Yonatan Shefa

Promise: can we see the light amidst all this darkness?

[Note: I wrote this piece a week ago, before the ground invasion began. With the death toll rising on our side, it’s harder to say now. Still, the heart of it feels true.]



Everything has been in turmoil for the past week. Fear, anger, processing, healing, fear, anger, processing, healing…my wife and I have been on a rollercoaster. She’s not used to this, being at war.


The rockets began falling, for us, on Tuesday night last week. After the kidnappings and murders; after a boy was burned alive.


My wife is not used to this; she’s a normal human being. She’s not used to hate, to the vilification of peoples. She’s never been part of a people that actively and even openly hates another. She’s never heard the sirens, never stood paralyzed with fear, with no shelter, with nothing to save her from the rockets except fate, hope, faith and other rockets. She’s normal. She doesn’t know from this, doesn’t expect it. She’s normal, and she can’t accept this as normal.


She wants to leave.


She wants to go.


And I, being her husband, have to understand.


And I do, I do understand. It is scary. It is crazy. It is awful that so many of the people we know and love harbor fear and even hatred of our neighbors.


But what do I do? I’m here to work. I’m here to try and help heal this, this cancer of hatred and fear that burns in our hearts and minds. I’m here because I know things can be different.


I’m here because I know that that cancer is preying on a heart that is, at its core, made of light. A light that, should the cancer heal—should we prove worthy, able, wise enough, selfless enough, brave enough, true and great enough—would shine throughout the known world, would save lives, bring peace, build new ways and worlds, heal us all.


But we suffer from this cancer. We’re choking, on it; we are failing.


We have, for the first time in 2000 years, sovereignty. We have power. No one can push us around. No one can mess with us. We are strong. We have a say in our destiny. We are in charge.


We are not the underdogs in this fight, thank God. For the first time in millennia, we have the means. We are the ones with the rockets and the tanks and the planes; we are the ones with the guidance systems, the control, the advantage.


We have the overwhelming power, and overwhelmingly, we are safe. And they are dying. We are killing, and they are trying.


This is, of course, not a black and white situation. We cannot stand for this, cannot stand for the rockets, the black intentionality to push us out to the sea. We cannot abide the cancerous hatred that eats at them, the ones on the other side of the wall.


But in their hearts, is there not light too? Do they not love? Are they all monsters? Should I be afraid of every Gazan?


Is the way to heal this cancer, this greedy rapacious thing which eats us all, simply to kill, to control, to contain?


Will quarantine work?


It doesn’t seem to be. It seems to be making the cancer stronger, the sickness much worse.


So what do we do?


We came into this land. We love this land. We have been yearning to return to this land for thousands of years, so fuck all of you who say we don’t belong here. This land flows through our blood. Our people have been kicked around, bludgeoned, burned killed and gassed by so much of the world, so many of the peoples now out there on the street with signs and hatred protesting our acts. Fuck you. Fuck all of you.


We’re here, and we’re going to stay.


But it is not true that we have returned to an empty land. It is not true, as we like to pretend, that God simply arranged history so we’d find a land without a people for a people without a land.


We have neighbors, and they’ve been living here, many of them, for more than a thousand years. They may not have had a state, but they’ve had homes and families, farms, businesses, friends and neighbors. They’ve had lives. They’ve buried loved ones here.


They too, are here. And they’re going to stay. And so they should. For they belong here, just as we do.


There are, certainly, haters on both sides, those who will never accept the existence of the other on the land. We will, of course, have to find a way to neutralize those threats; Still, why can’t the starting point for negotiations between those of us who claim to want peace be the cold hard fact that both of us are here, that both of us are staying? Why cannot the first step in the great healing of this place, the birth of the phase where we both begin to shine our lights in the world, be the collective acceptance of the fact of the other?


How is it that we begin this process with elites, with men and women in suits, sitting around tables in fancy hotels, with smiles on their faces and interests in their pockets?


How is it that the beginning is not us, is not these two peoples struggling to know how to live together?


Yes, we fear one another. Yes, we do not trust one another. Yes, we imagine that given half a chance you will stab us in the back, throw us to the ground and spit on our bodies.


How can we begin with paper agreements when this cancer eats at the hearts of us both? How can we start in fancy hotels when the disease pervades our streets and homes?


We must start with us. We must start by finding a way to come together, to learn that we do not hate; to learn that you do not hate.


Yes, some of you do hate. And some of us do hate.


So what do we do about them?


I suppose they must be free to hate, but not to act on that hate. If together we know, we see, we taste and smell that we can do this, that we can actually live together, then together we can keep the haters in line, behind bars, where they can’t harm us.


This may sound idealistic. And maybe it is. But quarantine has not worked to contain this disease. It is stronger than that, on both sides. Unless we aim to stamp out the other entirely, to reduce them to a wretched remnant of their former numbers, to strip them of everything they have, to displace and surround them…to do to them what was done centuries ago to the Native American Indians and so many other tribes around the world, we must find another way.


Besides, this place is not big enough for that, not big enough for reservations or ghettos. We are on top of one another.


But more importantly than that, unless we get this right, our light will remain dimmed, our hearts clogged by hatred and fear. Unless we get this right, we will never become the people we are meant to be; we will never reach our promise.


Our promise will not come at the expense of another. Our light will not shine by extinguishing the light of another. For the heart of our light, the very mantle of our priesthood, is to shine the light of us all, to raise us all up, all of humanity, from the dust and ashes, to show that justice and freedom, for everyone, is the way to Hashem’s kingdom on earth.


To truly do God’s will, to truly settle this land and be in peace, we cannot do it by stamping out another while raising up ourselves. The Torah never guaranteed that we would be all alone in this land. It openly acknowledges that there will always be foreigners among us. And it also adjures us to make one law for all, one law for us and our neighbors as equals.


We have not fulfilled this commandment. We live in two worlds here—one Arab, and one Israeli. The Israeli world is filled with promise and opportunity; the Arab with checkpoints, arrests, harassments and detention.


How do we get this right?


We are the ones with the power now. Is it not upon us to take the first step? Is it not upon us to release the pressure, to give, to open our hearts? Is it not upon us to find a new way? Is this not the great promise of our people? Is this not what is truly in our hearts? Behind the cancer, do we not yearn for peace, justice and freedom? Do we truly believe that this can come at the expense of another?


My wife wants to leave. And my heart is here.


I know we have this promise. But whether or not we live up to it is up to us.


I love this place. I love this land. I would love to live here in peace.


Please, my people, I love us.


Please, let us keep our promise.

About the Author
Yonatan Shefa facilitates interactive dialogue sessions between Israelis and Palestinians, between religious Jews, Christians and Muslims. He also studies at an orthodox beit midrash in Jerusalem.
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