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In the Midst of the Freeze

A standstill must not be all that we yearn for. If we lower our expectations, they will be fulfilled
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the Boundaries of Judaism, and Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. His latest book, Who are the Jews and Who Can We Become, was a 2023 Jewish Book Council Award Finalist.  Donniel is also the host of the award-winning podcast For Heaven’s Sake, together with his colleague Yossi Klein

We are now in the third month of the unilateral 10-month settlement freeze announced by the Israeli government in November, and it seems that this freeze has not simply affected building and expansion of settlements, but is indicative of much of our relationship with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Everything seems to be at a standstill. The Palestinians don’t want to talk. We are still waiting to hear whether Hamas will respond to the latest Israeli offer to release Gilad Shalit. Relations with Jordan and Egypt continue to maintain a status more akin to cessation of war than to real peace. And the rest of the Arab world is off our radar screen.

As far as life in the Middle East goes, standstills are often a welcome achievement, for all too often the alternative is chaos and danger. There is a sense of stability and calm in the status quo of a standstill. A little stability goes a long way in enabling some sense of normalcy to permeate our everyday lives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his stable government deserve credit for navigating us to this standstill. He and the government are trying to avoid mistakes and alienating our friends (the fiasco with Turkey notwithstanding), and seem genuinely committed to doing just enough so as to position Israel as not responsible for potential future failures.

If we choose to do so, we may be able to continue this political treading of water for a while, or at least for as long as the weakened and distracted Obama administration will allow. Afghanistan, health care reform, global warming, and natural disasters are giving us breathing room. So, too, does the intractability of our foes and aspiring peace partners. With the Palestinian Authority having rejected the offer made by then-Prime minister Ehud Olmert, which involved their receiving 97 percent of the West Bank, dividing Jerusalem, and Israel recognizing Palestinian refugees’ right of return, it is difficult to imagine what more we could offer to move a peace process forward.

In the midst of this anesthetizing status quo, however, the trip of Prime Minister Netanyahu and six members of the Israeli government to Germany and the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the main synagogue in Rome suggest a potential paradigm shift worthy of reflection. It was 70 years ago that Germany personified the greatest enemy and evil force that the Jewish people had ever known. Yet today, Germany, surpassed possibly only by the United States, is Israel’s staunchest and most consistent friend and ally.

While Pope Benedict XVI is neither Pope John XXIII nor Pope John Paul II in his affinity and friendship to the Jews, he is also not Pope Pius XII, who led the Catholic Church in World War II. Jewish-Christian relations have moved from a situation in which Jewish continuity was constantly threatened by the ideology of Christian supersessionism to a time – today – in which the visit of a pope to a Jewish synagogue is something that we take for granted.

We have witnessed great transformations in our lives, and it is our responsibility neither to take them for granted nor to assume that future transformation is impossible. If Germany and Christianity can change, at the very minimum it is incumbent upon us at least to hope that change is possible as well here in the Middle East.

As a citizen of Israel I am grateful for the intelligence and astuteness exhibited by our prime minister. I, too, don’t take for granted the moments of quiet afforded to us. Dayenu. However, one of the interesting features of that song is that it has many stanzas. After singing, “Dayenu” once, we then embrace the next development, and sing, “Dayenu,” again – and again.

As Jews we are taught to learn to be happy and satisfied living in an unredeemed world. However, we are challenged not to embrace stagnation. If foreign policy innovations are difficult to imagine at this time, let us at the very least continue to speak about not merely our hope but our belief in the possibility of change.

As a people our challenge is not merely to get through the day but to yearn to shape the nature of that day. If we lower our expectations they will be fulfilled. A standstill must not be all that we yearn for. We must create a political conversation in which aspirations are as valued as the status quo, and the ability to articulate new visions both for Israeli society and the Middle East is the true test of leadership.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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