CONFESSIONS OF A JEWISH PEACENIK
“May the One who makes peace in the heavens create peace in our world as well, peace for us, peace for all of Israel, peace for all people and peoples. And say, Amein!”
There you have it, folks. The English translation of the prayer that we recite at our synagogue multiple times every Friday night. I love saying the Hebrew version of that prayer. And yet … for some reason, going to shul and praying for peace just wasn’t enough for me.
That’s why I felt compelled to get involved in peace organizations. The Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society (JIDS) of Washington, which I recently co-founded, is a peace organization of a sort. JIDS helps the members of these two communities recognize what it means to be “cousins” from the family of Abraham, rather than rival systems of faith. I find the discussions enlightening and sometimes even inspiring. In the long run, these dialogues might even have some peace dividends. And yet … in the immortal words of Maynard Keynes, in the long run, we’re all dead.
That’s why, when invited to join an organization designed for no other reason than to promote Middle East peace, I jumped at the chance. I assumed it would be at least as fulfilling as praying for peace or dialoguing with my Muslim cousins. I also assumed I would feel at home in this organization – much as I do when I pray at shul, or get together at a mosque for a Muslim-Jewish dialogue. And yet … what I didn’t fathom was that the very Judaism that allows me to enjoy prayer and interfaith dialogue has somewhat alienated me (so far) from my fellow peaceniks.
To explain the cause of my alienation, I have to fill in a bit of my background. Early in my childhood, whenever I visited my grandparents, I would go into their bookcase and examine a certain brown book with a swastika on the cover. The book is called The Brown Book of Hitler Terror, and it contained hundreds of pages of prose, as well as various photographs, including pictures of Jews who had been beaten to death. On the inside of the book I found an inscription:
“Feb. 13, 1934,
To a buddy of social science
From a Veteran.”
And a few pages later, I noticed that the book was published in New York in 1933.
My mother explained to me that the “buddy of social science” was my grandmother Fanny Siegel, a woman who had lost several of her siblings in the Holocaust and contributed many hundreds of hours of her time to the war effort. By the time I was ten years old, I was familiar with the basic facts of the Holocaust, and horrified by the thought that Jews like my grandmother were aware of Hitler’s terror as far back as early-1934 (a year after the Nazis came to power), though our nation didn’t declare war against Germany until 1941. I also understood that the Holocaust was merely the crown jewel of a lengthy history of violence perpetrated against the Jews. This commenced with the invasions of the “Promised Land” by the ancient Babylonians and Romans. It continued with the expulsion of Jews from such other Mediterranean nations as Spain and Portugal, Jewish ghettoization in the cities of Italy, anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, and official discrimination in just about every country that called itself “Christian.” Ironically, the nation that masterminded the slaughter of six million Jews was the very nation in which the Jews had most successfully assimilated (or so everyone thought). Weimar Germany was supposed to be an argument for why Jews didn’t need our own state. Hitler – and all who cooperated with him – destroyed that argument once and for all.
Growing up Jewish in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Holocaust was not a very distant memory. Fortunately, we Jews were blessed with an “antidote” to obsessing about that horror. We could think instead about those modern day heroes, the intrepid Israelis, who would ensure that we Jews would never again be expelled, ghettoized, or slaughtered because of our minority status.
The wars of ‘67 and ‘73 were reported to me as glorious victories against long odds, given that numerous Arab nations were gunning to drive my fellow Jews back into the Mediterranean, so that the land could be reclaimed by its rightful owners. I had hoped that the United Nations would come to the Israelis’ rescue – after all, it was under U.N. auspices that Israel was created in the first place. Instead, I learned about resolutions declaring that “Zionism is racism.” And I was left, as a teenager, to consider a world where the Christians controlled all of Europe, North America and South America, the Muslims controlled nearly all of the Middle East and nations in the Indian Subcontinent and Orient, and the Jews had to struggle to control a land mass roughly the size of New Jersey. Worse yet, it was the Jews who the world saw as the land-rich oppressors and the Arabs as the poor victims, while the same Christian nations that for centuries treated Jews like sub-human creatures were able to wash their hands of any further responsibilities.
You’ll forgive me if, as a child, I looked at Jews as victims and not as perpetrators. You’ll forgive me if I looked at Zionists as targets of racism, and not as racists. You’ll forgive me if I believed that if any other nationality had been treated as savagely as the Jews had been treated and finally was given a “piece of earth” to call their own – only to learn that their neighbors were willing to die in order to expel them from the land – they could hardly be expected to behave more humanely than the Israelis had behaved.
Even as a child, I realized that the above perspective may have been “the truth … and nothing but the truth” … but it was hardly “the whole truth.” Stated simply, I realized that the Jews weren’t the only innocent victims in this international horror story known as anti-Semitism. The Jews weren’t even the only Semitic victims. I had in mind the Palestinian Arabs. Much like my own Jewish ancestors had lived in era after era, the modern Palestinians had been booted from their own land to make room for the Jewish state, and were left to rot in poverty. Some of them responded by advocating violence against Jews, but the violence advocates were few in number. For the most part, the Palestinians were a peaceful Semitic people, much like my own, who only wanted their own “piece of earth.” It was easy enough for me to say “why don’t the Saudis take them in, share the wealth, and give them middle class lives,” but that wasn’t an option. So I added the Palestinians to the list of folks in the Middle East with whom I empathized deeply. Their pain became my pain. Their plight, my plight. After all, to be Jewish is to always be in sympathy with those who have been oppressed, and I came to see both the Israelis AND the Palestinians in that light.
As an adult, I’ve religiously stopped associating myself with one of these groups of people as opposed to the other. Whenever I see a sign in front of a synagogue that says “We Support Israel,” it makes me wince. I don’t simply support Israel, I support the Palestinians too. In other words, I support PEACE, which requires prosperity and security for both sets of Abrahamic cousins. I support envisioning a time when both of these peoples will have their own state and these states can exist side by side. But in that vision, Israel would always be a Jewish state – in other words, it would be a democracy led by a Jewish majority. Remember: I was committed to never again allowing billions upon billions of people to populate this planet without at least providing for one tiny land mass to be controlled by the Jews. That only seemed fair to me, given all the land controlled by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc.
A few years back, when I wrote my second novel, Moses the Heretic, I realized that there was one missing piece from my vision. I had previously been imagining Israel essentially shrinking back to its pre-‘67 borders, which would mean that the Palestinians would control all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While writing that novel, it dawned on me that in order for Israel to merit the moniker of a “Jewish state,” it would need to do one more thing: share Jerusalem. Specifically, I had in mind Israel ultimately ceding control of that city to the United Nations (once it stopped being so anti-Israel), which would devote the city to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. Nothing else seemed consistent with the Jewish principle of generosity, which is another word for justice. When I visited Jerusalem, I felt that it was the world’s holiest city. That’s precisely why it needs to be shared – it belongs to God, not to any one tribe.
And it was that perspective that I brought to the new peace organization referred to above.
So, why has this organization driven me to distraction? That could be stated simply. One person after another, both Christians and Arabs, explained what they thought America should do: come down hard on Israel. There seemed to be a consensus among my fellow peaceniks that the party “primarily at fault” was the Israeli Government. They are the party with power, so they are the party that needs to make concessions first. Then, once we bully Israel into giving back land and allowing more freedom of movement to the Palestinians, then and only then should we lecture the Palestinians about doing their part.
I’m sorry, folks, but I don’t buy it. I can be as pro-Palestinian as the next guy. But I simply cannot view Israel as THE bad guy here. At least not yet. They still live in fear of hostile enemies. Just look at the group that was democratically elected to represent the Palestinian people: Hamas! Is there any question that some in Hamas would advocate the destruction of the Jewish people? Is there any question that some in Hamas would kill as many Israelis as they could from the moment they got the opportunity? And should the Israelis simply relax all their restrictions immediately and allow Hamas free reign?
To me, it is simply not productive to identify either of the parties in the Middle East conflict as the “primary” wrongdoer. It is also not productive to suggest that one party take the first step in reforming their conduct. We need BOTH parties to reform their conduct. The Israelis need to give up land and cede control, and the Palestinians need to incentivize them to do that by calling an end to the strategy of violence and by coming to embrace Zionism. That’s right, Zionism! Also, both groups need to educate their people about what it means to have cousins in the family of Abraham. In other words, the textbooks in this region need to be radically transformed so as to become vehicles of compassion, not of bigotry.
I am proud to call myself a Zionist, albeit one with a small Z. I don’t believe we Jews have the luxury of overseeing a large Jewish state. But I still believe we deserve our “piece of earth.” That precludes the so-called “one state” solution. That precludes any outcome that could possibly give rise to a non-Jewish majority. Isn’t it enough that we will never have a Jewish majority in America, in Russia, in China, in India, in Italy, in France, in Spain, in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq …
Please, my peacenik friends, join me in being a Zionist. A pro-Palestinian Zionist. There are not many of us now, but if you really want peace, this is the best way I know to get there.
When my grandparents died, I asked for and received The Brown Book of Hitler Terror. It’s one of my prized possessions. I don’t look at it very often. I’d rather dwell on visions of a peaceful future than realities of a tragic past. But nor do I plan on forgetting the past. And whenever I’m exposed to those who wish to blame the Jews first (I mean “the Israelis”), I’m reminded that our history did not begin in 1948, or for that matter, near the end of the 19th century when my ancestors began to flock to the “Promised Land” in droves. Jews have been around for thousands of years, and are the oldest members of the House of Abraham. To understand our conduct requires appreciating each millennia of our history, and not any one decade or group of decades.
Thankfully, though, part of our history is that we Jews love working diligently for peace, justice, and fellowship among all peoples. And just as importantly, we love to dream about a time when we all shall “beat [our] swords into plowshares and [our] spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
So, with one eye looking back in time and another looking forward, allow me to utter the words that have been my people’s rallying cry for centuries, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Just keep in mind that in the highest spirit of my faith, I offer that dream not only for Jews, but for my Muslim and Christian cousins as well. That city belongs to all of us … or more to the point, it belongs to Allah. Only by bringing peace to Jerusalem can we truly honor Ha Shem and bring honor to ourselves.