Hebron and the Cost of Shalom

After writing an op-ed article for The New York Times condemning the massacre of Palestinians in a Hebron mosque by an orthodox Jew in late February, I was greeted with catcalls by a few worshipers at the orthodox synagogue at which I often pray. "You’re a self-hating Jew and you have no business praying with us," they shouted outside the synagogue.

What particularly annoyed them was that in the op-ed I had argued that the fanatic who gunned down 40 Palestinians in prayer welcoming the Islamic holiday of Ramadan was a product of a discourse of violence and demeaning of the other that has gained ascendancy in some orthodox circles in the past few decades.

I have some doubts about talking about these issues in the pages of Sojourners. Though I am very critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, I believe that many people in the Christian community find it all too easy to criticize the Jews without recognizing the role that Christians played in setting up the fundamental issues in the first place. The Jewish Religious Right is a product of 2,000 years of Jewish persecution, most of it generated by explicitly anti-Semitic statements in the Bible that attempted to give collective responsibility to the Jewish people for the murder of Jesus.

For at least 1,000 years, Jews lived in fear every Easter that drunken and murderous Christian crowds would move from their churches to attack the Jews. It was natural that European ultra-nationalists—from France and Germany to Poland and Russia—when seeking to find an "other" to blame for whatever wasn’t working well in their societies, would pick the group that had been systematically demeaned throughout most of European history.

Similarly, Jews who went to Palestine were often jumping from the burning buildings of Europe. We landed on the backs of Palestinians, and when they shouted their pain to us we were unable to acknowledge it because our pain seemed so much more intense. lt was hard for us to imagine anyone seeing us as victimizers when we had so clearly been recently victimized.

Christians in the United States and other Western countries have never engaged in a systematic campaign to uproot anti-Semitic assumptions that permeate everyday discourse (e.g. that Jews have excessive economic or political power) or that continue to flourish within standard interpretations of the New Testament.

Yet I know also that there are people who understand that Israel is not a colonialist venture but rather the product of an intense history of oppression, and that the distortions in its relations with Palestinians are the classic distortions produced by a people driven into paranoia and fear of the other by all that was done to us. There are people who know that the violence now finding biblical sanction in the Jewish world is not the essence of Judaism but a historically produced distortion.

THAT DOESN’T always help those of us who have become national spokespeople for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians. Tikkun, formed in part to challenge the conservatism, conformism, and Israel-is-always-right sentiments in the Jewish world, has become the largest circulation Jewish magazine. Yet Tikkun has been systematically excluded from the mainstream institutions of Jewish life, our positions are systematically misrepresented in the Jewish community media, and our editors often find themselves facing overt hostility in the Jewish world.

Since the beginning of the intifada, I have received overt death threats at least once a month, and sometimes more frequently. Bombs were recently planted outside the offices of Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, and Tikkun has regularly received bomb threats. After my op-ed appeared in the Times, friends urged me to start wearing a bulletproof vest to protect myself from the right-wing crazies in the Jewish world who have little compunction about attacking other Jews.

But the price for speaking out is often more subtle and more invidious. Tikkun is in constant financial trouble because liberal Jewish funders find that our critique of the Occupation is too radical, while Jewish radicals often tend to be secular and hence find that Tikkun’s strong commitment to God and to Judaism—and our insistence that the Torah tradition privileges love and justice, not cynicism and hatred-of-other—makes us "too Jewish" for them. Then there are the conservative "sophisticates" who dismiss our commitment to a prophetic religiosity as childish, naive, or even "Christian."

The good news is this: There are growing numbers of Jews who are unwilling to cede Judaism to the conformists and conservatives, and who are creating a Jewish renewal based on spirituality and commitment to a progressive political vision. Though far from controlling the Jewish institutions, we Jewish renewalists have a two-sided mission: to challenge the conservatism in the Jewish world, and to challenge the secular progressive social change movements to begin to address the crisis of meaning and the absence of ethical, spiritual, and ecological sensitivities in the larger society.

Yet at moments like this, in the aftermath of the massacre of Hebron, it can feel like a long way to go. Though there are exceptions, Jewish institutions have been largely perfunctory in their statements and unwilling to push the Israeli government toward disarming settlers or dismantling the most provocative settlements. So once again, Jewish peacemakers must cry in the wilderness that there can be no peace or security for the Jewish people without the fullest achievement of national self-determination and self-respect on the part of Palestinians.

This Passover, when we celebrated our own liberation from Egypt, many of us Jews rededicated our own efforts to support liberation of the Palestinians from occupation. It remains one of the great sadnesses of my life that our people have been so frightened by our own oppression that it still remains difficult for some to recognize that even the most oppressed can be oppressors also, and that the wisdom of Torah and its demand to "proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof" remains to be implemented in our own day.

MICHAEL LERNER is editor of Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, published in New York, and author of the forthcoming Jewish Renewal (Viking, August 1994).

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