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Blessing Both Jew and Palestinian: A Religious Zionist View

by Yehezkel Landau

Yehezkel Landau is executive director of Ozve Shalom in Jerusalem. He made this presentation to the 1989 General Synod of the United Church of Christ. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 20-27, 1989, p. 1196. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Our soldiers are fighting against the inevitable -- namely, freedom and sovereignty for the Palestinians in a state of their own. If we do not accommodate Palestinian nationalism in a two-state compromise arrangement -- ideally, in a three-state confederation that includes Jordan -- then the Palestinians will grow even more militant and uncompromising, reverting to their earlier rejectionism, and secular or Islamic extremists will depose PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat.

I am active in the religious peace movement Oz veShalom, "Strength and Peace," a name taken from the last verse of Psalm 29: "May the Lord give strength [oz] to His people! May the Lord bless His people with peace [shalom ]!" This strength is an inner, spiritual kind -- the kind that the Palestinians are now displaying. It enabled us Jews to survive for over three millennia, even though we usually lacked political and military power, koach.

We in Oz veShalom are not pacifists. We serve proudly in the Israel Defense Forces -- as do those soldiers who choose, out of conscience, to sit in a military prison rather than serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip today. Our religious heritage not just our history of persecution, teaches us to appreciate the moral blessing and burden that come with the capacity to defend ourselves against aggression. The true test of Torah comes after the assumption of power, when there is a sovereign Jewish head of state to whom Jewish prophets and sages can direct ethical challenges. For too long Jews were the persecuted, prophetic minority under Christian and Muslim rulers. Now we are the rulers, asking God to bestow on us the oz, the spiritual strength and courage, needed to take the risks and make the sacrifices required to achieve a just peace.

As religious Jews, we believe that our people’s return to Zion is part of the process of global redemption prophesied by Isaiah: "Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through righteousness" (1:27) It pains us that only Israelis on the secular left echo our sacred prophetic tradition, the ethical heart of Torah, while those in the religiously observant communities are either silent on issues of justice, peace and human rights or, worse, have actively perverted Judaism into chauvinism, territorialism and pseudo-messianism.

For the religious settler movement Gush Emunim, "Bloc of the Faithful," the idea of ‘justice" means that God will restore to Israel all the land lost to the Romans and later conquerors over the past 2,000 years. The members of Gush Emunim fail to appreciate that their ideology mirrors the common Palestinian belief that "justice" means that the Palestinians will be restored to the houses and fields and orchards they lost some 40 years ago. Israel should acknowledge the right of return or compensation to Palestinian refugees; we have to acknowledge also that if the Palestinians had accepted the 1947 UN partition plan, which the Palestine National Council approved last November in Algiers, all the wars, all the expulsions and all the subsequent suffering might have been avoided, and we would today be enjoying peaceful coexistence in two neighboring states. (This observation is not meant as a moral indictment. The Palestinians saw their refusal to partition the land as justified because they were considering the quantitative demographic imbalance in 1947, without according Jews in exile [including Holocaust survivors] the qualitative, reciprocal, national right to come home and exercise self-determination in Palestine-Israel. It is not a question of retrospective blame or recrimination, but of both peoples’ taking responsibility and demonstrating repentance for self-interested choices made over the years.) We need to challenge our compatriots on both sides who cling to exclusive notions of justice, for that clinging is the greatest obstacle to peace.

Gush Emunim interprets shalom to mean either the acquiescence of the Palestinians to perpetual Jewish rule or some postapocalyptic tranquillity which the Messiah will bestow but which imposes no peacemaking obligations today. For Jews, both religious and secular, the golden rule must govern Jewish rule. If we Israelis can claim the right to self-determination and statehood, then we must honor the Palestinians’ same right, so long as neither threatens the other’s right. Gush Emunim denies the Palestinians their right out of a dogmatic belief that only the Jewish people are heirs to the promised land. These Jews forget that the covenantal promise linking the Jewish people forever to God’s Holy Land is conditioned by the demands of Torah ethics.

These militant messianists are matched in dogmatic self-assurance by Muslim zealots in the Middle East, as well as by secular nationalist zealots among the Palestinians. These extremists, for whom compromise is sinful and treasonous, need and feed on one another as they prepare for the apocalyptic day of judgment, which they believe will vindicate them.

Between the poles of the secular left and the religious right, between Peace Now and Gush Emunim, members of Oz veShalom try to communicate how Jewish tradition should guide public policy in a reborn Jewish commonwealth, one that can fulfill the promise of equal civil rights to non-Jewish citizens, though its prevailing ethos and symbolism are Jewish. We strive to create shalom not only between Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, but between Jew and Jew so that together we can make the sacrifices necessary to reach a just compromise with the Palestinian people.

Twice I have used the word "sacrifices," a religious concept. It is in assuming this sacrificial task that we Israeli Jews uphold the charge given to us by God in Exodus 19: "For all the earth/land is mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." To be a "kingdom of priests" means, in our understanding, to use temporal or state power, as a sovereign community in the land, as a means toward priestly, spiritual, redemptive ends. And what is the essential ministerial role of the priest? It is to mediate forgiveness through sacrifice. It is this forgiveness that is the source of real peace, the inner peace of the soul. In our present context, it is not animal bodies which we are asked to sacrifice on the altar. It is the territorial extension of our own fearful, possessive animal bodies and human egos, both of which seek geographic guarantees (especially land unjustly denied us) for our very existence. The priestly task of a religious peace movement is to call both Israelis and Palestinians to suffer the amputation of part of their collective, symbolic bodies and agree to two independent states alongside each other in our common homeland.

Both Israelis and Palestinians must make these sacrifices, by renouncing part of their rightful claims to all the land. And what of Yerushalayim/Al-Quds, the city of Jerusalem? Clearly, the Holy City must be shared. At a minimum, this means that the flags of both nations will have to fly over Jerusalem. Whatever political compromise is negotiated, Yerushalayim/Al-Quds has to be a heterogeneous community witnessing to a pluralistic monotheism -- the greatest challenge to any devout believer of any faith, but the only healing path for Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

Some Christians are, perhaps, also influenced by anti-Jewish stereotypes presented in sermons and Sunday school regarding "legalistic," "eye-for-an-eye" Jews, the foils in the gospel story. Too many Christians know of Jews only through the "Old Testament" and christological interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures. In their perceptions of the Middle East conflict, they might, consciously or unconsciously, think that the Jews abused their power and incurred God’s punishment millennia ago when they failed to heed the prophetic warnings, and are now returning as warriors and oppressive rulers.

However tempting it may be to paint a picture of villain-and-victim that fits some model of liberation from oppression, historical and biblical honesty compels us to search more deeply for a way toward justice and reconciliation in the Holy Land. A more appropriate biblical paradigm for the Israeli-Palestinian situation is found in Genesis, in the motif of two brothers fighting over the birthright and the blessing. (Arthur Waskow has developed this theme in his book Godwrestling.) One may gain the upper hand at one moment, but both are weak and sinful and neither can be readily labeled the oppressor.

The sibling-struggle motif runs throughout Genesis, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers, from the second to the 23rd generation of humanity. Only when Jacob, on his deathbed, is called upon to bless his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh in the 24th generation is

this rivalry stopped: he gives the two boys a joint blessing. He asks God to "bless the lads; and in them let my name be recalled, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth" (48:16) Jacob does this while crossing his arms, symbolizing an equal portion of the blessing to the first- and second-born. Joseph protests, trying to correct what he considers his father’s mistake. The patriarch persists, because he knows (through prophetic insight, as well as the painful lessons of his own life) what he must do. He can see into the future and knows what will become of both tribes, but that is a matter separate from the blessing. Moreover, he goes on to say, "By thee shall Israel bless, saying, ‘God make thee as Ephraim and Menasheh.’" And that is precisely how Jewish fathers like myself bless their sons at the Sabbath table every Friday night, invoking as role models these two relatively minor biblical figures rather than heroic personalities like Moses, David, Solomon or Samson.

The basic message is this: You are equally beloved and deserving of blessing, in my eyes and in God’s; so don’t fall victim to insecure egos, jealousies and conflict. The blessing is meant to be shared, not fought over; otherwise everyone suffers.

The conflict over the land of Israel-Palestine is a struggle to be blessed as the first-born, the rightful heir to the land and its bounties. All the arguments about who was there first (with archaeology often used in a self-serving way) or which people constitutes a "true nation," entitled to self-determination, are pointless. Both Jews and Palestinians have experienced oppression; both are struggling to secure their own welfare and "liberation" in the narrow, nationalistic sense, often against each other. The challenge is to broaden the vision of liberation to include both peoples together, so they can share the birthright and the blessing, which are from God. This requires moving beyond self-righteousness and a myopia of both perception and moral judgment. The current tragic impasse can be overcome only through mutual recognition, "re-cognizing" the other, not as an immutable enemy but as a potential sibling and partner in the common struggle for liberation based on a just compromise.

Modern-day Israelis and Palestinians have not yet learned to share the Abrahamic legacy and blessing, the blessing that promises "through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Three thousand years after Isaac and Ishmael, we are still trying to heal the sibling rivalry. Jacob and Esau were reconciled, but Isaac and Ishmael are still yearning for that reconciling embrace of kisses and tears. The biblical text describes an emotional reconciliation between Jacob and Esau following Jacob’s long exile and his dread over the prospect of a vengeful, bloody reunion. Later rabbinic tradition contains a categorical declaration that "Esau hates Jacob," painting him as an archetypal anti-Semite (despite the biblical rapprochement) By the Middle Ages, "Esau" had come to symbolize the church and Christianity, while "Ishmael," the prototypical Arab. had come to represent the other Abrahamic offshoot, Islam. In this century, a redemptive vision of fraternal peace, transcending theological divisions, was delineated by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935) , the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in Palestine under the British Mandate. Writing from Jaffa in 1908, Rabbi Kook prophesied: "The brotherly love of Esau and Jacob, of Isaac and Eshmael, will assert itself above all the confusion that the evil brought on by our bodily nature has engendered. It will overcome them and transform them to eternal light and compassion."


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