The High Holidays challenge us to embrace the tension between who we are and who we ought to be. Between what we have done, and what we ought to be doing with our lives.
Those who believe that who they are, is who they ought to be, are suffering either from self-delusion or moral corruption. They are either over-idealizing their achievements or lowering the bar on their self-expectations. As Kohelet teaches, there is no good person on earth who only does what is right, and does not sin (7:20).
Human achievement is not measured by our failure to be all that we ought to be, but in how we respond to that failure.
What is true on an individual level is no less applicable on a national level. As the aura of our High Holidays approaches, it is incumbent to recognize that Israel, as well, is not all that it ought to be. No nation is. The question is whether we are willing to recognize this truth, and more importantly, what are we willing to do about it.
One area where the gap between “is” and “ought” is most glaring, is in the lack of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. This absence is increasingly the object of much attention and criticism. Whether in the international community, be they friend and foe, or from members of the Jewish people worldwide, the current status quo is being portrayed for what it is — a reality and not an ideal.
All fantasies that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will disappear from international attention under the glare of global terrorism and the Sunni-Shiite wars, are in fact precisely that — fantasies. This will only intensify as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 war and its aftermath.
Israel and the Palestinians are being challenged to change the rules that define our reality. The future of Israel, our standing in the international community, and our relationship with world Jewry, will be shaped by how we respond.
Two roads lie before us, and as Robert Frost rightfully said, “way leads on to way,” and depending on the choices we make, our story will unfold. One path is to deny the tension between “is” and “ought,” and to idealize the current reality. Doing so entails the idealization of terror, oppression, and subjugation, which is nothing short of moral bankruptcy.
The other road is to recognize that even though we are in the Middle East, our two peoples can do better. But here too, there are two paths, and way leads to way. One option is pained by the lack of a viable peace process and dreams of a different and better tomorrow, but feels trapped in the current reality. What is, is far from ideal, but it is all that will be, at the very least, for the foreseeable future. Whether for the sake of inner tranquility or external public relations, each side then equips themselves with a narrative of why the other is solely responsible for what is. Like precious stones, we hoard the instances of the other’s failures, as we declare to ourselves and others, “It’s not my fault.”
Like many Israelis, without absolving in any way my country’s failures and responsibilities, I am increasingly hard-pressed to justify the claim that the Palestinians desire to live side-by-side with me. It is not the terror of individuals, but its aggrandizement by too many, including the Palestinian Authority, which makes me doubt whether peace can be a reality in my lifetime. If someone who attempts to murder my people is considered by Palestinian leadership “a martyr who watered the pure earth of Palestine with his blood,” where does the future lie?
Way leads to way, and mourning over peace which is lost often turns into acceptance of occupation of another people as a reality which cannot be avoided. Over time what “is,” comes to be perceived as what ought to be.
But another path lies before us. If the absence of a peace process is not what ought to be, then we can choose to do something about it. However, all too often, when choosing this path, we are silenced by claims that embracing a peace process endangers Israel’s security and viability. We must simply accept, they argue, the absence of a peace partner, Islamic fundamentalism, and the volatility of the Middle East, as our reality. Any action on the political front, they say, is naive, self-delusional, and self-destructive, and must therefore be avoided.
Like most Israelis, I too do not welcome an aggressive peace process which will put forth a “resolution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this year or next. Much healing and change has to take place within our societies for peace to move from process to reality. I fear that the impatience with the flaws in our current reality will be replaced by a new reality with even greater flaws.
But another path stands before us — instead of perpetually arming ourselves with the tools to justify why it is “their fault,” or attempting to deflect the issue to other more “pressing” global concerns. Instead of responding with fear and derision to any international attempt which questions the long-term viability of the status quo, we can lead by being the ones who ask this question of ourselves.
Our leadership must lead by stating, restating, and restating yet again, a commitment to peace and a willingness to cease all actions which undermine the ability of one day achieving this peace. They must declare that yes, Israeli and Palestinian lives matter, and in a neighborhood where human life is the cheapest of commodities, this is not what ought to be. They must declare that neither terror nor national subjugation will ever be accepted as our permanent reality.
Are words enough? No. But in the current reality they are critical, for way might lead to way.