Listening to Israel with Both the Heart and Mind

In a recent blog post, fellow rabbinical student Nolan Lebovitz described an ideologically right-wing tour of Gush Etzion we shared a few months ago. The tour, organized for rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, is part of a larger series of speakers and trips to teach us about Israeli culture and politics. Our tour guide, Eve Harow, often speaks out in defense of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Her energy and passion for living in the heart of biblical Israel were clear, and while the tour was informative, it was not productive. The tour was steeped in emotional stories of pain and triumph but fell flat when it came time to critically examine the inferences and facts drawn from those stories. In his blog, Nolan reflected on the way that the trip strengthened the type of Zionism that entails supporting soldiers and feeling the history of the land. These emotions, along with uncritical support of Israel and acceptance of occupation, are the trappings of a right-wing Zionism that may perpetuate the conflict that endangers the young soldiers he tries to support.

What I found disturbing about both his blog post and the trip itself was the use of a deeply emotional narrative that did not leave room to empathize with Palestinians who, between Ottoman rule, Jordanian annexation, and Israeli occupation, did not have the opportunity to build their own state. During a discussion in the Gush Etzion visitor’s center, to suggest the creation of a Palestinian state was to invite terrorists to live a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem. To acknowledge claims of national rights was to put power in the hands of murderers. To give up the West Bank was to force Eve Harow to leave her home and possibly incite a war that endangers her family and the family or friends of many American Jews.

Many of her statements reflect legitimate concerns, but the passion that drove her to dominate the ensuing discussion left no room for facts and policies that would challenge her sweeping conclusions. For those predisposed to agree with her, the experience was inspiring—for those who disagreed, frustrating. On our trip we saw many things in that region of the West Bank, but the ideological nature of the tour prevented us from hearing the story of their Palestinian neighbors.

A month ago, I returned to the Gush on a very different trip. With T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, I visited Tent of Nations, a farm in the shadow of the settlement Neve Daniel. There, we learned how the military was trying to confiscate their land because of disuse, despite the fact that they had been raising olive trees on it for decades. We heard how the military refused to repair the road that connected the farm to the main highway, and they highlighted how their farm was disconnected from the water system that filled the swimming pools in the nearby settlement. We also heard how they felt a threatening presence from settlers who would come and stand by the property for seemingly no reason other that to make their presence known.

These two trips exposed me to two perspectives told through personal stories rife with the emotional passion of people who feel vulnerable, who have experienced loss, and are drawn by their personal history to continue to live on contested land. My experience only gave me a snapshot of a few different experiences, so I am left with more questions than answers. I still remain committed to human rights and believe that the Israeli government mistreats Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, but I worry whether any proposal in the peace process can speak to the ideology of Israelis living in settlements. I am curious about the truth of the security concerns underlying continued occupation and wonder whether the solution lies in Israeli military strength or Palestinian nation building.

The appeal to emotion is unquestionably powerful. Without a strong emotional connection to Israel and the noble goals of Zionism, it would be impossible for those on the left to honestly stand for both the Jewish state and the collective rights of their Palestinian neighbors. It becomes dangerous, however, when fear and anger drown out the experience of the other. The settlers of Gush Etzion have a story of triumph in the face of loss and destruction. Unfortunately, a story of triumphalism in the face of a Palestinian threat that ignores the challenges facing communities like Tent of Nations can only continue in conflict

About the Author
Philip Gibbs is a second year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who is spending the year studying in Jerusalem at Mechon Schechter. He is also an Israel Fellow with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights