Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bechukotai

I am not optimistic about peace in the Middle East.

The Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, will soon unilaterally declare a Palestinian State defined by Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Despite his distortions of history, many nations will undoubtedly recognize this declaration. Some will not. The Palestinians continue to appeal to the United Nations for support. Meanwhile Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeals to the US Congress for support. They do not speak to each other, instead only to their supporters. Israel of course can always count on my support, but peace will not be achieved if Israel and the Palestinians refuse to speak with each other. (Tom Friedman is correct on this point.)

This week’s protests commemorating Al Nakhba offer further discouraging signs. Make no mistake. Marking the creation of the State of Israel as “the catastrophe” does not signal Palestinians coming to terms with the modern Jewish state. It suggests that the “stalemate” is not in truth about the 1967 borders but those of 1948. It should be remembered that the Jewish leadership accepted the 1947 UN partition plan and the Arab leaders rejected it. The catastrophe could have been averted then and there. The Palestinian Authority’s recent accord with Hamas is also deeply worrisome. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction. How can Israel make peace with such partners? How can there be peace with someone who is pledged to your destruction?

Looking from the side on which I sit, Netanyahu is either unable or unwilling to marginalize those Israelis who believe that the land of Israel is only meant for the Jewish people and no other people. Israel must divorce itself from these internal radical forces. It must do so not only for the sake of peace but because these modern day religious zealots threaten the democratic Jewish state. Make no mistake again. Discussions about this settlement or that are a diversion. It is instead the ideology of many settlers that is corroding Israel’s soul. Israel must uproot this ideology from its midst. It must do so first and foremost for its own sake.

Years ago when studying in Jerusalem during my first year in rabbinical school, I volunteered to tutor Arab high school students in English. Once a week I traveled by myself to the nearby village of Beit Safafa. It is an interesting village. It is located near the current Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Prior to 1967 Beit Safafa was a divided village. One half sat within the newly created State of Israel. The other half in Jordan, in what is called East Jerusalem. After the Six Day War the village was united and all its residents became Israeli citizens.

There I met with my students at one of their homes. Often we sat in the backyard eating sweets, nuts and fruits and of course drinking tea infused with mint leaves. Every week they laughed when I first sipped my tea. They exclaimed, “No sugar in your tea?” At the end of the year they presented me with a gift, a pen with my name inscribed on its side. “Steve Moskovitz” it read. I did not tell them that my name was misspelled. I did not tell them that I received five of these very same pens on my bar mitzvah. This present remains among my most treasured gifts.

I think of those moments as I eye the pen sitting on my desk. I have long since lost touch with my students. I wonder what has become of them. By now I imagine that they are married and have children. I wonder about their feelings and especially of those of their children. They would have come of age during a different time, during in particular the intifadas, the first of which began the year after I finished my studies in Jerusalem. Would they wish to live in a Palestinian state? Have some become radicalized? Have others left to make their lives in the United States or Europe?

Two weeks ago, Nicole Krantz spoke to our congregation about her recent experience with Seeds of Peace. As I listened to her speak about the friendships she formed with Israelis and Palestinians, I thought again about my students. Nicole spoke passionately about the power of Seeds and how it could perhaps transform the Middle East by changing ordinary young people. She was realistic about achieving peace. She recognized its challenges and difficulties. Yet she held fast to hope. She continued to believe that a few “seeds” could change the equation. I hope and pray she proves right. I wonder if Nicole befriended one of my student’s children.

I resolved to find my students. I will continue to search for peace.

This week’s portion, Bechukotai, declares: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.” (Leviticus 26:6) The Torah’s words will forever remain my prayer.

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