A PEACEMAKER’S REFLECTIONS ON HISTORY
Last weekend, I attended an interfaith Passover Seder at a mosque. The attendees were peace activists, and we were all given opportunities to say a few words about peace, justice or some other lofty topic. The talk I found most interesting was given by a Jewish man, who spent much of his time quoting a Palestinian colleague from Gaza who had spent years in an Israeli prison before he reformed himself into an advocate for a peaceful win-win solution to the conflict.
Purportedly, whenever this Gazan peace activist engages in peace dialogues, he lists three topics that he doesn’t want to talk about. The first is religion. Paraphrasing his comments, “You say that God promised you the land 3000 years ago. I say that 1500 years ago, God changed his mind. How is this going to lead us to an agreement?” The second topic is perfect justice. “If you want peace, you can’t have perfect justice. The only solution involves compromise, and once you start compromising, you give up the hope for perfect justice.” And the final topic is history. “We have our historical narrative. You have yours. They’re different. They’ll always be different. But even though we can’t agree on the past, maybe we can agree on the future.”
Indeed. That Gazan is saying exactly what I have been trying to verbalize for years. He’s put his finger on what is keeping us from embarking on a path ahead. We keep getting side tracked on a different path -- the idea that we can ever form an agreement based on religion, perfect justice or history. So far, those topics have only led to discord and mutual disgust. It’s no wonder that this conflict is as polarized now as it has ever been in the last 64 years. At this rate, Israelis and Palestinians will be fighting 64 years from now. And no, I’m not exaggerating.
I wasn’t the only person at the Seder who appreciated the Gazan’s comments. They spawned a number of other statements, including the remarks of two speakers who said essentially the same thing. Both reminded us of the profound impact the Holocaust has had on the fears and concerns of the Jewish people. And they wondered if, once the generation that experienced the Holocaust has passed away, perhaps then, the Jewish people will be more willing to make the compromises necessary to make peace. As one speaker put it, we learn in the Torah that the Jews had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years after the Exodus before they could reach the Promised Land. Why was that? Because the generation who experienced the horrible memories of Egyptian cruelty had to die off before the Jewish people would be ready to settle their homeland.
So there you have it: peace will come only after the Holocaust generation has died, and the memories of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen have faded. If I heard these kinds of comments twice in one Seder, I wondered, how many others in the peace community must believe them? And are these thoughts being passed on to the Palestinians who interact with peace activists, fueling their willingness to hold out for a better deal in the future, a future in which supposedly, Jews won’t be so paranoid, so worried about security buffers, so … Zionist.
The Seder took place on Saturday, April 14th. Five days later, the world marked Holocaust Remembrance Day. I was privileged to speak about the Holocaust at two different venues, and each time, the words of those peace activists rang in my ears. Here I was, trying to explain to these audiences how the Holocaust has been by far the most seminal historical chapter in my life. I learned about it in vivid detail when I was only about six years old, and almost from that point, it has left an indelible mark on the way I’ve thought about God, justice, peace … you name it. As a result, I have made sure to teach my children about the Holocaust and its central significance. And I’d be sickened if they didn’t steep their own children in lessons from the Holocaust, or if their own children didn’t do the same for my great grandchildren, and so forth.
We remember the Holocaust not because we celebrate paranoia and xenophobia. Quite the contrary, the Holocaust should breed contempt for paranoia and xenophobia, for it was largely those attitudes among the German and Slavic populations that led to the destruction of Eastern European Jewry. We who remember the Holocaust should be learning to practice an altogether different ethic – one of love, universalism, and respect for diversity and dignity. In fact, there are few better lessons for such an ethic than those that come from the Holocaust, where the full range of human practices, from the most noble to the most barbaric, were on display.
On some level, I do appreciate the point that those two peace activists were making when they suggested that memories of the Shoa may be getting in the way of peace. There are surely Jews in Israel and elsewhere who have turned more insular and fearful as a result of that terrible tragedy. But I’ve got news for the peace community, and for anyone else who waits for the Jewish world to “forget” – it won’t happen. It won’t happen when the final “survivor” dies out. It won’t happen when the final child of a survivor dies out. And it won’t happen five generations hence, either.
The Holocaust has become one of the most transformational events of Jewish history. There is the Exodus. The Revelation at Sinai. The Destruction of the Second Temple. The Holocaust. And the Birth of Israel. Some of those events date back not dozens of years, but thousands. If we haven’t forgotten them, we won’t forget the Holocaust either. That’s not what Jews do.
Now, to be fair to the peace activists, they’re not asking for us to “forget” the Shoah so much as to avoid remembering the wrong lessons. And they are correct in speculating that it is difficult for anyone who spent time under Nazi rule and watched their relatives die to refrain from learning some of the wrong lessons. We are, after all, human. Maybe, for psychological reasons, the Jewish people did need to turn Israel into a bit of a spiritual “wilderness” for a couple of generations, while the wounds healed from the Holocaust and from the tumultuous birth of the new nation. But this is what the peace activists need to understand – once these wounds do heal, the fundamentals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain, and some of those fundamentals are based on Jewish history.
No issue is more central to that conflict than whether this world should embrace a Jewish State in the strong sense of that term, a state that is permitted to maintain immigration restrictions that favor Jews over Arabs in order to keep a stable Jewish majority. For much of the peace movement, such a state is reminiscent of a pre-modern mentality. Discriminatory, nationalist, racist, unjust … the list goes on. But whatever derogatory words you want to use in that context won’t change my views. Not only do I remain a Zionist, but I remain a Zionist who recognizes that due to Arab/Jewish demographics, discriminatory immigration laws are part of the deal.
Frankly, I don’t know how a person can spend much time contemplating the Holocaust specifically and Jewish history generally and not develop a strong sympathy for Zionism. But I also can understand why some of my Palestinian friends, steeped as they are in the history of their own people, have been so impassioned against having a Jewish state with discriminatory immigration legislation occupying so much of their own homeland. That is another way of saying that both peoples have legitimate claims to the land. What Palestinians and peaceniks need to appreciate is that Zionism isn’t going to disappear with the generation who experienced the ovens. The children of the survivors, and their children, and their own children owe it to our ancestors to make sure that there is a place free of anti-Jewish genocide, where those Jews who are persecuted elsewhere in the world can seek refuge. But even more importantly, we who have survived centuries of discrimination owe to the world our support for a civilization that has been built primarily on Jewish values, Jewish aesthetics, and Jewish customs.
I celebrate the Gazan’s words because I appreciate that he is not asking Jews to avoid learning the lessons of the Holocaust or of Jewish history generally. He is merely saying that extensive dialogues about such lessons can sidetrack peacemakers from our essential mission: identifying the road ahead. That road is paved with an understanding of the future wants and needs of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. Specifically, we must help the two people’s focus on their legitimate needs, and help them jettison any other unnecessary wants. It’s no easy task. But it can be achieved, as long as we keep our eyes on the ball and remember that it is bouncing toward the future, not the past.