Rosh Hashanah Day One 5772
Toward an Ethic of Imagination: The Case for Creativity
It’s much easier to kill peace than realize it.
In Kabul last week, a member of the Taliban walked into the home of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president of Afghanistan and the leader of the High Peace Council – thought by many to be that country’s greatest hope for peace. Rabbani embraced the visitor, who then detonated explosives hidden beneath his turban, killing Rabbani in cold blood. Within hours of the assassination, a sense of melancholy permeated all corners of Afghanistan’s vast landscape; many expressed that with Rabbani died the possibility of peace.
It takes only a moment to destroy what it takes precious years to build.
Of course we all know that, which is why so many of us have come to despair of the possibility of peace in Israel in our lifetime.
At the Israeli Embassy in Cairo earlier this month, thousands of Egyptians amassed, tearing down the gates and breaking through the doors. Six Israelis were trapped inside the building as the mob ransacked the place. Fleeing the crowd, they receded to the safe room, where they barricaded themselves for a long night while calls went back and forth from Jerusalem to DC to Cairo, as President Obama insisted that Egyptian commandos secure the release of the six and ensure their safe return to Israel. One of the trapped Israeli security officers was named Yonatan, who spoke on live stream with Israel’s leaders in the Foreign Ministry’s situation room in Jerusalem. As the fighting raged, Yonatan made a simple request of the Foreign Minister: “If something happens to me,” he said, “please notify my parents face to face, and not by telephone.” (Thank God the next morning the six were all rescued, flown back home to Israel and reunited with their families.)
And then there’s Turkey – with its cynical decision to flush away years of diplomacy with a trusted ally in a tough neighborhood, leaving Israel in virtual (and actual) isolation. All this, while they and the world simultaneously turn a blind eye to the state sponsored massacres in Syria, where over 2,700 people have been killed in the street over the past several months.
Kofi Anan asked years ago: “Is it possible that the whole world is wrong and Israel is right?” And Israel, with many of its supporters, proclaimed an unequivocal “YES!” Sometimes it feels that the whole world really is against us! And the events of the past couple of weeks have only reinforced for many of us the world’s fundamental lack of understanding of Israel. I have participated in too many International Human Rights Conferences in which Israel is set apart as the sole proprietor and source of all evil to contest that. Like so many of you, I have watched in horror as Ahmadinejad and others are given a world stage in order to mock our people’s deepest pain and deny our deepest truth.
At the same time, it is precisely in a time of growing isolation and intransigence that we – Israel and the Jewish people - are called upon to reclaim our agency. A narrative focused solely on the threats and opposition does Israel no favors. Instead, it creates a dangerous equation: Since they hate us, and since it’s not our fault, therefore there is nothing we can do. It’s out of our hands.
But there is another story that must be told – a story that flows freely in the streets of Tel Aviv and in the halls of the Knesset, on the pages of Haaretz and Maariv and Yediot Ahronot. This is a narrative held by many of Israel’s generals, by the former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet – those entrusted with Israel’s security. It is one of shared responsibility, of triumphs and victories and mistakes and missteps. This is a story of an Israel that spends millions of dollars to train Palestinian surgeons to perform heart transplants in the West Bank and Gaza, an Israel in which an Arab judge on the High Court of Justice presided over the rape trial of Israel’s former President. But it is also an Israel that too often makes decisions driven by fear rather than hope, by cynicism rather than vision. This is an Israel in which scientists are as we speak closing in on a cure for diabetes, but also one whose very democratic foundation is threatened by legislation curbing the rights of religious minorities (including non-Orthodox Jews); an Israel that permits certain state-run bus-routes to force women to sit in the back.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wrote from this mindset last week in an op-ed in the New York Times, when he – hardly a firebrand from the left - said, simply and unapologetically: “We are sorry for the loss of life of Turkish citizens in May 2010, when Israel confronted a provocative flotilla of ships bound for Gaza.” We are sorry. This, despite the fact that Israel’s refusal to offer an official apology is precisely what precipitated the recent deterioration in relations between the two countries. Olmert and others have all come to the table with a sober understanding of the dangers posed by our enemies, but also with real clarity around the ways in which we endanger ourselves when the world’s animus evokes in us only the same old reflexive, defensive posture – the posture of victimhood.
The “world is against us” mentality drives despair from the right, but the left has its own version of hopelessness – rooted in the certainty that a narrow, nationalistic, right wing coalition will never make peace a priority, and therefore never a reality. Thus we hear, from right and left: “We will not see peace in our lifetime…”
“There is simply no way out of this conflict.”
“One hundred years or more before there will be peace…”
We ought to “sit shiva for peace,” offered one Jewish-American journalist over the summer.
“See you at the next war” said an opinion piece in one Israeli paper.
But when those who love Israel opt into an ethic of inevitability, we not only despair of the possibility of peace – we undermine our own power and obviate our own agency.
The very establishment of the State of Israel testifies to the absurdity of the narrative of Jew as victim of history, victim of circumstance. Zionism – the idea of building a pluralistic, democratic Jewish homeland - is the art of proving the impossible possible. The Zionist takes a parched landscape and envisions new life. Hebrew language, brought back from the dead. Refugees from Europe’s DP camps, from violence in Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, from the suppression of Russia and the poverty of Ethiopia– bringing together their unique combination of talents, experiences and dreams to build a thriving modern democracy. The fact that Israel became a leading exporter of medical technology and literature and art – and only a few short years after the Holocaust – is an astounding affirmation of life and hope and possibility.
And this past summer, despite the stalled peace talks, has only reinforced the claim of mobility and possibility. One sunny day in July a 25 year old woman named Daphne Leef was evicted by her landlady because she couldn’t afford rent. Realizing that it ought not be impossible, in a modern democracy, to work full time and afford to rent a small apartment, Daphne set up tent on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. She posted her protest on Facebook and within an hour, dozens more tents appeared. Within the next couple of weeks, over 450,000 Israelis came out to protest peacefully around the country. “Summer 2011 [was] the big summer of the new Israeli hope,” Leef said. “This hope was born, like many hopes, out of a feeling of despair, alienation, inequalities that became impossible for all of us, inequalities that almost became impossible to overcome. [But then] Israeli society reached its red line. And then it stood up and said: Enough! No more!” The protests were a courageous call for social justice, for dignity and equality; a demand that the government take responsibility for the future of its citizens. This spirit, along with the hundreds of Israeli civil and human rights groups working tirelessly to counter the growing trend chipping away at the democratic foundations of the State, reveals a fierce unwillingness to succumb to the status quo, or concede to the politics of inertia and inevitability.
Israel is the greatest challenge to the inevitability claim. But if the past 63 years are not enough to convince you, consider the previous 2000. A powerless people does not survive the destruction of its Temple –the central site for worship and the central organizing principle of a nation. But the Jews did. A people vulnerable to history’s whims does not survive repeated exiles, enslavement, humiliating tortures and abuses of body and spirit. But the Jews did. One who believes the claim of inevitability does not dare imagine that a people nearly extinguished from the face of the earth could emerge with strength, clarity, vision. That a person who lost everything could ever love again. Or give birth again. Or laugh or pray or dance again. But the Jews did.
Look at Joseph – who descends from the pit in Canaan into the pit of despair in a dungeon in Egypt, only to emerge as Pharoah’s second in command. Look at the Israelites at the edge of the Sea – raging army behind them, raging waters before them, walking with faith into the depths and writing the next chapter of the story of our people.
Torah teaches us that the greatest expression of human freedom is the ability to deny inevitability, to defy expectations, and to believe that with creativity and imagination we creating a new reality for ourselves.
But the ethic of inevitability relieves us of the duty of self-reflection, creativity and imagination that are our birthright – that teach us how to adapt within and then emerge from the darkest dungeon and take the reins of our own destiny.
An ethic of inevitability responds to hurt with hate and says: None of this is my fault, and therefore there is nothing I can do to make it better.
An ethic of imagination, of creativity and possibility looks at what’s broken and says, with determination: How did I get stuck in this place? What can I do to get out?
Thomas Friedman argues that there really are only two kinds of countries in the world today – not developed and developing. Not first world and third world. Today there are only nations that harness imagination and those that do not.
Part of what spurs the ethic of imagination when it comes to Israel is the recognition that the status quo itself puts Israel on an untenable collision course with history. A recent piece in New York Magazine contends:
[Israel] confronts a fundamental and fateful choice: It can remain democratic and lose its Jewish character; it can retain its Jewish character but become an apartheid state; or it can remain both Jewish and democratic, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, alleviate the international opprobrium directed at it, and reap the enormous security and economic benefits of ending the conflict…
But the latter is only possible through reflective, creative and imaginative responses to all the problems that those in the inevitability camp will call “intractable” and “impossible” – security challenges, the status of refugees, the weakness of a central, non-Hamas Palestinian governing body and borders. “Impossible,” history has shown us, is not a statement of fact. Impossible just means we don’t consider it worth fighting for.
To approach conflict – whether in our homes or on the battlefield, whether in Northern Ireland or between Israelis and Palestinians - from an ethic of imagination, means we are called simultaneously to recognize (1) our own agency, ability to work to change our own destiny, and (2) a sense shared humanity.
Do you know why we blast the shofar 100 times on Rosh Hashanah? The Song of Deborah is considered by scholars to be one of the oldest Biblical texts. Deborah was Prophet and Judge of Israel, and her Song tells the story of Sisera, the Canaanite commander who ruthlessly oppressed Israel for twenty years. When Israel rises up to challenge Sisera in battle, he flees, taking refuge in the tent of a woman named Yael. Yael feeds him warm milk, sooths his spirit and puts him to sleep. But as he rests, she takes hold of a tent peg and, with a workmen's mallet, drives it through his head, piercing and shattering his temple.
27 He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet… dead.
After years of oppression, Israel is avenged by a powerful woman, putting herself at great personal risk in the pursuit of justice.
But the story does not end there. The Song of Deborah continues:
28 "Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice:
'Why is his chariot so long in coming?
In the moment of triumphant victory over a vicious oppressor, Israel’s ruler imagines the enemy’s mother, staring out the window, waiting for her son to return from battle, fearing that she would never see him again. This comes to show that Deborah was a leader and a warrior, but she was also a human being. Tradition teaches that Sisera’s mother cried out in despair 100 times that night, thus the 100 blasts of the shofar.
R’ Soloveitchik offers that this comes to teach us that “as we awaken from spiritual complacency, we must witness our own illusions being relentlessly shattered,” just as Sisera’s mother’s illusions of her son’s safe return were shattered that day.
But I would suggest another approach. On Rosh Hashanah the shofar calls us to see the common humanity in all people. These blasts come to remind us that Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Arab, Sri Lanken, Pakistani and Korean, Democrat, Republican -- we are all God’s children. And even our enemies have mothers who weep for them.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, years ago, I went to hear a Palestinian professor speak in a synagogue in Santa Monica. Standing before a crowd of 200 Jewish men and women, he began his talk: “You will not like what you are about to hear. Some of what I’m going to say to you will make you sad, some of it angry. Some will make your blood boil and will make you want to jump out of your seat and rush the stage to silence me. I’m asking you just to listen. Today I am going to tell you what happened in 1948 from the perspective of my people. Whether you like it or not, whether it accords with your understanding of history, this is our story. And then I will hear your story. It will, no doubt, bump up against everything I know to be true, but I will listen. Because if we ever are to have peace, we each need to hear where the other is coming from.”
We do not need to cede to one another’s claims of the past, but we do need to hear them. This is not about creating moral equivalencies – for there are none. The ethic of imagination calls us to search for the humanity in our enemies – the only possible path to peace. Yes, there is Rabbani. And there is Rabin – those who have died in the pursuit of peace. But to give up trying is to ensure a future of perpetual violence and a lifetime of despair.
Given this, here is Jewish, Zionist response to Israel’s conundrum - driven by an ethic of imagination:
As a Jew and as a human being, I know the trauma of living in exile, vulnerable to the world. I know and understand the longing for home. And I know what it means to be given the opportunity to forge your own destiny.
That is why I want to be the first to welcome you, my Palestinian cousins and neighbors, into the community of nations. There has been a lifetime of hatred and distrust, and enough blood to justify many generations of war between our people. We are hurt and we are angry. But we are neither blameless nor are we helpless. For too long we have been focused on who is right and who is wrong, while in reality, we are both right, and we are both wrong.
But what if this really could be a new day? Hayom harat olam – the birthday of the world; the day the world trembles. Awake to the danger, aware of the past, ready to create a new reality. Prepared to transform this crisis in to a birth moment for both of our people – a new dynamic in a New Middle East.
Today we ask you to join us in working to ensure justice, peace and security for all the inhabitants of our land. Two states for two peoples.
But I need you to be a real partner. To come to the table not as a hero of the opposition, but as a statesman and dreamer, one who understands that like your people, the overwhelming majority of my people want peace. I call on you to acknowledge that Jews and Israelis are doctors and scientists and social workers, teachers and musicians. That most of us have longed for a two state solution for many, many years. That we are ashamed of the way some of our people behave, intoxicated by the holiness of the land, oblivious to the holiness of all human life.
I want you to hear that I acknowledge your suffering. I ask that you acknowledge mine. I recognize your fear. I ask that you recognize mine. I see you bleed. I ask that you see me too – and that together we commit to ebb the flow of blood and tears. I will not tolerate the perpetuation of the lie that you don’t love your children as we love ours. I ask that you similarly counter misconceptions about my people. We all worry for our children, we all pray that they might live to see a day without fear of warfare and hatred.
I pledge to see you as a human being, not a demographic problem.
I ask you to see me as a human being, not a sworn and eternal enemy.
I ask that your people accept our ancient connection to this land.
You know that the Jewish people roamed this holy landscape thousands of years ago.
You know that the Jewish people, living in exile, never gave up the dream of return to our home.
I ask that you refuse to abide by a denial of that truth.
And I call my people to accept your unshakeable connection to this land.
I know that the Palestinian people’s deepest dream is for free and sovereign state.
I know that the Palestinian people’s destiny has been shaped by its longing for that land.
I will not abide by a denial of that truth.
Amos Oz writes that Israel is “a dream come true. As such, it is bound to be flawed and imperfect. The only way to keep a dream intact is never to try to fulfill it. This is true of an initial vision for a novel, for a family, for a sexual encounter, or for planting a garden, and indeed for building a nation. Israel is flawed and imperfect precisely because it is a dream come true” (In the Land of Israel, 259).
Now it is time for you to build your own dream – your own beautiful, flawed dream.
Let us together transform this battered history into a landscape of new possibility.
Both the Talmud and the Koran teach that if you save a single life, you save an entire world. Let us work now not only to save a life, but to save a generation. Let us save our children from terror, from war, from despair. Two young states, side by side.
Not in 100 years. Not in 10 years. Now.
שַֽׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁל֥וֹם בְּחֵילֵ֑ךְ שַׁ֝לְוָ֗ה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; let those who love you feel safe.
May there be peace be within your walls, tranquility within your palaces. (Ps. 122:6-7)