My friend Candice, a Talmud Professor, recently posted her hope that the fighting ends soon in Israel and Gaza, with a note of concern for her sister in Jerusalem who plans to get married later this month. Her colleague at UCLA, Awad, a Palestinian American, responded that his sister, too, was planning an August wedding, hers in Ramallah. It turns out that both celebrations are planned for the same day, so these two friends shared blessings that they might both dance at their sisters’ weddings and meet for coffee afterward. "It turns out," Candice told me, "we really all want the same thing."
Look at this story as a conflict Rorschach test. Many will read it and say: this is precisely the problem. We do not all want the same thing. We want quiet, they want our destruction. We build schools, they build terror tunnels (alternatively: we want freedom, they ignore our suffering until rockets start to fall). We protect civilians, they target them. This is not a battle between two rights, it is an epic battle between life and death, good and evil.
But some will read it and say: this is the heart of the matter. At the end of the day, human beings – Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians – yearn for the chance to live and love in freedom and with dignity. Recognizing our shared humanity is the only way we’ll ever have a chance at peace.
This latest round of warfare has revealed unprecedented polarization. Decent and reasonable people are stunned to discover how hard it is to find common ground with other decent and reasonable people; everyone seems to feel that the rest of the world has gone mad. This matters now more than ever because many have argued that there is no military solution to this conflict, that when the fighting finally ends the only thing that will have been made clear is the necessity of a diplomatic solution. This means that grueling conversations about a shared future, including talk of borders, water rights and refugees, will have to emerge from a context of exacerbated contention and distrust, rooted in radically conflicting narratives. The morning after the fighting ceases, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, will have to contend with the devastating aftershocks of grief, pain and fear, which have made it so hard for us to even see one another.
That’s why all the talk about sympathy and empathy and self-reflection, even during war time, is not only spiritually essential, but also strategically critical.
I cannot speak with authority for the Palestinian community, but here’s how things look in much of the Jewish community: over the past month in Israel and abroad, many have been holding our collective breath, obsessively checking in with family and friends, anxiously waiting to be reassured they and their children are safe. We worry about the toll the sirens will take on the Israeli children who take shelter from Hamas rockets multiple times each day, rockets intended to kill, maim, and wreak havoc. Another generation of children raised with fear embedded in their hearts. Last week we learned of families in the South whose children for months heard strange voices in their home at night but could never tell where they were coming from. Now they know: there was a terror tunnel being built just beneath their homes.
And we see the dreaded notifications about young Israeli soldiers killed trying to upset Hamas’ military stockpile. Greenberg, a father of three, salt of the earth. Bar Rahav, who played water polo. Bar-Or, with his pregnant wife and one-year-old daughter. Shamash, married only five months ago, who went to Haiti to help rebuild after the earthquake of 2010. Steinberg, the Lone Soldier from Woodland Hills. The always optimistic Biton. Because it’s a small nation and serving in the IDF is obligatory, every family in Israel is touched.
Add to that the perilous resurfacing of anti-Semitism sweeping Europe.
This is a lot to hold, it’s true. Which is precisely why some are pained by the suggestion that the Jewish heart must nevertheless make space to hold Palestinian suffering as well. We do not want to see the twisted images of the four Bakr boys on the beach, all between nine and eleven years old: sweet boys, from a family of fisherman. We do not want to hear about the twenty-five members of the Abu Jama’e family or the shelling of a UN school in Gaza. The death toll keeps climbing: thousands of families shattered, lives and homes and dreams uprooted. It’s not easy to talk or think about it, especially when we’re worried for our own kids.
But seeing the humanity in the other is not an act of disloyalty or an abdication of Jewish values. It is the deepest manifestation of Jewish values. A false dichotomy has been set up between particularism and universalism. Do you care about your tribe or do you care about the world? But I am a Jew AND a human being. It is precisely because my people knows terror and recognizes the world’s silent complicity that my heart is awake to human suffering. So many Jews expressed shock and disgust at the murder of Palestinian teen Muhammed Abu Khdeir last month. But know this: the road from callousness to brutality is short and direct. If we abide the growing apathy toward Palestinians, Israeli society will find itself overcome not by individual incidents, but by waves of racist violence.
We are now in the beginning of the month of Av, the time in the Jewish calendar dedicated to holding the memory of the destruction of the Temple, when nearly 1 million Jews were killed or died of starvation and most of the rest sent into exile. Our Rabbis grappled for centuries with how a loving God could have allowed innocents to suffer so profoundly. The answer they came to: we weren’t so innocent. They draw a direct line from sinat hinam, senseless hatred among Jews, to catastrophe. Rabbi Asher Lopatin teaches in the name of the Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv): the problem is not having strong ideas, but dismissing other people’s ideas as heresy. This is so dangerous, he argues, that it led to the destruction of the Temple.
So the nine days before Tisha b’Av became days not only of national mourning but also of reflection. The mourning aligns perfectly with our people’s collective emotional state these days as the number of fallen soldiers continues to rise, each one a national tragedy. But what about the self-reflection? There are some who insist on reminding us that we must remove the protective armor from the heart, look beyond our victimization and vulnerability, consider how we got here, what could have done differently and how we might find a way out. They reflect, knowing that for even intimating a need for compassion Israeli artists have been mocked, writers marginalized, and academics castigated. Even former heads of the Shin Bet have been scorned. But their introspection is born not out of self-hatred, but out of love for their country and its people. I listen carefully to those animated by core Jewish values and the founding vision of the State, those willing to be mocked and derided, those who risk being blocked out of bunkers when the sirens sound (yes, this actually happened at a recent peace rally in Tel Aviv). It may feel like a nuisance to be reminded of the humanity of your enemy’s neighbor’s child. But it is precisely those unwilling to let us forget, I am certain, who will save us from the abyss.
As for me, I will not wave someone else’s banner or shout slogans that don’t honor all the sides of my heart. I will continue to strive to recognize the painful complexity of this situation. I will take solace in the fact that for Jews, unity does not mean uniformity. I love Israel. I care deeply about the lives of my brothers, sisters, and friends there, some of whom are now serving in Gaza. I want Hamas’ horror-show terror schemes to be thwarted. I also grieve the deaths of Israel’s neighbors and their children. I yearn to hear acknowledgment that Hamas’ vulgar fanaticism was able to root in part because the 47-year occupation seeded despair among Palestinians. I understand that the rapidly shifting realities of the Middle East make peace more challenging now than ever, but I want Israeli and Palestinian leaders to invest as much time, ingenuity, and resources in a diplomatic resolution to the conflict as they invest in the military option. I pray that all of us, left and right, Israeli and Palestinian, despite our grief, pain and fear, will be able to stretch our hearts to see one another.
I pray that shouts of joy and gladness will be heard on the streets of Jerusalem and Ramallah at the weddings of Candice and Awad’s sisters. And I pray that these two friends can sit together afterward and dream great dreams about the future. Because, at the end of the day, they both really want the same thing.