Yakir Englander
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Hasidic tales in Palestine

The revered rebbes of his childhood taught him that love for fellow Jews and for non-Jews is not a zero sum game

There is a Hasidic story about the Vizhnitz Rebbe, a great sage known also as “The Lover of Israel.” During World War I, he was “gazing out of the window of his home, when he saw soldiers leading Jews away, bound and shackled. He turned to his assistant and said: ‘Believe me, were I not afraid to transgress the command against suicide, I would throw myself to my death this instant, rather than be forced to go on seeing the children of Israel suffer so.’”

This tale, and many like it, forged my Jewish identity; the image of the great sages of Israel, as models for emulation, defined the person I wished to become. Once, as a child, I asked my father to define a Jewish saint — a tzadik. My father replied: “Miracles are only of secondary importance in giving a tzadik his status. We really believe in a tzadik because he devotes eight to twelve hours a day listening to the problems of other people: this is what makes him a saint.”

In recent years, I have chosen to devote myself to actively seeking a change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my work for peace, I try to follow the light of the Hasidic tzadikim. I have chosen to go into the streets with suffering people, to touch their pain with my own. The change I seek can happen, I believe, through the same kind of deep love that was reflected in the eyes of the Vizhnitz Rebbe, as he gazed from his window on the suffering of his people.

And yet, the work of peace in Jerusalem today requires something more. First, to be a “maker of peace” (oseh shalom), it is not enough to see the suffering of only Israelis; the pain of both Israelis and Palestinians must be fully acknowledged. The ability to embrace the suffering around us must be unconditional, and unmarred by excuses and explanations concerning the pain’s causes.

There is another truth we must face if we come, as I do, from a Jewish religious community: if we choose to feel the pain of all sides, we will be seen as traitors and “troublers of Israel.” For many in this community, “love” is a limited commodity. It is confined to a “zero-sum game,” in which any love given to Palestinians comes at the expense of “Love of Israel.” We must transcend these narrow limits of love to reach peace.

Recently I was asked to address an interfaith event in New York, attended by Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders. I opened my presentation with a description of the suffering I witness in Jerusalem every day. I had barely begun to speak, when one of the participating rabbis interrupted me. “When you talk about the suffering of the people of Jerusalem,” he said, “it is not appropriate for you to speak of Palestinians together with Israelis. Every suffering has a context: in Jerusalem the Palestinians are themselves responsible for their own suffering, while the Israeli Jews have done nothing wrong, and only want to live in their holy city in peace.”

I was taken aback. I had not even had the chance to finish my first sentence, the trauma I myself had experienced in Jerusalem – and already I had been judged. And yet, this voice of judgment is very familiar to me, since I hear it within myself. My peace work with Palestinians is haunted by a feeling of guilt from my past, which brings up the Jewish saying from the Midrash: “Whoever is kind toward those who are cruel, will end up being cruel to those who are kind.” Today I am living very differently, and I can no longer see either side in the conflict in these terms. However, I acknowledge that this kind of theology is part of my Jewish DNA, and this gives me the ability to work together with many different kinds of Jews. I know that there are those who believe that the very fact that we choose to feel compassion for Palestinians proves that there is no “Love of Israel” in us.

In spite of this voice of judgment, I was able to respond to that rabbi, looking directly into his pain-filled eyes. “Since I represent an Israeli-Palestinian peace movement, people here naturally expect me to take the side of the Palestinians, to show you the complexities of their situation. But if this is all I do, I will be easily slotted into the ‘pro-Palestinian’ category, which is not where I want to be. In that simplistic “pigeon-hole” I would lose credibility among the majority of Israelis, and also lose the ability to work for peace with them.

“So let me say this: Rabbi, I know that you deeply believe what you have just said, with all your heart. But I can also say, without hesitation, that I have met many pro-Palestinians who deeply believe, with all their hearts, exactly the opposite. My work is not to determine who is right and who is wrong. My work is to gather up that deep heartfelt caring, both yours and theirs, that caring that seems impossible to reconcile, and to forge it somehow into a shared compassion, the human instrument for peace in Jerusalem.

“And now, Rabbi,” I continued, “I have a question – not only for you but for every person here. Do you truly believe what is written in the sacred scriptures of our peoples, that every human being – not only those of our own group – is created in the image of God? Do pro-Palestinians truly believe that Israelis also bear a spark of the divine image in them? Do you, Rabbi, as a leader of your community, believe that Palestinians are themselves in some way like God walking the streets of Jerusalem?”

I went on: “Here is a story of Rabbi Diskin, one of the great rabbis in Jerusalem during the late nineteenth century. He was walking in the Old City with his students, when he saw a Muslim man on his knees, bowed in prayer. The rabbi refused to walk past the man, but stood still, waiting for the man to complete his devotions. His students thought it strange that their teacher would show such respect for what was ‘just a Muslim prayer.’ Rabbi Diskin answered with the simplicity of a tzadik: ‘Did you not, then, perceive the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, standing there before that man as he prayed?’”

My encounter with that rabbi in New York has given me a renewed understanding of my great love for the tales of the Jewish tzadikim that have nourished me from childhood. One of the greatest challenges of my life today is to continue to walk in the light of the Hasidic saints, while continuously translating their exclusive term “Jew” into a broader human language of compassion – which in the context of my life means both Palestinians and Israelis.

In my work for peace, it is my duty to experience the love that is in me in a manner not limited in quantity or quality, and in a way that does not dictate that more love for Palestinians means less “Love of Israel.” When we have begun to devote ourselves to this translation, with our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole strength – only then will we be speaking a truly new language, one that will have the power to transform the strife of Jerusalem into peace.

Translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Henry R. Carse and edited by Ati Waldman

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. 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. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse
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