Enough with Insanity

Albert Einstein’s famous quote about insanity, that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” makes me insane.  It has been beaten to death in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and yet we continue to ignore it.  We quote it and ignore it, which is the part that actually makes me insane.  Insanity is saying the same thing over and over and over again, so many times, that we all actually begin to believe it, or we are fogged into not knowing what to believe and we act on fear.  Fear of destruction; fear of losing; fear of acknowledging the truth.  When we act on fear, or from insanity, the truth becomes whatever is the safest thing to believe, even if it is not true at all.

Leading up to the High Holy Days, there were a flurry of articles about whether rabbis can, should, will talk about Israel from the pulpit for fear of offending congregants, alienating potential congregants (either to the right or left), of losing donors or even of losing their jobs.  I have not faced the same kind of challenges my colleagues have in regard to Israel.  In thinking what to say now, today, as Jerusalem, our holy and beloved city, is burning with the smoke of violence and death, murder and assassination, I cannot follow the insanity of saying the same thing I, and others, have been saying for years, decades.

In talking to one of my colleagues, he said something that stuck with me.  We were discussing how to approach a new narrative, a new paradigm for discussing Israel and the ongoing conflict with Palestinians, and greater Arab world, and he said, “All I want from Israel is honesty. Sure, I would love for the government to do all the things I think would be the best idea (push for economic and religious equality, make real efforts toward a two-state solution), but in the absence of that, I want the truth. I want the next government to be elected on a one-state platform if that’s what the people of Israel want. And then I want to have to reconcile my Jewishness, my Zionism, my liberalism with the reality of what Israel is. I want either two states or one, but not this. I am tired of the ambiguity, of the occupation being complicated. I want people to declare the future they want, and to work to implement it.  Even if that is a one-state where millions of people have no civil rights.  Even if it is current Israeli President Rivlin’s version, where Israel is one big democracy from river to sea, and we don’t have a Jewish state anymore.  I feel like I’ll support whatever they do.  I just want them to do something. All of what this government does furthers the one-state plan, so if that is what they want, I feel like we should create an atmosphere where they can say it and do it. But do it already…”

This may be hard to hear, even blasphemous for some, but the time for hard truths and honest conversation is long past.  Israel, and world Jewry, can no longer stand idly by as our beloved Jewish homeland is being driven to total isolation by policies that only serve to perpetuate the occupation and hamper any chances for a two-state solution, let alone shalom, wholeness and peace.  Our fear cannot blind us to the great success, and thereby great responsibility, that lies in Israel’s precious hands as a world power.  We are no longer victims, but that mentality is hard to let go.  Zionism means something different now than it did 100 years ago.  It must, for the dream succeeded.  How we implement and sustain the vision of the dream is the work now.  That requires aligning what we feel with what the reality truly is.

My friend who wanted the honest truth, no matter how hard it might be swallow, helped me to frame my thinking around what is the new narrative that we need in order to support and help Israel to flourish more fully, now that it has succeeded in creating a secure and mighty nation.  Rabbi Donniel Hartman is helping me, and many Jews around the world, in opening up the next chapter of Jewish history, one in which he argues we don’t have language or framework to understand, because it is utterly new in our history.  A sovereign State of Israel and a safe, welcome and honored part of society outside of Israel, in the case of North American Jews.  Even as European anti-Semitism is rising, and is frightening and deplorable, and there have been isolated acts of violence against us, Jews as a people are mostly safe in the world, and mostly, if not fully, safe in Israel.  This new reality forces us to look at things with new and different lenses.

The hard truth is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, save for the brave minority in both peoples, want to acknowledge or accept the other’s narrative, primarily as to what happened in 1948.  There have been good books, honest attempts, most recently, and eloquently, by Ari Shavit and Yossi Klein HaLevi, to show that the history of the formation of the State of Israel was not a bed of roses for everyone, and the Palestinians paid a massive price in the birth of Israel.  That is a narrative Israelis have to come to accept.  And, similarly, the Palestinians need to acknowledge that Jews have had constant ties to this land for thousands of years, and Zionism was a movement to fulfill our national destiny, and not colonial conquering.  Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are disappearing from the map, that is a fact.  We don’t yet see past the enemy aspect of our relationship, embracing and empowering the human aspect of our relationship.  Until we each do this, both peoples, from a place of mutual trust, desire for peace and hope for reconciliation, the war will continue, no doubt.  And yet, does this process guarantee success and peace?  Of course not, for there are no guarantees against fear and the drive to war.  But this is certainly the only hope for ever giving it a try.  Israel has tried and failed, and the Arab League Initiative tried and failed.  Lets try again.

Insanity rules in the Middle East and sadly, we can’t seem to listen to the wisdom of Einstein.  I respectfully, humbly, prayerfully, with a full heart, ask you, beg you, leaders of the world, to not let another generation of death and hatred explode again.  We are all watching in horror, as we know this story, this recurring nightmare, which is both maddening, yet comforting for so many.

Like Abraham, in this week’s Torah portion Lech L’cha, without the journey to the unknown, without elements of trust and faith, without moving and taking risks, we cannot reach our fullest potential.  It is way past time for the leaders of all parties, of all nations, to accept the responsibility and move us past this stalemate.  That is diplomacy, that is the journey of Lech L’cha: confronting our differences, honoring our separate, yet equally true, narratives, and agreeing to move forward with dignity and respect.  Hearing the truth hurts sometimes.  Occupation is a truth that needs to be heard and dealt with.  Hamas’ claim to eradicate Israel is a truth that needs to be heard and dealt with.  No more pretending, no more half-truths, no more political games, no more name calling, no more denial.  Let us speak and hear the other’s truth.  Let us not jump back into mutually assisted suicide, enflaming another generation or more with hate.  As the midrash teaches us about creation, without truth, there can be no peace.  Let the truth, and the reconciliation that we know is possible with honoring another’s truth, lead us toward peace.  If we don’t, what does Hillel’s famous phrase, “if not now, when?” really mean other than being an empty platitude?

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater has been the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California since 2003. He is an executive committee member of the Board of Directors for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, co-founder and co-chair of AFPI, Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative and is co-chair of J-Street's Los Angeles Rabbinic Cabinet.