Donniel Hartman

What’s complicated and what’s not: Our future lies in knowing the difference

Achieving a 2-state state solution -- that's complicated; rejecting racism -- that's not complicated

I am often called to speak to political and religious leadership groups on their “fact-finding” or educational missions to Israel. Over the last number of years, the sponsors have subtly shifted their aims from a simple “pro-Israel” agenda to hoping that the participants leave with an understanding that our reality is complicated. We view simplistic solutions forged from a distance as dangerous, and consequently the spreading of complexity is our safe haven.

However, one of the greatest challenges of advocating for complexity, is that similar to a virus, it can take on a life of its own, and overly influence not merely our public relations but our policy. With regard to policy, while much is indeed complicated, much is not, and distinguishing between the two will determine who we are and the value of our national rebirth.

We Jews have a long relationship with complexity, and indeed our version of the ancient Chinese curse is, “May you live in complicated times.” While Israel has solved many of our classic ailments, it has certainly not ushered in an era of ease and clarity. We are in the wrong neighborhood for those in search of ease, and the scope of our challenges eludes clear and simple solutions.

Indeed, much is complicated, and the path forward is fraught with danger. With regard to our relationship with the Palestinian people, I still believe that the two-state solution – Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security – is the necessary outcome from both a moral and pragmatic perspective. I want for the Palestinians a life of independence and freedom from occupation and the opportunity to build their own sovereign nation. I want Israelis to be able to embrace the actualization of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and to cease having to send our children to maintain and sustain a reality in Judea and Samaria which serves neither our long-term moral or political aspirations. The problem is that it is complicated.

What’s complicated is that at present I do not know what to do in order to fulfill my aspirations. I do not know if the Palestinian leadership and people have made the strategic and moral decision to live side-by-side with me in peace and mutual security. I do not know if the party with whom I may sign a deal will remain in power the day after the deal is signed. I do not know how the instability in the region will affect all of us in the long run, and as a result what I need to do in order to ensure my rights to live with freedom and security. What’s complicated is that even though I know where I want to go, I do not know how to get there.

We have indeed been cursed to live in complicated times, but even in the fog of the Middle East, we need to remember that there is much which is not complicated at all. That an enemy combatant, be they a soldier or a terrorist, should not be left wounded and bleeding on the ground without medical assistance for more than 10 minutes, is not complicated. That deadly force should only be used as a tool of self-defense and not vengeance, is not complicated. That Israel’s Arab citizens, who for over 67 years have not posed a security threat, have the right to be treated equally, and their human rights protected, is not complicated.

That all people are created in the image of God and their dignity demands respect, whether on the street or in the hospital room, is not complicated. That 43,000 refugees from Sudan and Eritrea do not pose a threat to the Jewishness of Israel but rather an opportunity to deepen our Jewishness, is not complicated. That any politician who espouses racist and xenophobic rhetoric should be expunged from their party and shunned by the public, is not complicated.

That the complexity of Israel’s legitimate security concerns can no longer postpone the need for Israel to treat all Jewish denominations equally, is not complicated. That Orthodoxy’s concern for the legitimate interests of their community does not entail a right to limit the free religious expression of others, is not complicated. That maintaining political power and sustaining the coalition is not an end unto itself, is not complicated.

Every generation has its unique challenges. For millennia, our primary challenge was to survive under impossible conditions. Our second challenge was to survive as Jews, to maintain the ideals, values, and traditions which gave to our survival meaning and purpose. Our return to sovereignty in the Middle East hasn’t obviated the challenges of our ancestors but merely given them a new twist. We are indeed more powerful, but our security is far from guaranteed, and danger hovers over us nationally and individually. As Israelis, we live daily with the existential awareness that somebody wants to kill us. It’s personal, and we experience it not merely in the geopolitical arena, but when we walk in the streets.

We are right, and have every right, to be cautious. We are right, and have every right, to look with suspicion, if not disdain, at anyone who comes armed with simple solutions to “solve” our complex reality. We are not right, nor do we have a right, to allow our circumstances to “complexify” that which is not complicated.

The secret to Jewish survival, by which I mean maintaining our Jewish identity in the midst of danger, was our ability, in fact our commitment, to distinguish that which is complicated from that which is not, for therein lies all the difference.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of 'Putting God Second: How to Save Religion' from Itself. Together with Yossi Klein Halevi and Elana Stein Hain, he co-hosts the 'For Heaven’s Sake' podcast. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an MA in political philosophy from New York University, an MA in religion from Temple University, and rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.