A Light Unto the Nations
During Passover in 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the most prominent rabbis in America, shocked many of his congregants by saying that “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”
A “hurricane” of controversy tore through the community. One commentator said that “If the Exodus did not occur, there is no Judaism.” While another countered “defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story is not factual is like defending him for saying the earth isn’t flat.”
I thought of this controversy when I watched Tantura, a movie featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Tantura was an Arab village on the Mediterranean, north of Caesarea. The film details the work of Theodore Katz, who, when he was a graduate student at the University of Haifa, wrote a master’s thesis on the conquest of the village during the War of Independence. He interviewed surviving members of the Alexandroni Brigade which carried out the operation. They described horrific scenes of forced evictions, wanton slaughter and looting that had been covered up for years, including evidence of a mass grave of Palestinians near a beach now popular with Israelis. When this academic document became public, Katz was vilified. Many of the witnesses retracted their statements. It was too lurid a story to be accepted as true.
The film is revelatory and haunting. It deals with the cover-up, lack of transparency, and outright denial of a tragedy of war. It conflicts with what most of us learned about the establishment of the Jewish state. We were taught that Israel was a “land without a people for a people without a land.” But there were many thriving Arab towns and villages with generations of history, just like Tantura. We were told that Israelis urged Arabs to remain, but they chose to leave at the behest of attacking Arab armies. But like Tantura, Arab residents were driven out of numerous villages by the conquering Israeli force.
Do revelations like these delegitimize the State of Israel? Do they call into question its right to exist? While there are many who have come to this conclusion, and troubled as I am by Tantura and the growing awareness of other stories like it, and though I am dismayed by the coverup, I have come to a different conclusion. I believe that every nation state has both a sacred myth of how it came into being, and a reality that is often dissonant and includes violence against the native population. War and conquest are the realities of how nation states have always been created. Battles over land probably go back to the earliest human civilizations and even pre-history.
For me, the key issue is not how a nation was founded, but how it sustains itself, how it treats all of its inhabitants, and how it strives to live up to the ideals enshrined in its sacred myth. Or fails. How it owns up to its past. Or doesn’t.
This is what I find particularly challenging.
I love Israel. I believe that the Jewish people need a homeland. I believe that our claim to the land which goes back millennia is as good as anyone else’s. And I believe that Israel has faced, and continues to face, threats to its security. It is a nation that must be vigilant.
However, vigilance does not justify actions that demean and dehumanize others. Vigilance does not entitle Israel to continue a brutal Occupation that corrodes the morality of Israeli society, and subjects Palestinians to a life without rights or hope. It does not justify continuing the displacement of Palestinians from their land, and the settling of Israelis on that occupied land, in violation of international law.
Houses that are bulldozed in the middle of the night for punitive permit violations; settler violence against Palestinians, and Israeli human rights workers, that is perfunctorily investigated and rarely punished; arbitrary acts of detainment and callous treatment such as the deadly incident involving 78 year old Palestinian-American Omar Assad at the hands of IDF soldiers; or the case of Haj Suleiman Hathaleen who was killed by an Israeli tow truck while peacefully protesting near his West Bank village – these are not acts motivated by legitimate security concerns. They are human rights violations. They violate Jewish law and tradition. They violate the foundational ideals on which Israel’s founders established a Jewish state.
In the fall the New York Times published an article entitled “Whose Promised Land? A Journey into a Divided Israel.” It opens with an interview of 86-year-old Shai Melamud, the son of an early pioneer. He muses what his father would think of Israel today. He concludes that “If he took a look, he’d say a single sentence: ’This wasn’t the child we prayed for.’ And then he’d return to his grave.”
The issue is not that the establishment of the State of Israel did not happen exactly as our hagiography described it, any more than the issue of Judaism is that the Exodus didn’t happen as it is described in the Bible. The issue is that the actions of the state take us further away from that vision rather than moving us toward it.
Israel’s challenge is to reclaim the “child we prayed for.” A state that is Jewish and also treats everyone under its guardianship with justice and equity. “A Light unto the Nations.”
As we celebrate Passover will the message of freedom inspire us in our advocacy for Israel? Will we as American Jews work to improve the way Palestinians are treated? Will we strive to influence Israel to end settlement expansion and settler entitlement that tramples Palestinians’ human rights? Will we advocate that Palestinians living in territory under Israeli control get the same human and legal rights and guarantees as Israelis? Will we pursue the justice of a Two State Solution that ends the Occupation?
At the Passover table we say, “This year we are slaves; next year may be free.” So long as Palestinians suffer under the heel of oppression and are not free, we all remain enslaved.
Next Passover, may we all be free human beings.
In his Passover drash, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom directs us to focus on this very liberation. He calls us to renew our commitment to Israel’s aspiration of being “A Light Unto the Nations,” and to rededicate ourselves to justice.