To Israel, with Love and Concern: A Letter on the Eve of 70

Dear Lab/Shul Friends,

In a few hours our families and friends in Israel and all over the world will begin the 48 hours of contemplation into celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday. Flags have already been unfurled and many many words been written. A few decades ago Israel was the one thing that united all Jews. Today Israel is the most divisive factor among us. The days ahead, for many of us, offer a mixture of pride and pain, joy and concern. How do we, do I, best reconcile and honor these conflicting emotions and rise to this auspicious occasion with full presence and an open heart?

The days of remembrance, reflection and celebration ahead are very meaningful to me personally. I was born and raised in Israel in a Religious-Zionist family, served in the IDF, got engaged in projects and movements advancing pluralism, peace and dialogue, and now, for almost 20 years, continue this dialogue, now more fraught, fragile, and critical – from my home in NYC. My love for the people and land of Israeli is as strong as ever even if I am politically not aligned with its current elected government. Over the years I had learned to widen my circles of empathy, respect and responsibility, getting to know, to listen to and to appreciate the validity and vulnerability of more voices and narratives that do not reflect my immediate tribe and challenge me to expand my personal definition of ‘my people.’

Pro Israel and Pro Peace, Pro two-states solution and Palestinian sovereignty, not aligned with the sweeping sanctions called for by the BDS movement, proud participant and supporter of many Jewish and humanitarian organizations including NIF and J-Street, I’m yearning like so many of us for Israel’s successful manifestation of its highest ideals as both Jewish and Democratic, fueled less by fear and more driven by love, a safe, welcoming and loving home for us all.

Ahead of these sacred days ahead I want to share a few personal reflections as invitations for further conversation, and end with a prayer of gratitude and hope.

Huda Abu Arquob , an impressive feminist Palestinian leader and director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, sits with thoughtful Israeli author Yossi Klein-Halevi on a stage in a hotel room in Washington DC, modeling what neighbors who want to get along can look and talk like. “This is not my comfort zone,” Yossi, self described ‘political centrist’ tells the crowd.

The conversation between them is yet another packed-room-event at the 10th annual . J Street Conference, and it’s one of the more emotionally moving ones I’ve attended here these past two days. “The next round of peace making will not happen through diplomatics efforts,” Yossi says. “The ground needs to be laid for negations with open hearted conversations on both sides. Not just open hearts between us and our neighbors but also between us – all of us, left or right and in between.”

Huda talks about growing up near Hebron with a Socialist mother who was not a devout Muslim but how how she now finds faith in the peace work and vision for co-existence. “If we are truly believing in God – and we basically believe in the same God, He or She or whatever – we don’t need any flags,” she tells the applauding room. “We all have to do what we are doing here now – get beyond your comfort zone to engage and dialogue.”

Yossi, who is an old friend, and one with whom I’ve had serious political debates over the years – respectful and important, is in the US to promote his new book “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”, to be published next week by Harper-Collins. He describes the book’s genesis to the audience and reads a few haunting paragraphs.

“let’s not get stuck at lovey-dovey talk,’ Huda reminds us, “we all have hard truths to face and hard work to do.” The conversation between them and the questions raised by the audience, including dozens of rabbis and hundreds of college students, hit at some of the bigger obstacles. Can Palestinians see Jews as anything other than colonizing elements? Can the holy places be really shared one day? Can Israelis see not just the wall but who really lives behind it? Can we get rid of the bad past and move on?

To this last question both Huda and Yossi reply defiantly: No. We can only move on if we deal with our pasts, honor the pains and anxieties and mistakes and yearnings and get over our fears to somehow share the land and the future. The next 70 years will have to include this process. There is perhaps nothing here we haven’t heard before but it feels different coming from these two brave voices with much to lose for simply sitting here together, in a discomfort zone. It feels like hope.

Behind them, peeking through the glass doors, spring blossoms are bright pink under the grey sky. Above the door a sign marked “EXIT”, reserved for emergiencies, reminds me that there is no way out of this conversation – for them, for us. One emergency follows another for at least 50 years but we are all still sitting in this proverbial room, with differing levels of implication and responsibility. Those of us who want to live on the land holy to all our people must find ways to get over the suspicious discomfort and break the cycle of violence by seeing and hearing each other, no matter how painful. We who support from afar have a similar critical mission. We all need to figure out how to believe in this vision and slowly bring it on.

In between sessions I get into a conversation with several other rabbis from various parts of the country. One tells of his employment contract not being renewed by the board of directors of his Reform congregation for having attended and publicly supported J Street and the New Israel Fund. Similar disturbing stories are shared, including one about a congregation that split in two over the recent US elections. In a world where tensions are dialed up between loyalties to differing ideologies how can spiritual leaders hold honest positions that reflect our moral stands and still stand in the widening gaps that divide us to serve all, or more of those seeking sanctuary and spiritual solace?
How do we and our communities negotiate between long held truths and necassary moral compromises?

Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit tackles this in his 2009 book : ‘On Compromises and Rotten Compromises’: “We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.”

This text, along with a stunning collection of classical and contemporary Jewish sources that offer radically different attitudes towards the sometimes conflicting values of truth and compromise, was analyzed earlier in the day at a riveting session on the challenge of coalition building, taught by Yehdua Kurzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It’s stunning and sobering to encounter debates among sages that go back 1800 years arguing not just about the key socio-political issues of their day but also about the the possible and impossible limits of compromise between the values of truth and peace. In a single passage in the Tosefta one sage claims that the one who compromises is a sinner, while another holds firmly that to compromise is a sacred obligation. Both opinions are cited side by side. Continuing the conversation off the page we wonder what it means to compromise about what is holy to us without compromising the essence of the holiness itself. These tensions are old, we are reminded, and in these times of rising rifts, it is our privilege and obligation to reclaim and reimagine our ancient art of dialogue and our tools for respectful negotiation, tolerance, and compromise. This starts within each of us and must ripple out to every relationship in our communal and national lives.

Not agreeing on how to stand with or support Israel is one thing. The denial of debate and the shutting down of honest criticism, not just in Israel related matters, is a horrific unfolding global reality, on and offline, that is not only undemocratic – it is also deeply toxic to our deeply held Jewish values of debate and respectful disagreement. Tweets rarely hold complexity and much of our public arena has been reduced to headlines that do not enable heartfelt and nuanced communications. As Huda and Yossi modeled – only meeting in the places where we are uncomfortable and able to truly hear the other will enable us to move away from fear and pain to charting new territories – within and beyond the Jewish community. This is truly so for Israeli society as, now 70 years old, its leaders and citizens, friends and fans struggle with the complicated and delicate demand to be both Jewish and Democratic – one for all, and not just first for some.

The cycle of violence is a cycle of the denial of each other’s truth and we can only end this cycle together.

At the end of the session with Huda and Yossi I go over to him and we hug. It’s been a while since we met. He gifts me his marked galleys-proofcopy of the new book. I am very moved by this and tell him that it’s my first birthday gift. I was born on the eve of Israeli Independence Day, just as the country transitioned from the sirens that end the day of remembrance for the fallen into the fireworks for the future. This year, as in many years prior, I will celebrate this transition and birthday with many of you friends, in a circle of songs and silence, conversation and celebration.

On the train back to NYC I started reading the book and I can’t put it down. What a perfect way to get ready for these days ahead.

The ritual shift from solemn memory into pride and joy, all within a few minutes, right around sunset, is one of the more complex and perplexing moments on the modern Jewish calendar. There is something poetic and compelling about this transition and how we wrestle with the pain and the pride, the loss and the legacy. This is in many ways the defining moment of Jewish identity- wrestling with the night to emerge into light is the very meaning of the name “Israel” – the Biblical Jacob was named so for wrestling all night long with the unknown, and named “Israel” as the one who wrestled with mystery, with God, with people – and prevails, limping, each day and birthday day anew, onto a brave new dawn.

This transitional moment is one of my favorite, most real, and most meaningful moments of the year. And not just because it’s my birthday. I am looking forward to marking it again on this important year, with our community and many other friends, pausing to honor all victims and narratives, going on to focus on the good. I invited Huda and Yossi to join us too.

We will once again recite the mothers’ prayer for peace, composed by Muslim and Jewish mothers who are also faith leaders, and along with original Israeli, Palestinian and American poetry will also include this new Prayer for the State of Israel, composed in 2015 by another brave friend, Israeli activist and director of the Israel Religious Action Center Anat Hoffman.

May our prayers be answered and the poetry inspire us all to open our hearts to new visions of co-existence, compromise and peace. When you blow out the candles on the birthday cake, O Israel, we will share in 70 wishes and many more. This is some Holy Land Cocktail, worthy of a heartfelt blessing: L’chayim – To love, to peace, to Life.

Amichai Lau-Lavie
New York, April 1 2018

Prayer for the State of Israel

אלי
In this sacred moment, give us hope for Israel and her future.
Renew our wonder at the miracle of the Jewish State.
In the name of the pioneers who made the deserts bloom – give us the tools to cultivate a diversity of Jewish expression in Israel.
In the name of our fallen soldiers – give us courage to stand up to the words and ways of zealots. Those in our own midst and those among our neighbors.
In the name of Israeli inventors who have amazed the world with their innovations – help us apply the same ingenuity to finding a path to peace.
In the name of all these women and men – grant us the strength to conquer doubt and despair in Israel.
Replacing doubt with action.
Replacing despair with hope.
And let us say:
Amen.

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May 14 2018