Please Let It Not Be Another Intifada – Noach 5776

The violence in Israel right now leaves me feeling worried and confused.  Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands trying to understand what is going on.

It would be one thing if it was a terrorist organization like Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that was planning and carrying out these attacks.  Then, we could point to a particular group with its own ideology, and hold it accountable.  But that is not what has been happening.

What we are seeing is scarier.  Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Afula… These attacks have not been coordinated.  They are being carried out by boys and girls, men and women with knives and meat cleavers.  People with families.  People whom we would not expect to be violent.  A young girl.  A thirteen year old boy.  A perversion is taking place that is producing a kind of collective insanity, a national blood-lust.  What else could explain why two teenage cousins would go out into the street, and randomly stab a thirteen year old on a bicycle?

When a society goes astray like this, it is the leaders of that society that must step up and take responsibility for setting it back on course.  But there have been too few voices calling for calm.

What ostensibly set off this violence were claims by some Palestinians that Israel was planning to take the Temple Mount away from Muslims.  It is not true.

When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, an Israeli flag was quickly installed on top of the Dome of the Rock.  As soon as he found out about it, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately ordered it removed.  Soon later, he gave authority over the site to the Muslim Waqf, which is charged with maintaining Muslim holy sites.  Jews were forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount.  That has been the status quo arrangement ever since.

Recently, rumors started spreading that Israel was planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately denied the rumors, and affirmed that the status quo would remain as it has been for nearly fifty years.

But nobody listened.  Even those who ought to know better have been fanning the flames of violence.  As the rumors were spreading last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”  Then he declared that Jews “have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”  This week he also accused Israel of “executing” Palestinian children.

What does he think he is doing?

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The Atlantic, this is not the first time that false rumors of an impending Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount have led to widespread violence.  In 1928, Jews brought a wooden bench up to the Western Wall for elderly worshippers to sit along with a partition to separate men and women for prayer.  Local Muslim leaders stirred up popular anger by declaring that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, used the incident – the placement of a bench – as proof of a plot against Islam.  He incited Jerusalem Arabs to riot against the Jewish community.  Doctored photographs showing a defaced Dome of the Rock were distributed in Hebron to rile up the community.  In riots the following year, 133 Jews were murdered.

In 2000, the Second Intifada was launched when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount.  Granted, he took a large military presence with him.  But he had cleared it with Palestinian security officials in advance, who assured him that the situation would remain calm.  And he certainly did not go to pray.

After the visit, Palestinians began protesting, and the leader of the Waqf, on a loudspeaker, called on Palestinians to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, which Sharon had not even entered.  The protests became violent, and it soon grew into the Second Intifada.  It later turned out that the uprising had been planned in advance by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, but it was Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount which was used as the pretext to incite Muslims to defend their holy place.

Today, there are many Arab leaders who are fanning the flames of violence, many even more blatantly than Abbas, but it does not seem to be a coordinated strategy.

And to be clear, it is not everyone.  Just three days ago, the Bedouin village of Zarzir, which my children passed through every day on their way to school, organized a public rally for peace.  They called it “We refuse to be Enemies.”  Many of our friends from Kibbutz Hanaton participated.  There were signs and posters in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  Village leaders, wearing kafiyyehs and holding Israeli flags, spoke against violence and in support of the State of Israel.  But I did not read any news reports about it except for an article by Rabbi Yoav Ende, of Kibbutz Chanaton.

I saw a news clip of Arab news reporter, Lucy Aharish, speaking about as forcefully as a person could in condemning the violence and declaring that there is no justification whatsoever for committing terror.  She blasted Arab leaders for failing to come out and strongly condemn the violence.  That is where she placed the responsibility.

I do not claim that Israel has been perfect.  As you know, I have a lot of disagreements with decisions of the Israeli government over the years.  I think that Israel’s policies have contributed in part to feelings of hopelessness within Palestinian society.

While Israelis are understandably feeling scared, I think it is awful that some have responded to the terror with their own violence and discrimination.  It is inexcusable.

But nothing justifies stabbing a random stranger with a knife, or driving a car into a crowd of people waiting at a bus stop.  There is no moral equivalency when police, soldiers, or even civilians respond with violence to defend against a terrorist who is actively trying to kill an innocent person.  There is no excuse when the leaders of a society glorify a teen-ager who has committed a terrorist act, or fail to do everything they can to stop violence.

I do not have any suggestions for how to solve the chaos that ensues when a society that is not mine has lost its way.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Noach, we read of another society that has lost its way.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (chamas).  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (hishchit kol basar et darko), God said to Noach, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness (chamas) because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

Ironically, the word that the Torah uses for “lawlessness” is chamas.  It is just a coincidence, but an ironic one.  Nahum Sarna defines chamas as the “flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”    (JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 51)  There was no rule of law.  No respect for communal standards.

Then the Torah says ki hishchit kol basar et darko – “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.”

God’s response is not to give them a warning, or a punishment, or to send a Prophet to urge them to change their ways.  God regrets having created humanity, and decides to wipe out all life on earth, saving only representative male and female samples of each species.

After the flood, humanity is just as wicked as before.  It is the same DNA.

But God makes two significant changes.

He tells Noach and his offspring that they must punish those who murder.  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  This is retributive justice.  According to the theory of evolution, the strongest, most violent people ought to survive.  But God introduces an element to counter the morality of “survival of the fittest.”  Simply put, whatever you do to harm the body of another shall be done to you.  This is the basic premise of retributive justice.  Human societies have to protect their members by punishing those who commit violence.

The second change is a counter to the first.  God declares:  “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

God knows that human nature has not changed.  People will continue to have an urge to cross boundaries.  But retributive justice alone is not enough.  Forgiveness is also needed.  So even though God know that yetzer lev ha-adam ra mine’urav – “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth,” God promises to not wipe out all life again – even though they may deserve it.  There are times when justice must be set aside in favor of mercy.

This is the challenge that God presents to the children of Noah.  Build societies that are anchored by justice and forgiveness.

Although it seems perpetually elusive, that is my prayer for Israel and Palestine.  One day, both societies will have leaders who take responsibility for their own actions, as well as for their respective people’s actions.  Neither society will tolerate the dehumanization of the other.  Both will recognize that justice cannot be administered selectively.  The two peoples will recognize and protect each others’ sacred places without feeling threatened.  And Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to hear one another’s stories with a sense of compassion and forgiveness.

For now, as our brothers and sisters are living under the daily threat of terror, we can turn to God in prayer.

Shomer Yisrael — Guardian of Israel,

We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.

Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.

Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one

Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks

Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.

Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.

Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers

And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.

Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.

We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,

Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,

And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

Why BDS is completely misguided

In the past year, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, otherwise known as BDS, has really heated up.

The BDS movement tries to apply economic and political pressure on Israel to acheive its three goals, which are, in its words:

1.  the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Arab land

2.  full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel

3.  respect for the right of return for Palestinian refugees

They use three main tactics.  The first tactic is a boycott of Israeli products and companies which they claim profit from violating Palestinian rights.  There is also a cultural boycott: convincing artists and musicians to refuse to perform in Israel.  And finally. there are academic boycotts, whereby Israeli professors and academic institutions are not permitted to participate in partnerships, conferences, and academic collaborations.

The second tactic is divestment, which means convincing those who control pension funds or universities with large endowments to not hold in their portfolios any stocks of corporations which they claim are complicit in violating Palestinian rights.

The third tactic is sanctions, which means keeping Israel out of various diplomatic and economic forums.

More generally, the BDS movement tries to negatively influence public opinion about Israel.

There have been a number of prominent people who have joined in on the boycott.  Stephen Hawking boycotted the Israeli Presidential Conference last year.  Also last year, the Association for Asian American Studies announced a boycott of Israeli universities and academic institutions.  Roger Waters, former front man for Pink Floyd, has been quite vocal in his participation in the BDS movement.

You may have heard the flap around the SodaStream commercial during the Superbowl this year.   SodaStream is an Israeli company based in Ashkelon that has a factory in the West Bank.  So, it has been included in the boycott.  The actor Scarlett Johanson, in addition to being the star of the commercial, had also been an official ambassador for Oxfam for eight years.  Oxfam supports BDS.

When all of this went public, Scarlett Johanson resigned her position with Oxfam (which is a big score for the Jewish people).

The ironic thing is that the SodaStream factory is a model for economic cooperation.  It employs Israeli Jews and Arabs along with Palestinians.  The Palestinians are paid way above market rates and recieve great benefits.  They are given a lot of workplace employee protections.  The CEO of SodaStream built the factory explicitly to promote economic cooperation and further the cause of peace.

But the BDS folks went crazy over Scarlett Johanson sticking to her principles and resigning from Oxfam.

There have also been numerous attempts on universtity campuses to pass student resolutions calling for endowments to divest from Israeli corporations.  I will speak more about that later.

What is wrong with BDS?  On its surface, the idea of nonviolent protest for a political cause seems reasonable.  It’s better than suicide bombings.  But the BDS movement is deeply flawed for a number of reasons.

First of all, while the BDS movement is not explicitly anti-semitic, many of those who are involved in it are, and the rhetoric often turns nasty and personal.

The BDS movement does not actually target Israeli policies.  Rather, it aims to undermine the very legitimacy of Israel.

The idea that Israel, more than any other nation in the world, is deserving of a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is fundamentally ridiculous.  Israel is far from perfect.  There are many injustices in Israeli society, including in its treatment of Arab citizens in Israel and Palestinians in the territories.  The government has made a number of mistakes which have harmed the peace process.

That said, I don’t need to remind you that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.  It is one of the most progressive countries in the world with regard to gay rights and women’s rights.  It is the only country in the Middle East with a free press.  Arab Israelis vote, serve in government, and bring cases to the Israeli Supreme Court where they are heard by Jewish and Arab justices sitting next to each other.

The BDS movement singles out Israel for denying citizenship to Palestinians.  Let us remember that Palestinians are not Israelis.  They, in fact, vote in Palestinian elections.  Compare their enfranchisement to the rights of the vast numbers of Palestinians living in refugee camps in other Arab countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Kuwait, where they have been denied citizenship for generations and live in horrible conditions.  Why?  Because those regimes are terrified that large numbers of Palestinians might further destabilize their hold on power.  Also, because it has enabled them to keep the pressure on Israel ratched up for the past sixty years.

Where is the protest on behalf of the one hundred fifty thousand people killed and millions of displaced Syrians?  Where are the campus protests calling for an end to discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia?  Why is there no movement to eliminate honor killings, which are accepted outright in some societies, or treated in other legal systems (such as the Palestinian Authority) as a mitigating factor that carries a lighter sentence.

Not to excuse improper actions by the Israeli government, but there is at best a gross naivety when one compares the moral challenges in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with some of the terrible atrocities that are committed in repressive societies around the world.

This is nothing new for Israel.  Israel has been held to an unequal standard for its entire existence.  Of the 1822 resolutions passed by the U.N between 1948 and 2009, 235 involved Israel, which equates to 13% of all resolutions.  Since the formation of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006, Israel has been condemned forty five times, which comprises 45.9% of all country-specific resolutions passed by the council.

Dealing with international condemnation is nothing new for Israel.  In fact, despite such antagonism throughout its existence, Israel has built a thriving society.  It long ago learned to ignore most of what comes out of the UN and the international community.  The following story illustrates the point.  To understand it, you will need to know that the Hebrew acronym for the U.N. is או”ם, “um.

It is 1955, and the Israeli cabinet is debating what to do about increasing cross-border fedeyeen terror attacks from Egypt.  They are considering whether to invade and capture the Gaza Strip to prevent the attacks, and are debating the international repercussions.  Prime Minister Moshe Sharett points out that if it had not been for the 1947 U.N. resolution, Israeli would not have been founded.  In response, David Ben Gurion, who was the Defense Minister at the time, snaps “Um shmum!”  And that has been a pretty good description of how Israel has felt about the United Nations ever since.

So what else it wrong with BDS?

Simply put – it will not work.

Israel has become so successful in the global economy.  Its businesses are integrated with corporations and countries around the world.  Just think about all of the connections between Silicon Valley and Israel.  National borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant when it comes to the expansion of global businesses.  I am highly doubtful that a BDS campaign could negatively impact the thriving Israeli business and academic climates in any meaningful way.  It’s just not going to work in a globalized world.

But there is another, far more important reason why the BDS movement is completely misguided.  Historically, whenever Israel has felt pressure from the outside, it has dug in with even greater stubborness.  The idea that imposing sanctions and boycotts will bring Israel to its knees and force it to give in is totally naive.  If anything, BDS will acheive the opposite result.

Those who want to promote the cause of the Palestinians, improve the chances for coexistence, and possibly even bring about a peaceful solution, ought to do the exact opposite of BDS.

Instead of pulling money out of corporations doing business in Israel, pour money in.  Invest in economic development in the West Bank.  Invest especially in joint business and research ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.  Build more SodaStream factories.  People are willing to make concessions when they feel secure and when they have hope that their lives will improve.  People will take risks for peace when they can see the realistic possibility that their children will enjoy a higher standard of living than they themselves have experienced.

That is only going to happen when there is not only dialogue on a grassroots level between Israelis and Palestinians, but when there are real economic incentives for building something together.

Unfortunately, the BDS movement is not actually interested in pursuing peace.  In calling for the right of return for all Palestinians to Israel and the granting of citizenship to all Palestinians, combined with intensive delegitimization, it seems clear that what the BDS movement is really after the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.

The most hurtful aspects of the BDS campaign, sadly, occur at universities.  On numerous campuses, local BDS groups bring forth resolutions calling for the university to divest from corporations that do business in Israel.  The tactics are often filled with intimidation.

There are practical reasons why divestment is a bad idea.  Harvard President Drew Faust said last year, “Significantly constraining investment options risks significantly constraining investment returns.”  In other words, artificially imposing limits on investment opportunities will result in less money available for university programs.  That is bad for students.

The other reason is ethical and political.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a one-sided issue.  The plight of the Palestinians is wrapped up in complicated international histories and relationships.  There are many parties that bear responsibility, including Arab governments, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and yes, Israel.  To single out one side is ignorant and irresponsible.

Plus, these kinds of movements on university campuses are often experienced by Jewish students, staff, and faculty as unfair and discriminatory.  BDS campaigns often intimidate students, stifle constructive debate, and repress free speech.

Jewish students at NYU and other universities recently had mock eviction notices placed under their doors.  Students are sometimes harrassed walking across campuses.  The tone of the rhetoric is often hateful, equating Israel with Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, and targeting pro-Israel students in ways that often cross the line of anti-Semitism.  Some BDS protests have turned violent.

It is happening all over the country.  Five UC campuses, including UC Santa Cruz last week, have passed BDS resolutions.

Also last week, the student Senate at the University of Washington resoundingly rejected a BDS resolution by a vote of 59 to 8, with 11 abstentions.  That is the biggest defeat of a BDS resolution so far, and that is pretty remarkable at a school like UW, which has a history of anti-Israel activity.

The reasons it failed at UW are important.  Hillel students spent a full two years preparing for a resolution that they knew would be coming.  They did so in a grassroots way that united individuals who did not agree with each other.  It brought together students on the right and the left who were affiliated with AIPAC, Stand With Us, and J Street.

As a result of their efforts, the broader student body felt that the dialogue that had taken place had been respectful and substantive.

The UW outcome is a tremendous victory that has left students feeling energized and empowered, but it comes at a cost.  For two years, Jewish students and leaders on campus devoted an enormous amount of their energies to defending Israel.  What was neglected?  After all, there is more to being Jewish than defending Israel.  Think of all of the positive Jewish programming that did not take place because of the resources devoted to defeating a BDS campaign.  University is supposed to be a time for gaining independence, being exposed to new ideas, and engaging in constructive dialogue with people of different backgrounds and opinions – not defending yourself from attack and discrimination.

In an article published after the victory, Rabbi Oren Hayon, the Executive Director at UW Hillel, describes the numerous students who came to him under tremendous stress.  He writes critically of the treatment of students by people on both sides of the issue as “‘troops’ to be mustered, ‘vessels’ to be filled, ‘fields’ to be planted, and ‘assets’ to be positioned.  Rarely, if ever,” he writes, “were they celebrated as thinkers, partners, or colleagues.”  That is a shame.

What can we do?

It seems that we may need to get more involved.  Not because BDS poses a great threat to Israel’s security, but because it places harmful pressure on Jews living in the Diaspora, especially college students.  And we cannot simply rely on campus Hillels to bear the burden.

One simple thing that is easy for all of us: Buy Israeli products.

Also, do not get into emotionally-laden shouting matches with BDS supporters.  You are not going to change their minds.  Speak about Israel with people you know: friends at work and at school.  Don’t be shy about it.  But always speak with respect, ask lots of questions, and always listen.