Basya Gartenstein

The Thin Line between Church and State

“They shouldn’t have hitchhiked, they asked for it.”

“But Israel does the equivalent when they abduct pre-adolescent boys in the West Bank.”

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

“We must negotiate with terrorists.”

“Palestinians simply don’t care about their children like we do.”

“All the Palestinians want to destroy us.”

What are these statements? Hollow of logic, driven by feeling.

They are shells of unregulated emotion, expressed in volatile generalizations, with immense political repercussions.

Last week three young Israeli boys were kidnapped while hitchhiking in what many Israelis call “the green line” and many Palestinians call “occupied territory”. If one thing is for certain, it’s that the land is disputed. But the pain these boys and their families are enduring, that’s not up for debate.

This occurrence has caused an upsurge of emotion expressed in prayer, debate, anger, sadness, fear… With tensions so high, often fear or anger towards this tragedy get channeled into discussions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It becomes too easy for these boys to lose their individuality – their character or soul – and simply become the event  or a representation of the conflict. This Halo effect is where the problems begin. While we are each part of our own nationalities and sects (Israeli/Palestinian or right/left wing), we are each individuals with our own views. Nonetheless, we are all people. We must emphasize respect in our commonalities – our humanity, but also our particularities.

When used constructively, the age old phrase “He is our son”, embodies sentiments of Jewish unity. But when it becomes another justification for expressing anger and pain, when it creates strife, your valiant claims for unity are actually the source of fragmentation. Because while each mother, right wing or left wing, Israeli or Palestinian, would fear for her child’s life, not every mother would agree on what’s objectively the best solution to the political predicament her nation faces. Don’t be so self-centric that you fail to divide your interpretations from what these mother’s actually feel. He’s not your son.

When I hear Israelis say, “we should kidnap Hamas’ children for equal leverage and stop playing nice”, or that we’re some kind of “angels for not locking up Abu Mazen’s wife in our hospitals until they give our boys back”, I am ashamed. You condemn others for using violence to attain their goals, but then protest when your people don’t do the same?

As said by Nietzsche, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Calling Israelis “settlers” doesn’t justify kidnapping youth. Calling Palestinians “terrorists” doesn’t justify abusing their youth to find ours. These generalizations are dangerous to each of us.

The US Constitution begins with “We the people”…sometimes we get so caught up in the “we” that we lose sight of “the people”. It’s difficult to draw the line between ourselves and our group, between our emotions or ideals and the complications they pose for reality. We are no less entitled to feel those feelings, and no less entitled to connect to our group. But be wary to distinguish between emotions that may be disconnected from reality and the judgement calls we make for solutions.

Additionally, let’s not let our divisions blind us from our common ground – Israeli to Israeli or Israeli to Palestinian. All of us involved or touched by the Arab-Israeli conflict suffer in our own way. Nobody can claim monopoly on pain and struggle. Yes, at times one side or another may have the upper land, and yes, at times each side acts in a morally questionable manner. We have common ground in our suffering and our mistakes. The fear that acknowledging another’s pain delegitimizes our own has lead us to demonize one another — a crime nobody is immune to.

What if we took a step back and separated between “the people” and politics before we spoke?

Before you debate, I urge you to take a moment and ask yourself if your emotions are in the driving seat of your opinions. Ask yourself how much you have blurred the lines between this particular incident, its political repercussions, and the sensitivity these families deserve – regardless of your views. Let me make clear – debate is crucial to advancement in these issues, and everyone is entitled to share their views. But respect is the precondition.

If you want to have a debate, have it! You want to blatantly state your views, do it! But be wary of generalizations. Place a line between church (your emotions), and state (the political repercussions). Place a line between the moral or logical issues and the basic respect and sensitivity which goes beyond the bounds of what should happen.

This small boundary has important implications.

Political debates are infinite, their answers many, but for these mothers – there’s one answer that has nothing to do with your political conundrum.

About the Author
Basya Gartenstein is pursuing her Master of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. She is simultaneously earning a Certificate in Educational Leadership and Ministry from Berkley Divinity School. After being awarded her Bachelor’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and International Relations from the IDC Herzliya, she served as the Jewish Service Corps Fellow through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with placements in Mumbai, India and Helsinki, Finland. Basya worked at the Muslim Jewish Conference from 2015-2017, facilitating dialogue between Muslims and Jews across the spectrum of religious and political identity. Interested in the intersection of scholarship and interreligious encounter, Basya is the president and co-founder of the Yale Divinity School Interfaith Club. In 2019, she was the recipient of the SALAM Sultan Qaboos Scholarship for Advanced Arabic Study and Intercultural Exchange. In 2020, she received the Critical Language Scholarship through the US State Department, to solidify her linguistic goals in the service of her broader vocational aspirations.
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