An open letter to Shira Lipkin,

Dear Shira,

In your moving and passionate piece in Salon you struggle with the inheritance bequeathed to you as a Jew. You seem to be on the cusp of rejecting that heritage outright — maybe you already have. On the chance that you, or others like you are ready to look over the “estate” before you deny your birthright, I wanted to share with you some thoughts that may give you pause.

First, you write that in Sunday school you were taught “to believe that Israel was ours by divine right.” I think that this simplistic notion is directly at odds with our tradition. The book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is a series of narratives about exile — the forfeiting of rights to land. Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Cain is exiled to the land of Nod for murdering his brother. Joseph’s eleven brothers are exiled to Egypt for their hatred of him. The great sage Nachmanides tells us that the whole purpose of this book is to teach us that there is no absolute Divine right to the land, including the land of Israel. Rather, there is a Divine charge to earn the right to dwell in the land. This idea is spelled out explicitly in the book of Leviticus (a much slower read than Genesis) chapter 25, verse 23 when God says, “for the land belongs to Me, you are merely strangers and residents with Me.”

From reading your piece, I imagine you would find this notion attractive if not believable. You might even charge that Israel has failed to live up to its responsibility, and has forfeited its right to the land. I must confess that there are days that I am profoundly disappointed with Israel’s record. However, your categorical condemnation of Israel is unbalanced, unfair, and uninformed.

Let me begin with the part of your critique that I think has the most validity. You refer in your piece to “hate of Israelis for Palestinians.” I admit that years of hostility between Arabs and Jews has turned the hearts of some towards hatred and prejudice. This is not surprising given the history of our conflict. What is surprising to me is the level of tolerance and goodwill one can find in Israel between Arabs/Palestinians and Jews. Allow me to share one anecdote with you. On our Kibbutz there is a weeklong program where our kids host and organise a camp for children with disabilities. Just this evening at dinner my boys were discussing what they did today at camp. In passing they mentioned how cute Bashar is. My ears perked up because Bashar is an Arab name and not a Jewish one. I asked if Bashar is Arab. They nonchalantly said yes, informing me that every year there are a few Arab kids in the camp. Shira, don’t get me wrong. We have lots of work to do in terms of eliminating bias and prejudice in Israeli society, but I think you would be surprised to see how amicable day to day relations between Jews and Palestinians/Arabs can be.

While I take issue mostly with your tone when it comes to Israeli feelings about Palestinian Arabs, I believe your comments about occupation begin to obfuscate the facts. You write “the answer to occupation is not more occupation” suggesting that Israel focuses single-mindedly on occupation. Yet, in 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew its military and civilian occupation from Gaza. This was one of a number of times that Israel withdrew from territories it occupied during the Six Day War. Israel withdrew completely from Sinai as part of a peace treaty with Egypt, and withdrew its troops from certain areas of the west bank as part of the Oslo Accords. Shira, Israel has tried other options to occupation — negotiated settlement and unilateral withdrawal. Maybe Israel didn’t negotiate well enough. Maybe Israel wasn’t generous enough. There are thoughtful critiques of Israel’s overtures to the Palestinians but the suggestion that Israel only answers occupation with occupation is a gross oversimplification.

You stepped from oversimplification to blatant falsehood when you wrote in the original version of your piece that Israeli soldiers burned a Palestinian child. The mistake was noted by Salon and deleted but I would like to share with you something about the incident that you originally mentioned. This unspeakable atrocity was condemned by the entire spectrum of Israeli society. The suspected perpetrators of this heinous crime have been arrested and are standing trial now.

Finally you accuse Israel of genocide. This is so farfetched that I don’t know where to begin. Israel has the means to wipe out the Palestinian people and every day it puts its soldiers in harm’s way rather than use the full might of its awful war machine. There are reasonable critiques of Israel’s military policies but an accusation of genocide is not one of them.

Israel is not the bloodthirsty demon that you make it out to be. Its greatest aspirations are spelled out in its declaration of independence which proclaims that Israel…

…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The portrait that you paint in your piece would seem to reflect the vision laid out in Hamas’ founding document:

…The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him… Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Shira, if you want to renounce your heritage then go ahead, but before you do so I think you need to invest greater effort into understanding what you are rejecting. Some two thousand years ago, a Rabbi Yossi shared some wisdom that in a sense parallels your discomfort with the notion of an automatic entitlement to one’s inheritance. He said “prepare yourself to study Torah for it is not your inheritance.” A truly meaningful discussion of the significance of the people of Israel, its land and its Torah must be informed and thoughtful. According to Rabbi Yossi just as we have to earn our place in the land, we have to earn our place in the Beit Midrash — the House of Talmudic Debate. I pray that the people of Israel merit our share of the land and that you merit a seat in our Beit Midrash.