When Does Night Become Day?

in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday

Flag.05It was back in 2006 that Jay Leno observed what he called “positive news” from out of Israel. “Both sides are signing off on [President Bush’s] road map to peace,” Leno said. “The bad news is the Israelis think the road goes through the West Bank, Palestinians think it goes right through downtown Jerusalem.”

More recently, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking announced his support of the boycott against Israeli products. Hawking was apparently unaware that his speech computer was designed in Israel when he made the following statement to reporters, “I’m an antisemitic pig who loves rolling my wheelchair across my cat’s tail.”

What is it they say, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d be crying”? The news out of Israel these days isn’t so good. Not that it ever is. But I’m usually filled with much more hope. Silly me, I really thought that President Obama’s peace initiative via John Kerry would move genuine peace talks forward. But now, the only question people are asking seems to be whether the talks are dead or just dying.

And then, earlier just this week, we learned that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations rejected J Street’s bid for membership. 50 organizations are represented in this coalition, and only 17 of them thought that adding J Street to their roster would be a good idea. So, in essence, they shut down the only really alternative voice the American Jewish community would have had in the conversation about Israel.

Here at Woodlands, we’ve met the leadership of J Street. These are not hysterical, unhinged people. They’re thoughtful, caring people who happen to think there are other ideas for how Israel might manufacture its future. This week’s vote is just another in a long string of refusals to engage with J Street’s points of view.

It’s just so sad because, while I happen to subscribe to much of what J Street thinks is the path ahead, I’m more saddened that the conversation can’t even take place. For quite a while now, American Jews have offered little to no room for debate on Israel. Remember the bumper sticker, “America: Love It or Leave It”? That’s what it seems is the only voice allowed when it comes to Israel.

Those who dissent from the party line are branded as traitors to Israel’s cause. Those who suggest that we might find a way to live alongside the Palestinians are labeled as accessories to murder. Those who read Ari Shavit’s The Promised Land and encounter, perhaps for the first time, his telling of a version of the 1948 War of Independence where Jews also play a role in pushing Palestinians off their lands, find themselves spurned for bastardizing history.

If America, great as this country is, has never been a perfect democracy, with perfect leadership, or an unblemished record of behavior, why would anyone presume that Israel would achieve that. We wanted it to, I get that. But after a while, I’d assumed we would all wake up from that little daydream. Israel, like America, like every other country, has its dirty laundry. It remains a great country. A bastion of democratic values, of compassionate governance both inside and outside its borders, and a petri dish for innovative industries and technologies. As I am proud of the United States, even with all its warts, I am also proud of Israel, which falls short much of the time as well.

There are great achievements there. We write about them every month in Makom, in the column we call, “Just Israel.” So many justice-oriented activities are going on there, many sponsored by the government, many taking place in spite of the government: Israeli and Palestinians scientists researching HIV together, a multi-denominational social action training program that empowers disparate groups to solve serious social problems together, greater recognition of the homosexual-lesbian family as full members of Israel’s social fabric, the Israeli Supreme Court ordering the end of illegal, coercive, and involuntary segregation on public buses, also ordering the Security Fence to be moved when it violates Palestinian rights, an Arab and an Israeli entering the Eurovision song competition together, the most terror-free period in Israeli history, 120 new Palestinian schools, 3 new Palestinian hospitals, 50 new Palestinian health clinics, a 1000 new miles of Palestinian roads and 850 new miles of Palestinian water pipes.

Things are changing there, to be sure. Not quickly enough. Not enough insistence, from both sides, that neighbors stop seeing each other as enemies and become much more resolute in building their neighborhood, their peaceful neighborhood, together.

I want to show you a video. It’s not about the Middle East. But it could be. It illustrates how you and I can go about our daily lives and miss seeing our family. The people in this film really are family. Shouldn’t Israelis and Palestinians see each other this way too?


The issues confronting Israel are not unique to that land. God knows, we have a long way to go before we can see (or perhaps stop seeing) people whose skin color isn’t white, whose sexual orientation isn’t straight, whose gender isn’t male, whose earning power isn’t affluent, and yes, who live in houses or apartments and not on the street. But Israel is a magnet for powerful emotion and opinion. And for you and me, it’s a place we wish would do as well, if not better, than our own country in resolving its social deficiencies.

The first step is learning how to talk to each other. John Kerry should never have to come home. The Israelis and Palestinians should build him a house right on the Green Line, and a day shouldn’t ever go by when they’re not meeting with him to work toward peace.

And you and I should learn how to speak to one another about Israel too. Just as J Street should have a seat at the table, we need to learn how to talk about these issues with each other without getting angry, without judging, without labeling one another as the enemy.

A good start has arrived to Woodlands. Part one of an exciting program that comes out of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, “Engaging Israel,” has allowed a goodly number of us to talk about the values we believe should govern a Jewish state without getting lost in our highly-charged opinions about individual Israeli policies. Part two of “Engaging Israel” will begin next November. It’s the best conversation on Israel and her neighbors I’ve ever experienced. I hope you’ll join us.

The second step is to build real bridges, real partnerships, real peace. You and I probably can’t do that here, although we can bring Palestinian and Jewish singers to our bimah as a symbolic expression of our hope that such friendships can continue to be grown there as well.

It’s Israel’s 66th birthday. It’s still a miracle that a Jewish nation exists. And it always should. But it’s time for a new miracle. Jewish tradition asks, “How can one tell when night has ended and the new day has begun? Its answer: When you can look into the face of a stranger and see that he’s your friend.” May the Jewish people, wherever we reside, never cease reaching out and extending a hand of hope, of goodwill, and of peace.

Happy birthday, Israel. And many, many more.