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As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, I am reflecting on the key moments in my own understanding of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As a 23-year-old left-wing activist, back in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of accompanying my father on a trip to Israel to lobby the new right-wing Shamir government on issues of concern to the New York Jewish community. Despite a Hebrew school education and growing up in a Zionist home, this week-long trip was my real introduction to Israel.
Early in the trip, we met a young minister named Benjamin Netanyahu, who angrily scolded us for being in Israel instead of on the White House lawn to protest the Bush administration’s recent recognition of the PLO. He advocated a deeply militaristic vision of Israel engaged in eternal conflict with her Arab neighbors. His vision was so off-putting and depressing that I began wondering whether fighting to preserve the state of Israel was really worth what it was doing to the Jewish soul.
And then we spent the whole next day with peace icon, Lova Eliav, who regaled us with stories of his meetings with Palestinians and his vision of a state of Israel living side-by-side with a Palestinian state. Lova helped me see that my progressive values could coexist with my love for Israel. My identity as a liberal Zionist was born.
On the same trip, I had a spiritually transformative experience at the Western Wall that began my journey into observant Judaism. I returned from that week in Israel in love with the country and with a new appreciation for its complexity.
My appreciation for the complexity of the conflict were taken up a notch when I spent several years during the second intifada studying for rabbinic ordination in the Gush Etzion settlement of Bat Ayin. While I strongly disagreed with the settlement enterprise, my rabbi lived in the Gush bloc and I was determined to study with him. These years put me in close contact with Jews whose beliefs about human nature, Palestinians and ethics were anathema to me. At the same time, I came to appreciate their devotion to fulfilling what they saw as a spiritual mandate. Again, my appreciation for the complexity of this conflict deepened.
On this 50th anniversary, it is crucial that we embrace this complexity as J Street supporters. This is not just a time of celebration of sovereignty over our holy sites in Jerusalem or one of moral outrage at five decades of demeaning and corrupting domination of Palestinians. It is both.
This is a time when the words of Neils Bohr, the great Nobel Prize winning physicist, are so instructive. Bohr is reported to have said, “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.” (Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer, p. 54) In this situation we face conflicting profound truths.
It is a profound truth that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea encompasses the historical homeland of the Jewish people. It is a profound truth that this same exact area is the homeland of the Palestinian people. It is a profound truth that anti-Semitism is real and many in the Arab world want to destroy the Jewish state and it is a profound truth that most Israelis and Palestinian Arabs want to live side-by-side in peace and security.
There are many ways to a safe, secure, democratic Israel. We are experts, as a Jewish community, at defining who is in and who is out of our groups based on minor differences in ideology. I can imagine there are those who think I shouldn’t have a place in the progressive tent because of my time in the settlements.
Let’s make this 50th anniversary an opportunity to embrace the complexity of this struggle. Let’s hold the tension between our own positions and opposing positions that challenge us. As Dr. Parker Palmer says, “The tension [of the paradoxes] always feels difficult, sometimes destructive. But if I can collaborate with the work it is trying to do rather than resist it, the tension will not break my heart – it will make my heart larger.” (P. 84) That is what we need now as pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy advocates — larger hearts to contain the complexity and stay close to those with whom we disagree. This way we will win more allies and possibly create a new way forward so the next 50 years sees the creative resolution of this most complex conflict.
Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the Principal of Kirva Consulting and blogs at rabbidavidjaffe.com