As we witness Mideast peace talks, the voice of Jewish support is in our hands. When we speak to our friends, when we advocate to our leaders, when we teach our children, what will our rhetoric be? What will be our perspective of the other? This is the question asked in this D’var Torah I delivered Friday night.
Last week, I visited “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Keats, an author and illustrator of 85 books creates characters and art that come to life on the page; but true appreciation of this children’s literature requires context. For in 1962, Ezra Jack Keats’ book The Snowy Day, became the first full-color modern children’s book to have an African-American protagonist.
Why was it he, a Jewish man from Brooklyn, who first introduced a character of color into children’s literature? Keats, originally Katz, witnessed anti-Semitism in his day. Such discrimination could have led Keats to become defensive, fearful, or isolated from other groups. But instead that discrimination deepened his sensitivity and understanding. With his protagonist in The Snow Day, Keats expressed empathy for the other.
Over and over, in the Book of Deuteronomy and beyond, the Torah speaks of the stranger and teaches us how to overcome the fear, defensiveness or isolation that can accompany the anxieties we might feel about the other: love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah’s inspiration and Ezra Jack Keat’s inspiration for understanding the other, are one and the same. We’ve been there, and that memory serves as a foundation for empathy.
Perhaps Torah repeats commandments about the stranger so many times–more than any other mitzvah in the Torah–because it’s hard. How common it is, as individuals or groups, to encounter the other and respond by becoming defensive, fearful or isolated. How common it is to protect ourselves with attack or demonization, rather than to open ourselves to understanding and empathy. So the Torah reminds us again and again, to love the stranger, to show concern for the stranger, to show responsibility for the stranger.
There may be no harder place to heed this mitzvah than in the very birthplace of the Torah. The conflict in the Middle-east has brought existential crisis to our brothers and sisters in Israel, and has brought anguish to all of us who love Israel and yearn for Israel to thrive as a Jewish spiritual homeland, and as a democratic state living in peace with her neighbors.
This week, we witnessed the Israelis and Palestinians resume peace talks. In this early but important step in the newest chapter of the effort to pursue a Two-State Solution for two peoples, negotiation strategies are in the diplomats’ hands, may God sustain their strength and wisdom. But as we witness this process, the voice of Jewish support, is in our hands. When we speak to our friends, when we advocate to our leaders, when we teach our children, what will our rhetoric be? What will be our perspective of the other?
Generations of discrimination and persecution might mean that we are so defensive, fearful, and isolated that we do not care about the narrative, humanity or destiny of the Palestinian people. Or, our memory of being the stranger might deepen our empathy, sensitivity and understanding for those who have also suffered hardship. Understanding the experience and needs of the Palestinians, does not mean we advocate for the Israelis to loosen security, and it does not mean that we tolerate messages that demean our own history, or that question Israel’s right to exist. A commitment to understand the other is our way to ensure that we do not waste energy on hatred.
In her CNN.com column this week, called “America, Stay Open to Both Sides in Mideast Talks,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs argues that our nation’s leadership will need to hear “broard-based support in efforts for peace that bridges the gulf between those who identify primarily with Israelis and those who identify primarily with Palestinians.” Without a bridge of understanding, Jacobs does not see how we can effectively support the peace talks.
Rabbi Jacobs offers the example of the Palestinian supporter who asks why so many American Jews are offended by the movement to boycott Israel. Without understanding the Jewish narrative, it is impossible for that Palestinian supporter to know that Nazis employed boycotts against the Jews as a step before violent attacks.
And there is the example of the Israeli supporter who is tone-deaf to the day-to-day suffering of Palestinians who content with the theft of private land, long and demeaning checkpoints and violence from settlers and soldiers.
Finally, Rabbi Jacobs insists: “Those on both sides who are unwilling to change their rhetoric should come clean about whether they are actually committed to peace. Those who tolerate language that demonizes Jews or who justify violence against Israeli civilians, must ask themselves whether they are actually most interested in achieving a better future for Palestinians, or whether they are indulging in dangerous anti-Semitism. Those who dismiss Palestinian suffering or who rationalize violence against Palestinian civilians, must ask themselves whether they are serious about a two-state solution, or whether they are simply looking for excuses to sustain the occupation indefinitely.”
When we encounter the other, our anxieties can lead us to fear. We can build walls that so radically isolate us from the stranger that we can only see them as enemy. In this new chapter of the peace talks, the Jewish voice is in our hands. And if we don’t use it, if we don’t help to shape Jewish rhetoric, others will. Plenty of American Jews will reach out to our nation’s leaders only to advocate for Israel’s need for land, sovereignty and security. It is critical for us to support Israel’s interests and our devotion to Israel’s land, sovereignty and security–its very right to exist– as we urge our nation’s leaders to remain focused on Mideast peace talks. But is that all that our leaders, our friends and our children will hear from us? Or will we express our empathy and concern for the dignity and opportunity of the Palestinians, as well?
When we speak of the other with understanding, we express our truest love for Israel: a haven not only for the Jews, but a haven for Jewish values and purpose. May we clearly hear the words of Torah: “We were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and, may our own people’s memory, inspire us to open ourselves to understand the narrative and the humanity of the other.