When I was growing up, my sister loved to share with me the well-known Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!” I understood right away why living in too interesting times is a curse — far better is it to live in a time defined by the boredom of peace and economic prosperity, a moment so monotonous because the fields are rich with grain, and earthquakes and other natural disasters are part of a faded memory in the history of human experience.
This past month, however, was a reminder we are not in such a time. In fact, things are becoming too interesting. I am thinking in particular about the news of Israel’s attack on the “peace” activists trying to break the Gaza blockade and the world’s condemnation that followed.
Unlike the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, this disaster happened in plain sight. We could see it unfolding and might have assumed it would have been more deftly handled by the Jewish State famed for its legendary intelligence unit, the Mossad, and its military capacity to carry out precision raids with incredible dexterity.
Despite reports by those who hate the Jewish State, Israel does respect life and tries to protect civilians in a manner from which even our army could learn. We now know too well, however, that the Israeli government played into their enemies’ hands to the point, as Israeli newspapers have reported, that the army failed not only in terms of its intelligence gathering, but almost had three of its own soldiers taken hostage on a ship they assumed was being guided by nonviolent activists.
This past month placed American Jews in the position of needing to defend Israel, which is fighting for its right to exist — a right to which we are clearly committed — against those who mask their anti-Semitism in the soft taffeta of
a human rights-focused liberalism, hiding their steeled objection to the national aspirations of the Jewish people during a moment when the Jewish State has stumbled.
I have no argument with those peace activists who embrace a two-state solution, who want to see Palestinians and Israelis live in safe borders, as neighbors, allowing each other to develop, and who oppose those who embrace a greater Israel view or a greater Palestine view. But many of those on the ships trying to break the blockade were not, by any definition, “peace” activists. Their approach would have been differently perceived if they had rallied against the violence and hatred promoted by Hamas, just as they rallied to end a blockade that seems nonsensical in its current formation.
Though democratically elected, Hamas forcibly imposes its leadership on the people of Gaza. And so we as American Jews find ourselves between a rock and a hard place — for we want to speak out for Israel — but many of us are embarrassed by what happened on the high seas in Israel’s name.
A parshah we read this last month, Shelach Lecha, sheds some light on how we might respond. In this section of the Torah, God tells Moses to send forth scouts to bring back reports from the land of Canaan on whether it is safe for them and whether it can support a people as a true potential harbor for these slaves who had been wandering the wilderness.
Mordecai Adler commented that “The land of Promise was not merely a geographical acquisition, not merely the name of a place. It represented their future. The twelve men were not sent to explore a land: they were sent on a mission to explore the future of a people.”
From this perspective, the scouts’ task was to help the people see what they could become, how they could make the transition from being a nation of slaves into a thriving people settled on a beautiful land. There they could make real the vision of becoming a kingdom of priests, an example to the world of the heights to which humanity could aspire if they embraced a system of values that sees life as holy and filled with joy.
We know, however, that the scouts failed miserably in their mission. The scouts found a land flowing with milk and honey, but then said in the presence of their people it was also filled with fortified cities, and they would be too weak to occupy it. When Joshua and Caleb, who were also among the scouts, proclaimed that they could indeed capture it, the other scouts lost all perspective and proclaimed that, “The country we traversed is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size — giants —and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them!”
That last verse is one of the most oft-quoted verses of Torah — these leaders, given the task of motivating the people to embrace their future instead let their fear speak for them, and then instilled fear in the general populace. Despite Joshua and Caleb’s reassurances, panic set in.
It seems the modern state of Israel, despite the very real threat it faces, is acting like the scouts who came back with bad reports. We know the world is a hard place, that Israel is located in a bad neighborhood, and that there are those who would like to destroy it. But Israel treated the approaching Gaza flotilla convoy as giants, and responded in a way that led to worldwide condemnation when such an occurrence did not need to happen.
Rather than throw up our hands, we American Jews have a positive role to play in supporting our friends in Israel. Like Caleb and Joshua, we can encourage those who truly want to bring about change to keep their eyes on the prize by calling upon the Israeli leadership to engage in a peace offensive — easing restrictions on Palestinians and continuing the dialogue with the American leadership promoting peace negotiations. To be effective we have to challenge the extremists in our midst who don’t want peace, who believe we should continue to rule the Palestinians and build settlements in areas where millions of them live, areas that even Ariel Sharon wanted to concede.
At the same time, we have to say we can have peace but not at the cost of losing our national identity, our right to self defense, and to living in secure borders by challenging those “peace activists” who want to achieve peace by delegitimizing the State of Israel.
Let us call out those who oppose our right to a state — and who claim that Israel is a center of apartheid while supporting regimes surrounding that democratic country in which the only official religion is Islam, where women are oppressed, the Baha’i are persecuted, Christians who intermarry are forced to convert, gays and lesbians are tortured — for what they are: promoters of hate.
Let us proclaim, as did Joshua and Caleb, that we can work for real peace and for real freedom, for Jews and Palestinians living in their own states, in that land so little, but so holy, to so many.
We already see that peace is possible with Arabs in Egypt and Jordan, and know that the Turkish response of disappointment comes out of a country that has made a warm peace with Israel, opened trade ties, and served as a conduit for negotiations with its neighbors.
We can see the possibility for peace even as we remain determined to defend our right as Jews to a sovereign Jewish nation in our homeland.
The Midrash notes that many who supported Joshua and Caleb in the Torah story stayed silent. They did not speak out, and as a result all Israelites over 20 years of age were condemned to die in the wilderness, even those who disagreed with the majority and favored Joshua and Caleb.
Why? Because they did not speak up. In this important time let us not follow their example. Speaking up in this way is not a form of being critical of Israel — but an embrace of Israel’s future. We can be the vision of hope even in hard times. We can help our people avoid another painful 40 years in the wilderness of conflict.