On Yom Haatzmaut Last Year, Rabbi Yosef Blau gave a speech at the gala for Encounter. The Encounter program bring American Jews and Israelis to meet Palestinians in the West Bank- to get to know one another as people. They describe themselves as follows:
While the Jewish community continues to be one of the most influential stakeholders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most American Jews have never met a Palestinian, nor seriously encountered Palestinian narratives or perspectives. Influential segments of the American Jewish community advocate for solutions to the conflict and educate the next generation about it in complete isolation from Palestinian people and claims. This information vacuum perpetuates our failure to bring about real, viable solutions and furthermore, research demonstrates that simplistic advocacy efforts are driving away our next generation’s engagement with the Jewish community and their commitment to Israel.
Underlying all of Encounter’s work is the core belief that innovative strategies for peace will be created only when influential stakeholders in a conflict have opportunities to meet one another, toopen themselves to previously disregarded points-of-view, and to develop relationships across political and ideological divides.
Rabbi Blau had recently been on one of their trips to the West Bank and describes as his Yom Haatzmaut message what he learned from a Palestinian businessman in Ramallah. Note his conclusion in the last paragraph.
D’var Torah by Rabbi Yosef Blau at the Encounter Gala
Judaism is a complex blend of particularism and universalism. As a Religious Zionist leader, committed to Israel as a Jewish democratic state, I felt it important to learn directly from the Palestinians with whom we share living in the Land of Israel — to broaden my understanding of the land so central to my passionate and religious concern. Encounter created this opportunity.
I want to share a message of Torah by opening with a correspondence that I had with a Palestinian leader I met on my trip. After the attacks in Itamar, I exchanged emails with Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American businessman living in Ramallah. We did not always agree, but the dialogue was conducted in a spirit of mutual listening and respect. I wanted to know his response to the massacre. His response captured the danger of demonizing an entire population, the importance of seeing our so-called enemies person-by-person and one-by-one. He wrote me that when in 2004–5 the Israeli Defense Forces was bombing Ramallah with F-16s during the second Intifada, he told his young daughters that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was piloting each bomber plane flying over their heads. It was the only way he could think of to convince them that this was not being done by “Jews” or “Israelis”, but rather one individual political/military figure who was responsible. He wanted to teach them to direct their anger at one man and one man only; he refused to allow his daughters to perceive all Israelis as war-mongering and violent.
This message is especially relevant today, on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, preceded yesterday by Yom Hazikaron,
Remembrance Day, commemorating those who fell in the wars fought to create and maintain the state of Israel. How are we guided by our Sages to celebrate military victory and Israel’s Independence? What is the Jewish attitude toward our adversaries in a time of war and loss on both sides?After the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers Moses and the Israelites sang Az Yashir, a song of celebration. According to the Talmud, the angels want to sing as well, but G-d stopped them. “My creatures are drowning and you want to sing.” G-d teaches His children to affirm the humanity and dignity of our adversaries, even in the face of violence and war.
Our foundational Biblical story of being freed from slavery sensitizes us to the humanity, dignity and suffering of all other human beings. In the context of war and grief, our foundational commitment is most tested and stretched. Many of us begin to reduce the world’s complexity to black-and-white terms. But to do so is to forget G-d’s message that all humans are His creatures. Encounter forced me to confront the humanity of those who had been “other”- to internalize their humanity emotionally. This is perhaps one of the greatest expressions of this core message of our Torah.
Click here to see a video of the speech and for the introduction he was given by the head of Encounter, Rabbi Miriam Margles.
Any Thoughts on that last paragraph?
Shalom Rav Blau,
Thank you for all of your great and inspiring work!
How can Orthodoxy increase sensitivity, dignity, and embracing the other today? What are the best strategies to ensure Modern Orthodoxy’s Torah discourse and religious commitments once again become rooted in the ethical?
Kol tuv, Shmuly Yanklowitz
In regards to Rabbi Blau’s words at the end of his talk, I struggle with the Midrash he quoted in relationship to the lesson of Az Yashir itself. While G-d chastises the Angels, we do not hear G-d chastising the Israelites who were singing in praise of G-d bringing down the mighty Egyptians. In my eyes, while it is indeed valuable to see the “other’s” humanity, I am hard-pressed to see the moral lesson being brought forth through this Midrash, which I should add I have used in sermons as well.
The Midrash does indeed give pause to think that we should view all people as G-d’s creations, yet in its relationship to Az Yashir, I find a contradictory lesson, namely that as humans we can praise our survival but as those striving to be in relationship with the Divine, we need to transcend the moment of survival. Nevertheless, from a practical standpoint, I think Az Yashir mainly refers our survival in Parashat Beshalach as Shabbat Shirah, the extensive use of kriat Yam Suf in the liturgy and the commemorating of the miracles at the Yam Suf on the 7th day of Passover, for it was a grand moment which provides us with hope for the future.
Having said all that, I do think the midrash, qua midrash, is in line with teaching us how we need to stretch our boundaries when relating to those elements of humanity we feel animosity towards, and as such I do find R. Blau’s words to be a strong statement in relationship building.
I wonder how Rabbi Blau relates or compares his opinion to the rest of YU, who are way to the right, especialy those Roshei Yeshiva who think we are fighting a messianic war, that all Palestinians are Biblical enemies, and that one can shoot those who think of peace?
Thanks for sharing this. You and your followers may be interested to know that quite a few Modern Orthodox kids who are in Israel for their post HS year go on Encounter trips – encouraging them to go certainly seems like a step in the right direction, to answer Shmuly’s question