This week, in the midst of the many, many issues going on around our world, including a controversial Tax Bill and a fire raging in California, there was something in the news that I believe all Jews around the world noticed. This past week, the President of the United States declared that the U.S. formally recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and, accordingly, will move the US embassy there within six months. The response from the Jewish movements in the diaspora have been diverse, with some denominations feeling worried, some feeling cautious, and others feeling overjoyed. Why such different approaches to this announcement?
Truthfully, as diaspora Jews, Israel has always been complicated for us—whether it be the acts of its government that we may or may not agree with, or the Arab-Israeli conflict more generally—we’re here, outside of Israel, looking at it from a distance, making our home in exile. I’ve personally had mixed feelings about this most recent announcement because it seems to me to be one more attempt to make clear what is, I believe, not clear at all. Of course I would like to say that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and that Israel is the Jewish state. End. Stop. But Israel, like so much of this world, is contested earth. And it has been conquered and invaded and conquered and settled and… well, you get the picture. And as if warfare wasn’t complicated enough, add in divine right, birthright, the Torah, Jesus, the Dome of the Rock. Israel isn’t just about land. It’s about the Promised Land. Promised. To whom? By whom?
I won’t pretend to know how to solve the Israel dilemma. I’d like to believe a solution is there. I pray a solution is there. But as nice as it would be to date this conflict to 1948, this conflict dates back so much farther, and is woven into global conflicts both near and far to Israel. And, most importantly, at the heart of this conflict, in its most present form, are people. Not Hamas or Hezbollah. Not Bibi or the IDF. But people, like you or me, trying to live in peace, to raise their children in peace, in the most difficult of circumstances. And yes, we can argue about the intense terrorist-sponsored propaganda that Hamas and Hezbollah has spread for decades, raising generations of Jew-fearing and Jew-hating Muslims. And we can talk about settlements and land grabs.
But tonight, in this holy space, I don’t want to talk about any of that. No, I want to talk about the people. The people for whom Israel is a home. Or was a home. The people whose lives are upended when an outside country so much as declares such and such as a capital. The people who at once depend on our opinions and resent them. I want to talk about them because while for diaspora Jews Israel can quickly become a problem to be solved, a series of sound bites from CNN or the BBC or Al Jazeera, Israel is so much more than a place or a conflict. It is decades, generations, infinite feelings and fears and hopes. So, if you will indulge me just a little longer tonight, I want to share two poems with you that, for me, resonated with the Israel conflict more than any history book or news report ever has. The first is from Yehuda Amichai’s “Open Closed Open.” It reads:
I wasn’t one of the six million who died in the Shoah,
I wasn’t even among the survivors.
And I wasn’t one of the six hundred thousand who went out of Egypt.
I came to the Promised Land by sea.
No, I was not in that number, though I still have the fire and the smoke
within me, pillars of fire and pillars of smoke that guide me
by night and by day. I still have inside me the mad search
for emergency exits, for soft places, for the nakedness
of the land, for the escape into weakness and hope,
I still have within me the lust to search for living water
with quiet talk to the rock or with frenzied blows.
Afterwards, silence: no questions, no answers.
Jewish history and world history
grind me between them like two grindstones, sometimes
to a powder. And the solar year and the lunar year
get ahead of each other or fall behind,
leaping, they set my life in perpetual motion.
Sometimes I fall into the gap between them to hide,
or to sink all the way down.
“Jewish history and world history grind me between them like two grindstones, sometimes to a powder,” he writes. And isn’t that how Israel is for us in the diaspora? We can’t dismiss Israeli politics like we dismiss the politics in literally hundreds of other countries around the world. Israeli politics, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, somehow feel like ours. And why? Because even if we “weren’t one of the six million,” we are here. We survived. Generations later, we survived. And if this is how we feel in the diaspora, imagine someone living in Israel.
Of course, if only it were that simple. But Israel isn’t just our story, even if we wish it to be. Another poem, this one by Hasheemah Afaneh, a Palestinian-American, tells the other side of the story:
Remember the Name
My name is a refugee
From Haifa, Acre, and Jaffa,
But I have no idea
What these places are like.
My grandparents told me,
You chased them out of there
With an airstrike.
I don’t remember your
I’ve never put a toe in your
I have never even entered
My own home,
So for it,
I dedicate this poem.
My grandmother holds the
To go back home is her plea.
My grandfather remembers
Before his voice starts shaking,
He bites his lip.
They no longer live in the
House they built.
They wonder if the people that took it
Feel an ounce of guilt.
As for us,
We became a statistic,
In one of those “resolution plans”
That is a book thick.
And although I have lived
I feel like I could’ve been
But my name,
Is a refugee
That doesn’t want to hate.
When my grandparents are gone,
They’ll leave me their key
That they so desperately hold
And I’ll be here
Searching for an identity,
Something that isn’t an entity.
But I won’t be naïve
To think someone will take me back.
All I want is for someone to remember my name.
So will you remember my name?
History is written by the victors, they say. A war was fought. And another. And another. You lost. Your land is ours. End. Stop.
Except we are still part of the six million. We still live and breathe the Shoah. We always will. Should we expect it to be different for a Palestinian, even one living in their diaspora? We can’t shy away from fact that at one point Palestinians held keys to houses that now belong to Israelis, just as we can’t shy away from the fact that before those houses were Palestinian, they were Judean, or Roman, or Greek, or Israelite, or Canaanite. We can’t shy away from what the Palestinians call that day in 1948, the Nakbah, “the disaster,” nor can we shy away from what we call it, the day that there was finally a home for Jews, a recognized state where we could no longer be murdered, expelled, converted, or intimidated. One side’s fulfillment of a dream is the other’s nightmare. Whose collective memory are we to choose? Whose are we to ignore?
I have no answers. I’m not sure there are answers. What there must be, however, is reflection. We must acknowledge the absolute complexity of this issue. It is not as simple as what the BBC or CNN or Al Jazeera says. And it is not as one-sided as AIPAC or JStreet says. And it is certainly not as clear as what Israel or Palestine says.
With reflection comes prayer, and we must pray. We must pray for the safety of those caught in the middle of extremist conflict, for the innocent civilians, the children, the doctors, the peacemakers, whose lives are now in danger, while we sit safely here in the U.S. We cannot begin to understand what it was like on the streets of Jerusalem today, and what world Israelis and Palestinians will wake up to tomorrow. We must acknowledge that, reflect on it, and pray.
Yehuda Levi once wrote those haunting words, “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.” Tonight, may our hearts be in the east, and may our silent prayers be for peace among all peoples.