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On Iran, from Hebron

Entrenchment in the historical status quo runs counter to the Jewish and Zionist imperative to seek change

Of all the places to hear the news about an Iran deal bemoaned by so many as signaling the end of the Jewish future, I learned of the agreement in the place as old as anywhere in the Jewish past.

I spent Tuesday with a great group of North American rabbis wandering around Hebron and speaking to a diverse array of activists and stakeholders in Hebron’s bizarre, semi-apocalyptic reality. These included one the founders of new Jewish settlement in Hebron in the wake of the 1967 war, a former settler-turned-activist now working for Breaking the Silence, a Palestinian official working toward rehabilitation of the dormant Palestinian presence under Israeli military rule, a disaffected historian, and others.

Amazingly, all of them – without any coordination – insisted on starting their narratives “from the beginning,” whether that meant the arrival of Abraham in Canaan, the 1929 riots, or the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre. The past that they were each constructing, in other words, created the inevitabilities of the present.

The news of the Iran deal arrived via our buzzing, always-on phones, while we were on the bus between stops, and as usual when you find yourself in Israel, for reasons sometimes rational and sometimes inexplicable, it felt like we were living in the vortex of international conflict and anxiety. It may once have been out of an imperial or self-interested sensibility that Jewish tradition imagined the land of Israel as the birthplace of the world and the political axis around which the world turned; today, the alignment of our tour schedule and the timing of the international negotiations conspired to reinforce this image as a decent reflection of geopolitical reality.

I come and go to this country a lot, and over 25 years of consistent visits you see a society shift and change. Needless to say these have been 25 turbulent years: wars, a new light rail, intifadas, elections, construction everywhere, intransigence, terror, Eurovisions, new cuisine, whatnot. And yet today in Hebron, hearing from polarized voices talking in parallel and past each other about a conflict seemingly more intractable than ever, I felt a deep stagnancy, or perhaps more accurately, a kind of hurtling toward the inevitability of unresolved conflict and deep immoral entrenchment that is in and of itself movement, but not toward change: rapid movement toward unchangeable conditions.

I was reminded of the old bumper sticker that was everywhere during the early years of Oslo, “Hebron: From way back when, and forever” — a slogan that sought to change the political momentum which would repatriate Hebron to the Palestinians as part of a final status agreement, but which eerily did so by insisting on a pure narrative of historical continuity, with an erasure of agency as part of its radical agenda. Never mind Jewish Hebron’s actual history, in which rupture was one of its only consistent features – Hebron was recast as a vision of continuity as an instrument toward permanence.

That slogan — to me — is the antithesis of Jewishness. The insistence that we accept and entrench historical status quos makes no room either for the classical rabbinic tradition, with its commitment to an ongoing ethical evolution of the Jewish tradition within the framework of a theology of received law, or for Zionism, with its insistence on the possibility of the Jewish people assuming a sense of agency to respond to historical realities and changing times and to change the Jewish people’s experience of fate into destiny.

I am not yet sure what to say about the Iran deal, so dense and still so newly released. But my instinct is that it is difficult for me to fathom a reality of Jewish politics in which the normative position is so deeply risk-averse, so resistant to creative and iterative alternatives to war, so persistently committed to a belligerent status quo.

I think we should probably remain terrified in spite of any deal; I agree with my friend Yossi Klein Halevi that we’ve learned our lesson as a people that when someone says they want to destroy you, believe them. No deal should entail anything more than provisional trust in its implementation, nor should it be accompanied by any relaxing of the vigilance of the Jewish people and the Jewish state’s short- or long-term safety and security.

You negotiate without ever letting go of the weaponry that makes your negotiating possible, and without ever letting go of the fear which enables you to use that weaponry when needed without hesitation. This is part of the existential state of Jewishness in light of the 20th Century, and many of the preceding centuries too. Keep reciting the ve’hi she’amda of the Passover Seder – the mantra that in every generation they rise up to destroy us – even when you have tools at your disposal to fight against those enemies and not merely rely on divine intervention.

But in addition to this vigilance, the very act of negotiating is the act of faith in the belief — the deeply Jewish belief — that you can and must commit on an ongoing basis to creating different realities than the ones you have inherited, and different realities than the ones which will be inevitable as the result of the kind of stagnation that has its own momentum. Why else have agency if you don’t take seriously the opportunities that it creates?

I am sad and nervous – both about what Israel is doing to itself in places like Hebron with its commitment to structures which risk its unmaking, and about the threats to Israel’s existence from state actors that continue to use Israel’s domestic policies as excuses for making genocidal threats against its legitimacy and its future. My paradox on Tuesday, the narrow place, was being physically located in a settlement that constitutes a self-imposed existential threat to Israel, while listening on Twitter to debates about external existential threats.

But the only way I see forward is to negotiate, to agitate, to activate, to legislate, to investigate — perhaps once in a while, to pause and meditate — to do the kinds of actions in the world that make hope, “Hatikvah,” something which is neither banal nor messianic but the mechanism that changes status quos rather than allowing us to be imprisoned by them. This commitment to hope need not be belittled as naivete; it is in fact, a commitment to responsibility.

About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a Fellow of The Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project, and the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Brandeis, 2012).
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