Friday, 25 July 2014

A people that dwells alone

The song 'Hein Am' by Yaakov Shwekey has, in recent years, become a popular tune at Jewish celebrations. It is a quote from Bamidbar 23:9, uttered by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam, who famously tried to curse the Jewish people yet after divine intervention ended up blessing them: "From the top of the rocks I see him [referring to the Jewish people], and from the hills I behold him; behold, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations".

The tune and upbeat nature of this song suggests that the words are to be celebrated: in this case, that the Jewish people were, are, and forever will be alone, and that we should accept this, and rejoice in it. This feeling of loneliness among the nations is felt throughout the Jewish world today, especially during times of war in Israel, as is the case currently. It was certainly the overriding feeling felt by millions of Jews who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and the bold attempts to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel against the odds.

However, Rabbi Sacks makes a strong argument that this prophecy remains that which Bilam intended - a curse. He brings the Talmud Sanhedrin's statement that all of Bilam's 'blessings' turned into curses with the exception of one. Furthermore, the great commentators understood the phrase to mean that Jews are indestructible (Rashi), don't assimilate (Ibn Ezra) and maintain their own integrity (Ramban). To be isolated, says Rabbi Sacks, is not a blessing, nor is it our destiny.

Although the notion of Jewish isolation has played a role in my education, and was my way of dealing with the challenges of being a religious Jew at a non-Jewish school during the Second Intifada, I have grown to appreciate Rabbi Sacks' assertion. The Jewish mission of bringing peace and justice to the world through a recognition of God cannot be achieved without it. Just as with my religious Zionist belief that we can hasten the redemption through our actions, so too here, we must win over the nations of the world and not shut ourselves off from it. As Rabbi Sacks says, "It is vitally important not to believe in advance that we are destined to be alone...If we are convinced we will fail, we probably will. That is why the rabbis were right to suggest that Bilam’s words were not necessarily well-meant" (Covenant and Conversation, Parashat Balak 5771).

Yet despite all this, during Operation Protective Edge, I find myself once again resorting to feelings of loneliness. The accusations I have heard are familiar refrains: Israel has no regard for international law; Israel places a lower value on Palestinian life compared to Israeli life; Israel deliberately targets, or doesn't do enough to prevent, civilian casualties; terrorism comes as a result of Israel's policies; Israel's response to attacks on its citizens is allowed, but always disproportionate - and more. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that there are key figures such as world leaders and newspaper editors who do support Israel's actions, these accusations still run abound throughout the world media and popular opinion.

Yet as Israel approaches each new conflict, and specifically in Operation Protective Edge, there are two things that improve. One is the effort to which Israel goes to protect Palestinian lives, be it through phone warnings before strikes, setting up field hospitals or calling off airstrikes if civilians are detected. The other is Israel's determination to film action on the ground and publicise it on social media, so that rather than merely hearing from an IDF spokesman, we can see for ourselves the Hamas tunnels, stores of rockets and the hospitals and schools being used as rocket launch bases. In 2014 Israel has become extremely proficient in both areas, and leads the world in how to respond proportionately to constant terrorist threats, whilst maintaining dignity for the rights of civilians despite the often-blurred lines between civilian and terrorist.

This is why I feel alone when I hear the familiar accusations against Israel in 2014. Even if they applied to any degree in previous campaigns, I find it impossible to justify them with regard to Operation Protective Edge. Israel have not ignored the world and practiced isolationism. Rather, the effort to project Israel's message to the world has been the best yet - from political decisions made with world opinion in mind to mass media campaigns affecting the common person. Furthermore, this conflict has been with Hamas, a terrorist organisation whose charter, rhetoric and recent military and political decisions, one would think, leaves it morally indefensible.

I want to resist the natural reaction and declare that indeed, we are destined to be a nation that dwells alone. I don't want to believe that no-one understands us. Moreover, I do not want to resign myself to the knowledge that Israel must be seen as the aggressor, and that we should give up persuading the world otherwise. But how can this apparent chasm between the ideal and the reality be bridged?

One of the oft-repeated frustrations shared by supporters of Israel is the tendency to lend a higher level of scrutiny to its actions in comparison with other world conflicts, whether through media attention, UN resolutions or governmental action. Although this frustration is understandable, especially, for example, in light of the atrocities being committed in Syria, it also misses the point. Irrespective of other conflicts, Israel should be acting to the absolute highest moral standard and world attention should be a cause for optimism, so that we can showcase our ethical values to the world. In effect, it's not enough to be 'better' in comparison. As a Jewish country, we should only strive for the absolute best in every moral count.

Perhaps herein lies our challenge. At times of war, the people of Israel come together and unite. This unity is not just based on a common concern for each other's welfare, rather it is also based on a unity of values, such as the right of self-defence and the care for all casualties of war, on both sides. However in times of peace, do we experience the same unity? And if we do, how often is it unity based on common values? For all Israel's achievements, we who strive for only the highest moral standards, know that we can do more to improve our society and thus influence the nations around us. Is our society free of corruption, free of crime and free of intolerance? Can we do better in helping minorities, balancing inequalities and creating the haven of social justice envisioned by our prophets? We know that the answer to this is that we can improve - and that's natural, since we are a relatively new state, which is work in progress.

The world, subconsciously or not, is looking to the Jewish state to provide the highest possible moral standard in everything it does. We know from history that when the Jewish state was at its religious and ethical best during the time of King Solomon, it ushered in an era of financial security and peace, and Israel was the envy of the nations. We shouldn't need to compare ourselves to other nations, rather we only need look to our own heritage, traditions and values, and act accordingly. I would like to suggest that the chasm between the ideal position of Israel within the world and its current standing will not be bridged during the flare-ups of war. Rather, the times of war merely express the disquiet the world feels with our inability to fully realise the Jewish mission to be the world's moral standard every single moment of every single day.

Bilam's prophecy cleverly played on the notion of chosenness, a positive force which he turned into a negative one by foretelling our isolation among the nations. If we want to rid ourselves of this curse and never to feel the loneliness we currently feel, we need to channel this force and dedicate our efforts to making Israel the absolute moral entity we have dreamed for, prayed for, and are on the way to achieving.

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