Competing truths

My good friend and teacher, the brilliant and irascible and entirely irreplaceable Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, used to say that there were two entirely irreconcilable narratives. One belonged to the Jewish people and Israel, and the other to the Palestinians.

He was a Jew, he would add, so his people’s version of the story was his version, but holding onto it did not — could not — stop him from that the other side’s story had its own truth as well. In fact, he knew that if he had been born a Palestinian, he would have held onto that truth as firmly as he held and defended and researched and wrote about and loved and honored his own.

There are some things that are just plain facts, objectively true, and those truths are true for both sides (although of course it is possible to lie about them, and certainly we know that lying has come to play an important if shameful part in American public discourse). Some things are not facts, although people believe them to be. Some beliefs have the emotional weight of facts. And sometimes even facts themselves can clash with each other.

So this week, President Donald J. Trump ordered the U.S. embassy in Israel to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is Israel’s capital. American law has recognized Jerusalem as the capital, and American presidents have vowed to move the embassy, but it has taken 70 years, from the founding of the state until now, to make that move.

Israelis are almost united behind the wisdom of that move. Americans are not, and American Jews are not. In general, the Orthodox community is fairly certain that it was the only morally correct position to take, and most of the liberal Jewish world is fairly certain that although in the abstract the move is correct, but it is an unassailable fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, the moral and political capital that was expanded on that move just now was unwise and unlikely to end well.

And then there is what happened in Gaza, 60 miles away, where Palestinians offered themselves up as tire-burning, rock-throwing sacrifices and Israeli soldiers, watching them try to breach the wall that separates them, shot them. So far, about 60 are reported to have died, and many more are injured.

The roots of this nightmare go way back, to the British, to the Ottomans, to the Nazis, to the age-old inexplicable evil of anti-Semitism, to Hamas, to the camps, to the plans that Ariel Sharon had for Gaza that never materialized because he was stricken with a stroke, to the hatreds that go back generations, to the hatred that has been able to fester for generations.

But it’s happening now. And Jews are hopelessly divided on it.

Just as the rest of the country is locked into tribes, with loyalties that preclude much reaching out (and partial disclosure, I feel it too), so too is the Jewish world becoming split. Some of us think that the embassy move is a good thing, others of us think it’s unwise. Some of us think that the Gazans brought everything that’s happening to them now on themselves, and others of us think that the Israelis allowed themselves to fall into their trap. Some of us think that the world hates us for no reason, and others of us think that we are giving them reason.

There is terrifying division in the air. We cannot allow ourselves to be split into warring camps. There aren’t enough of us for that luxury. We cannot allow disagreement — which is of course natural and healthy — to harden into dislike. We just can’t.

We shouldn’t be swayed by lies, we should hold on to our version of the elusive truth but be open to the other side’s as well, and we should hold onto hope.

That’s what Rabbi Hertzberg would have done.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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