Yom Ha’atzmaut 5776: The Challenge and the Hope

Ever since Holocaust and Resistance Remembrance Day last week, we Israelis can’t stop talking about the speech given by the Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan. He stated that he saw some phenomena in Israel today similar to pre-Nazi Germany, and that Remembrance Day must be a day of soul searching. I think he was saying that our strength is our ability to recognize these phenomena in their early stages, and stop them.

Golan’s remarks predictably became a source of angry infighting between “left” and “right.” The left has widely repeated his remarks. On the right, he has been accused of saying that the Israeli army is like the Nazis. There have been calls for his resignation. He hastily issued a “clarification.” His remarks have apparently been repeated in the foreign press, eliciting charges that he has given fuel to our enemies and oppressors.

Amidst this fury, almost nobody actually related to the questions Golan raised. A notable exception was actually Amnon Lord, the right wing publicist. Lord said that Golan must be listened to, that he agreed with much of what Golan said: that we must deal with these challenges as a society, and that his only criticism was that Golan issued a clarification. I asked one woman argued with me on Facebook, “Do you really think that the Deputy Chief of Staff thinks that the army he serves in is like the Nazis? Golan was accused in the past of using the forbidden protocol of sending Palestinian civilians to enter into Palestinian homes before soldiers to draw fire or to see if the houses were booby trapped. Do your really think that he is a leftist extremist?” She simply kept repeating her claims, and didn’t answer my questions.

Probably, if we weren’t so absorbed with Golan, we would be hearing more arguments between the right that liked our prime minister’s speech, and the left that liked our president’s speech.

I haven’t read our new and controversial civics book, so I must be careful. However, I heard Dr. Irit Keinan criticizing it on the radio today, saying that it promotes an ultra-nationalist worldview in which we tolerate minorities because we have to. She read a quote from the book questioning whether the court system should be able to strike down decisions made by the majority, as represented by elected officials. I also haven’t paid enough attention to the controversy in order know who has taken which side in this debate, but I am willing to bet that it breaks down according to “left” and “right.”

I recently have had cause to reflect back on the terrible High Court decision of a year ago. (I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon delegitimizing the High Court, but I certainly thought this was a bad decision.) The Court accepted the State’s argument that basic rights such as the right of a community to plan and provide shelter for its residents can only be addressed in the context of peace negotiations! The Court knew that the State had even frozen the discriminatory existing planning to punish the Palestinians for joining the International Court. The Court therefore gave its consent to making the right to housing a matter of politics. Shelter became a matter of beneficence to be granted or withheld, rather than a right.

Sometimes I hear from people living in poverty with whom we are struggling around issues of socioeconomic justice, poverty, public housing and unemployment, that their friends don’t understand why they are cooperating with an organization that also helps Palestinians.

Hearing the right claiming that General Golan had said that the army he himself serves in is like the Nazis, and the joy of some on the left to hear what he had to say, it sunk in to what degree human rights, that are supposed to be above “left” and “right,” and should ideally actually unite left and right, have become just one more instrument for bludgeoning each other in the eternal and uncompromising war between left and right. I wanted to hear more voices like that of Amnon Lord that were capable of saying that we must focus on content. Even if we don’t agree on everything, we should be able to agree on the need to weed out violence and hatred of the “other.”

The common denominator between everything I have described is that one form of modern idolatry is that we put our “camp” before the One Whose Oneness and presence in all existence makes us all One. (Shema Yisrael-“Hear Oh Israel”…) When people speak of “national unity,” I am all for unity. But, God’s Unity is much broader than “national” unity, or even humanity’s unity.

Mired in these thoughts, it would be easy to sink and drown in them. However, “As long as deep within, the Jewish (and human) heart yearns” (HaTikvah).

In April we did a comprehensive public opinion study regarding Israeli Jewish attitudes to the Negev Bedouin in general, and Umm Al Hiran/Atir in general. I need to leave you in suspense for a while longer regarding the results. I can tell you that, yes we found fear and suspicion of the Bedouin, particularly because of misinformation. However, alongside the concerns, there was a clear majority who favored fairness, equality, keeping our commitments, compromising in order to reduce tension, and pragmatism. There is a a majority of Israeli Jews opposed to moving the Bedouin against their will and for recognizing villages. There is openness. Negative attitudes about the Bedouin change when people are exposed to facts and background. There is willingness to take this information into account.

What is really encouraging —in spite of everything I wrote at the outset — is that there is no gaping divide between right and left! To be sure, the left and the center are more open to our views regarding the Bedouin than the right. However, the right also was willing to listen, be pragmatic, and desired to be fair. I don’t know what will happen to these statistics when the subject next hits the headlines and becomes a political football batted around between left and right. For now, however, the results remind me of the story related in the Talmud that the rabbis were arguing about how to transport a shofar (ritual Jewish instrument made from a ram’s horn) on days when it is forbidden to carry objects from one domain to another. Finally they decided to get out of the study hall and see what the simple folk were actually doing. The simple folk would stick the shofar in the wool of a sheep (albeit a sheep probably on its way to be sacrificed.)

When we leave people to their own devices, they often (certainly not always) display logic and carry out the yearning of their souls. When they aren’t egged on, they don’t necessarily run to their right and left wing corners, but have the capability to aspire to equality, fairness and honoring all of humanity. These are the things that are supposed to be above and beyond right or left, even if there may be arguments between right and left about how to achieve them. We saw this in our study.

There was and is HaTikvah, the 2,000 year old hope to be a free people in our Land. What gives me Tikvah, hope that we may one day truly achieve this both for us and for all people, is the Jewish (and human) spirit and the soul.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.