Alon Goshen-Gottstein

As we Await the Verdict from the Hague

In a matter of hours we will receive initial indication from the Hague. Will we be declared as potentially having committed genocide? Will the outrageous narrative of South Africa carry the day and will Israel have succeeded in providing a fuller view that accounts for its actions? Judging by the news feed, we are entering a stage of what we call in Hebrew כוננות ספיגה, preparation for receiving a hit-attack-bombing.

As we await this fateful decision, we do well to not only ponder the justice of the justices, and to affirm our own sense of righteousness, but also to consider what the ordeal might be telling us. Regardless of its outcome, and even taking into account profound biases of the international organizations, including latent and overt antisemitism, we are still invited to consider what these events are telling us. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that anything we see and encounter, any evil we see in another, let alone the charges of evil in ourselves, reflects something that exists within ourselves. In other words, from a higher spiritual perspective, even false charges come to teach us a lesson and invite us to reflection.

What might the reality of being dragged to the International Court of Justice, with all its humiliation and injustice, be telling us? Here is one possible answer.

I begin at a very unlikely place – the Vizhnitz Hassidic group, headed by Rabbi Yisrael Hager, in Bene Brak. Recently, Rabbi Hager assembled his Hassidim and narrated the following story. The story references the days leading up to the six day war. His grandfather, the famed Imeri Hayim, had gone up to Meron on Lag Baomer to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Coming out, his face shone, and he indicated he had achieved what he sought to achieve in prayer. The subject matter was the impending war. At that time Jordan joined the war. Rather than enter a state of fear, he stated: “Now we will liberate the Western Wall and they will be defeated”. And he added: “so long as they do not say כחי ועוצם ידי (Deut. 8,17), “by my power and might” (this was achieved), they will see God’s salvation with their very eyes”. I was struck by the story but even more so by the naming of what has turned out to be our biggest problem since – the adoption of power and the ascription of power to our own devices.

Two days after this sharing, Israel was dragged to the International Court of Justice, and even more importantly to the court of global public opinion. No, we did not commit genocide. But South Africa’s lawyers did not make up the quotes they presented, even if they attributed to them more than they deserve. Still, they deserve to be heard, because they hold up a mirror to who we have become and to how the world sees us. What better way to sum up the ugly image of Israel that emerges from the collection of statements and videos than by means of the concept of “my power and my might”. A hubris, drunk with power, drawing on decades of applying military force, technological knowhow and a self-assuredness and self-righteousness that leave little room for self-examination have exploded in our face. They exploded in our face already on October 7th, as the barrier crashed, and along with it all our idols were exposed.  Three months later we are again confronted with the limits of our power, both on the battlefield and in the court of international opinion. Our leadership’s promises have not been realized. We have no idea how to come out of the deep pit into which we have been thrown. And the world looks at our self-assuredness, callousness, and hubris and reflects back to us how it sees us.

One possible reading of what we are being told – from above, and from below, is that it’s all about power, owning power and abusing power as we own it. The common narrative ties the events of October 7th to the internal conflicts in which Israel was engaged over the past year. And what were those about? Gaining unbridled power. I share the view that many of our woes have as their immediate cause the holding on to power of our prime minister. The ensemble of second rate personalities that are quoted in South Africa’s dossier would never have been given voice and prominence had the fundamental narrative not been one of maintaining and holding on to power. This includes the power of the leader who seeks to remain in power, as well as of the nation that holds power over another, and considers it something normal, necessary and viable. The response has been the application of power and more power. The rhetoric on all sides has been one of overcoming the situation by means of our power, and, again, more power.

Spiritually ( I cannot speak to what is needed militarily; but I can speak to rhetoric, public mentality and spiritual approach), this power undermines us in the most fundamental way. It is our power. It is the very might that we ascribe to ourselves, while ignoring the divine power. Here, I believe, a true religious view, such as expressed by the Imeri Hayim, distinguishes itself from the views and actions, including sacrificial actions, of many who consider themselves and are identified as religious. Sadly, for many of the voices in society and on the battlefield, being religious means affirming that our power is “His.” What is needed is a rediscovery of the opposite, challenging as it is – the only power we have and the only power by means of which we can fight, is God’s power.

What better time to be invited to this reflection than on the eve of Shabbat Parashat Beshalach. Here we encounter the first time Israel is at war. And what is God’s message to Moses? “The Lord will fight for you and you need only keep still (or silent)” (Ex. 14,14). The war is God’s. Israel is fundamentally passive. This passivity gives way to activism, in Israel’s second war, with Amalek, narrated at the end of the parasha. There too however, we are taught, Israel does not prevail by its own power, but by the power of Moses, his hands and his prayers. It is not our power that wins the war, with divine blessing. It is God’s power that works, through us.

In a deep way, Israel has lost its course. Abuse of power, internally and externally, and the loss of transparency to God’s reality have made us idolatrous, power seeking and in a deep sense a failure, spiritually and in the various manifestations of events since October 7th. Until we can discover how to make our power transparent to God’s power, we will continue to appear to the world as we appeared in the Hague.

It is a common trope that the world loves the underdog, and hence as soon as Israel gained power over the Arabs, sympathy shifted to the new victim. I suggest an alternative narrative that goes to the core of who Israel is and why we have returned here. Only when God’s power protected us and we were aware of it, calling for it and transparent to it, could the world see in us the light that they seek and that we are destined to radiate. As we have moved, as a society and a nation, to rely upon our own power, with all its attendant corruptions, the world sees these and responds in a way that is true to our ultimate calling and destination. It turns away, not because we are wrong in the particulars of the unfolding narrative, but because of something deep about who we have become.

The lesson to learn, I suggest, is a revisiting of the depths of the power we employ and the relearning of what it means to be Israel as an agent of God, applying a power that is not our own and relying on His power, in our hardest moments.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.