Readings: Israel, The Smoke Still Rises

A Palestinian woman inspects a damaged house in Gaza City, Aug. 11.

Israel-Gaza still smolders. The op-ed pages, news stories and recent books still argue about the outcome of the war. Some even suggest that Gaza, with its 2000 dead, has won because it withstood Israel’s overwhelming land and air attack. Other commentators toy with despair because peace seems nowhere on the horizon.

Roger Cohen (New York Times, Oct 7) reports that as he prayed in a Reform synagogue at the High Holy Days in London, the rabbis did not address the 70 Israeli and 2000 Palestinians, including 500 children, dead. “The death of a single child to an Israeli bullet seems to betoken some failure in the longed-for Jewish state, to say nothing of several hundred.” He goes on to say, “The terrible thing about the Holy Land Today is the denial of this humanity to the stranger.” He does not mention, but he must know, the parable of the good Samaritan who nurses the robbed and beaten stranger on the road to Jerusalem. It was a plea in another context that the Jew and the stranger are dependent on one another. Cohen recalls that through history the Jews were the “community of expulsion... without a land to go to.” Today they cannot see that the Palestinians are the “community of expulsion,” expelled by them.

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Shlomo Sand

Over the weekend I read a strange, but challenging book, Shlomo Sand’s How I Stopped Being A Jew (Verso). Sand is a University of Tel Aviv history professor, born of a Jewish mother and Gentile father in a displaced persons camp in Austria right after World War II. Though raised and educated as a Jew, Sand feels he must cut free of his origins because he is an atheist and does not embrace any of the Jewish traditions that re-enforce identity. Indeed he decries the situation of secular Jews who go through the motions of circumcision, Hanuka, etc but believe none of the historical traditions allegedly the basis of the celebrations. Secular Judaism, he argues, is empty if it is based on rituals that are not valid.

Nevertheless, he says, many of Israel’s Zionists founders selectively embraced Old Testament traditions that justified their occupation of Palestine without embracing the Bible’s religious beliefs. Once the Israeli population grew, fed by immigrants from all over Europe, especially Russia, the question of identity became harder to answer. In the end it’s all in your mother’s bloodstream. To legally be made a Jew without that qualification is a long and difficult process, he says.

Personally, I think of St. Ignatius’ reported statement that he wished he had Jewish blood in his veins because that’s what Jesus had. To have Jewish blood is an honor and a privilege; and if Sand reads this I’d urge him to read Genesis, the Prophets and the Psalms to discover enough inspiration on which to build some level of religious commitment. He is enraged that being a Jewish citizen in practice means “being a privileged citizen,” who can buy land non-Jews don’t have access to, be a minister of foreign affairs and live in a settlement outside the legal borders of the state, establish a colony on land you do not own, drive on highways where non-Jews may not, and you will not see your house demolished by mistake.

Patricia Greenfield

Patricia Marks Greenfield, a psychology professor from the University of California at Los Angeles, proposes “An Israel equal for all, Jewish or not,” (Washington Post, Sept 28). It’s the “one state solution,” which keeps popping up and which I would like to live long enough to witness. She returns from a research project with Jewish and Muslim scholars at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, visiting all of Israel’s ethnic groups with two conclusions: Israel as a multiethnic society must provide equal legal and day-to-day treatment to all its citizens. In this Israel is out of step with the rest of the world. Other populations have become more ethnically and religiously diverse, more urban and educated, and their economies more commercial. They have left behind the notion of a favored state religion. Israel must become a fully secular state, she concludes. Gaza and the West Bank must inevitably become part of Israel, as Israel gives up official Jewish identity to become a multi-religous state with equal treatment for all.

Israel need not fear being overwhelmed by the Palestinian birth rate because, with equal education and economic opportunity, the Palestinian birthrate with even off with Israel’s, and the “right of return” would come to mean an opportunity to live in Israel as equal citizens. There’s one word for this: it is “peace."

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Christopher Rushlau
3 years 9 months ago
I suspect that Mr. Sand's experience of Judaism/Jewishness is shared by most people in Israel. "Separation of church and state" is based on practical psychology: what the state says I am and what God says I am cannot be exactly the same definition, no matter how hard it is to define "state" and "God". But the legal-moral questions in today's Israel are not that hard at all. My own scant research suggests that non-Jews have one percent of the chance of Jews (all according to state registration) at getting a building permit (to avoid the house demolition). The executive director of Jewish Voices for Peace said here a few months ago that this disproportion, 100:1, also describes the disparity in government expenditure for public education. As I go from hope to bad news to really bad news, here it is. A regime of law seems to be based on citizens' willingness to believe the evidence of their senses. A regime of ideology can have the trappings of law but if juries and judges only follow the party line and not their senses (as in judging a defendant by evidence), there is no law. Yet to credit the senses is to credit God. I don't see how these two acts of faith can be distinguished. Karl Rahner would say that we do not need to toe any ecclesiastical party lines, only avoid making a definitive decision against God. Yet if--when--we credit the party line, as by accepting a headline that says some "terrorists" were "taken out" by a drone strike, we are accepting the impossible. "Terrorist" in the news jargon is at best a conclusory legal term, meaning someone properly convicted of the crime of terrorism which yet has obviously not happened in the news item, and at worst, considering the vagueness of the statutory definition as it seems to these layman's eyes, the term is pure pejorative: like calling someone a bad name and then treating that labeling as a conviction precedent to punishment: scape-goating leading to goat-slaughter. Can secularism handle reality, or do all identifications become political footballs, including whose car caused the accident at the intersection? Hope returns: I'm reminded of the "Protestant Principle", that all religious institutions are subject to corruption, and the "Catholic Rejoinder" or what-not: that God knows that, too, and can compensate for it. I think that that would mean, in my dire scenario, that all persons are irrevocably graced with the ability to distinguish what is happening from what is "supposed to be" happening. That still would allow a regime of ideology. I see I must attach to that consideration my idea that everybody knows how to entrust themselves to the God of Mercy when they undertake any deliberate act, like taking out the garbage. They do not dispute with the door whether or not it needs to be opened before they can take out the garbage. Everybody knows the experience of grace whereby things are what they look like. I think that was the real thrust and intent of Rahner's life's work, if I am polishing it a bit.

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