My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; may my soul be to all like the dust.
—Paraphrase of Psalm 34:14, included in the daily Amidah prayer
Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are ordinary people.
Anyone who tries to tell you something else—that Israeli Jews are driven by a singular sense of their own supremacy, that Palestinian Arabs value death over life—is trying to sell you something. They are lying, whether they mean to be or not.
That’s also ordinary. Ordinary people lie, on purpose and inadvertently, and ordinary people try to sell things.
Ordinary people tell stories about themselves. “I am a good person” is a pretty common one. “I am just doing my best,” for the more modest. Sometimes these stories are lies. That’s also pretty ordinary.
Another thing ordinary people do is fear for their lives. And the reason this is ordinary is that ordinary people also hurt and kill each other, usually because of a story. Ordinary people try to get the other guy before the other guy gets them. None of that is unusual. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
None of it makes the lies true, the stories real, or the killing just.
That’s why all of this has happened before. That’s why it will happen again.
Rabbi Simon said: When the Blessed Holy One came to create the first man, the ministering angels divided into two camps and two parties. Some said: He should not be created; and some said: He should be created. Thus what is written, “Kindness and truth met, righteousness and peace kissed” (Psalms 85:11). Kindness said: He should be created, for he will do acts of kindness; but Truth said: He should not be created, for he is only lies. Righteousness said: He should be created, for he will do acts of righteousness, but Peace said: He should not be created, for he is only conflict. What did the Holy Blessed One do? Took Truth and flung him to the earth, as is written, “[You] flung truth to the earth” (Daniel 8:12). The ministering angels said before the Holy Blessed One: Master of the worlds, how can You degrade your royal seal? [God answered:] Let Truth rise from the earth, as is written, “Truth shall spring forth from the earth” (Psalms 85:12).
—Bereshit Rabbah 8:5
You know how fights go. Half of it is arguments about the fight. Tit for tat, who started it, and all that. And sometimes the arguments are all about the most recent thing that just happened, and if you try to bring up anything that happened a while ago someone says, “Well, what does that have to with anything?” I’m trying to talk about this thing you just did.And other times the arguments zoom out to the widest possible perspective, or they try to, and they say, “Well, that’s just what you’re like.” There’s no point in my trying to explain the thing you just did or the thing I did that you did that thing in response to.
It is usually a serious mistake to start anywhere other than 1880 or 1908 or 1917 when trying to learn about this conflict. It is not a “religious” conflict and “those people” have not been “fighting over there forever.” Starting from the allegedly unchangeable, impervious deep beliefs that “cause” people to be unable to compromise is just wrong and people should stop doing it. So I have to apologize for what I am about to do, and all I can say is that I plead expertise. What I mean is that I’ve spent a number of years now professionally researching and teaching the history of Zionism, the State of Israel, and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and I feel like I can afford a variation on the theme, because I know how to play the theme.
There is a very old story that you probably know. It’s about a people enslaved in a foreign land. They were exploited and oppressed there for hundreds of years until the source of all power, the origin of all life and truth, lent them the energy they needed to escape. This escape was so sudden, so unexpected, so undreamed-of, that the people could not experience it as ordinary history. The English name for the experience they had is “miracle,” and on the strength of the miraculous the people understood that they were being asked to ally themselves forever with this power, the source of the miracle. And they said Yes, yes: we will. We will do and we will hear, all in accordance with the flow of this power.
But they were ordinary people, and ordinary people forget. Ordinary people don’t live inside the flow of power that emanates from the source and origin of all life and truth. Or maybe they can, and do, but they don’t notice it. It amounts to the same thing: wandering in the wilderness, a whole generation growing old and dying before they can come to their Promised Land. Some have said that this forgetting, and the wandering it caused, was due to their having been slaves, but I say that it was due to their having been ordinary people, who had also been slaves.
Many people over the years have questioned whether this story is true. It can’t have happened that way, they say. And these questions have in turn provoked responses, an endless back-and-forth about proof of this and that. I think this type of thing is fruitless. Nothing in the past can prove the truth of the story, and nothing in the present can disprove it. Only the future can prove whether it’s true, and that’s why the story isn’t over yet.
Many others have believed fervently that the story is true. You could call them fans of the story. Some of them are real nerds about it and write fan fiction. Some of the fan fiction is so widely accepted that it becomes a part of the canon. They call the whole thing “The Teaching,” because it’s not just a story, it’s about everything, and everything is in it. And there are sequels, too, but I’m going to jettison this flippant metaphor now because some wag will come along and say, “sequels are always worse than the original,” and probably start a war.
Many millions of people have lived and died inside of this story in one way or another. And all of this despite the fact that no one seems to be able to agree on what it is actually about.
For my purposes, right now, it is about ordinariness. It’s about the struggles of ordinary people to be free, and then, when they’re free, not to force someone else into a struggle to be free.
That part of the story doesn’t go so well.
In what is probably the earliest sequel to the original story, the people show up at the Promised Land and freak out. Some of them decide to run away. Some of them decide to kill everybody who already lives there. Some of them decide they want to let the people who already live there live, and then they get killed by their own countrymen and called traitors and idolators. After losing a bunch of fights for a while, many of them get together and decide that the origin and source of all energy, power, light, and truth isn’t a good enough ally or patron (they used the word “king” back then), because to be honest they haven’t really “felt it” for some time now, and let’s face it what has it done for them lately?
So they figure it’s time to set up a regular country like the other ones around them (which, may I remind you, includes the one they were oppressed in for hundreds of years—sure, it was their enemy, but you couldn’t deny it was powerful), and they make a human king and he wins some battles and things seem to go great for about one generation until factional strife tears them apart and then it’s two countries, neither of which is really all that good at being a country, certainly not as good as their neighbors who have been doing it a lot longer, and then one after the other these countries get knocked out and taken over and well, that’s it.
But then the people get handed another try! That one goes even less well because they don’t even really have full sovereignty, and the priests get too big for their britches and start forcibly converting people, and because the big new regional player, the Roman Empire, is just a bitch to deal with. And then they revolt just one too many times and then that’s really it.
Frankly, this story is so not pretty that it’s a little bit amazing that it ever got told at all, especially by the people it is about. It doesn’t really fit the usual “I am a good person” mold of self-narrative. But sometimes ordinary people know when they’ve screwed up, and sometimes they tell the stories of their screwing up as a way to try to keep from making the same mistakes again.
And He said: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” —Genesis 4:10
I beg your indulgence. I didn’t come here to tell you stories you already know. And I don’t want to pretend, as I said, that the current bloodshed is about this story, let alone caused by it. I only mean to give you a little bit of a sense of where I’m coming from, since I too am a member of one of those fandoms mentioned above—the one called “the Jewish people.” I too, therefore, live inside this story to a certain extent. I usually hear and tell it using my own people’s vocabulary: “Yisrael,” “YHVH,” “Sinai,” and “Zion.”
When I see and hear these words invoked in the contexts of cable news, of casual conversation on what is commonly regarded as “that endless conflict,” and in the warlike rulings of settler rabbis, my heart cries out, not just for the dead and the dying, but for the honor of the Teaching. I feel that I am witnessing a large-scale desecration of the Name—the kind of thing for which “the land will vomit you out” (Lev.18:28).
All the “advocacy” that people on “my side” are doing only contributes to my sense of this desecration. All the “Standing with Israel”—this epidemic of moral self-satisfaction, of moral comparison. Look at the “unimaginable restraint,” people say. The efforts of the “most moral army in the world”—I am not sure whether they really want the cookie here, or only say this to prove that no one will ever give them the cookie no matter what. But either way, as the prophet Amos reprimanded his people in his time: “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live, and so that YHVH, God of Hosts, will ‘be with you,’ as you are accustomed to saying” (Amos 5:14). As you are accustomed to saying!
I would like for us to all stop saying what we are accustomed to saying. And to stop seeking evil—“necessary” or no.
Truth and the voice of your brother’s blood. Both come up out of the ground.
Truth does spring forth from the earth, from practices and not from theories, but sometimes people’s stories are all tied up in their practices, and maybe it’s true that the stories would change if the practices changed first, but you have to have a reason to change your practices. And it seems like suffering and dying never really do the trick. Or never soon enough.
I realize that this little text will be unsatisfying to many. It doesn’t deal with the details. It doesn’t deal with the “warning knock” or the attack on the boys on the beach, or the fact that there is nowhere to escape to, or the way that Hamas uses this situation to its own advantage, or the rocket sirens from Sderot to Tel Aviv, or the burning of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, or the kidnapping and murder of Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah that happened before that, or the IDF sweeps and large-scale arrests and shooting of an unarmed teenager that happened before that, or the formation of the unity government that happened before that, or the failure of Kerry’s “peace process” that happened before that, or 2006, or 2001, or 1995, or 1987, or 1982, or 1973, or 1967, or 1956, or 1948…
I don’t know the best way to get people to stop believing that large-scale violence is “sadly necessary sometimes,” or that it’s a good idea to found states whose policies are based in counting ethnic majorities and parceling out social and economic goods to the preferred group (or that it’s a good idea to found states at all, but that’s another long story and one with way fewer people on my team), or that the best way to read their holy books is so that they can legitimize all the things they already wanted to do to their enemies. These things are all ordinary.
I don’t know how to get ordinary Europeans to stop thinking that the State of Israel’s violence against Palestinians means that now they have free rein to unleash their barely suppressed antisemitism. That seems ordinary too.
I don’t know how to get people to share my sense that this is not a “conflict” with “two sides” but rather a century-long process in which one “side” has steadily accrued land and power at the expense of the other, and that the insistent and constant demands for “balance” in our assessments of the larger issues at play are essentially distorted.
And I don’t know how to get ordinary people—people I love and trust—to see that the idea of a military solution doesn’t just violate the experience of the recent past, but that of the distant past as well.
All I know is that it seems to me—and I am nothing if not an ordinary person—that all of this has happened before. And it’s important—maybe the most important thing in the world—to get it right this time. And that means we can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing, because everything we’ve been doing up until now has been a massive, world-historical failure.
This article is adapted from a blog post that originally appeared on the author’s personal website.