At Gann Academy, I once heard a presentation by a survivor of the Bosnian genocide. She talked about growing up in an integrated city, going to school together with Serbs, playing soccer together, being great friends — and then seeing her friends participate enthusiastically in the massacre of her people. It was a sadly familiar story, and yet very important for me to hear and really understand that it didn’t happen only to Jews. It is a human phenomenon.
Some of my dear friends and students have invested enormous energy and hope over the past decades in building meaningful relationships with Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians. They have also publicly and repeatedly condemned violence by Jews, and sometimes by the State, against, Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinians. Some of them now feel profoundly betrayed that those relationships have not led their friends to oppose the violence being perpetrated by Hamas, or by mobs in Lod. That feeling is exacerbated by Jewish friends saying ‘I told you so’. And by others who tell them that they can’t have it both ways, that genuine human feeling for the Other must entail accepting the Other’s narrative as at least equal to and maybe superior to one’s own.
I don’t agree. I believe that one is entitled to privilege one’s own narrative, and that must not mean that one ignores the Other’s narrative, or dehumanizes the Other. That is true humility, generating what Lincoln called “firmness in the right, as G-d gives us to see the right”. Or if you prefer, that is true pluralism, the kind that doesn’t degenerate into relativism. Or if you prefer, the kind that lets one see Beit Shammai’s words as rooted in the Divine while recognizing that the halakhah properly and absolutely follows Beit Hillel. Perhaps the halakhic decision needed to be so absolute precisely because of that recognition. Partial truths can be paralyzing, and inaction is sometimes the worst course.
For the same reason, I don’t — analytically — expect personal friendship to utterly overcome group interest, let alone group hatred or deep-seated grievance, either short-term or long-term. Most people don’t agree with E.M. Forster’s quip that he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friend. When forced to choose, at every scale they choose family, ethnicity, race, yeshiva, or whatever narrative and loyalty over the personal. Tanakh portrays Yonatan ben Shaul as wildly exceptional in his loyalty to David over his family.
I’m extremely bad at handling that reality emotionally, though. So I understand. It’s one reason I haven’t engaged much in that kind of effort.
But I want to take this opportunity — as I support the security forces and diplomats of Israel, and pray that they succeed in protecting the Israeli people with minimum cost to their own bodies and souls, and with minimum collateral damage — to encourage my friends and students to pick up the pieces and try again when this is over. I don’t believe that friendship and understanding by themselves will bring peace. Peace, if it happens, will require deterrence, intertwined interests, and more — and it will require constant maintenance and vigilance. But friendship and understanding can make peace more likely, longer-lasting, and of better quality, and that is all one can hope for in a non-Messianic age, and worth working toward.