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Strange Meeting

As I write, a fragile three-day humanitarian truce has begun between Israel and Gaza.

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

As I write, a fragile three-day humanitarian truce has begun between Israel and Gaza. Few would dispute the hope that it should last, then outlast those three days, then become the beginning of a deeper and more abiding change. (In fact, it seems it’s not holding.)

Where does one draw hope in these dismal days? There is suffering for Israel, with the killed, the bereaved, the wounded, the fear for the whole population about where the next rocket may fall, the special anguish of those whose children are in the army. There is suffering among ordinary Palestinian people caught in the fighting, the children, the injured, the bereaved.

In this bleak, tragic terrain, it is not difficult for ideologies of hatred and violence to thrive. Looking from Israel we see Hamas, Islamic Jihad and beyond it Isis. Others, from their perspectives, see different kinds of weaponry, drones, bombs dropped from heights they cannot even perceive, and, far underground in hidden places, nuclear arsenals.

These matters concern not just Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, but everyone anywhere who cares about life. August 4th marks the centenary of the start of the First World War; we don’t want to be back again where we were then, only worse. We don’t want to offer hatred a victory.

If so, what does winning mean? It’s foolish to think that security and self-defence are not critical to the survival of the free world and humanity everywhere. I don’t believe there is another choice, except to pursue them. But they are not alone sufficient to win a different future. As David Grossman wrote (Haaretz, 27 July) ‘There is no military solution to the real anguish of the Palestinian people, and as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely either.’ His words apply to many situations well beyond the Middle East.

Somehow, there needs to be a human victory. Sometime in 1918, after four years of madness, Wilfred Owen imagined a Strange Meeting between two dead combatants in an underground tunnel beyond the grave. Here they finally recognize each other: ‘Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also’…‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ We have to try to keep faith, however impossible it may seem, that beneath the layers of fear and projection with which we dress each other, we will one day encounter in at least some of those we have considered enemies the human visage. Many are striving, and succeeding, in doing that even now as I write.

There needs to be a moral victory. We cannot allow purveyors of hate, whoever they are, to recreate us in their own image. We must not be driven into actions which cut us off from our moral foundations. We therefore need to stand for long-term justice, justice for ourselves as Jews with our long and bitter history of being persecuted, justice for ordinary Palestinian people, and justice throughout the world. That is, after all the essence of the Jewish vision. But it’s not just, or even mainly, a ‘Jewish’ issue: this is a challenge which every nation and every faith has to confront.

There need to be economic victories. There clearly exist ideologies which want to bully us into thinking otherwise, but we have to believe that the vast majority of people want lives which include education, work, family, children, happy memories and a good future. We all need to help make such futures possible. The rich world must not continue to leave people in wretched corners where they have nothing to lose, and nothing to gain except how expensively they can sell their deaths.

There needs to be a spiritual victory, of appreciation that God is the God of life, that every human being carries God’s sacred image, that all life on earth matters, that we must share and honor our sacred home, this earth. It is the ceaseless duty of all religions to affirm and live out these truths with all the passion and commitment of which they are capable.

I put my hope not so much in these beliefs as in those people, in Israel, the Middle East and across the world, who strive to live by them and whose successes, which often seem small in the face of great violence, are the foundation for our future. 

Posted on 1 August 2014

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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