The Community of Expulsion
OCT. 6, 2014
By Roger Cohen
LONDON — Attending services at a Reform synagogue during the High Holy Days in London I heard sermons of great worthiness from British rabbis. One was about Alzheimer’s and dementia among the elderly and the need to honor the “fragment of the divine in everyone.” Another was about changes to the prayer book, including the dropping of the term “Lord,” with its male overtones.
I listened with interest but without feeling challenged. The one subject not addressed was the one most on the minds of congregants: Israel and its recent war in Gaza, with the deaths of more than 70 Israelis and more than 2,100 Palestinians, including about 500 children. Surely I was not alone in hearing words like “fragment” and finding my mind turn to the moral dilemmas of the modern Israeli condition with its power and precariousness, its prosperity and violence, its uncertainty and contaminating dominion. The divine was in those dead Palestinian children, too. They just happened to have lived their brief lives in the hell of encircled Gaza with its tunnels and terrorists and Hamas operatives bent on the destruction of Israel.
Every human instinct recoils from the killing of children. It recoils even as Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets is clear; and the excruciating difficulty of waging war against an enemy deployed among civilians is acknowledged; and the readiness of Israel’s foes to kill any Jew is confronted. However framed, the death of a single child to an Israeli bullet seems to betoken some failure in the longed-for Jewish state, to say nothing of several hundred. The slaughter elsewhere in the Middle East cannot be an alibi for Jews to avoid this self-scrutiny.
Throughout the Diaspora, the millennia of being strangers in strange lands, Jews’ restless search in the scriptures for the ethics contained in sacred words formed a transmission belt of Judaism. For as long as the shared humanity of the other is perceived and felt, such questioning is unavoidable. The terrible thing about the Holy Land today is the denial of this humanity to the stranger. When that goes, so does essential self-interrogation. As mingling has died, separation has bred denial and contempt.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised by the anodyne sermons in London. I had read my colleague Laurie Goodstein’s recent account of the incendiary sensitivity of Israel as subject matter, of the reticence of rabbis, of some feeling “muzzled,” and of the difficulties faced by one New York rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, when she read the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children, alike, killed in Gaza. She was accused of spreading Hamas propaganda. No, she was trying, in a small brave way, to keep hearts and minds open.
That is the only way out of the impasse; neither people is going away. It is 67 years since the United Nations called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish, one Arab, in Mandate Palestine; 47 years since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began; 42 days since the Gaza war ended. Palestinians have made a profession of failure. But to deny Israel’s share is to opt for delusion.
“Only now, since they were swept up like dirt in the streets and heaped together, the bankers from their Berlin palaces and sextons from the synagogues of Orthodox congregations, the philosophy professors from Paris, and Romanian cabbies, the undertaker’s helpers and Nobel prize winners, the concert singers, and hired mourners, the authors and distillers, the haves and the have-nots, the great and the small, the devout and the liberals, the usurers and the sages, the Zionists and the assimilated, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the just and the unjust besides which the confused horde who thought that they had long since eluded the curse, the baptized and the semi-Jews — only now, for the first time in hundreds of years, the Jews were forced into a community of interest to which they had long ceased to be sensitive, the ever-recurring — since Egypt — community of expulsion. But why this fate for them and always for them alone? What was the reason, the sense, the aim of this senseless persecution? They were driven out of lands but without a land to go to.”
Two phrases leapt out: “community of expulsion,” and “driven out of lands but without a land to go to.” The second embodied the necessity of the Jewish state of Israel. But it was inconceivable, at least to me, without awareness of the first. Palestinians have joined the ever-recurring “community of expulsion.” The words of Leviticus are worth repeating for any Jew in or concerned by Israel today: Treat the stranger as yourself, for “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” More…