Jonathan Dekel-Chen
Jonathan Dekel-Chen

Painful Truths, Rays of Hope: Shavuot 2021

An aerial view of the Israel-Gaza border, with Kibbutz Nir Oz on the right and the Palestinian village of Abasan on the left. (Shahar Vahab)

As I write, families on both sides of the Gaza-Israel border huddle fearfully and pray for the shooting to end. Given what we have experienced for the past fifteen years, few, if any, understand what is to be gained by continued bloodshed. I suspect that even fewer of us on the border find reassurance in stern threats or declarations of victory from leaders in Jerusalem or somewhere in Gaza. As usually happens in “wars of choice”, fates of families living along borders are captive to their leaders’ misjudgments or desperation. If that were not enough, the injuries sustained by hundreds of Haredi worshippers who fell from the ramshackle bleachers constructed at a synagogue in Givat Ze’ev in the hours before the Shavuot holiday reminded all Israelis of a jarring contrast: we simultaneously rejoice in our image as “Start Up Nation” while a total lack of accountability rampant among our leaders repeatedly comes forth both in neglecting clear public dangers for political reasons and then avoiding responsibility for disasters caused by that negligence.

For Israelis numbed by the abusive cynicism in our politics, it probably didn’t seem odd that none of the parties in the four rounds of national elections these past two years discussed policy meant to address our core challenges, first and foremost, building a lasting peace with our Palestinian neighbors as well as (finally) repairing chronic inequalities endured by our Arab citizens. Throughout these anesthetizing, hate-filled rounds of Israeli elections, all of the parties talked almost only in terms of support or rejection of Benjamin Netanyahu who benefits, de facto, from this stalemate.

Seen from my kibbutz home, a mile from the Gaza border, this escalation has exposed preexisting truths about Israel that our deadlocked politics usually obscure. Perhaps this is an opportunity to call out and address these truths. Doing so is the way I hold onto hope while Hamas’ rockets and mortar shells pepper my community and while families in Gaza are battered by our air and artillery barrages. I hold hope – perhaps naively – that the scale of this madness will awaken Jews and Arabs to underlying truths about our lives that will eventually lead us toward a better future for our children.

What has this escalation exposed? First, civilians on Israel’s border are disinterested in the circular arguments offered by our leaders and media “experts” (nearly all of whom are former military officers or senior government officials): Who was here first? Who started it? Who’s winning? What Hamas official, tunnel or structure should be targeted next? For us, these offer no answers or pathway to how the lives of millions of Palestinians and Israelis can be bettered.

A second painful fact now exposed: generational neglect of Bedouin communities in Israel’s south and infringement by Right-wing Jews (emboldened by the Netanyahu governments) on the land rights of Arab citizens fueled the rage of rioters in recent days once ignited by our government’s provocative actions in Jerusalem. Added to that, Netanyahu’s anxiety in recent months – fed by his legal woes and inability to form a stable government coalition – led him to embrace Israel’s proto-fascist fringe. These people and their supporters in great part lit the match and fanned the flames of the current violence with Gaza and within Israel.

These proto-fascists didn’t appear on the political scene because of Netanyahu, he only legitimized them. Rather, they are but one manifestation of violent, racist threads at the edges of Israeli politics who feed off of the lack of civil society here. We remain in great part a tribal society overshadowed by the illiberal places from which most Jews emigrated to Israel in prior generations. For our Arab citizens, Israeli democracy indeed stands alone in the Mideast but has never treated them as equals. An absence of civil society lurks below the surface of everyday life, experienced by all on our dangerous roads, in our impolite stores, on our garbage-strewn beaches and parks and among our racist fans at sporting events.

The Zionist ideal I knew growing up in the 1960s-70s featured a farmer with a rifle in one hand and an olive branch in another. Over the past forty years too many of my fellow Israelis now idealize only the rifle and forgot the olive branch. Like all belligerent ideologies, this angry, xenophobic, messianic Zionism has blinded its sons and daughters to the possibilities of coexistence. These young people either do not understand, nor evidently care to understand, the distance between their aggressive, anti-Arab behaviors and the more inclusive principles on which the State of Israel was born. Make no mistake: as a resident of the Negev, I am deeply troubled by the violence perpetrated by Israeli Arabs in our mixed towns and roadways during these past few days and what it means for our country. But I am much more disturbed about the gap that these past few days has exposed among Israeli Jews: those who live by principles of force and exclusion versus what I believe to be the majority of Israeli Jews who support an Israel that respects, protects, enfranchises and raises up our Arab neighbors. More than all else, these days expose an urgent need to repair our own, Jewish, house.

Third, this round of escalation has exposed the absurdity of Netanyahu’s cultivated image of “Mr. Security.”  His extended term as Prime Minister has delivered neither safety from Hamas’ terror tactics, progress toward resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict or meaningful improvement in Israel’s international standing. His attachment to the Trump Administration brought shame to our country and delivered no concrete enhancement to our security. The future of our country and our region requires building a strategy for the future in times of relative calm, not prolonging this or that reign of self-interested politicians who fancy themselves brilliant tacticians.

For those looking to affix blame for this escalation or for the conflict’s longer arc, faulting only Israel demonstrates historical ignorance and an unwillingness to contribute to an end of the violence. Any Israeli government must respond to wanton rocket attacks and must restore safety to its streets after days of deadly mob violence. I am proud of our soldiers. That being said, as the far stronger power in this conflict, Israel must be more self-reflective if we are ever to untangle this Gordion Knot of violence with our Palestinian neighbors – inside and adjacent to Israel’s border – who will be here forever. The tragedies of European Jewry before 1948 must not blind us to our humanitarian responsibilities today and to the limitations of military force.

These are miserable times for the people of Israel, Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, bringing out out the worst in many of us. Even so, I am encouraged by emergent courageous humanity among Jewish and Arab Israelis. Continued rocket salvoes and Israeli counterattacks understandably occupy the Israeli and Palestinian media. Yet in recent days many “ground-up” campaigns – particularly launched by women – have surfaced in attempts to embrace “the other” amid the fighting. Arab and Jewish mayors and leaders of Regional Councils in the south issued joint statements condemning violence and committing to coexistence. Most recently, Arab doctors in Israel – because of their professional loyalty and commitment to all citizens of the country – refused to join calls from Arab politicians to protest Israeli actions through work stoppages. As befits Hamas’ authoritarianism and the scale of destruction all around them, we cannot know if civilians in Gaza might be receptive to calls for peace and mutual respect. And lest we forget, I am encouraged that hours before the current round of violence exploded, Israel was on the verge of forming its first governing coalition to include an Arab party.

No matter how long this round continues, at the very least I am encouraged by those Jews and Arabs who insist on looking past the tired, dead-end narratives of conflict and brute force pushed by Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Perhaps this round of violence will finally trigger real change, leading to a brighter future for all. We must not ignore any longer what we on the border have known for years.

About the Author
Professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen is Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His current research and publications deal with transnational philanthropy and advocacy, non-state diplomacy, agrarian history and migration. During Spring 2021, he is the Bildner Visiting Scholar at the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University. In 2014 Dekel-Chen co-founded the Bikurim Youth Village for the Performing Arts in Eshkol, which provides world-class artistic training for under-served high school students from throughout Israel. Dekel-Chen is a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
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