Zionism and Jewish ethics implore us to treat other people well, value all human life and seek peace. However, the current political situation in Israel virtually guarantees that we will fail to achieve these values. This reality is eating away at our ethical core like a rapidly growing cancer. With Yom Kippur approaching and before we ask for God’s forgiveness, Jewish ethics demand that we first ask forgiveness for the sins we have committed against our fellow human beings. This includes family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and the Palestinians as well. We may not agree with them on many issues but, according to Jewish ethics, that does not preclude our obligation to admit our wrongs and seek forgiveness and make peace.
The philosophical essence of Judaism, according to Emmanuel Levinas, is “concern for the other.” In an illuminating analysis of the Talmudic roots of forgiveness in the Tractate Yoma, Levinas explains that the requirement to seek forgiveness from others you have wronged before Yom Kippur is harder and more important than seeking God’s forgiveness. According to Jewish law, a person is expected to make every effort to seek forgiveness from those they have wronged. The laws relating to how we treat other people are essential and form the basis from which to then seek God’s forgiveness. The Prophets understood that mere observance of the laws between human beings and God meant little if the laws between fellow human beings were not observed. Strict ritual observance without genuine attempts at compassion and caring for the other is likened to a body without a soul.
The philosophical jump from ‘concern for others’ to a loving family, caring community and social democratic welfare State are obvious. Caring for the weakest elements of society, practicing tolerance and pluralism, and striving for justice and peace follows intuitively from the ethical tenet of concern for others.
Jewish and Israeli children are taught that the supremacy of “Life” is paramount through the concept of ‘Pikuach Nefesh’ which teaches that we should do everything possible to save a life. This includes not turning off life support systems and even breaking halachic rules regarding Shabbat observance if necessary to save a life. In addition, we acknowledge that all human lives are equal. A non-Jewish life is just as important to save as a Jewish one.
Peace is another primary Jewish value. The Talmud devotes a Tractate to peace which is called “Great is Peace.” Peace is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible and our tradition emphasizes the importance of making extensive efforts to make peace in our families (‘shalom bayit’), communities and with other nations and peoples. Indeed, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel and founder of the Shas political party, ruled that giving up land was justified if it reduced the loss of life and led to peace with Egypt.
As Jews and Zionists these are the intuitive and unspoken values with which we raise our children. Israel and the Jewish people are fair and tolerant. Israel is a Liberal democracy and the Jewish people have embraced and benefited greatly from liberalism and tolerance. Jewish survival demanded it. The historical experience of being enslaved, antisemitism and persecution, and the Holocaust have taught us to be wary of governments that are not tolerant and liberal towards minorities and disenfranchised groups.
Unfortunately, the reality of a siege mentality, a 50-year occupation and an ongoing war with the Palestinians have started to erode and corrupt our moral purpose and beliefs. How can our children hope to aspire to our most sacred ethical beliefs and values relating to how we treat others if we are turning them into the policeman of the Occupation? We are setting them up to fail ethically. We are injuring them morally. We cannot preach humanist values and, at the same time, say they don’t apply to us. Being an occupier is hurting us and jeopardizes our future. What Naomi Chazan so eloquently describes as “occupation blindness” is a symptom of our moral cancer. It blinds us to seeing the most important core ethical values upon which Judaism and the State of Israel were established.
Our core Jewish moral values emphasize life, peace and caring for others. On the eve of Yom Kippur, we are ethically bound to first seek forgiveness from those we have wronged and make peace with them. Only then may we ask God for forgiveness.