Below please find this week's d'var Torah by our congregant Vic Goldberg.
Matot and Ma'sei, this week's portions, deal with the end of the years in the wilderness, and the things that God tells Moses to instruct the Israelite people, including "you shall take possession of the Promised Land and settle in it;" "how to apportion it among yourselves", and the warning that "if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those who you allow to remain will be stings in the eyes and thorns in the sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live." Pretty powerful narrative, with painful relevance today. But one wonders what the Moabite narrative might have been; they who were to be on the receiving end of this settlement.
Conflicting narratives about Israel came to the forefront of my life about nine years ago. I was completing 13 years as vice chairman of the Institute of International Education...best known for administering the Fulbright scholarships and 250 other international exchange programs, ....and I wanted to do something in gratitude for how that opportunity had enriched my life. The CEO there asked me what was important in my life, and Israel immediately came to mind.
As a young American Jew in 1948, (I was 15 years old), I lived in Chicago next door to immigrants with numbers on their forearms, near a parochial school whose students thought I killed Christ, and I was totally drawn to this new nation, a safe place for Jews which embodied the cultural and moral values with which I was raised.
Now here I was in 2004, having watched nothing but strife in the Middle East for all my adult life, wondering what if anything could bring peace to this Jewish Homeland I had cherished all my life. Clearly political leadership had failed, ..... and maybe only work at the grassroots level could form the basis of lasting peace down the road.
And so, I envisioned a Middle East Peace Prize. To win it you had to have two people, one Jewish Israeli and one Arab Muslim, working together at the grass roots. I joked that we should have called it the Don Quixote IIE Prize for Peace in the Middle East, since there was a serious possibility that we would be unable to find a Jewish Israeli and an Arab Muslim working together for peace….one of whom had had a connection to an international exchange program in which IIE was involved. But we have done so, with no shortage of candidates, for 8 years running.
The winners of the first prize in 2005 dealt directly with this issue of conflicting narratives. Dan Bar On and Sami Adwan were both college professors, Dan at Ben Gurion University and Sami at Bethlehem University. They had constructed a middle school history textbook for four historical periods: the Balfour declaration, the 1948 war, the Yom Kippur War and the first Intifada. On the left hand side of each page was the Israeli narrative, on the right was the Arab narrative, and the middle was composed of the blank lines of a workbook. To develop the textbook they sometimes had to meet across checkpoints; and to train 10 Israeli and 10 Palestinian teachers, they eventually had to fly them to Crete for joint sessions. To this day, neither the Israeli Ministry of Education nor the Palestinian Ministry of Education have approved this textbook. But with the book's intervening historical periods now complete, it is being used at the University level, and so the work is not in vain.
The 2006 Prize went to an all Israeli team, one Jewish, one Muslim, that established an Arab Israeli Community Center In Jaffa.
The 2007 Prize to a team that established the first intregrated school in Israel, with student enrollment and faculty, each balanced 50/50 and with Jewish and Muslim Co-Directors. They have since expanded to three schools.
2008 to founders of a bereavement group called Parents Circle: a Jew who lost his daughter to a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and a Palestinian whose brother was released from an Israeli prison... beaten so badly that he died shortly thereafter.
2009 to the founders of a Young Professionals Alliance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
2010 to a former member of an elite IDF army unit and a self described Palestinian intifada fighter who formed a group called Combatants for Peace.
2011 to two women working in Be'er Sheva for the civil rights of Bedouins.
and 2012 to two Israelis, one Jewish, one Muslim each heading an organization devoted to civil rights within Israel, who file joint briefs to the Israeli Supreme Court on civil rights issues involving women, Muslims, gays, ...and Jews striving to live their lives unrestricted by Haredeem and other Orthodox forces.
My wife Pat and I go to Israel each year to present the prize and each year are in awe of what the winners have done. These absolutely heroic people have internalized scripture which is quite different from this week's portion: Leviticus 19:18, "love thy neighbor as thyself." More to the point, from Rabbi Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow man. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary: go and learn it."
In some years, the winning teams have been composed of one Palestinian and one Israeli. In other years, both winners have been Israeli citizens. Where both have been Israeli citizens, the work has been focused on civil rights, and it strongly evokes the civil rights struggles in the United States in the last half of the 20th century.
I remember as a boy on a trip to the American South seeing the water fountains and bathrooms with signs designating “white only.” I remember the tumultuous years in which African Americans fought to get the legal right to vote; and the continuing battle for equal educational and economic opportunity.
I also remember the active role many American Jews played in those historical efforts. And well we should have! Having for centuries been the victim of discrimination, it was, and is, only proper that we help others to be freed from it. That lesson sometimes seems lost in the Israel of today, but I think that same positive progress can happen there. And it will require very similar effort. It will require action ....by citizens who are conscious of the disconnnect between their moral heritage and the realities of their society,… and who are willing to get out of their comfort zone and use all the tools at their disposal to pressure their government and their society for change. All in all, however, In this area of Israeli civil rights, I am somewhat optimistic.
In the area of finding peace with the Palestinians, however, my optimism has pretty much vanished. In past years, the necessity and inevitability of a two-state solution seemed to be a given. But on our trip last month, the secular Israeli liberals seemed dispirited, an increasingly powerless portion of society, ....with Mr. Netanyahu focusing on disputes with the religious parties over military service. And a week ago, the report of a Netanyahu-appointed commission recommending that all the illegal settlements should be declared legal, could presage a disastrous turn away from the two-state solution, .....which has been the cornerstone of hope for those who seek long term peace in the Middle East.....the only solution that will allow a state that is both Jewish and democratic.
I believe that failure to establish a separate Palestinian state will still leave us with a Jewish state, ....but given birth rates of the Palestinians and the Orthodox Jews, not one that is democratic. We cringe at the term "apartheid," but that is pretty descriptive of what will be, and what will happen.
I don't think the Israeli government has really digested the lessons of the Arab Spring, or the ramifications of Palestinians adopting, ....not arms which the IDF could crush, ....but massive Martin Luther King-type peaceful protests. Nor the kind of international sanctions that forced well-intentioned employers like Ford and IBM, who were hiring and promoting blacks and coloreds,.... to leave South Africa, when major pension funds threatened divestiture of their stock. Failure to achieve a two-state solution will be very bad for Israel, for the United States, and for Jews in general.
Living alongside others has been a challenge from even before biblical times. And sometimes whole societies have vanished. Things don't necessarily work out okay in the end. We're still in a wilderness, and narratives remain to be written. But it's the Middle East; and it's full of tribal lunatics; and the Israelis and the Palestinians continue to take turns missing opportunities for peace. I still believe that grass roots efforts between Arabs and Jews are the best chance to one day force rational change. I just fear that time is running out. I hope and pray Israeli's are up to the task of peace, for it means their survival. It will break my heart if they aren’t.