Bearing the sign of peace

Cain, in the biblical story, murdered his brother Abel, and Cain’s punishment should have been death. However, since Cain was the only surviving child of Adam and Eve, the Creator decided not to execute him, at least until his parents had completed the period of mourning and could once again, in love, create new life through new children.

So, as soon as more children were born into this world, Cain was in mortal danger. Anyone might then have killed him, either out of hatred, or simply because his primal act had showed humanity how easy it is to kill. To protect the fugitive killer, we are told that the Creator placed a single letter of the Divine name on his forehead, so that no one would harm him. This same sign, however, now marked Cain, distinguishing him from all the other descendants of Adam and Eve. No one would befriend him, or even speak with him. Day by day, tradition tells us, Cain retreated further and further into the forest. Of course, suicide tempted him, but he now knew the punishment for murder, and did not dare to risk doubling his terrible fate by murdering himself. Rejected by humanity, he was eventually shot and killed by a hunter who mistook him for a wild animal.

While he lived, Cain wandered the land that refused to acknowledge him, homeless and companionless, always with one foot touching the earth and the other foot rejected by it. I can imagine his loneliness, desiring as he did to converse with the people he met, only to find that they all turned their backs on him.

I am not proposing a clever modern Midrash on Genesis; that is not what is needed in this time of violence and fear in Jerusalem. What I want is to share with you my sense of what it is like, personally, to be a peace activist in Israel and Palestine today.

A decade ago, when I began to meet with Palestinians, it was as a direct response to my experiences as an Israeli Jew during the Second Intifada. I felt that in my encounters with the ‘enemy’ something new and healthy was coming to birth in me. It was also difficult.  I now had to stand before the mirror of my own people’s narrative and values, standards that I had been raised by and grown to love, and to realize that these concealed a much more complex and nuanced reality. I was forced to give an account of my relationships with Palestinians and with the land I thought belonged to me alone. I even had to forge a new definition of my own relationship, as a Jew, to who I am as a human being.

All these difficulties were psychological and internal; on the outside, I got a lot of support. Everyone seemed to want to understand, and even somehow to get in touch with their own pain vicariously through my efforts.

Things are different now. Today, I am a Jewish Cain. When I speak with ‘normative’ Israelis in Jerusalem I am afraid to even mention that I work with Palestinians, who have already become truly family for me. I know that nothing I say can change the fact that Israeli society as a whole has distanced itself from the place where being a peace activist is even possible in any ‘kosher’ Jewish Israeli terms.

Once I used to make fun of the ‘narrow-mindedness’ of American Jewish communities, because criticisms of Israel’s policies that would never be allowed in the most ‘liberal’ American Jewish gatherings can be debated openly on every street corner in Israel. Today, that is simply, tragically, no longer true.

Yes, I know that in Israel there are still plenty of ‘left-wingers’ who want to believe that one day the olive branch will appear. But these very same people are not willing to take any real action to make that happen. Not only that, but even I, Yakir, who think of myself as a ‘peace activist,’ can only laugh bitterly at myself. Simply to try to spark a dialogue among fellow-Jews about ‘the situation’ is to be branded as a ‘leftist bastard.’ Go further, speak of dialogue with Palestinians, and you become a ‘betrayer of Israel.’ And if you have any desire for real transformation, for an activism that will change the status quo, you will always be a lone voice in the wilderness, well short of a minyan. Activism that challenges the existing reality is understood, in Israel, as the business of anarchists, or of well-meaning Europeans, or of American Jews who show up in the Middle East for a year of volunteer work, and then run home to get their M.A.s and become cultural heroes of Jewish liberalism.

The difference between ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Israeli politics today is this: the ‘right-winger’ declares openly that brute force is the only way to treat Palestinians, and that we can’t believe a word they say. ‘Left-wingers,’ for their part, keep the faith, sing about peace, and tell saintly tales about Yitzhak Rabin, like Hasidim mourning their beloved Rebbe. They do not struggle to change the painful reality that harms both sides; most of their energy goes into preserving the bubble intact. When Palestinians fire rockets in the direction of Tel Aviv, these ‘left-wingers’ are quick to support the bombing of Gaza, and when the bombs exact too high a price, and threaten to damage our image of humanism, then they sometimes go out and demonstrate for a cease-fire. As soon as the shooting stops, they breathe a sigh of relief (understandably!), but do nothing more on behalf of Palestinians, so that they, too, might be able to breathe.

Cain murdered his brother, his own flesh and blood. I too, without knowing it, killed something of myself when I became a peace activist.  I ‘murdered’ my old narrative, the narrative that taught me that to be an Israeli Jew is first of all to believe that the whole world hates us. This narrative teaches us also to hate Arabs, and to call them, quoting Sarah in Genesis (21:10), “the children of that slave-girl (Hagar).”

My reading of Rashi, the greatest Jewish mind to explain the Torah, is still guided by the Ultra-Orthodox mode of study, not the mode of the Zionist yeshiva. As Rashi taught, the Creator of all, who gave me the gift of living on this land, is equally able to give this gift to others, with me or instead of me. If we as Jews return to this land to find non-Jews living here, then it is the divine will that we should live together, sharing our values and learning from each other.

Today, I can no longer hate Arabs, or even believe – as was taught uniquely by Rabbi Shimon in the Talmud – that there is some kind of ontological difference between Jews and gentiles. In my theological tradition, gentiles and Jews are all equally children of Adam, and fully human.

All this puts me outside the limits of the present Israeli narrative; in that sense, I have ‘killed’ that narrative. Israelis look at the letter engraved on my forehead, and shake their heads. They mutter about me, something between ‘Naïve idiot!’ and ‘Self-hating Jew!’  And then they warn me: “The day will come, if you succeed in your plan to let the Palestinians rule over us, then they will slaughter you first, laughing as they do!”

How can it be, then, that now I feel at home and beloved only with those same Palestinians and the Israeli activists who work with them for change?  And no, this does not mean – as many now accuse me – that I love Israelis in general less, only that I see more deeply their pain, and also their arrogance. How can it be, that when I gaze at the faces of elderly Palestinians around me, what I see are the faces I saw in the synagogue of my Hasidic childhood, the faces of those who survived the Holocaust and lived to put a caressing hand on my head, with a silent prayer? Where is my real home in this wilderness of narratives?

I have to be honest – and please, my Palestinian friends and colleagues, do not be angry with me; I do not mean this personally.  Would you believe how many times, in these past ten years, I have deeply regretted having ever decided to go out to meet Palestinians? How many times I have wished that I could ignore the whole situation, as I did in the past; how many times I have wished that I could hate my ‘enemies,’ as I did, seeing the sign of Cain on the foreheads of other ‘lefties,’ and mocking them.

The great Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, was one of those saints who lived with a deep personal existential crisis all his life, because of his insistence on facing the truth. Once his disciples quoted to him the verse from Ecclesiastes (1:18): “The more we know, the more we suffer.” And he answered, as he always did: “Yet even so…”

I too, like Cain, am doing penance for my sin. I bear the sign of mockery on my forehead. It is one of the letters of the name of the Creator, to whom I whisper: “For this sin that I have sinned before You, calling You by the name of ‘Peace’.”

Translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Henry R. Carse.

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization.
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