Tish‘ah B’Av is upon us again.
Oy! What a complicated day! We try to sort out memories of the distant past, feelings about the present and fears for the future — but they all seem to intersect, no matter which way we turn. The First Temple was destroyed because prophetic warnings were ignored; Jeremiah laughed at self-assured Jerusalemites who were sure that God would never allow His own Temple to fall. The Second Temple went down as a result of baseless hatred, with Jews turning against one another. Where does all that leave us, when we dare to contemplate the present and the future?
Like so many American Jews, I first learned the power of Tish‘ah B’Av in the context of a Zionist/Hebraist summer camp — in my case Ramah in the mid-1950s. In those heady days of Zionist enthusiasm, there was much talk of the yishuv as a bayit shlishi, a third Jewish home in the Land of Israel. Perhaps, some argued, we should fast just half a day, turning the latter half into a time of celebration. We were innocent of the memory that Shabbatai Zevi had already tried that trick, as we were of Gershom Scholem’s warnings against Zionism playing the dangerous messianic card, one that can be impossible to retrieve.
Then came 1967 — a week of elation and relief, followed by 50 years of muddle, obfuscation and intentional moral blindness. We saw it — way back with the first Hebron settlers and the birth of Gush Emunim — and were too readily cowed into silence, so we share some of the blame. “Your lives are not on the line,” we were told. “Besides, you don’t know the Arabs like we do.” So we shut up and behaved. “Al ḥet sheḥatanu bishetiqah kehoda’ah”: “For the sin we have committed in acquiescing by our silence.”
A couple of decades ago, I recall hearing the phrase “Friends don’t let their friends drive drunk” applied to American Jews and Israelis. But by then we realized that the car keys were not in our hands, and we could not reach the emergency brake, which eventually led us to support Israelis who shared our values — Torah va-Avodah, Rabbis for Human Rights — and ultimately to the creation of J Street. We watched the country we love, the Zionist experiment we still treasure, engage in what we believe to be destructive policies, especially that of unrestricted settlement in occupied territories. These policies brought about inhumane disruption of the lives of local Arab communities, and we saw language and actions that devalued those lives altogether, in order to defend such policies. Oy, meh hayah lanu: “Woe, what has become of us!”
We who still love Israel, despite it all, have much to celebrate: the rebirth of Jewish life, the ingathering of Jewish tribes, the renewal of Hebrew and its culture and a great deal more. But Tish‘ah B’Av is not the time for that. It is a day to recall how much reason there is not to celebrate. Yes, we mourn for the past; we cannot yet let ourselves mourn for the future. But it is indeed a day to cry out loudly our fear for that future, and to express in full voice our distress at several of the paths that Israel — both state and society — are taking. Despite what some government officials might claim, we are Israel’s truest friends, not the fawning evangelicals. We, the troublesome, critical, questioning relatives from across the sea, are the ones who love you best. Listen to what we have to say — before it is too late.
We know why the first two Temples were destroyed. Let us make sure the third one does not totter due to the plague of silent bystanders.
Rabbi Arthur Green, Ph.D. is a member of J Street’s Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet. He serves as the Irving Brudnick Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College and as rector of the Rabbinical School, which he founded in 2004.
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