It’s taken me a few days to figure out why The Two Israels, Nicholas Kristof’s piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times is so disturbing.
It’s not because he focuses so much critical attention on the Jewish settlers in Hebron, where I once lived. And it’s not because I am totally convinced that he is wrong in his observations. I think it’s that his approach to the entire issue actually helps continue the conflict by adding one more voice to all those on both sides of this issue who see only the righteousness of their own position. And because of that, more people will die and all people will lose.
The sadness for me in his piece, which includes many ideas with which I agree, is that Kristof writes with such clarity and certainty about issues that lend themselves to neither. It’s about more than style though, when smug moral superiority obscures the fact that the members of B’tzelem are every bit as ideologically lopsided as the settlers about whom he writes. So ironically, pieces like this make me more, not less sympathetic to the settlers, even though with all my heart I see no practical and ethical way that Israel can or should rule over Hebron.
The most dangerous thing, whether in religion or politics, is confusing the position with which we most identify, with the one that is necessarily the most proper, decent, or wise. I, and most Israelis for that matter, may largely agree with Mr. Kristof as a matter of policy, but his polarizing approach is nothing more than preaching to the choir which already shares his views, and that won’t help anyone. Instead of the two Israels he sees, Mr. Kristof needs to see a single country trying to integrate many needs and claims, and ask not which one should be chosen, but how to best integrate as much from all as possible.
Since he wrote about Hebron, let’s start there. The debate about Hebron among Jewish Israelis at least, usually splits along a line that divides those who think Israel should leave while shedding no tears over that eventuality, and those who would shed tears about leaving while insisting that Israeli sovereignty over the city must continue. Neither side sees any wisdom in the other’s approach, so each remains equally dug in and nothing really changes. But it need not be so.
My own simple test for Hebron is as follows. If you think that Israel should leave, figure out how to shed tears over three things: One, forcing people to leave their homes, which is always painful no matter how they got there (if you are too angry at the parents who brought them, imagine the kids who have no politics and simply experience Hebron as home). Two, walking away from a place, according to the narrative shared by Jews for three thousand years, the oldest place in which a Jew owned property in the Holy Land (think of the keys to homes in Jaffa which Palestinians wear around their necks). Three, ask yourself how safe it will be for Jews to visit after the army pulls out.
If you think Israel should stay, consider the following. Who really pays the cost of the ongoing settlement in Hebron? Is it your safety or that of your son on guard duty that is risked because of the politics you preach? Under what circumstances would you consider withdrawal? Because if there are none, then haven’t you turned your attachment to one small area into a false idol which undermines a bunch of other religious principles? Why, if you think it is so important to stay in Hebron, are you not there, helping to create a Jewish majority in the city which would avoid the choice between Jewish sovereignty and commitment to democracy?
Asking these questions of ourselves may not solve the challenge of Hebron. In fact, they may solve nothing at all. But if we were able to regularly ask those questions which made us more aware of the thoughts and experience of those with whom we disagree, we might find ourselves more able to bridge the gaps between us – whether in the Middle East or in the middle of our homes.