Hope for Independence and Peace for All
It’s Shabbat morning and I am in a van making its way along a dusty, bumpy road. On my right is a young Arab-Israeli doctor in a hijab. In front of her is a middle-aged Jewish Israeli pediatrician. In front of me is an Eritrean nun, and she is sitting next to Professor Raphi Walden, a vascular surgeon on the management team at Sheba Hospital outside Tel Aviv and president of Physicians for Human Rights Israel.
The sights and sounds of last night’s Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Tel Aviv port are still with me – the sun setting over the Mediterranean as hundreds of people in sunglasses and sandals join in song and prayer with the Reform/secular Beit Tefilah Israeli. There were so many moving moments that stay with me – rising to sing Hannah Senesh’s “Eli, Eli” as an introduction to the Amidah (the central part of a Jewish worship service) while looking at the same waves she described, singing a Hebrew translation of a Martin Luther King speech as our closing song.
Our van arrives in Sanoor, a small village near Jenin. Every Shabbat a delegation from Physicians for Human Rights Israel comes to the West Bank to offer a mobile medical clinic. We are greeted in the municipal building by the mayor and other dignitaries. They begin by telling us of their difficulties – their water and electricity are regularly cut off by Israel, they are prevented from building and repairing their homes or cultivating their land, checkpoints make accessing routine medical care a daylong ordeal if the people can afford it at all, the poverty in some places is intense.
We go to the local elementary school, which will be transformed today into a medical center. Each classroom becomes a physician’s office. Patients line up outside to be seen. The doctors tell me that the demand is so severe that each week they are in a different village they are pulled in every direction. Some of the them returned at 3 o’clock in the morning from Gaza, where they performed surgeries while training Gazan doctors.
Physicians for Human Rights is the only Israeli NGO to have permission to enter Gaza, having engendered the trust of both the Israeli health ministry and the Palestinian government. When they are welcomed with great fanfare by the village leadership of Sanoor, Professor Walden tells them that he was stationed here at a paratrooper training base when he was in the army, and what a pleasure it is to be back now not in the army but as a guest. He offers the hope that one day our two people will each live with independence and in peace. The mayor of Sanoor responds, “Inshallah, B’ezrat HaShem.” May it be God’s will (in Arabic and in Hebrew).
Tonight I will be back in Jerusalem, where I’ve been studying with 200 Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis for the last three weeks at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Biblical scholars, Talmudists, and experts in Jewish history, Jewish thought, and Jewish mysticism have been leading us through a deep exploration of the question of nationalism – its roots, its resonances and challenges in our tradition, its expression in Zionism, its moral and spiritual value, its dangers and limitations. Of the many ideas I’ve been grappling with in these weeks, one message has emerged clearer than all others. It is incumbent upon us now, without delay, to construct a very different nationalism for our people. We have within the depths of our tradition all the ethical foundations we need. We have within our people’s writings all the moral imagination we need. We have the power to articulate and live a nationalism that embraces the particular nested within the universal, that commits to loving the Jewish people despite all our differences from one another, and that commits to honoring the life, freedom, and dignity of every human being simply because they are human. Inshallah, B’ezrat HaShem.