There are few things in the realm of the political world which are so difficult to speak about as the tragedy in Israel and Palestine. Both Jews and Palestinian Arabs rank among the most brutalized and despised minorities in the world. Catastrophic losses of life and of dignity among both populations are terribly recent and within living memory. And their tragedies are not their own, but have in a myriad of ways reached out to touch millions more.
This burden of blood is difficult for even the best of us to bear. The stakes are terribly high; the lives of those which may be forsaken in the future from this conflict, our duty to those already dead, and the demand on every person that we satisfy our moral impulses weigh upon us. It is not surprising that our passions are inflamed and our humility dismissed or even that we often lack a logical consistency. We are small and the obligations on us loom ever larger. Not a month goes by where there are not new victims who cry out for justice and crimes which demand to be avenged.
In the face of this, what so many of us do is quite human; we harden. We harden our positions and our beliefs and our values. We do not forgive and we do not apologize, and above all, of anyone who does not share our goals, we suspect.
And all too often, we lose sight of the people we would like to be. We lose sight of what being those people means.
There is a story today in the New York Times about an extraordinary man who I am very proud to call my countryman. His name is Ezra Nawi, and he is a plumber who was born in Jerusalem. Mr. Nawi currently is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of assaulting a police officer, a charge which he and those who know him all dispute. Mr. Nawi has worked for many years with the Palestinians in the area surrounding Hebron. He does many things with them, but primarily he helps with the construction of buildings without permits.
He does this because the policy of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank permits the appropriation of Palestinian land which is not in use, but the granting of construction permits to Palestinians in the administrative area which includes Hebron is merely one per month. And because, in the words of Nawi, "The only Israelis these people know are settlers and soldiers. Through me they know a different Israeli."
The separation wall built by the Israeli government may be benefitting Israel by diminishing attacks by militants. But Nawi captures a great tragedy. In the period prior to the second intifada, many Palestinians worked within Israel. Because of this, more than ever before, Israelis and Palestinians had the opportunity to get to know each other as people. The story of the division of the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Tor is but one of those tales. As we allow our divisions, our suspicions, we have all seen how the possibility of a better future has seemed to grow further and further away. The hope of our recent past has ebbed.
Playwright Tony Kushner has said:
Anyone who feels that this is a simple situation and that Israel is doing nothing but sort of protecting its towns from rocket fire really needs to go there and meet Palestinian people and also look at the way that they’re being forced to live. I think that, you know, one day standing at a checkpoint is enough to change your whole way of thinking about this.
I mean, it’s unimaginable that people have maintained any kind of individual or communal coherence in the face of this kind of suffering. And, I mean, it’s real terrible suffering. And Jews, with our millennial history of surviving oppression, really should have a deep sympathy and understanding. And it’s a shandah that we’re the authors of oppression anywhere on earth. It shouldn’t be the case. We should—we know better, and we should do better.
Too often lost in our bitterness is this reality: there are things more important than politics and nations. There is our basic humanity, which demands that we help the less fortunate among us, that demands that we look out for the well-being of our neighbor. To give of ourselves, to be charitable in thought and deed is a blessing; it is the closest we can hope to get to whatever it is that is called God.
We can, and should, forgive one another, and ourselves, for having distracted ourselves too often with pettiness. But we should all strive to remember that we have a higher calling here. All of us, each and every one of us reading, are among the most fortunate humans in the history of our species. We are blessed with the opportunity to do amazing good. We can listen more and speak less, and more temperately. We can soften our hearts. We can remember that it is about something bigger than politics. To quote Nawi:
I don’t have a solution to this dispute. I just know that what is going on here is wrong. This is not about ideology. It is about decency.
Thank you for reading.