Apologizing For Our Necessary Collective Evil

Ha’aretz newspaper reported last week (7/19/2018) that Meyer Koplow, “a prominent Jewish-American philanthropist was delayed for security questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport this week after a pro-Palestinian pamphlet was found in his suitcase.

Ha’aretz reports the details as follows:

“During his most recent visit [to Israel], Koplow decided to also devote four days to meetings with Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. He did so by joining Encounter, a program that organizes meetings between Jewish-American community leaders and Palestinians.  

During a visit to Bethlehem with Encounter, Koplow said he was handed a Palestinian propaganda pamphlet in English. “I immediately saw it was propaganda and not real journalism, but I thought it would be interesting to read, intellectually, so I took it to my room, read a bit, and then tucked it in my bag,” Koplow explained. Koplow said he had forgotten about the pamphlet until his questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Koplow was on his way to the gate when his name was suddenly called on the airport’s PA system. “They asked me to come immediately to the information desk, I had no idea why,” Koplow recalled. “When I got there they told me, ‘There is a security problem.’”

It transpired that the Palestinian pamphlet had been found during another search of his suitcase. Koplow was asked to wait for 20 minutes, after which a female representative of the airport security services arrived to question him.

“She asked me why I visited the territories, what was the program I participated in, who were the other participants,” he said. “I answered her questions but she kept repeating them again and again, giving me the impression she didn’t believe what I was telling her.”

Koplow said the most disturbing question raised by the security representative was, “What was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories once I returned to the United States?” Koplow said he found it hard to understand how this question related to airport security.

He waited for another 15 to 20 minutes before the representative stepped away, made a phone call and then told him he was free to go.” (These are excerpts.  Here’s the full article.)  

I was on the same Encounter trip as Mr. Koplow (Meyer) and got to know him well during our time together. Meyer is a kind and thoughtful person whose deep love for Israel inspired him to participate in the trip. It offered him the opportunity to spend four days meeting with Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, hear their stories and listen to their narratives. His goal was simple. He wanted to get a more nuanced understanding of the “conflict.”

It is sad to think that his strong feelings towards the state and devotion to her security ended up backfiring, causing him unnecessary emotional distress.

For me, what happened to Meyer is of a piece with everything else I experienced on the Encounter trip. Namely, that love and support for Israel means living in perpetual emotional conflict.

I am thinking, for example, of our meeting with Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour.  I met Sam twice. Once in November, when I was a Encounter fellow, and again last week, when I went on the trip for a second time, this time as a facilitator. He left a huge impression on me both times we met.  

Sam is a big, macho man, accomplished and financially successful. Yet, living in Ramallah means that he has to put up with the constant degradation of having to plead with 19 yr. old pishers for permits so that he could move around, even when traveling within the West Bank. Oftentimes, the request is capriciously denied. It was hard to hear him describe how painful this is for him. I felt awful.

As I was listening to him, feeling ashamed for what he has to go through, it was not lost on me that the 19 yr. old soldier who sometimes denies him the permit he requested or detains him at a checkpoint could easily be my daughter, a shooting instructor in the Israeli Defense Forces, who is impeding his ability to move around freely because she is dedicated to ensuring the security of the people in Israel. Even a small mistake on her part could perhaps result in the loss of many lives.

I did not leave his presentation thinking that I should advise my daughter to do things differently. That would have been arrogant and hubris, since I know nothing about security protocols. I would actually tell her to continue doing what she was told by her superiors, but I would also keep in mind what those security needs do to the dignity of people like Sam.

I was overwhelmed by the emotional brutality of the experience, sitting next to a person and seeing the pain inflicted upon him as a result of Israel’s security measures. I left the meeting determined to own my complicity in Sam’s pain.

Sometimes we have to repent for transgression we commit even if they are perhaps justifiable. For example: when I fight a war of self-defense and people get killed in the process, the killing is justified, but I still took a life. For that I need to repent.

Those charged with ensuring the security of Israel’s airports have to be hyper-vigilant, to not let anything slip under the radar. If something in Meyer’s bags looked suspicious, they had every right to question him and make sure that it did not pose a security threat. That, however, does not take away from the fact that in the process Meyer was degraded.

Our challenge is to hold on to both feelings simultaneously; to unequivocally support Israel’s security apparatus but, at the same time, not allow our sensitivities to go numb in the process. Israel, on behalf of us, hurt another human being (albeit rightfully) and we need to repent, and also ask for forgiveness from the aggrieved person; we as individuals, and the state as a collective.

As an orthodox rabbi, that is the mode in which I operate all the time. I constantly remind my congregants: Orthodoxy is by definition discriminatory. People are denied full entry based on their gender, or various other factors. I love Orthodoxy and appreciate tremendously all that it gives me, but that does not absolve me of my complicity in its exclusionary ethos. I remind my community every Yom Kippur that we need to add this to our list of al cheits. We need to plead for forgiveness for the discrimination inherent in being orthodox. Justified behavior does not necessarily diminish the criminality (albeit without malice) such behavior sometimes entails .

To the degree that I am complicit in Mr. Koplow’s humiliation; I want to apologize. My dear friend, Meyer: I am sorry.

To the extent that I am culpable in Mr. Bahour’s pain; I want to atone. Sam, please forgive me.

 

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Senior Rabbi of PHS, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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