Sunday, 18 November 2012

How Two Jewish Ideas Helped Me Get Through Yesterday's Sermon in Synagogue

Before I left for synagogue in DC yesterday I resolved that I would not sit through a sermon that painted the Israelis as the innocent victims of murderous Hamas thugs. I expected that additional Psalms would be said for those in Israel, and I would say them with more kavvanah/intention than usual. (Some of my children and grandchildren have been in those shelters recently.) But I would try to insist that civilians on both sides be included in the Psalms.

As it turned out, I would have gladly sat in my safe room in my apartment in Jerusalem -- or in a shelter in Sderot -- than have sat through the sermon I heard. The rabbi, who is a  moderate, learned, and decent man, and often quite liberal and tolerant towards other religions,  began by commenting on the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He then tied that to the weekly portion, which refers to the enmity between Jacob and Esau, already in the womb of Rebecca. Of course, he conceded that Esau was later interpreted by the rabbis not as Muslims but as Christians, and he also said that the prototypical Muslim was Ishmael and not Esau. But what can you's Torah portion was about Esau and Jacob and any typological enemy will do in the current storm.

As the sermon went on, its message became clearer: There is no hope of peace with Muslims, because their values are simply different from those of us Jews. They believe that heaven is acquired through fighting and dying. They use firepower indiscriminately. They target civilians. We Jews live in a bad neighborhood, getting worse by the growth of fundamentalism (this from an orthodox rabbi, who had just used the Bible as a source for historical inevitability!) He ended with the hopeful comment that, as a rabbi, he has witnessed more and more Muslims converting to Judaism.

As he started talking about Islam,  I felt that I could take it no longer. My blood boiling, I weighed the option of walking out. Since I sit in the front row of a relatively small room,  my protest would have been noticed by everybody, including the rabbi. I knew that this would cause a stir, and, who knows, maybe some good would come out of it. It would have been disrespectful to the rabbi, but our sages teach that "where this is desecration of God's name, one doesn't accord respect to rabbis." Or so I reasoned, in my anger.

But then I remembered two important teachings of our sages:

"Who is a hero? One who masters his passions." It's a passage I had learned with my students only the day before, and it smacks of Stoic influence.  Maimonides writes that one should avoid anger, even when anger is appropriate. All right, I realize that some psychologists may disagree. But walking out in a huff is not a way to influence people. And disrespecting the mara de-asra, the local rabbinical authority, especially one whom I respect on many other matters, and who is a friend and colleague, because of a disagreement, is wrong. At any rate, it's not me. 

And I also thought, what right do I have to cause anybody discomfort, especially since

All us Israel-supporters, even rabbis, are tinokot she-nishbu "children who have been raised among the Idolators" (tinokot she-nishbu). This rabbinic  phrase has come to mean somebody who have been raised in ignorance of the truth. How can I blame any of my fellow-Jews for their ignorance, since they have been indoctrinated since birth with Zionist myths and Israeli narratives. The mainstream media in this country is hopeless "captured" by the Israeli hasbara machine, whether liberal Zionist (NY Times, Washington Post) or chauvinist Zionism (Fox News, the Murdoch papers). Unless you read Haaretz, which now charges a hefty subscription free, you are entirely clueless as to what is going on, and Haaretz, God bless it, also reflects an Israeli perspective. 

After the services I talked with people who were not happy with the Gaza situation, who were not knee-jerk supporters of the Netanyahu government, but who, out of ignorance, spouted the same hasbara slogans that the Israeli spin machine puts out so well, and now on Twitter and Facebook. They receive links from the Jerusalem Post and Fox News? Can I blame them for their ignorance?

The problem is not Hamas violence or Israeli violence; these are only symptoms of a much deeper mindset, or mentalite, which cannot be erased easily, if at all. Talking with my fellow Jews I felt as if I were  talking with some doctrinaire Marxists, or evangelical Christians (or Muslims, Jews, or "Dawkinsians"), whose entire worldviews were the servant of some ideology.

As is my own, I suppose, only in my case the ideology is the American liberalism with which I was raised.

To be fair, my fellow-congregants have also been raised with a lot of that American liberalism. When one said to me, "Don't you think Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks." I said, "Not only a right, but an obligation." But when I countered,  "Don't Palestinians have the right to defend themselves from Israeli attacks, including cross-border incursions and naval blockades?" I was met with a blank stare. If this had been Israel, my interlocutor would have said, "No, they don't." But for an American Jewish liberal, what I had said had completely thrown him off, at least for a few seconds.

It doesn't occur to most American Jews I know, or for that matter, most people I know, that the Palestinians are the primary victims of the Zionist movement, that they were dispossessed by superior force,  and that they are struggling for decades to enjoy the same life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in their land that the Israelis have enjoyed.  Whether they are second-class citizens, or under occupation,  or in the Palestinian diaspora,  they refuse to admit total defeat, and they will never relinquish their claims. They are among the longest suffering peoples since World War I, and their suffering is compounded because some of those who supplanted them suffered terribly during World War II.

A few of the  lessons I take away from yesterday's portion, which focuses on Genesis 27.

Spin and Deception work in the short term. 

(See under Jacob.)

But the truth will out eventually, even for the Israeli hasbara machine

"The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau"

And Israel is willing for the sake of Zionism to fulfill the Biblical prophecy of Esau

"Then Isaac his father answered and said to him,
From the fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling
From the dew of heaven from above
By your sword you shall live."

Only in current Hebrew, this living-by-the-sword is called "conflict management."

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