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Modern Folly, Ancient Wisdom
By ROGER COHEN
The International Herald Tribune
June 11, 2010
NEW YORK — I took a short break for my daughter’s bat mitzvah, Israel killed nine activists on a Gaza-bound ship in international waters, and its bungled raid prompted international uproar and Jewish soul-searching.
And so the last 10 days of my life were shaped by Middle Eastern rage, churning through 24-hour news cycles, and private joy framed in millennial Jewish tradition. I’ll try to sift through them here.
Often our outer and inner worlds diverge. We do our best to reconcile them, the daily juggle. Seldom have I felt the ugliness of the political — Yeats’s “weasels fighting in a hole” — and the consolation of the spiritual with such clarity.
Israel’s bloody interception of the Mavi Marmara and its motley crew was crass — another example of the counterproductive use of force — but nothing about it could justify the Turkish prime minister’s outrageous statement that the world now perceives “the swastika and the Star of David together.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the bristling leader who has given Kemal Ataturk’s secular Turkey an Islamic tinge and an eastward-looking inclination, should know better than to invoke the Nazis when speaking of a state that emerged from the ashes of European Jewry.
Israel is a liberal democracy stuck in the blind alley of a morally corrupting 43-year-old occupation that has made force its reflexive mode of operation. Several factors have nudged the country rightward: religious-settler extremism; obliviousness to the Palestinian plight now concealed behind walls; Russian-imported strands of Arab-baiting intolerance. But it is still a liberal democracy, home to a level of debate and openness unknown elsewhere in the Middle East. This needs broader acknowledgment.
What Israel in turn must realize — before it is too late — is that the real threat it faces today is not one of destruction but of de-legitimization. Its tactical lurches, often violent, do not add up to a strategy; they have resulted in a shocking erosion of Israel’s stature. I was talking the other day to the Israeli ambassador to a West European nation and he complained that he could rarely set foot on a university campus these days. Universities represent the future.
The only way to re-legitimize Israel and integrate it is an end to the occupation and the achievement of a two-state solution, with Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people and Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people. Israel cannot do this alone. Feckless Arab powers must step forward.
But Israel emphatically cannot do this, ever, by succumbing to a deeper and giddier embrace of those terrible twins, victimhood and force — terrible because at once addictive and blinding.
An ever larger share of the officer corps of the Israel Defense Forces comes from Orthodox or settler families. The mindset of secular Tel Aviv has migrated — as far as is feasible — to Europe and the United States.
Such rump Zionism does not bode well for an Israel that needs a crash course in restraint. Blockading Gaza is not difficult. But of course the blockade only nourishes the tunnel economy controlled by Hamas. Is this intelligent? Is this a strategy?
Jews have survived by using their minds. Israel was founded in the image of Jewish values debated and distilled over centuries. Before my daughter Adele chanted her Torah portion, with the sacred scroll unfolded before her, Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn used an image from Jewish mystical thought of the Torah as “black fire upon white fire.”
The notion here is that the word of God is fire, redoubled fire if you like, and that if you get too far from it you freeze, but if you draw too near to it you burn. “The word of God can actually destroy you if you get too close,” Bachman suggested.
With all the Middle Eastern charges and countercharges echoing dimly in my mind, these words about the peril of too fierce a zealotry resonated. Then Adele read from the scroll and her clear voice, her young mind and those ancient desert-sprung sounds took everyone far from sound-bite squalor.
Her portion was about the Korah rebellion and God’s sweeping punishment of it.
In her subsequent speech, she said, “I think that God didn’t understand that not everyone was behind this rebellion, only Korah and his followers, because He isn’t human. He doesn’t understand how the human race works, and Moses and Aaron do because they are humans. In my opinion that is the main reason that God has Moses and Aaron, to help Him understand the human race and help fix conflicts in a calm and rational way.”
Calling God’s harsh reaction “a hasty decision,” she suggested that “Judaism begins to teach us that God and humans together can be partners in keeping each other calm and rational.”
I’m not about to suggest a 12-year-old can solve the Middle East’s problems, but the distance between the wisdom in that sanctuary and the warring words of the modern-day absolutists of Israel-Palestine cleaving too close to the fire was so immense as to constitute a terrible betrayal — of youth and its hopes above all.
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