This past Friday evening, as I finished mopping the floors and removed the food I had prepared for our guests from the oven, I heard the siren that announces the approach of the Sabbath in Jerusalem every week. It is a deep lowing moan broadcast over the hills of this garden city, echoing off its pale stone and resonating through its cypresses and cedars and palms and eucalyptuses, and flowers blooming even in November. In our home, as in many, the siren always spurs one last burst of energy to finish preparations as it calls us to relinquish our week-day efforts and concerns. I always feel like a wind-up toy that speeds up frantically as it spends the last twists of animating tension in its mechanism. For the siren proclaims the arrival of the particular moment in which we understand ourselves as commanded to slow down, to relinquish all the electronic devices that occupy such a central role in our daily lives, and to put aside all instruments of material creativity and production. It begs us to pause and remember how all the arts of our hands should be guided by reflection, how all meaningful activity depends upon rest and quiet, how all acts of signification require contemplation in order to attain significance. It suggests that a grateful consciousness of our status as caused creatures will enhance our abilities and experiences as causes and creators. This siren tells us that the time has come to move at a slower pace, to sing ancient poetry and to study enduring stories and their commentaries, familiar texts that promise a potentially infinite yield of meanings. It announces the weekly occasion on which we celebrate our existences by indulging in richer foods spread on festive tablecloths and to savor them more slowly than we do on other days, and to share them with those we love. It bids us place our hands upon the head of each of our children to invoke upon them weekly blessings of enlightenment, of peacefulness and well-being.
I look forward to blessing my children on Sabbath eve as a highlight of each week. But this week, as missles and rockets flew back and forth between Gaza and southern Israel, the yearning for peace and well-being for children felt particularly acute, for mine and ours and theirs, all caught in the middle of a cascading political failure, a persistent vacuum of vision and leadership. I put on my jacket and stepped out of our garden gate to head to a local synagogue to hear how a Rabbi with whom I have been studying on Sun. evenings for the past few weeks would respond. A deeply kind and compassionate man, he is composing his doctoral dissertation in Philosophy on the metaphysical and theological underpinnings of John Rawls’ concept of distributive justice. As such, his commitment to traditional Judaism is deeply intertwined with a rigorous and deeply felt humanism, a combination all too rare these days.
Three steps out of the gate, as I turned up the lovely, quiet street we live on, a different kind of siren sounded. This siren was a shrill, electric, undulating alarum. Given that the Palestinian and Jewish populations are intertwined here and that the city is the site of Islamic holy sites of the highest significance, no rocket had ever been fired from Gaza at Jerusalem before this. Yet they would not perform a civil defense drill on the Sabbath. I turned on my heel, literally – thinking to myself “aha, so that is why they call it turning on one’s heel” – crossed the garden in five elongated strides and reentered our apartment. The special blend of aromas, of cleaning products and fresh cooking that we enjoy for a few hours every Friday evening refused to be perturbed. We calmly took our three children down to the basement library. I could feel myself reverting automatically to the efficient detachment I learned as an infantryman, but it was now mixed with a consciouness of the necessity to exude reassurance. We called a friend in the neighborhood to check in about the protocol. Usually, we do not use the telephone after commencement of the Sabbath. But this seemed to me to fall under the rabbinic injunction to set aside any and all Sabbath restrictions in the face of the faintest possibility that human life is at stake. Our friends were not sure what to do either, given the unfamiliarity of the situation in Jerusalem. We waited while they checked and called us back with instructions. After the siren sounds, if there is “something” then “it” will occur within 90 seconds. Generally, one should wait about 10 minutes to make sure the siren doesn’t sound again. Then everything is “normal” again.
As we waited, our children had many questions. There had been much discussion about the assassination of the Hamas military leader Jabari, to whom my 5 year old son refers to as the “bad man,” and the rockets from Gaza raining down on the southwest of the country. My eldest daughter has been repeating things she has heard in school about “Arabs,” expressions that are disturbing in both content and tone. Meaningful responses beyond platitudes regarding the heterogeneity of all cultural communities (a phrase relatively useless to an 8 year old girl, no matter how precocious) and historical complexity have proven more challenging to formulate than I anticipated. Yet both of my elder children assumed at first that the siren had meant there was a tornado warning. There are no tornadoes here. As we explained what was happening, we assured them that we were in a safe part of the country and that we were following protocols as a precaution to ensure that even in the very unlikely instance of a bomb in the area, we would be completely safe. My daughter, finally settling in here after months of angry outbursts directed at us for taking her away from her friends and school and house for the year, began to interrogate us regarding our decision to come here once again. If it is safe in Ann Arbor, why would we bring them someplace less safe? I explained that Jerusalem is safe, as long as we take precautions. But why would we bring her to a place where we need to take precautions instead of staying where precautions aren’t necessary? Ultimately, I told them that there is a much bigger chance of our house in Ann Arbor being hit by a tornado than our building in Jerusalem being hit by a rocket. She argued that a bomb is scarier than a tornado. I conceded that there is something to that. It may have something to do with the fact that no one sends a tornado at your house. It’s not just the danger of damage and death, but the evidence of human malice. But I struggled to explain my resolve to be here. To pick up and run would be an acknowledgement that we have less right to be here than those sending the rockets? I certainly don’t see their rights as any less than ours, nor do I believe that our rights and theirs are of necessity mutually exclusive. But even as I want my children to develop a historical consciousness and to engage critically with history as a way of constructing meaningful lives, I suddenly felt uncomfortable with how we had placed its weight upon them when there are other options.
When we came upstairs, I asked my wife what she thought of me going to synagogue. Our guests weren’t due for another hour and a half and she seemed non-commital. But before she could answer fully, my daughter insisted that she wanted me to stay. So I took a prayer book into the garden and proceeded to recite the cycle of Psalms and hymns that welcome the occasion. Things were eerily normal, all too familiar, something akin to uncanny. I could not help but consider that those ten fleeting minutes of precaution accompanied by the necessity of emotionally effective parenting for which my fatherly expertise assuredly proved insufficient this was not anywhere commensurate with the experience of the families in Gaza. I know Gaza, or at least I knew it. As a much younger man, I spent part of my service there during the first Intifadah. I know its oppressive poverty, its alleways lined with unadorned cinderblock dwellings, it’s seemingly permanently unfinished highrises, its derelict villas and its dilapidated open spaces. Urban development and beautification prove challenging under occupation, economic deprivation, and blockade. I had been fretting (to use an all too precious term) about what was coming to Gaza all week as things escalated. I had been following the documentation of its effects as Israeli airstrikes commenced, as I had of the damage Hamas’ rockets had inflicted on cities and towns of southern Israel. But it was never far from my mind that the majority of the blodshed and destruction would occur in Gaza. Yet should I wish for parity of suffering? Did I want the horrific burden descending on parents in Gaza? Who could wish for the disruption, damage, and death, the horrors and traumas that even the most precautious surgical strikes would inevitably bring to an urban environment?
Contrary to the situation in Gaza, the city of Ramallah, capital of the FATAH led Palestinian authority just a few minutes north of Jerusalem, has experienced growth and development under its Prime Minister, the pragmatic economist Salaam Fayyed. There is even a new Palestinian city under construction not far from Ramallah called Rawabi, a brand new community being planned and built from the ground up, much like new Israeli settlements and communities. Its beautiful website gives the impression of a smaller Abu Dhabi: http://www.rawabi.ps/. So the harshness of the conditions in Gaza have much to do with Hamas control as well. For unlike FATAH, Hamas remains committed to either killing and expelling the nearly 6 million Jews (an eerie number for sure) or perhaps allowing a minority to stay under the restrictions of Islamic law. No one who reads the Hamas charter can mistake its explicit and virulent anti-Semitism. And though many, especially many on the left whom I consider allies on most issues, have been arguing for the existence of moderation among Hamas leaders. They note that Jabari himself, the militant Hamas leader assassinated last week, had the draft of a potential agreement in his hands when his car exploded. As such, they argue that Hamas should and must be included in any diplomatic process. Yet Hamas stands committed to their charter and at most their representatives have suggested that they would agree to a 20 year truce, not a permanent treaty and normalization. I see much wrong and misleading with the analogies between Hamas, Islamicism in general, and NAZIsm that have become common parlance on the right. But it does not escape my notice that Germany surrendered to its defeat in WWI in 1918 and, after eventually throwing off the restrictions on rearmament agreed to at Versailles, initiated WWII in 1939. Twenty years, without permanent agreement and normalization?
I want more than anything to believe in a moderate element in Hamas with whom Israel can come to an agreement. I want to believe that even a temporary agreement will create enough stability to enable development of a middle class that will reject maximalist ideological dreams in favor of the mundane but profound dignities of institution building, economic development, and cultural production that we are seeing under FATAH on the West Bank. But I am struggling to see a way forward with them. In an interview published in Haaretz on Mon., Dr. Mahmoud Ramhi, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and one of the most prominent Hamas representatives in the West Bank, gestured to the lack of strategic thinking on the Israeli side: “Israel did not calculate its steps wisely when it began this war” he argued. He faulted Israel for failing to take “into account the way [the operation] will end or the losses in life and property that are being and will be caused primarily to the Palestinian side,” thus predicting that “Israel will pay a price – not in the material sense, but in the moral sense.” Israeli politicians are indeed more tactical than strategic. This is not a new insight. Many are former generals, or enamored of generals and overly attendant to them. Generals are authorized to prepare and prosecute difficult missions successfully. This leads to an inheretly short-term perspective. Statespersons are tasked wth developing more long-term strategies. They think about big goals, productive realignments and end-games that bring about new poltical realities. Yet there is something very chilling in Rahmi’s almost gloating assertion that Hamas is in line for a victory that is not “material” but “moral.” And it strikes me that a particalurly immoral calculus undergirds his strategic perspective, as the material he refers to is the material of human bodies, many of them inevitably civilian, a large portion of whom will be children. Hamas activists in Gaza have been telling residents to ignore the leaflets dropped on particular neighborhoods where munitions are stored and from which rockets launched that warn them to evacuate. They dismiss these urgent warning intended to limit deaths psychological warfare. They want their immoral moral victory and they will have it. Indeed, they are focused on a goal of the longest term, as Rahmi notes: “What must engage the Israelis today is not whether there will be peace with the Palestinian Authority, or whether there will be a Palestinian state, but whether Israel will continue to exist or not.” His goal couldn’t be clearer. And then the following day Khaled Meshaal, the top leader of Hamas, literally dares Israel to unleash its ground operation. He has no illusions that Hamas will rout the IDF. He knows it cannot. Nor does this come seem to me empty bravado like spouted a decade ago by Baghdad Bob. Meshaal, and perhaps Rahmi, hope for carnage, for the deaths of the civilians his activists are urging to remain in the path of the destruction, calculating that their deaths will undermine international support for Israel and provoke a reaction that will bring the eventual establishment of a theocratic Palestinian Islamic state. This is the “moral” victory they hope for, carnage that leads to more carnage, that leads to the destruction of Israel’s Jewish communities and the instantiation of a theocracy.
This doesn’t sound to me like leadership pursuing either a pluralistic one-state solution or a permanent peaceful two-state solution. And yet, the people of Gaza embrace this leadership, a leadership that came to power by decapitating FATAH activists and throwing them off the tops of Gaza’s highrises; a leadership that just yesterday summarily executed 6 men accused of collaboration with Israel without trial, one of whose bodies it tied to a motorcycle and dragged through the streets. And here we have a cultural difference so enormous that I simply cannot wrap my head around it and fall into an experience of opacity. For I do not believe, not for a second, that fathers in Gaza love their children any less than I love mine. But I cannot conceive of tolerating a leadership that operates in this way, that commits to such strategies when any other options are available, however imperfect.
I have difficulty embracing the notion that two ethno-cratic nationalisms are better than one. Yet because I also acknowledge the suffering and injustices experienced by Palestinians, I must respect their goal of national self-determination in their own state. However, even as I do not claim for myself the right to oppose them on this goal, I would love to see this region administered by a secular constitutional republic that ensures the rights of all its communities and the dignity of their historical narratives. I dream of a multi-ethnic and multi-national democracy where demographic size does not determine each community’s security or its access to material, cultural, and civic resources. After all, the dream of Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, is often encapsulated in his articulation that Jews become “a free people in the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” which has become the closing line of Israel’s national anthem. To be free, to be enfranchised, to participate in popular sovreignty is the goal. In a democratic republic, the idea is that no citizen’s sovereigny should be greater than another’s, no matter what participating community they affiliate with within the nation. The melding of liberalism and nationalism that forms the deep structure of Zionism suggests that civil rights can be disassociated from national rights and that the former can be fully instantiated without any necessary expression of the latter. Though not without significant successes, the potential of this formulation is, I fear, fatally limited. It seems like much too often when liberalism and nationalism come into conflict in Israel, the latter prevails. And avoidance of such conflicts rests upon using governmental and quasi-governmental means to maintain Jewish demographic “superiority.” When liberalism depends upon nationalism, nationalism has already won.
Most Zionists read history as providing consistent proof that Jews require Jewish sovereignty as a moral and historical imperative, pointing to the ancient past as a time when we were free and lived in dignity. They then contrast by framing subsequent Jewish history as ultimately and inescapable lachrymose. Yet I would not exchange Jewish life in America for life in biblical Israel or post-biblical Judea. In a few weeks, we will celebrate Hannukah, which marks the successful anti-colonial rebellion (and as occurs in most anti-colonial rebellions, the civil war) that claimed independece for Judea from the Assyrian Greek empire and initiated the rule of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty. It is a holiday with particular significance in contemporary Israel. Yet the Babylonian Talmud relates in tractate Kiddushin 66a how Alexander Jannaeus, grandson of one of the five brothers who led the rebellion, “massacred all the Sages of Israel,” the Pharisees who lay the groundwork for the rabbinic movement in Judaism. In The Jewish War, Josephus relates a similar tradition with more specificity, claiming that the same Hasmonean king crucified 800 Pharisees. This does not seem to me a coherent experience of freedom and security. What my study of history indicates is that Jews have been materially and civicly secure under two conditions, either under a benevolent autocrat or in constitutional republics whose laws ensure the enfranchisement of members of all communities. The former proves necessarily unreliable, as it depends upon the relative usefulness of the Jewish community in question to this or that autocrat in shifting contexts and is ultimately dependent upon the duration of the ruler’s life. While the collapse of the Weimar Republic may suggest the same regarding constitutional republicanism, I read it as suggesting the imperative to defend such democracies against threats, whether internal and external. Beyond the moral and ethical imperatives that mark this committment as an end in itself, only by advocating, pursuing, and preserving the political freedom and unfettered enfranchisement of all citizens can Jewish communities achieve freedom and security.
There is a way forward. And it is one that has been discussed in very particular, circumscribed circles. The one thing that might break the cycle would be for Palestinians in the territories to begin to apply for Israeli citizenship en masse. This would lead either to the long deferred partition into two states as an alternative, or to enfranchisement within Israel that could shift the structures of the state democratically through political processes. For enfranchisement means representation. There could be a push to adopt two flags, just as both Hebrew and Arabic are official languages of the state. It could lead to a change in the national anthem, for the present one only represents the historical experience of less than half of Israel’s Jewish citizens (no Yemenite Jew ever faced eastward in prayer as Jerusalem was to its northwest and to the west of Iraqi Jews) and none of the non-Jews who make up 20% of the citizenry. It could lead to something in between like a binational confederation of Jewish and Palestinian provinces, each with its own government, within the same republic. This is why it’s something that strikes fear into the hearts of most Israelis and why the current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wants to pass a law that requires loyalty oaths to a “Jewish State” as a necessary condition of citizenship. It bothers Israelis as for many, I fear, the affiliation with the state has become greater than the commitment to geography, demography, and culture. Of course, many argue that these are inescapably dependent upon the formal political apparatus of a Jewish State. But when I raise the idea of a reconfiguration of our nation-state as a thought experiment, to try to envision how we might support the main goals of Zionism in a way that might perhaps make us more free and more secure, as well as more in tune with actual historical evidence and that would dissolve some of the ethical conflicts and conundra tha perturb so many of us, I am dismissed as crazy. The exclusion of any hypothetical when one faces an unsustainable situation seems to me to be either a critical failure of imagination or a self-deluding act of justification. The state is supposed to be a means to an end, a way for Jews to live as a secure, free people in the land of Zion and Jerusalem. But for many it has become an end in itself. The means has become so identified with the end that they are confused. And the confusion of means and ends is one of the classical definitions of idolatry. But, I must grant that my hypotheticals all require belief in the possibility that a population whose political imagination is dominated and/or animated by Hamas’ yearning for carnage as the glorious price for theocracy might ever be open to such a thing.
This past Thursday night, a young percussionist around 25 years old came to audition for my current musical project. He lives in Beer Sheva, but studies two days a week at the Center for Eastern Music in Musrara, a neighborhood close to the Old City. Given the rockets hitting Beer Sheva, he had decided to stay in Jerusalem. After we worked through a few tunes, his cell phone rang. As he noted the restricted number, his face went white. He was sure it was his reserve unit calling him up, but it turned out to be a notification of the cancellation of a concert to which he had tickets. On Monday, I took my 5 year old son to his roller hockey practice. His coach is an engineering student whose childhood was spent in Vancouver. When we got there, I expressed relief that he had showed up. He smiled and told me he was the last of his friends who hadn’t been called up, that they were already “down there.” I asked him what he had heard from them. He told me that Sunday morning they took their phones, but then gave them back in the evening. He didn’t need to say anything else. One of the last things they do in the army before giving the order to suit up and set out is collect cell phones. Usually, they allow a small window to phone family beforehand. The fact that phones were collected and then restored means that they were close to commencing a ground operation, the one the Hamas leadership is rooting for as the source of their moral victory. Since then, we have been following cease fire negotiations. We thought it was imminent on Tuesday night, but it never materialized. Another friend whose son is a paratrooper has been able to call once a day. I think constantly about the son of other friends of ours, an officer who commands a team of the most elite commando unity in the IDF. They lost his brother last year to a diving accident. I cannot imagine…. Another friend of ours, an epidemiologist at UVW, received a call from her son on Sunday as well. He called to say “goodbye.” In the mean time we await a diplomatic breakthrough and pray one comes before it’s too late. And I’ve never felt so relieved to have reached middle age.