Don't Plan on the Disappearance of the Other

The wondrous ending to the siege of Samaria narrated in our ancient scriptures this week is not a sound strategic model for our own times.

In the reading from the biblical Second Book of Kings that is paired with this week’s Torah-portion, the Israelites of Samaria wake one morning to find that the Aramean forces who have long laid siege to their citadel have suddenly vanished. Startled out of their wits by a phantom sound of chariots and horses, the Aramean soldiers have abandoned their camp and all its provisions and have sprinted helter-skelter to the Jordan River and across it, eastward, scattering their gear and even their clothing along the pathways of their terrified retreat. (2Kings 7:3-20)

This, in the story, is a heaven-sent miracle – which, for any forward-looking, prescriptive, practical purpose is to say: a complete fantasy. “One does not rest one’s plans upon anticipation of a miracle,” runs an ancient and frequent rabbinic adage. In the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Shabbat (32a) the principle is taught this way: “One should never put oneself in a dangerous situation and say, ‘A miracle will save me.’ Perhaps the miracle will not come. And even if a miracle were to occur, one’s merit would be reduced.”

Today the conflict – or say ‘siege’ – stagnating on the West bank of the Jordan River – with varying perspectives, in the large and historical picture, as to who’s been besieging whom – is fueled tragically by fantasies within each of the two peoples involved that the other will somehow disappear.

Lior Schleien – roughly speaking, Israel’s Jon Stewart – an adamant proponent of a two state concept as the only viable hope for Israel, back in November scathingly and satirically spot-lit exultation on the right wing of the Israeli political landscape at the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Schleien critiqued the celebratory reaction in some quarters of his country as misplaced supposition and anticipation of a miracle. Schleien’s desk piece of that moment is well worth watching (here it is, with English subtitles) – so long as you understand that he is sarcastically parroting and not endorsing his nation’s hard liners, and is satirizing their critique of left wingers (by his lights, realists) such as himself.

So much for fantasies of the Palestinian people’s disappearing (no matter how anyone may gainsay that people’s legitimacy or dismissively explain away its genesis). So much, too – as you can tell from Schleien’s comedy – for any idea that Israel is ‘one nation under Bibi,’ so to speak, any more than the United States is of one political mind under the Donald.

But let’s be real in calling out and dispelling another fantasy – the one positing that, if only the Palestinian people holds out intransigently and with righteous principle rejects the accommodation of a two state resolution, the Jewish State of Israel can be made out to be an equivalent of apartheid South Africa, which then will go the disappearing way of that country’s erstwhile white hegemony. Speaking as one who has served in the emergency rooms of the Hadassah hospitals on Mount Scopus and in Ein Kerem, alongside Arab- and Jewish-Israeli nurses and doctors, treating Jewish and Arab patients (including, once in my experience, a wounded terrorist) with complete equality of care, that libel just won’t stick. For all its lingering inequities and internal ethnic difficulties, Israel within its borders is a diametrically different proposition from apartheid.

The longer the conflict stagnates, however, the more revisionist totalitarians and literalist theocrats are emboldened, and the more they can fancy themselves prophetic and convince others to believe the same. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, having as its objective the vision of a single, binational state – in effect, a recipe for extinguishing Israel – only plays into that tragic trajectory.

So, taking responsibility only for our own state, what should Israel do, and what should the people of Israel worldwide wish Israel to do? Last Thursday at Harvard Hillel, the most recent past Director of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, Tamir Pardo said: “Unless we find our way to a two state solution, it will be the end of the Zionist dream.”

I believe that. I believe it for all that I believe in miracles and even believe that I have seen them in our times. And so I am with Ambassador Dennis Ross who – also in a recent Harvard Hillel program, among many other places – has proposed that Israel build and settle strictly within lines that credibly allow for the emergence of an eventual, viable, dignified, and acceptable Palestinian state, whatever the Palestinian leaders and people and their supporters may do in the present. Otherwise, though some may think it to be anticipating a promised wonder, Israel will be planning upon an impossibility, in contravention of sound Talmudic principle, and its merit – heaven forbid – will be reduced. Instead of that, may we see miracles of good sense and renewed visions of mutual respect across sound and safe boundaries speedily in our days.

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