Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Just a ceremony? Torah portion blues

Illustration by Meira Ner-David
Illustration by Meira Ner-David

Sitting in synagogue during Torah reading two weeks ago, I was troubled. Here in Israel, we read about the spies being sent into Canaan (what those outside Israel read this past Shabbat) to scout out the land for attack, for conquer, for kibush (in Hebrew). The land was promised to us by God, we read aloud in synagogues around the world, and so, we were following God’s orders and claiming our prize, or our birthright.

Illustration by Meira Ner-David

With a current Israeli government that is not only not making any moves to end the occupation of the West Bank but supports the increase of Jewish settlements there — in fact, it contains ministers who justify settler violence and hostile takeover of Palestinian land and homes — it was hard for me to sit through this Torah reading.

I looked around. Were others disturbed, too? Or were they pleased to read this biblical justification for the occupation (and for destroying and /or depopulating hundreds of Palestinian villages in 1948 and not allowing, to this day, those Palestinians who fled over the boarder to return — what is referred to as the Nakba, the catastrophe in Arabic)? Or perhaps they did not agree with the stance of the text but were nonetheless not phased by this ceremonial public reading. If so, would that make me feel any better?

A few days before, I had been at a lecture of a Jewish Israeli woman, Noa, a staunch peace activist for over forty years, who had recently spent three months in Jordan studying Arabic. She spoke about the antagonistic reception she experienced at the school where she studied, about how anti-Jews and anti-Israel the school and its student body were – so much so, they refused to speak to her. It was not as much being anti-Israel as refusing to even acknowledge Israel’s existence.

She told us how tour guides did not even mention Israel — calling the whole area Palestine — when pointing out the topography or what was in view from lookout points; how those people (especially Palestinians) with whom she did manage to speak had a warped view of history in which the Jews are to blame for all Palestinian suffering — even that they did not cause — and felt the only solution to the conflict is to wipe Israel — which they refuse to acknowledge anyway — off the map.

At the end of her talk, we asked if her experience in Jordan has affected her peace activism. Her answer was no. It is her belief that this is just ceremony, a posture, a way to maintain Palestinian national pride and identity — akin to the way Jews held on to our national pride and vision to return to Zion for 2,000 years — but not a sincere political position. After being oppressed by Israel, taken advantage of by surrounding Arab countries, and tricked by their own leadership, all Palestinians have left is their national pride and narrative of oppression and hopeful return, she explained.

These Palestinians would be happy to settle for an end to the occupation if Israel also recognized the Nakba and offered to a symbolic number of Palestinians the right to return, she continued. It is the Jews, Israel, who are the problem, because this will not happen with the current political climate and the direction the country is headed. And since Israel is the one with the power now, it is only Israel who can solve the conflict. Therefore, we must continue to pressure our government to end the occupation and create a true democracy here on this land. Although Noa is not hopeful this will make enough of a difference.

I, too, am a peace activist. And I have invested much time and effort into understanding and sympathizing with the Palestinian narrative and examining my own complicity — especially as an “olah” from the U.S. — in Palestinian oppression. I even wrote a novel, Hope Valley, about the friendship between a Palestinian- and a Jewish-Israeli woman as told from their alternating points of view. I had to do much research and soul searching to write that book. But Noa’s analysis left me wondering.

First, why should Palestinian national “ceremony” necessarily include a hatred of all Jews and everything about Israel? I have participated in tens of dialogue groups in which all Jews were clumped together by Palestinians as guilty of every injustice meted upon the Palestinian People. It is off-putting to be told “you people” caused the Nakba and are occupiers when I am involved in trying to end the occupation and build an equal society here on this land.

Second, even if this is all just a posture, it is not a harmless one — just as Jewish ceremony of national pride and return to the “promised land” is far from harmless. It may have gotten us back here, but it is also feeding the flames of the ongoing conflict between Isaac and Ishmael that began, in our national narrative, even before the story of the Israelite spies reaching the “promised land”.

Israeli society has become enslaved to the West Bank settler “Greater Israel” movement, who are not a majority in this country but wield a non-proportional amount of power. The basis for this movement is in these biblical texts, which its proponents take seriously and literally. But why do more mainstream Jewish Israelis allow this movement so much power? One reason they do, I think, is fear among many Jews that most Palestinians want to see Jewish Israelis dead.

The kind of reception Noa received in Jordan is one example of behavior that exacerbates this fear. So is Palestinian terror. And Jewish hate speech and terror against Palestinians exacerbate Palestinian hatred of Jews and Israel. Palestinian and Jewish ceremonies of national pride and demonizing the “other” play off each other and feed into this never-ending cycle of violence and conflict.

There is power in ceremony; that is why we do it. Words and gestures have influence on our collective and individual consciousness. So while I sympathize with the Palestinian cause, I am skeptical about the notion that this is “just” ceremony and therefore not an impediment to peace.

A few days after the Shabbat in mention, I was on a two-day seminar in Jerusalem with a group of Galilean clergy. We met with an East Jerusalem Palestinian activist, Mahmoud, whose life work is strengthening and preserving Palestinian culture and pride. He disagreed with Noa’s belief that the all-or-nothing Palestinian stance against Israel is just a posture, but he agreed with her that it is not a phenomenon that will prevent peace.

Mahmoud says this is only a minority position found in Gaza and the Palestinian exile (which explains Noa’s experiences) but not in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and therefore it should not be of concern.  Moreover, one must understand that Palestinian national pride is all Palestinians have right now, as Noa, too, said. Which is why he is so dedicated to fostering it.

I would like to believe Noa and/or Mahmoud are right, but the extremists in the Jewish settler movement are also a minority, and they have managed to gain mainstream support or at least manipulate the system in their favor. And while I understand the Palestinian need, as the oppressed underdogs, to hold on to their national pride, I don’t see how fomenting Jew-hatred and taking an uncompromising stance — even if one wants to say it is just on the surface — against Israel can contribute towards a solution to the conflict. It is bringing into the equation more of the same problem.

Mahmoud told us his vision: one democratic state where Jews and Palestinians can all live in equality and peace — a vision I personally share. We agree that this land does not “belong” to any of us and should be open to all of us.

But, he continued, he is not interested in partnership or cooperation between Palestinians (even Israeli Palestinians) and Jews until Israel ends the occupation and grants full equality to all residents of the land. In fact, he has strong criticism of those Palestinians who are cooperating with Israel and Israeli Jews. This was hard for the Palestinian Israelis in our clergy group to hear, and some argued with him. I felt offended on their behalf. But Mahmoud stood his ground.

His job, he says, is to strengthen the Palestinian nation by keeping alive its culture and identity. Israeli Jews’ job is to end the occupation and Jewish sovereignty on this land. Until we do that, he has no desire to talk to or partner with not even those Jews who are struggling for his same vision. Moreover, he does not want to hear about Jewish suffering or fear. As long as Jews are in power, their fear is unwarranted and not of any interest to him.

That hit me hard, personally. Not because I share a different vision than his, but because I have a different idea of how to get there. I believe a first step towards peace is acknowledging one another’s suffering. After all the time and effort I spent learning the Palestinian narrative and listening to Palestinian pain, it saddens me to hear the feeling is not mutual. Because Jews are seen as the oppressors, our suffering does not matter — even if some of it has been at the hands of Palestinians for their nationalist cause.

But my concern about his position goes beyond my personal pain around it. I realize there is an imbalance of power in the current relationship between Palestinians and Jews, but our relationship goes farther back than the occupation. And refusing to speak or cooperate with Jews only deepens the divide and lack of understanding between us.

There is much healing to be done before we can have a lasting peace, and I fear that healing will not happen without listening to one another in non-judgment. Giving ultimatums before being willing to listen is self-defeating, in my opinion, and perpetuates the problem, even if I understand the feelings behind that approach.

Then, after acknowledging each other’s narratives, the next step is partnership, working together to bring about this vision we share. We all must take responsibility for the conflict’s causes and resolution, not throw it all on the “other side”. It is just this kind of self-righteous intransigence — both Palestinian and Jewish — that got us into this mess in the first place.

Strong Jewish nationalism did accomplish its Zionist goals, but it failed to take into account the Palestinian People. And Palestinian nationalism failing to take into account the Jewish People is no better.

Our current reality is not sustainable. Even putting aside the ethical considerations, oppressing another nation will eventually blow up in the oppressor’s face. And hate and defensiveness all around will only make the situation worse.

The Palestinian People and the Jewish People have both suffered greatly but in different ways. But instead of working together to find a way to share this land, we have fought over it and against each other. We can continue to fight over this land in an all-or-nothing way, but in the end, no one will actually win, and we will all experience tremendous loss in the process.

Moreover, both of these nationalist movements — the Jewish and the Palestinian — will keep growing larger and stronger if we continue to perpetuate these “ceremonies” that infuse hatred and supremacy into both our cultures.

So what IS the solution? At the same time that we now see growing extremist Jewish and Palestinian nationalist movements, there is also a growing movement of people, of which I am one, who are building Palestinian-Jewish partnership. That gives me hope.

Photo is by Gal Mosenson (used with permission)

The only solution I can see to this mess is to build trust and break the cycle of hatred and violence by acknowledging all of our pain and suffering, taking responsibility for the past and what we have all done to create our current reality, and working together in full and equal partnership to create a better future for us all on this land that I believe we are all destined in any event to share. That is my redemptive vision. The question is: how long and how much will we all have to suffer until we wake up to that reality?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two novels, three spiritual journey memoirs, and the first and only children's book on mikveh. Her memoirs include: Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual companion (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. Her debut novel, Hope Valley, is available at: Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, is available at: Yonah and the Mikveh Fish is available at: Her new and second novel, To Die in Secret, is available at: Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2024. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.