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.
Why does an author and talk-show host who was once a settler in the west bank city of Hebron, who grew up in a largely secular, Jewish home in Chicago, where he returned to study religion at the University of Chicago and went on to be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, become a blogger for Beliefnet.com? Because I believe that in a world with more and more walls going up between people, nations, and religious communities, we need more windows and doors, and this can be one of them.
Welcome to Windows & Doors, an ongoing conversation about how the traditions and wisdoms we value most, meet up with the biggest questions in our lives and in our world. In my case, that tradition is Jewish, though I am privileged to have teachers from many traditions and believe that Truth is found in many places and wrapped in many different garments.
I also believe that the purpose of being Jewish is not to “be Jewish”, but to be human, which is why this conversation is definitely not for Jews only. In fact, the test, for me, of the health of the tradition that I love is not simply whether it helps its own members, but whether or not it benefits those who are not. If that sounds radical, look no farther than the biblical story of Abraham’s call from God, in which he is told that his mission is to both found a nation, and also to be a blessing to the entire world. And being a blessing to the world, means serving the needs of its residents — people like you and me.
Windows & Doors is a kind of living laboratory in which the ideas, insights and practices that can make our lives better will be explored and tested against the daily turbulence that is contemporary life. If it’s in the news, it will be here. And if it’s in my heart and in the hearts of those I know, now including you, then it will be here as well. Let’s discover together how faith can overcome fear and how religious commitment (to any tradition) can be combined with genuine spiritual openness.
If you know that the big stuff in life is too important to simply be divided by words like right and left, traditional and liberal, or any of the easy dichotomies that dominate the media, then this is the place for you. If you are fascinated by the connection between faith and current affairs, then this is the place for you. If you find yourself wondering what it means to love God by whatever name we call Him/Her, in a world where religion is such a polarizing and even deadly force, then this is the place for you. I’ll meet you here tomorrow.
When he accused Presidential candidate Barack Obama of taking a “fruitcake interpretation” of the Constitution, it was clearly no compliment and neither was his accusation that Obama was “dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.” So for starters, what does Reverend Dobson have against fruitcake? I mean we all like to make fun of it, and my wife’s theory is that there are only a few of them which are re-gifted every Christmas, but still…. Next he’ll be calling such interpretation “chopped liver” and for me, them’s fightin’ words!
But more troubling is Dobson’s assessment of Senator Obama’s comments, which strike me as well reasoned and genuinely valuable to anyone who takes both the Bible and contemporary experience seriously. He did not get it totally right, but more about that later. Now to the three dangerous claims made by Dobson, with whom I often disagree but rarely find this ugly.
First, why must Reverend Dobson insist that Obama’s “mistaken” interpretations are a “deliberate distortion”? Can’t someone be wrong anymore without being accused of lying? I appreciate that Dobson thinks Obama is wrong, but there is no evidence here that he is lying, too. And confusing disagreement with disingenuousness turns ugly pretty quick and serves nobody well. Not to mention that when he suggests that Obama is “dragging biblical understanding through the gutter” because he offers an interpretation which differs from his own, he is telling all Jews, Muslims, and Christians who differ from him that we are guilty of the same dragging. If that is so, then I am proud to share that gutter with Obama and will leave the street to the ugly triumphalists who would defend Dobson’s claim.
Second, while Dobson may be correct that Obama is “worlds away in the views of evangelicals,” his claim is based on the fact that “Evangelicals…take Bible interpretation very seriously,” which he believes Obama does not. Why? Because James Dobson assumes that if you don’t share his conclusions about the Bible, you must not take it seriously. Ironically, taking the Bible seriously is the one thing that all interpreters actually share. If they didn’t, they would not bother to interpret the text, they would simply ignore it! But sadly, for a man who claims to love the Bible, I suspect that is what Dobson would prefer.
Third, the Reverend would apparently prefer a world with people who share his view of the Bible, or have so little connection to it that they have no view at all. This makes it genuinely frightening when he accuses Senator Obama of wanting everybody to agree about how to interpret the Bible. He perfectly locates the sin of spiritual arrogance, which really does get people killed, and claims that those who oppose it are most guilty of it! Well, I guess he knows that the best defense is a good offense, or in this case, the ability to be offensive.
I do hope that in the future Senator Obama will not suggest that interpretations with which he disagrees are inherently not “amenable to reason.” But that is something about which we can talk when we stand together in that “gutter” where Reverend Dobson thinks we both belong. Hey, maybe we’ll make it a picnic and I’ll bring the fruitcake.