Their world burned. Their beliefs shattered. Evil surrounded and suffocated them. People were slaughtered. The Temple crumbled. Every year on Tisha B’Av we remember this historic trauma from almost 2000 years ago. This particular year, the backdrop of our commemoration is the 11 days of violence in May that once again roiled our Holy Land. We witnessed riots, rockets, demolition and death in Israel and the Occupied Territories. For each of the over 250 people killed, including at least 68 children, the entirety of their world collapsed.
Although this recent conflict seemed to some like just another blowup between Hamas and Israel, this time something shifted. Public perception was less favorable to Israel. More Democrats questioned Israel’s response. Some American Jews, especially younger ones, rejected the one-sided simplistic narrative that ‘Israel has to defend itself from rocket attacks.’ Israel, without question, has the right as well as the duty to protect its citizens. Nonetheless, following the events in Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount, growing numbers of American Jews questioned the Israeli Government’s motives and actions
Rabbi Benay Lappe talks about the ‘master’ or meta-narratives that every religion, culture and community possesses. For the majority of Jews, the meta Zionist narrative is that the Jews always have been willing to share the land with the Arabs. This narrative tells us that the Israeli military is the most moral military in the world, and fights only in self-defense. It says that Palestinians have been offered their own state many times, but have rejected statehood each time starting with the 1947 UN partition plan.
But what happens when the narrative doesn’t hold true? What do we do when we watch Israel bomb 66 Palestinian children? How does the narrative keep when we observe creeping annexation in the West Bank? How do we respond when Palestinians tell us that the peace plans were never sincere on the part of Israel and never close to just? Rabbi Lappe teaches us that when we face these crises, one choice is to put on blinders and hold tighter to our meta-narratives, even when the clear evidence contradicts it. Various American Jewish groups do this. During the latest conflict, my inbox was flooded with messages supporting Israel with no mention of Palestinians or their suffering.
Another choice we have, as a response to a crisis, is to reject the meta-narrative completely. The group that chooses this tells us that Zionism failed, and that there never can be a Jewish AND democratic state in Israel. They want us to wholeheartedly retire the dream of Zionism. Increasing numbers of American Jews are embracing an anti-Zionist ideology.
But Rabbi Lappe assures us that there is a third choice. We can accept the truths exposed by the crises and integrate them into the parts of the meta-narrative that still make sense. A new meta-narrative can be more expansive and aligned with our values. Lappe reminds us that the third choice is exactly what the Jews post-Temple destruction did. Their meta-narrative collapsed with the fall of Temple. Their Judaism centered around sacrificing animals as the way of connecting with God. Without the Temple, Judaism made no sense. But a few intrepid leaders created a new Jewish path. In this Judaism, we connect to God through worship, and we center our Jewish lives around synagogues.
This year on Tisha B’Av, for those of us who are progressive Zionists, the situation may feel desperate. It may feel like our Zionist values are clashing with our liberal values and that all those values cannot co-exist anymore. Our meta-narrative is facing a crisis; our story of a two-state solution may seem in jeopardy. That is certainly what the anti-Zionist voices are telling us. But I think they are wrong. I think that now is the time for a new progressive Zionist meta-narrative. Building a new meta-narrative takes time. I do not know all the details of what meta-narrative will make sense. But this is an opportunity to be expansive and creative.
At the J Street conference in April, a panel of speakers spoke about a confederation model where Jewish Israelis and Palestinians each govern themselves, but cooperate economically and militarily. J Street maintains that a confederation is a version of or a stepping stone to a two-state solution. There would be freedom of movement between the two entities and looser borders than between two separate countries. This may be part of our new narrative. Rabbi David Teutsch speaks about a Marshall Plan where Israel and the world community comes together monetarily and strategically and helps to create a Gaza where there is room for hope and growth.
Join me this Tisha B’av in visualizing, thinking about and creating this new meta-narrative where both our Zionism and our liberalism can flourish, and peace can reign throughout the land. Envision a narrative where we build a world beyond the destruction where justice will blossom for all Israelis and Palestinians.
Rabbi Beth Janus lives in Philadelphia where she works in the community doing chaplaincy, advocacy and teaching.