We Must Not Willfully Hide from a Truth
The Torah is rich with warnings about how a bystander is not exempt from certain levels of responsibility. If you see a neighbor’s animal that is lost, you must not turn away. If you see a neighbor in distress, you must not turn away. If you witness a crime, you must testify.
And I would add: If you know a truth, you must not conceal it. If you hear a truth or if you see a truth, you must not hide from it.
One cannot build an enduring future based upon willful ignorance. Even if what we hear troubles us or offends us or even angers us. Sometimes a child will babble incoherently to ward off words that they do not want to hear. This is not a very successful path toward conflict resolution, no matter what our age. When we seek to meet an “Other,” we can only honestly meet that Other with a full awareness of what truths that Other holds dear. If we close ourselves off to such truths, even if those truths terrify or anger or confound us, then our meeting can never be successful.
Tzachi Mezuman is an attorney and social scientist living in Jerusalem, and he heads the Center for the Victims of Racism in Israel. The Center is affiliated with the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. Mezuman has dedicated his life to the struggle against racism and hatred in Israeli society. Hadeel Azzam-Jalajel, who co-chairs the center, is a resident of Nazareth and an attorney; she is an activist with Israel’s Arab community, leading the struggle for equality and justice. In a forthcoming book, they co-authored a chapter on “Jewish, Palestinian and Democratic – the path to civil equality in Israel. (From Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish Americans and Israelis Envision the Jewish-Democratic State, coming in 2020 from CCAR Press.)
In July 2018, Israel’s Knesset (parliament) adopted the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Mezuman and Azzam-Jalajel (and many others of us, as well) were deeply troubled by this act of the Knesset. They see this Basic Law as clearly embracing Israel’s identity as a Jewish State, with barely any reference to that 20 percent of Israel’s citizens who are Arab-Palestinians. In addition, the Basic Law also neither notes nor embraces Israel’s democratic traditions or the commitment to full equality for all Israel’s citizens found in M’gillat HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The authors believe that this mindset shares responsibility for a lack of state prosecution and civil litigation against hate crimes directed toward Arabs and Ethiopian Jews, Mizrachi Jews, asylum seekers, and members of the LGBTQ community. The M’gillat HaAtzmaut promises “equality of social and political rights to all its citizens.” Precisely because this clause does not come to life in contemporary Israel, the authors believe that the Declaration of Independence cannot serve in its present form as the foundational document for a democratic country. There needs to be a new section added to the Declaration, a section devoted to a recognition of the key elements of the Palestinian narrative relative to the Land.
The Palestinian narrative asserts that their people have a strong attachment to their homeland, that this people has experienced a terrible trauma during Israel’s War of Independence, and now finds itself scattered, many as refugees living in the countries surrounding Israel. There is now a refugee consciousness that is fundamental to Palestinian self-understanding, and that consciousness is expressed in the word Naqba, Disaster, by which Palestinians refer to Israel’s Independence War.
Mezuman and Azzam-Jalajel assert that there is a valid Palestinian national narrative that Israelis must understand and recognize. Even if a separate Palestinian State comes into existence alongside Israel, the Palestinian residents of Israel must be treated as equal citizens with formal recognition of their own unique attachment to the Land. If Jews have a Right of Return, why shouldn’t we then contemplate a Palestinian Right of Return? Why shouldn’t our shared goal be a Jewish, Palestinian, and democratic State?
In my personal experience, having lived in Israel for 12 years and still proudly maintaining my Israeli and American citizenships, Israelis have a very difficult time in even hearing the word Naqba. Naqba is a painful word, an enraging word, a confounding word. It seems to demand that we consider that the War out of which the Jewish State emerged was not an unmitigated blessing.
Naqba is a truth from which many Israeli Jews and many Americans Jews willfully hide. That truth, a Palestinian truth to be sure, but accepted by some Jewish Zionists as well, doesn’t have to become our truth. But if we ever want to build an infrastructure of peace and understanding, we must recognize the power of that truth within the Palestinian community - and we cannot willfully hide from it.