Like so many Jewish communities who find themselves gathered inside a synagogue each week to celebrate Shabbat, ours was filled to overflowing this past weekend--young and old of all ages, from sundown Friday til sundown Saturday. We honored ten of our members who served in the American Armed Forces at a special Veterans Day Shabbat Friday evening, commemorating the service of men who were in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Saturday in the morning there was learning, Shir l'Shabbat, Yachad, Altshul, a Lay-Led Minyan, and more learning, along with two different discussions: one, a panel discussion on issues related to conversion to Judaism; and two, a discussion with two young Israelis and two young Palestinians about the Btselem Camera Project.
Some time ago, Btselem, an Israeli human rights organization, began giving away video cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank in order to document the engagement between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Recorded encounters, sometimes mundane and sometimes shocking to witness, provide a window into the human side of a greatly entrenched conflict. The hope is to allow citizens to bear witness to any potential human rights abuses--never enjoyable work by any means but essential work nonetheless for any democracy that prides itself on its morality and inherent decency.
Now let me state clearly: I am not a pacifist. War, horrifying as it can be, is a sometimes necessary burden we bear when conflict can no longer be negotiated. And as a Jew, I take great pride in Israel's existence and its ability to defend itself. Further, I am under no illusion that many leaders among Palestinians and in the Arab world broadly are working for (or at the very least hoping for) the destruction of Israel.
But these videos are not meant to capture those bad guys. And they are bad guys.
These videos are meant to capture moments when our guys misbehave, when their power gets beyond them, and when, for reasons that are complex, psychological, traumatic and sometimes immoral, they lose control. Aimed guns at the heads of unarmed people; firing tear gas canisters at someone's head; wearing masks and attacking elderly people with wooden poles; shooting a young man in the foot.
We shouldn't want to see this and we shouldn't have to see it but it's what happens when our hatred controls us rather than our own triumphant mastery of hate. And the purpose of human rights activists--objectively speaking--is to document what happens, shed light where it needs to be shed, and, when necessary, bring to justice those who need to be brought to justice. And sometimes, in conflict, our guys need to be brought to justice. We may not like it. We may think, "But in the long-run, they just want Israel to go away!" But in the long run, a society without justice for its least fortunate will one day deprive even the most fortunate of justice. God's justice, our tradition teaches, extends to us all.
In the video I chose to share at the top of this site, these details are included in a sidebar description from Btselem: "Following a subsequent investigation, the officer, Lt. Col. Omri Borberg, and solider, Staff Sergeant Leonardo Corea, were charged by the Army with “conduct unbecoming”. Following a high court petition against the lenient charge, the soldier was charged with unlawful use of weapons, and the officer with attempted threats. Both were also charged with conduct unbecoming. The two were convicted and in the beginning of 2011. The officer was sentenced to a suspended jail sentence and a halt to promotion for two years. The soldier was sentenced to demotion to the rank of private." We don't celebrate such things; but we know that in this particular case, there is the attempt to make justice out of an act that demands it.
So Saturday morning ten of us sat in a circle, heard stories, and then watched several videos which were not easy to see. But they were necessary to see. In one video in particular, a soldier who had lost his cool and shot a young boy in the foot was brought to justice, disciplined by his commanding officer, precisely because of the recorded footage. What abuses of power were once tolerated because they were not seen are now seen, heard, and, at times, even adjudicated. For the greater cause of Zionism, for the justness of our right to live in our historic homeland, that's a good thing.
Today you may have read that two bills are currently in the Israeli Knesset seeking to limit foreign funding for Israeli human rights organizations. This is not a good thing. In the words of the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, "These legislative efforts to restrict funding for non-governmental organizations run contrary to core democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength. If there is a concern that foreign, and possibly antagonistic, entities are funding civic or political groups in Israel, then let there be a debate on the advisability of requiring full disclosure of the revenues, and their sources, of such groups across the political spectrum." The New Israel Fund, targeted last year by these same political leaders who are sponsoring this legislation this year, has some helpful suggestions for ways to make your voice heard on this issue.
Core democratic principles are Israel's strength. I agree. Making sure that Jews defend themselves justly makes us stronger as a nation. Turning our eyes and hearts from injustice weakens us. Though we don't want to admit the worst things about ourselves, doing so strengthens us for far greater challenges ahead.
When our program ended, I sat for a moment reflecting upon the images just seen, the voices just heard, the actions we had witnessed. And then I looked at the two Israelis and the two Palestinians, who, but for language and accent, were indistinguishable from one another. What united them was their desire for peace, their faith in democracy, and, especially on Shabbat, inside the synagogue, that each was made בצלם--Btselem: In the Image of God.
Their projected image of tolerance and friendship can be better achieved when we can see what goes wrong--with just enough time to correct it--before it gets worse.