The other day, I was walking into Summit High School – where my wife teaches and my daughter is a student. The have a two-door system and the security guard is stationed between the two doors. I had been buzzed in through the first door and I said good morning to the guard. He replied by asking me what I thought about what was going on in Israel.
Now, when you wear a yarmulke this big, most people can figure out that you’re Jewish. And with a wife and daughter in the building and our synagogue being just a couple of blocks down the road, I think most people know who I am in the community. But, I have to admit that I was a little taken aback.
While I have exchanged pleasantries with this man on numerous occasions, we’ve never really discussed anything more serious than the weather or sports. And yet, he needed to know more about what was going on in Israel and saw me as a source of information.
So, even though I would have preferred to discuss the NCAA tournament or the crazy spring snow storm, I did my best to explain how I felt.
I feel almost the same way this morning. I would like to discuss the Torah Portion or the upcoming festival of Passover, but I feel compelled to say something about what has gone on in Israel the past few weeks and our government’s reaction to those events.
So, let me start by saying that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. In fact, some of the harshest critics of Israel are Jewish – and among those harsh critics, I would venture to guess that the harshest critics are Israelis themselves. And because Israel is a democracy with a free press and the right to free speech – as we are here in the US – those critics can rally, blog, write op-eds, have sit-ins outside the Prime Minister’s residence and all the other things that go with political protest without fear of being arrested or molested by the authorities. Criticism of Israel only turns into anti-Semitism when Israel – the one and only Jewish state in the world – is held to a different standard than any other country.
So, for example, lost in the craziness over Israeli elections was the meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women which met this past week. Of the nine official documents published on its web site, eight of them are general in nature, discussing international trends. One speaks of a specific nation and its oppression of women. Was it India due to the epidemic of rapes? No. Was it Nigeria due to the disappearances of school girls at the hands of Boko Haram? No. Of course, the one nation was Israel due to its treatment of Palestinian women.
There was no discussion of the political equality of women in Israel where a woman heads the third largest political party. There was no discussion of how women serve in the Israeli army. There was no discussion of how the Palestinian government treats its own women and, of course, no other nation was singled out in this way.
This is the reality for Israel in the community of nations. It is always singled out. It is always held to a different standard.
So, what happened this past week? In anticipation of a hotly contested election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said some rather distasteful things. I have no great love for Bibi these days. I think that he has been an equal partner with President Obama in driving a wedge between two countries that have much in common. But, I don’t quite understand the reaction to his words. After all, he’s a politician. And politicians will say anything to get elected and then deal with reality AFTER the election (my apologies to any politicians who may be present today!).
In an interview the day before the election, he suggested that the high Arab turnout in the Israeli election was a threat to Israel from within and he said that there would not be a Palestinian state if he was elected. Israeli voters then went out and voted for him in for a fourth term by a surprisingly large margin.
Let’s unpack that for a moment. First of all, Netanyahu spoke about Arab voters. Yes, that’s right – Arabs vote in Israeli elections. Not only that, but the joint list of Arab parties earned 14 seats in Israel’s 120 seat Knesset. That’s over 10% of the seats in the Israeli Knesset held by Arab Israelis. Further, the Israeli Supreme Court Justice who oversaw the election was an Arab.
So, while I wish that Bibi had not said what he said, Arab citizens of Israel certainly got to exercise their democratic right to vote in the Israeli election. How many Jews will be voting in an election in an Arab land any time soon? For that matter, the last election in the Palestinian territories was in 2005. Why aren’t we discussing the complete lack of Palestinian democracy? Somehow, that story doesn’t sell papers.
The second thing that Netanyahu said was that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. He took it back right AFTER the election, but it’s out there. Now, let’s keep in mind the two Palestinian political parties that share power in the Palestinian Authority. First, there’s Fatah – their leader Mahmoud Abbas has written off negotiations with Israel and has chosen to pursue Palestinian statehood through the UN. Then, there’s Hamas – which still has as its stated goal in its charter the complete destruction of Israel.
Given that there are no elections in the Palestinian territories and neither of these parties stands to lose their power any time soon, I don’t think that Bibi’s statement was so terrible. There will be no two-state solution because there are no negotiations going on – and while Israel is certainly not blameless, the Palestinians have to shoulder their share of the blame as well.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, we are introduced to a sacrifice called “shlamim” – it comes from the same root word as the Hebrew word “shalom,” which means peace. A shlamim offering was brought to the Tabernacle and later the Temple by a person who wanted to share a meal with his neighbor. Other sacrifices were burnt whole or a portion was given to the priests. The shlamim – sometimes translated as the peace offering – was shared among neighbors.
As our Bible commentary points out, one interpretation is that the name is derived from the fact that it brought peace between the individual and the neighbors who are invited to join the feast. Implied in that interpretation is the idea that peace comes from one person inviting and another person accepting. You can’t have peace without a partner. Right now, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s pretty clear that nobody is inviting and nobody is accepting.
Although the status quo is pretty terrible, neither side seems willing to take a chance on peace out of fear that their position will grow worse. Israelis are afraid that they will make concessions on territory and the Palestinians will respond with more violence or come back demanding more. Palestinians are afraid to give up their claim to all of Palestine in exchange for their independence in some of Palestine.
It takes a lot of courage to reach out to the other side and just as much courage to accept. None of this generation’s leaders – on either side – has shown that kind of courage. However, that doesn’t mean that we should give up hope.
I think it is important to remember that Israel’s most enduring peace agreement – the Camp David Accords with Egypt – was signed by a hawkish Israeli prime minister whom no one expected to make peace with an Arab country – Menachem Begin – and a US President who has proven to be no friend of Israel’s over the years – Jimmy Carter. There’s always reason to hope.
So, next time, I bet the security guard at the High School will just buzz me in without saying a word.