green follows immediately after.
As we watch in horror as violence in Israel and Palestine escalates and there continues to be needless and senseless killings, we offer a prayer of love, compassion and strength.
May Israelis and Palestinians find the love that resides deep in their hearts and pulses through all of us, the love that cries to us from the loving energy of the universe to love the “Other,” the “Stranger.” This is a love that can be hard to access and find and yet it is a never-ending, all pervasive love that encourages and calls us to stand-up for the well-being of each other, for the security of all, for justice for all, for peace. May the Israelis and Palestinians use this well-spring of love to overcome their fears and stand for a new future.
May the Israelis and Palestinians find the compassion that lives in each person but that is often suppressed in times of fear and anger and learn to ask the questions that so many seem afraid to ask. What would cause a young man or woman to kill a stranger? What fear, what sorrow, what pain lurks in the dark crevasses of their hearts? How can we begin to heal the pain, the sorrow, the loss? Where can we start?
May the Israelis and Palestinians access the strength that permeates the roots of Mother Earth and embolden them to demand a different future. To cross divides and build bridges that flow with human beings coming together opening their hearts to each other with generosity and love and work together towards peace and reconciliation.
We bow our heads in sorrow, in grief, in angst and even in rage that innocent lives are being lost on all sides and pray for a healing and reconciliation.


Editor’s Note: The following is a piece written by Jeff Green.
 
The genesis of this piece is the note of apologetic explanation I sent to Rabbi Lerner in response to a recent request for contributions.
 
“I hope you will forgive me for not contributing to Tikkun and the other causes you sponsor. The main reason is that I’m so much here in Israel and not in the US. We do give tsedaka pretty generously, but to local causes that concern us. As much as I admire your feisty spirit in the service of good causes, I just don’t feel as if you’re talking to me, where I am now. At this moment we are trying to cope with the fear of random stabbings and worse, angry at our police for its brutality, and grateful to the police for its protection. We have degenerated into violence and hatred.”
 
(I would now add “blame” to “violence and hatred.” Instead of trying to find a path toward reconciliation, Israelis and Palestinians are busy blaming each other.)
Rabbi Lerner wrote back and asked me to describe more of what I, and others I know, are going through. And I responded saying, What I could write about, is the frustration of being a “well-meaning” citizen in a society of people who aren’t well-meaning.
Instead of insisting that living in Israel was no excuse for not contributing to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, he asked me to write something for Tikkun about the way a “well-meaning” citizen copes with the atmosphere of a country where so few of his fellow-citizens seem well-meaning. So I’ve been thinking about that.

* * *

In what way am I “well-meaning,” and is being “well-meaning” what the existentialist called bourgeois bad faith (i.e. a cop-out)?
Let me digress. Kehilat Yedidya in Jerusalem, my synagogue which Rabbi Lerner used to attend during the years he was here creating “Beyt Midrash le’Shalom” and then while his son served in the Israeli Army in the mid 1990s, often asks its members to invite members of groups from abroad for Friday night dinner, so my wife and I have had Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, and Muslim guests: clergymen, peace activists, and even anesthesiologists. We enjoy meeting these people, and we also think it’s important for them to be guests in an observant Jewish home, to counteract whatever stereotypes they may harbor about Jews and Israelis. Naturally, when our guests discover that we were born and brought up in the US, they ask us why we decided to live in Israel.
By now I ought to have a pat answer, but it’s impossible for me to reconstruct the thinking and emotions of a pair of graduate students at Harvard, more than forty years ago. The real question is: Had we known, back in 1973 when we were planning to move to Israel, what the country would be like in 2015, would we still have made Aliya? But that’s a silly question. No one knows what Israel or, for that matter, the world will be like forty years down the line. To pose a related question, whichcan be answered (but which our guests are too polite to ask): Do we regret having spent the bulk of our adult years in Israel?
No, we don’t regret it.
I have led a rewarding life here in Israel, despite the many things that are wrong with the country. I am disappointed with a lot of my country’s behavior, but America wasn’t behaving very well in 1973, when I left, and the improvement hasn’t been all that striking since then.
But saying that other countries behave badly, too, cannot justify our own national bad behavior. Moreover, I deliberately emphasize the first-person plural. I am an Israeli, part of the Israeli collective and I cannot disown what Israel does, whether or not I am happy about it. As a well-meaning citizen, I strongly disapprove of our occupation of the West Bank and of discrimination against the Arab citizens of Israel. I am deeply aware of the abuses of civil rights that we commit (indeed, my daughter works for B’tselem). I have been active in Jewish-Arab dialogue groups (initiated in part by my wife), I vote for Meretz and support the party, I attend demonstrations, and so on.
Nonetheless, while I don’t want to be drawn into the blaming game, I think it’s radically unfair to place all the blame on Israel, as if we were infinitely powerful, and our enemies were infinitesimally weak. The parties in conflict will never resolve it unless we all assume responsibility for it. However, I won’t pursue that line of argument.

* * *

When I moved to Israel, I envisaged the country as a vast Jewish educational institution, and that is definitely what it has been for me. I learned Hebrew well, I learned about Jewish history, I got to know the various Jewish ethnic groups, I learned how to read and respond to traditional texts and how to participate in religious services. My Jewish life has been enriched infinitely during my decades in Israel.
Israel is a fascinating, diverse, intense country as well as a huge experimental laboratory addressing the question of what will happen when a bunch of Jews are set free. With all due respect to American democracy (the progressive values I grew up on), to the vigor and pluralism of Judaism in the United States, and to the strength of Jewish community there, I don’t think you’re as free as we Israeli Jews are, because we are the majority here. It’s our society, our calendar, our language, our common history, and our culture – from refined and thoughtful places like the Hartman Institute to the vulgarity of our reality TV. A lot of what is undeniably negative about Israeli culture, such as the chauvinism and bluster, reflects traits we were ashamed to show to the goyim. Collectively, we are still flexing our muscles, figuring out how to behave without the inhibitions of minority status in hostile environments. Living in Israel is a bit like swimming in rough surf, invigorating but also daunting and sometimes even dangerous.
So, as Michael asked me, how does a well-meaning citizen cope with a situation that appears to have gone out of control? I wish I had an answer. Unfortunately, well-meaning is essentially synonymous with powerless. I am sobered and distressed by the failure of people far more prominent and powerful than I, such as Avrum Burg, Rabbi Michael Melchior, and Yuli Tamir, to get very far in changing the situation here. If people like that, who were once in important public office, find themselves more or less powerless to halt the juggernaut of the messianic settler right, what can I do? Every time there are elections, I vote for Meretz, my representatives in the Knesset fight the good fight tirelessly, and I wonder, how many times can Zahava Galon muster the energy to try to get her message across to the people? The citizens of Israel know that there are deep problems here, and that the government isn’t solving them, but they don’t turn to the left for a solution. So we protest. Our NGOs file suits against government misfeasance. Our representatives draft legislation and do battle in Knesset committees. And people like me make modest monetary contributions and show up at demonstrations.

* * *

Modest contributions are also made, not in money, but in the kind of civil behavior that can counter fear and suspicion. The other morning I had to have a routine medical test, and the nurse who drew my blood was a Muslim Arab with her head covered in a scarf and her body draped in a shapeless dress. She was a professionally competent, middle-aged woman with no makeup, a kind face, and gentle demeanor. From the way the other nurses, Israeli Jewish women, spoke to her, I could tell she was well-liked and accepted by her colleagues, though she clearly had no inhibitions about displaying her Muslim identity.
She wished me a good day and good health in Hebrew, and I reciprocated, restraining the impulse to tell her how deeply I am pained by the violence, fear, suspicion and resentment that afflict our two communities. I hope that my politeness and gratitude expressed my good will. I also hope that the other Jewish people she treats every day appreciate her kindness and competence – and that the Palestinian patients in the clinic, who happen to be treated by Jewish health professionals, also feel gratitude and warmth.
How else can we move ourselves out of this dreadful impasse?

Jeff Green was among the founders of Kehilat Yedidya, a pluralistic Orthodox synagogue in the capital’s Baka neighborhood in Jerusalem.