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Bending the Arc of History Toward Justice

Many American Jews and their progressive allies have despaired about the viability of a liberal Israel.
©Aerial Mike/
©Aerial Mike/
Leon Wiener Dow is a former research fellow and faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He received his BA from Princeton University, his MA in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, private rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Professor David Hartman, and a PhD in philosophy from Bar-Ilan University. His book U’vlekhtekha Va’derekh (Hebrew, Bar Ilan University Press, 2017) constructs an approach to halakha based on the thought of Franz Rosenzweig. His book The

Originally posted on Haaretz

Photo-ops with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama were agony for me as a liberal Zionist. I would cringe in sadness and shame at the stark contrast between the genteel, forward-looking, African-American President of the United States and the obdurate Israeli Prime Minister who scarcely mentioned lofty ideals and instead charted a course seemingly devoted to nothing more than survival – his as Prime Minister, and Israel’s as a refuge for the Jewish people.

But as polls indicate that a presidential victory for Donald Trump is a real possibility, it may be time to envisage the unsightly transition from President Obama to President Trump. The United States may well take a significant step – or leap – backwards from the belief articulated by the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr., that though the arc of the moral universe is long, it “bends toward justice.”

So perhaps King himself would have tried to comfort us as we gasp at the possibility that American voters, who boldly elected an African American merely 44 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, are remarkably close to replacing him with a demagogue who speaks disparagingly of Mexicans and endorses banning Muslims from entering the US. Progress, it would seem, does not travel a steady course. Even as the arc of the universe bends toward justice, there are periods of regresssion.

My hope is that those within and outside Israel who have been fighting for a liberal, progressive vision of Israel apply this same understanding to the complex reality here. Like David Gordis, who declared Israel “a noble experiment, but a failure,” liberals and progressives once committed to Israel seem to have turned their backs on us, not only eulogizing the Zionist enterprise, but even crossing lines and joining forces with those who consider Israel’s very existence an affront to justice. Even though there is despair in these dark times, their rejection is premature.

My rabbi and teacher, David Hartman, often told the story of going to his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, and asking him to declare a celebratory holiday. In response, Rav Soloveitchik quoted a tractate in the Babylonian Talmud in which the rabbis, resisting the voices of those anxious to celebrate the Maccabees’ victory, had the foresight to wait a year before declaring the event a miracle. Sometimes, while our heads are battered by or spinning in excitement from the vicissitudes of history, we must pause to understand the deepest meaning of those events. As Israel enters its fiftieth year since June 1967, many of us would hardly find this an occasion worthy of unfettered celebration. And so Soloveitchik’s hesitation to declare Israel’s 1967 victory cause for celebration is doubly relevant for us today: he was wise to suggest waiting a year in 1967; even in 2016, we have yet to unravel the meaning of that fateful “victory.”

Even though we are embattled at home and abandoned abroad, those of us committed to a liberal Israel will keep fighting relentlessly in a contested and complex reality which makes our work that much more formidable, even without a harbinger of hope on the horizon.

We will keep trying to bend the arc, knowing that our work is necessary but insufficient: we are in acute need of forces to align in a way that will enable our work in the world to be effective. Many of these forces are external, but some of them are “internal,” such as the way in which our allies posture themselves, especially during these complicated times. In the meantime, we are sustained by a deep-down knowledge that what may have seemed impossible just a decade ago becomes reality: Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, or an African-American is elected to a nation’s highest office 44 years after they were granted equal rights under the law. At other times, however, the progress made appears to be tenuous, a brief and perhaps illusory interlude of a much longer historical narrative.

This awareness must nurture in us a sense of complexity in our effort to understand how today’s “current events” are part of a larger unfolding of historical events. It must also offer occasion for a genuine humility as we judge another country and assess the extent to which it is fulfilling its promise.

The palpable possibility of “President Trump” should serve as a stinging slap across the face of those liberals and progressives who have given up on Israel, because of our course over the past 16, or 25 – or even 50 – years. The Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, enjoins us yearningly to nurture – and be nurtured by – the hope that still yet remains. As the Psalmist so masterfully reminds us, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” (Psalms 126:5)

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