Torah tag: Studying Torah with 'price tag' victims
Every time Jews commit acts of terror in the name of religion, I try to respond by studying Torah, an act based on love for all people created in God's image. This time I turned Knesset Member Dr. Ahmad Tibi, the public representative of Israel's Arabs.
When a Muslim or a Christian are attacked in the name of Torah, I choose to study Torah with the victims of the attack and their family members.
In recent days, however, these "price tag" acts have been intensifying with one criminal act following after on the heels of another. As no one is speaking out and working to eradicate this terrorism, it falls on me as well to join one reprehensible act to another and address them collectively in only one Torah portion.
Therefore, I turned this time to the public representative of Israel's Arabs, Knesset Member Dr. Ahmad Tibi, and asked him to be my "chevruta" (companionship) in studying this week's Torah portion, "Behar."
My request was accepted and I am happy to include you, the reader, as an additional partner in our shared Torah study.
Our 'chevruta' takes place around Independence Day
My heart is a whirlwind of deep shame and pain no less deep. How can it be that the Jewish people have so deteriorated? This is my nation and it is hard for me to find the words that can sufficiently describe the pain and the shame I feel.
I ask myself to what evil and dangerous depths will the hate yet descend, and if we will succeed at living productive, peace-filled lives without hatred for the stranger.
Holding on to these complicated emotions, I begin the "chevruta" with Dr. Tibi.
I read in the weekly Torah Portion (Leviticus 25:35): "And if you brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with you; then you will uphold him: as a stranger and as an inhabitant shall he live with you."
Again and again I encounter in the Torah the requirement to care for the "ger" or 'stranger' (non-Jewish inhabitants of the Land), exactly as we are to care for our Jewish brothers. I know there are also statements in the Torah that say the opposite, but there are also a significant number of laws demanding concern for the stranger and for the weak. Am I being too naive when I hope that clergy will utilize the foundational underpinnings of religious textual sources in order to establish peace?
Dr. Tibi suspects that I really am overly naive: "The thought of establishing peace through religious textual sources and customs is utopian, and I am not sure that it will really contribute to reducing the tension. Every religious person has their own God and feels that for His sake he will fight and therefore there is a suspicion that the religious element will intensify the tension.
"Nonetheless, I believe that there is a need for the religious dialogue. There are many who make religion into 'a spade with which to dig' (Pirkei Avot 4:5), promoting extreme political positions. Therefore, it is important that clergy offer the opposite as well - religious tolerance and love of humanity."
Religious war much more dangerousThe latest "price tag" incidents occurred within the Green Line and were directed at mosques and not (just) at civilian targets. I ask MK Tibi to explain how he understands the "price tag" choice to move from a territorial war to a religious war:
MK Tibi: "Last Saturday, former Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon addressed the state's handling of 'price tag' activities. He said, 'There are no results on the ground because there is no intention to achieve results. There is no scenario that the Shin Bet is 'unable' to solve. There are, however, scenarios that they 'don't want' to solve.
"The justice minister and internal security minister called on the prime minister to define 'price tag' actions as terrorism, but he isn't doing it. The silence of the sovereign against the harm done to a minority is difficult in itself, but when the war turns into a religious war, things are likely to become dangerous many times over.
"There are people who are interested in turning the conflict into a religious conflict and not a territorial one, and this is dangerous because one does not compromise on religious faith. On land it may still be possible to compromise, but if the struggle turns religious, it will be impossible to get out of. Every person perceives their faith as the correct faith.
"I respect the faith of others, and I expect that the faiths and the life of the Arab minority in Israel will be respected. The fact is that no one is getting their hands on the 'price tag' strengthens the religious aspect of the confrontation. When a mosque is set ablaze in an arson attack, it increases the numbers of attendees. Look at what happened in Fureidis. The Friday after the arson at the mosque, thousands came to participate in the prayer. Damage done to religious sites makes people identify with religious values."
Releasing land, abandoning prejudice
The state is not combating the "price tag" people with the appropriate seriousness, and the terrorist activities are deepening their control within the Green Line and are focusing on mosques. Could it be that state's leadership also wants a religious war? Do you think that the prime minister doesn't understand the danger hidden in a religious war - or that he actually does understand?"
MK Tibi: "Imagine what would happen if during a 'price tag' attack on a mosque an Arab would act on the 'Dromi Law' (which I opposed). From a legal perspective, he would be acting in a lawful fashion (to use lethal force to defend his property), but the country would be in an uproar and go wild. The story that would be told would not be about a Jewish intruder who was shot, but rather about an Arab that shot a Jew.
"The storm of the religious war may be very close, and there is someone capable of stopping it – but he doesn't really want to do so. I, as a representative of the minority, as a leader of the minority, am trying to build bridges. My interest is to fight for the rights of the minority and express their opinions, but the struggle will only have the potential for success when the state's Jewish majority will support it."
We see eye to eye on the dangers concealed in fanning the religious flames in the political struggle, but I do not want to give up on the hope that religion, which in the past bound Jews and Muslims together in bonds of shared values and love, will continue to maximally fulfill its role. I am taking our "chevruta" back to the weekly Torah portion that has at its center the laws of the "shmita" and jubilee years.
At the heart of the portion, the Torah notes the religious purpose of these commandments (Leviticus 25:23): "And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and settlers with Me."
Letting the land lay fallow teaches us that no person really has ownership over the Land of Israel and that it ultimately belongs only to God. I ask MK Tibi If it would be possible to adopt this religious idea, according to which this land belongs to God and not to people, as a tool to solve the dispute.
MK Tibi: "Attributing ownership of the land to God could also intensify the conflict. To whose God will the land's ownership be given? And won't this idea lead to an intensifying of the war for the land?"
Our "chevruta" is about to end. My Independence Day is sad and, as usual, I search for comfort and strength in the traditional Jewish textual sources. I return to the weekly Torah portion and to the idea, which may be naïve, of the shmita year.
Next year is a shmita year and I wonder if we will be able to utilize, and not in a symbolic fashion, the shmita year in order to reach reconciliation. I ask Dr. Tibi if he believes there is something each side is holding on to, that if each side releases its claim to it, the dialogue will be more peaceful.
MK Tibi: "Yes, and this doesn't have to be symbolic. The State of Israel could, for example, engage in a land release and return lands to their owners."
And what does the Arab public need to release, in your opinion?
MK Tibi: "Both publics, the Jewish and the Arab, need to abandon prejudice and get to know one another better."
Is that why you delivered the Holocaust speech at the Knesset and opposed Holocaust denial?
MK Tibi: "Holocaust denial and the denial of the suffering of its victims, including the Jews, is an opinion that needs to be abandoned. I reiterate that the Holocaust is the most despicable crime in modern history. I have a lot of empathy for Holocaust survivors and mainly for those I live with in the same country.
"This is not a contest as to who has suffered the most, and everyone must know that acknowledging the suffering of the other does not cancel one's own suffering or diminish one's rights, and the victim of that history must remember and acknowledge the suffering of the victim today."
And in the beit midrash of talkbacks
Yes, I already know that in every "chevruta" of "Torah tag" some of the members of the "beit midrash of talkbacks" regularly remind me that "there are also Jews who have been hurt by terrorism" and ask why don't I go and study Torah with them.
It is easy and saddening to answer this question today, around Israel's Independence Day. I am a Jew and I belong to the majority population in the State of Israel. The national anthem speaks to me. The Israeli flag was designed by addressing my religious culture. My family members are able to come to Israel by virtue of the Right of Return. My family members pass through airport security without blinking, and there are many more such examples.
We have succeeded and we are no longer a persecuted minority, but this success is bound up with obligations and daily ethical challenges. We have chosen to be masters of our own fate and we must therefore forego our "victim certificate" and the rights that this status confers.
The commandment "And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shall you oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20) is repeated in the Torah many times and in different ways, and we are failing our mission.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew