“Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of Sinat Chinam, senseless hatred of one for another.” (Bavli Yoma 9b)
This past year was my first one staffing a Birthright trip. In truth, I dreaded it neither because of the danger of getting COVID nor because of some threat of violence. The reason was that I was terrified to promote and staff a program which deeply concerned me as a Jewish professional, having seen the way that Israeli politics could play out on such a trip. Further, after deeper reflection on my own conscience, I had hesitations about going back to Israel in general.
However, Israel education is a crucial part of Hillel International’s mission. While I delayed the inevitable, I eventually opted to staff another Israel trip, a local Hillel Council of New England Alternative Spring Break trip to Haifa, run by Shorashim. This was a service trip and that felt safer, but seeing Israel-Palestine through the eyes of Jewish college students was transformative. We spent the majority of our time in Haifa, but also explored Acco/Acre and Jerusalem, mixed cities with substantial Palestinian-Arab populations. Instead of the dominant narrative of conflict and disunity, these students saw Israelis and Palestinians come together to beautify neighborhoods and salvage food waste. For me, it was a powerful reminder that peaceful coexistence is possible and that we can maintain hope.
One of the key elements of Tisha B’av is the idea of rejecting Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred of the “other.” It was for this purpose, the sages taught, that the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. These cities of coexistence (Haifa, Acco, and Jerusalem), where peoples in conflict live together in peace and cooperation, are archetypal of this idea. The willingness of students to volunteer in such communities to help sustain them is representative of Ahavat Chinam, boundless love.
Israel, the people and the state, must do their own searching and examining of their actions. In place of our focusing on the disturbing headlines and feeling despair, we must, if anything, find ways to respond to the question how to reject hatred between our two peoples and nations, and how to love more generously.
Staffing these trips to Israel/Palestine has been an eye-opening reminder for me that peace is possible. As Tisha B’av leads us into another season of contemplation and reflection, it is imperative to reflect on how our community, Israel and the Palestinians can do repentance, תשובה.