With the Passover season behind us and the Seders of
Liberation concluded, the time to think through the difficult impasse in
Israel and Palestine is once again upon us. The Seders of Liberation point
to a fundamental contradiction in our lives as Jews when we are free and
others are not, especially those on the other side of our power who see
the State of Israel as a sign of oppression and Passover as a sign of
Though Palestinians are often thought to be our enemies,
with the characteristics of enemies - deceitful, unruly, base, and
terroristic - they also may carry the opposite characteristics - speaking
truth to power, struggling for freedom and dignity, critiquing unjust
policies. While there is no need to romanticize the Palestinians - were
Jews in the Warsaw ghetto deserving of freedom only if proved perfect? -
the demonization of a people usually points to a difficulty in arguing a
case against them in a rational way. Demonizing Palestinians is a way of
deflecting their critique of the use of Jewish power in Israel and
silencing Jewish dissent at the same time.
Israeli helicopter gunships firing on defenseless
Palestinian cities, towns, villages and refugee camps is one way, perhaps
the only way, of arguing against the veracity of the Palestinian witness
to Jews. That witness is simply worded though with extraordinary
consequences: What we as Jews have done historically to the Palestinian
people is wrong; what we as Jews are doing today to the Palestinian people
Most Passover Seders ignored this witness of a people
experiencing encirclement, enclosure, house demolitions and tank
bombardments. At most Passover meals, with family and friends gathered and
the bread of affliction and the wine of celebration in abundance,
helicopter gunships were rarely the topic of conversation.
And yet there are Jews, mostly far from synagogues and
organized Jewish life, who, during this Passover season, cling stubbornly
to the images of helicopter gunships. For these Jews of conscience,
helicopter gunships are a symbol of a sea-change in Jewish life. A change
from which there may be no return.
Recently after delivering a lecture at a university, I was
asked a question by a Jewish student who, a few weeks earlier, had visited
the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C. "Is there a
relationship between the Holocaust and Israels use of helicopter
gunships?" she asked. "When someone visits the Holocaust museum
should they also think of Israels weapons of war?" As she stated
the question, I felt in her tone the innocence of the young. It reminded
me of Jews my age, raised in the 1950s and 60s, who as youths could not
have imagined this use of Jewish power against another people. We had yet
to grapple with the enormity of the Holocaust. How could we imagine that
Jews would oppress another people and cover over that oppression with
pious calls for unity?
Her question remains with me as a profound and disturbing
statement. Can Jews any longer speak of our suffering when we use our
power to cause suffering to others?
As it stands today, the concluding visual statement of the
Holocaust museum is the testimony of Holocaust survivors and the hope that
democracy guarantees that holocaust, indeed all events of mass suffering,
will be consigned to history. Should we now add another image to this
visual statement, an Israeli helicopter gunship, adorned with the Star of
David, hovering over Ramallah or Gaza City, firing rockets?
Passover leads to Shavuot, a celebration of the time where
Moses, with the assent of the people, accepted the Torah. Part of the
teaching of the Torah is the refusal of idolatry, most obviously
worshiping an alien deity, but also confusing the trivial with the
important and moving toward injustice.
Idolatry is action that belies belief. We are what we do.
We worship what we are.
Words of praise, including the praise of God, are empty if
they are idolatrous. The Torah speaks boldly on this theme. If the
stranger, widow and orphan are left on the outside, maligned, denigrated
or forgotten, if the rulers are silent on oppression or call for unity to
deflect policies of oppression, then the prophets speak boldly of Israels
broken relationship with God.
Reflecting on the students question, coming as it does
in the season of liberation and the giving of the Torah, another image,
this one involving idolatry, comes to mind. If we are what we do and
worship what we value, perhaps the Torah scrolls, found in the Ark of the
Covenant in every synagogue, are in jeopardy. The Torah is removed from
the Ark during the services, read from in the most ancient of Jewish
rituals, and then brought out among the congregation to be touched
reverently. Because of our abuse of power, should the Torah reside
somewhere else, at least for the time being? When the Ark is opened,
instead of the Torah, perhaps we should find placed there a helicopter
gunship. The congregation will revere it. We will admire its power. And
bow before it.
Israeli helicopter gunships are central to Jewish
religiosity today. They represent who we have become as a people. Though
many Jews will deny this, some with anger, others with resignation, the
Palestinian people understand this in the most realistic of ways. They
understand it the way we as Jews once understood the power of Christianity
and Christian claims to innocence.
Will Jews of conscience be denigrated or heard? Will their
pleas fall on deaf ears or become the start of a new appraisal of Jewish
life? Helicopter gunships, as the Golden Calf of ancient times, present a
stark warning and a possibility. Will we let helicopter gunships define
us? Will we refuse to bow before the golden calf of our time?
In the face of Israeli helicopter gunships and the
insistence of Jewish leadership on unity and silence, Jews of conscience
are weak. Jewish history and a future worth bequeathing to our children is
at stake. The hour is late.