One Hundred Years of Platitudes

Some British rabbis believed the peace process to be responsible for the recent massacre of worshippers in Hebron. The tension amongst the settlers, they argued, had pushed Baruch Goldstein over the edge. The situation was to blame. In this way, they shifted any moral consideration from themselves and were able to circumvent condemnation of the murderer. Such a mindset does not bode well for future developments especially after the atrocity in Afula. Moreover, although Jewish organizations rightly condemned this horrendous act, the capacity to “understand” it, among some sections of Anglo-Jewry, for a plethora of reasons, should not be underestimated.

Last year, a signed advertisement appeared in the Jewish Chronicle protesting a meeting between Arafat and a delegation of Anglo-Jewish leaders.

The negotiations begun by the Government of Israel are conducted by diplomats and experts fully cognizant of the statements and promises the PLO has made to its own people which often differ substantially from its public expressions to the media. It would be extremely dangerous to innocently fail to recognize this. The avowed declarations of the PLO to destroy Israel have not yet been stricken from its Charter. Until this is done there can be no question of even innocent dialogue with them.

The publication of such a remarkable riposte to the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative was perhaps inevitable. The need to invent the “opposition” of the Israeli government to a meeting with Yasser Arafat was an indication of the panic generated at the unimaginable prospect of peace with the PLO. It also belied the ambivalence of some of the signatories to condemn frontally the policies of an Israeli government. And yet, in a strange way, this often crude campaign to undermine the accord—overtly and covertly—was undoubtedly an advance. They have implicitly recognized the right of any member of the Jewish people to take issue with the policies of an Israeli administration and to contribute to the ongoing debate concerning the future of the Jewish State. It is also a sign of the times that there have been no outrageous claims of “treasonous and traitorous behaviour” amongst establishment Jewish opinion as there had been in the past against those who advocated Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. It is accepted that the opponents of the peace initiative can—and indeed should—exert their right to freedom of expression.

The most interesting feature of this statement by infallible philanthropists and fervent nationalists was not the confused presentation of their case, but the willingness of sixty orthodox rabbis and dayanim to allow their names to go forward. It included many who have hitherto refused to mix religion and politics. It is also a dangerous exercise. They could not have overlooked the probability that by entering the political arena, they might jeopardize their outreach activities amongst assimilated Jewish youth who often espouse liberal if not radical views on the future of the Territories.

While it would be wrong to assume that some of the signatories did not subsequently feel deep anguish over the Hebron massacre, there were also many who refused to sign. Both the present and former Chief Rabbis embraced the Rabin-Arafat accord. Their names together with many others were conspicuously absent from the list of signatories. The Chief Rabbi of Ireland, significantly a lone voice, was openly blunt about his rabbinical colleagues—he decried their “moral bankruptcy”. His comments highlighted the most disturbing feature of the rabbis’ adherence to the statement in that they were not willing to embrace the possibility of peace. They could not entertain the idea that however uncomfortable the prospect of shaking hands with Arafat may have been, if it could bring peace to Israel and its inhabitants, then surely this should be explored. And yet our daily prayers are permeated with the desire for peace. Even mourners are required to conclude the Kaddish with the affirmation of life: “May He who makes peace in His high places grant peace to us and for all Israel.”

Why then did these rabbis allow their names—probably in all good conscience—to be published when it apparently nullified a powerful message at the root of Jewish tradition? Why did they make peace a secondary consideration? Why did they not rejoice at the prospect of an end to a hundred years’ war which has brought death and misery to so many? Were all these outpourings, these plaintive demands for peace, merely one hundred years of platitudes? As Shimon ben Eleazar commented some 1800 years ago: “If a person sits at home and keeps silent, how can this be considered as pursuing peace in Israel between each and every person? Rather leave home and roam throughout the world in pursuit of peace in Israel. As it is said ‘Seek peace and pursue it'” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan).

Clearly, a central reason is undoubtedly their deep attachment to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel—a vision which evokes both biblical memory and future redemption. Unlike the nationalists whose one-dimensional approach propels them to argue only for the sake of victory, the broad spectrum of religious leaders see themselves anchored in the dialogic and interpretative tradition of Judaism. In this sense, regardless of the personal stance of some rabbis, Judaism is paradoxically more flexible than Revisionist Zionism. Religious texts are open to continual re-interpretation, political ideology less so.

Until recently alternative argu ments have not calmed the passions of the settlers on the West Bank. Like many religious Jews, they believe that for two millennia God has hidden his face from the world. The re-establishment of the State in 1948 and the reclamation of Judea and Samaria in 1967 was evidence that God had re-entered history. It was a sign that the Days of the Messiah could—and should—be brought nearer.

Yet this zeal has also caused rabbis to fortify the inner Jewish world, to rear a new generation of disciples after the decimation of the Shoah. There has been an emphasis on burrowing deeper into the Jewish world both in a quest for spiritual knowledge and as a means of turning away from the non-Jewish world which wreaked destruction upon them half a century ago. This distancing from the “goyim”, from the “other”, is personified in the caricature of Yasser Arafat, the terrorist who cannot be trusted, always ready to strike. In the demonological language of Menachem Begin, he is “today’s Hitler”. And yet if there is no “dialogue” with the outside world, there is no understanding. If there is no understanding, there is no negotiation. If there is no negotiation, the idea of peace will remain embedded in the pages of the prayer books. A holy dream which is unattainable in reality.

We are told that rabbi means “teacher”. But if a rabbi is someone who is renowned for his Jewish learning, does this mean that he is automatically capable of exercising good political judgement? Does being Jewishly literate mean being politically aware?

To take an extreme example, several noted haredi leaders in pre-war Poland ignored advice to emigrate with their communities. Many were all too lukewarm to the enterprise of the secular socialist Zionists in Palestine. They turned away from the outside world, from the “meshugas of the violent goyim”, and died in perfect faith with thousands of their followers in the concentration camps. The Nazis were merely reconstructed Amalekites. The Shoah only repeated the events after the destruction of the Temple. The haredim did not put God on trial in Auschwitz.

While it would be unfair to associate all the sixty signatories with haredi thinking, the use of typology as an extrapolative technique to understand contemporary events does not seem to have been an aid in analysing the current peace moves. On the contrary, its selective use has been employed to confirm that Arafat is merely Haman revisited.

Shortly after the intifada commenced, large numbers of Jewish writers and academics signed another statement in the Jewish Chronicle, entitled “Jews for a Just Israel”, in which Rabin’s policy of beating Palestinians was condemned. The vast majority of those signatories were secular Jews, yet they often looked to traditional Jewish concepts of peace and justice as the basis of their arguments. Religious leaders in contrast seemed to have abrogated the responsibility to expound not only the letter of the law but its spirit too. Few seemed to worry about seemingly remote issues such as the violation of the human rights of the Palestinians even if they were considered gerim toshavim, resident aliens. More concern was centred on whether or not confronting the stone-wielding juvenile protagonists of the intifada was a milchemet mitzva, an obligatory war.

In a recent essay, the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, recalled that in 1982 he had called for an enquiry into the massacre of civilians in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatilla during his Shabbat morning sermon.

As I finished my derasha, an old and distinguished rabbi, the leading British spokesman of the Yeshiva world, mounted the pulpit and declared to the congregation that my call for an enquiry was tantamount to a chillul hashem [the desecration of God’s name]. There was little doubt in my mind that the sympathies of the congregation were with him. Here, then, was as neat an irony as one could wish. Those who had hitherto been avowedly secular Jews, for whom the State of Israel constituted a significant part of their self-definition, were to be found appropriating religious terminology and values in order to criticize and dissociate themselves from the action of the State, while those whose identity was religious and had hitherto been vociferous critics of Israel, leapt to its defence (Israel and Diaspora Jewry, ed. Eliezer Don-Yehiya, Bar-Ilan University Press 1991).

This phenomenon has been repeated again in terms of how the peace process is viewed. It seems that some religious and many secular Jews speak almost totally different languages today, and the separation between them in their perception of peace and what we mean by Jewish values is visibly widening.

There is therefore a pressing need for dialogue and communication, if only to agree to disagree. There is a need to explain positions and to recognize the other’s integrity. A discussion of the Rabin-Arafat accord and the meaning of peace and justice in the Middle East could be an important starting point. The alternative of closed eyes and closed minds will cause drift and disintegration which will lead to a future of further schism and deeper alienation.

Jewish Quarterly Spring 1994





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