Sunday, January 16, 2011


Haifa is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. It has been called the “San Francisco of Israel,” and indeed, the two are officially sister cities. Like the City by the Bay, Haifa is hilly, scenic, adjacent to the sea, and quite the melting pot. In Haifa’s case, the races that come together are Jews and Arabs – both Semites, both cousins in the family of Abraham. And yet tragically, they have increasingly come to see themselves as mortal enemies, locked in a never-ending war over a relatively small land mass.

Haifa was the last city of any size that I visited before coming to Jerusalem at the beginning of March 1981. I spent much of my time in Haifa high above the city where I could savor the view. But mostly I was reading books – books by the philosopher Nietzsche railing against organized religion and the God that has emerged from it. I knew, you see, that one of my next destinations would be an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, and I wanted to absorb “both sides” of the religious philosophy debate into my veins. It worked, I suppose: in Jerusalem, I became for the first time in my life a passionate believer in God. And yet my experience in Haifa reminded me of the need not to believe everything I hear from the mouths of clerics and theologians, which paved my way for a life as both a believer and a heretic . Yes, indeed, one can be both at the same time. In fact, to the extent one believes that an integral part of religious belief is the pursuit of truth, an argument can be made that heresy is an absolute must … which is why the greatest spiritual leaders of the past were the heretics of THEIR day, even though now, their so-called followers are anything but.

Candidly, I haven’t set foot in Haifa in nearly 30 years. Literally. Then again, Muhammad never literally set foot in Jerusalem, but we owe much of the intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the idea that Muhammad did indeed visit Jerusalem, at least metaphorically. According to a story held dear by over one billion Muslims, the Angel Gabriel led the Prophet to a white, winged mule, who flew him to the holy city of Israel, where he is said to have been whisked up to the first gate of heaven by the Angel Ishmael. That “Night Journey” and all that flows from it has helped to make Jerusalem the third most sacred city in the Muslim map, and largely explains why there will be no peace in Israel or Palestine unless the Palestinians are given a part of that city to call their own. Such is myth. Such is history. Such is destiny.

My own metaphorical return to Haifa was not nearly so symbolic, or as momentous. It occurred yesterday as I was reading the script for a play called “Return to Haifa” that is now being shown at Theatre J, the Jewish playhouse in Washington D.C. I will be one of the panelists for the talk-back on January 25th. My rabbi will be one of the panelists for the talk-back on January 23rd. If you’re in DC, I would urge you to make one of those performances, or if not them, some other one. Like most of the Theatre J productions, this play is definitely worth seeing.

The play was hardly a vivid description of the tourist attractions in the city of Haifa. In that sense, the Chamber of Commerce would have been severely disappointed. Rather, the drama focused on a particular Haifa home and its role in the lives of two families – one Jewish, the other Palestinian. The play succeeded in reminding me of why a city as majestic as Haifa and a region as majestic as the Land of Israel could inspire such a passion to “return” for both Jews and Arabs alike. So as not to spoil the plot, all I’ll say about it is that the play was set both in 1948 and 1967 – two pivotal years in Israeli/Palestinian history – and the home at the center of the action belonged to Palestinians in 1948 who decide to return in 1967, only to find their house occupied by Jews. Do they find “cousins in the family of Abraham”? Do they find “mortal enemies”? Or is what they find a little bit of both?

I think you know the answer. Playwrights trade in ambiguity. But let’s leave the arena of fiction and turn for the moment to that of reality, shall we? What this playwright has done is put his finger on the pulse of the problem with the Holy Land. There, on a relatively small piece of turf, we find many millions of inhabitants, the number of which seems to be growing at a substantial pace. These individuals fall into two general categories of people, and it ought to be clear to them that they desperately need to get along and embrace each other as family. Indeed, they have largely similar, if distinguishable, ethnic backgrounds and religions, so the family metaphor isn’t nearly as artificial as it first may appear. What’s dicey is that these individuals, these peoples, have a choice. They can choose to live as brothers and sisters -- aka the “one state solution.” They can choose to live as cousins -- aka the “two state solution.” Or they can choose to live … as enemies – the choice with which we all are most familiar.

Ah, but there is a fourth choice now, isn’t there? It involves choosing to live in denial, or to be more specific, denial not only of one’s responsibility for helping to achieve a resolution but in the very possibility that such a resolution exists. Sadly, this attitude is especially becoming the norm among American Jews, a group that not long ago was deeply engaged in the fight for peace and recognized the incredibly powerful role that America can play in bringing that fight to a successful end. Back in the day, the American Jewish community was composed of legions of “Blame Israel First” Jews who joined various leftist peace groups, numerous “Israel Right or Wrong” Jews who supported the American-Israel Political Action Committee, as well as countless others who fought passionately for a middle ground. So yes, they lined up on all sides of the political spectrum. But the one thing we had in common is that everyone seemed to be deeply engaged in the problem – we all cared.

That was then, and now? We have plenty of apathy. Increasingly, American Jews are throwing up their hands and saying that Israeli/Palestinian peace is unachievable. Or that Middle East Peace is someone else’s problem, not ours. “We can’t want it more than they do,” has become the slogan de jour among all nouveau apathetics. In other words, one can only justify banging one’s head against the same wall or rolling a boulder up the same hill so many times. At some point, even Sisyphus realizes the meaning of hopelessness.

What’s worse, the apathy about peace that seems to have engulfed much of the American-Jewish population may merely be reflecting an increased sense of hopelessness in Israel. From what I’ve read and heard, many Israelis believed that when they removed their settlements from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians would take this as a gesture in support of Palestinian autonomy and a legitimate two-state solution. When the Palestinians responded with the election of Hamas, and the continual firing of Qassam rockets, more and more Israelis threw up their hands and said … “Netanyahu, they’re yours; deal with those animals as you please.”

Yes, it could be said that this is the choice that says Jews and Palestinians are “enemies.” But perhaps even more importantly, Jews are choosing to wash their hands of the fight for a solution, and preferring to turn their attention to other matters. Enmity and apathy can go together quite snugly.

As for the attitude of the Palestinians, in some sense the situation is less bleak, but in another sense, it is even bleaker than that of the Jews. The Palestinians I have met are singularly assured of their own side’s victimhood and of the Israelis’ status as oppressors. It’s as if we were talking about the Jim Crow South or about Nazi Germany, a place to which Palestinians love to analogize their own situation. The sanctimoniousness that so commonly ensues does have the benefit of helping one stay engaged, and perhaps even encouraged, about the prospects of a solution. But the problem is that the solution they envision is the ultimate death of the Zionist State – and if they think that’s realistic, they haven’t spent much time lately around non-fringe Jews. The Jewish will to survive is legendary. Israelis will not give up the Jewish State without losing their lives along with it.

So what is the solution? Despair? Apathy? Self-righteousness? Taking up arms? How about simply showing up at an interfaith meeting or a peace meeting and offering an expression of hope. No more talk of enmity, no more talk of frustration. No more talk of oppression, or terrorism, or human rights violations, or any of the other buzzwords that get thrown about by activists to stick a finger in the eye of one of these peoples or the other. Just a simple expression of hope, and perhaps while you’re at it, a vision of what a peaceful Middle East would look like.

Is your vision a “one-state solution,” in which Israelis and Palestinians would live the way we all live in the United States – in a pluralistic society, a sort of larger-scale version of Haifa, but even more pluralistic and integrated? Or do you think that the Jews should be given their own state, and the Palestinians a state of their own, each adjacent to the other, friendly, trading partners, but still separate – like Belgium and the Netherlands? As far as I’m concerned, whichever vision you can enunciate, as long as it’s stated with a compassionate, respectful and hopeful tone, would be appreciated.

And if you find yourself too “busy” or too scared to come to a peace meeting, do us all a favor. One night before you go to bed, express your vision to your bedroom wall. We all need to get in the practice of visualizing Middle East Peace. Then more and more of us will find our voices, raise them together, and, before long, we can actually consider a return trip to Haifa to be one involving holiness and not war. We must never forget that the two are mutually exclusive.

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