Not Kansas: Bi-Polar Opposites

The Two Poles

Livnot hike in northern IsraelOn Wednesday, we finished the 3-Day Hike. On Friday, there was a memorial service for soldiers in my unit that fell in the Second War in Lebanon. The two events were not connected at all. In fact, they took place in two different worlds –although they weren’t geographically far from each other. The people at each place spoke a different language; and I don’t mean just Hebrew and English. There are times when I feel somewhat bi-polar living in two such distinct environments. But it is most often fascinating. Israelis have changed over the years. And so have Livnot participants. Issues that interest chevre have changed, length of attention spans has changed, clothes that are worn have changed, music listened to has changed. In general, I can say that chevre have constantly been outstanding; they ask great questions, they search for truth, they care about values, they want *giving*to be a big part of their lives. But there’s one thing that is getting worse. Chevre know less and less about Israel and Judaism.

Quotes I Hear

Here are a few quotes I heard during recent hikes and discussions with chevre: “It’s hard for me to identify with a religion that has at its core the ten commandments, which were given with warnings of punishments and hell to those who won’t observe them.” “Israel was born in sin, came into existence only after the Holocaust and because of it, and promotes ethnic cleansing and apartheid.” “The Israeli army is motivated by hate. There can be no peace with such motivation.” “Judaism is a set of don’ts. I want to live my life by a set of do’s.” “How can a liberal, ethical young American Jew make amends with the right-wing religious fanaticism of the people who have been running Israel for years?” “Judaism is ritual-based; I need something kindness-based.” “I’m ashamed to be identified with a country that displaces and victimizes others, and whose occupation of a foreign country causes refugees.”

There are huge factual cracks in all of the above statements. Whatever happened to the good ol’ “I don’t agree with Israel’s policies” or “I’d like to learn more about why Israel decided to do that” or “I don’t understand Israel”? Where’s the humility?

Now of course, if I grew up without a background in the history, religion and politics of Northern Ireland, and I went to visit Northern Ireland, then I would know virtually nothing about the conflict, and any relevant opinions I had, would have been greatly influenced by news reports, movies, books, my friends’ opinions, cultural expectations, and stereotypes. Sometimes these sources are valid and sometimes they aren’t. So I cannot be upset by chevre having preconceived and sometimes false information about Judaism, Israel, and everything in between. The lack of knowledge is sad, but the statement-like attitude is even worse.

Livnot volunteers at senior homeOver the years, different Jewish prophets and sages have tried to sum up Judaism in a sentence or two. But every prophet and/or sage emphasized different principles. (And this in itself is something we should be very proud of!) Here are some examples:

The prophet Micah said: “It’s been told to you, human, what is good, and what God requires of you: just doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God.” Micah narrows it down to three biggies: justice, mercy, humility.

Rabbi Akiva said: “The verse ‘Love your fellow as yourself’ – this is a great tenant in the Torah.” Here, Rabbi Akiva narrows it down even more: mutual love.

There is an entire tractate in the Talmud that has hundreds of these “one-liners.” Read  Pirkei Avot and you’ll get an idea of the great plethora of Jewish principles/beliefs/directions. This shows a built-in and very ancient kind of pluralism in Judaism. So there can be no such thing as “the ultimate list.” That would be an oxymoron.

After consulting with many, I tried my hand at compiling a fundamental list of basic need-to-knows. (Please keep in mind that these principles have almost nothing to do with modern politics.)

A List: Judaism & Israel

-Judaism is based on a triangular puzzle of interlocking pieces: a people and a book and a land.

-There is no Jew-mometer. There’s no way to be “more Jewish” or “less Jewish” than anybody else.

-Traditionally, a Jew tries to combine “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One” with

“Love your fellow person as yourself.” One of the best ways to do this: in the framework of a community and/or a family.

-You can’t un-Jew yourself. Once you’ve been born or converted, it’s forever. It’s intrinsic.

And nobody can take it away from you.

-A medieval Jewish sage wrote: “Seventy faces to the Torah.” This was echoed centuries earlier in the Talmud: “Just like the hammer can bash the rock into many splinters, so can one Biblical quote have many different tastes.” Diversity of opinion is a Jewish tradition.

1040860_10151999245091729_1298102924_o-We are an ancient indigenous people exiled from our land by force; we kept watch over our literature, language and traditions; for thousands of years we have been in the process of coming back home.

-Some Jews have never left the Land of Israel, ever, even going back thousands of years.

But in general, we’re all refugees. The same is true for many Arab peoples. Life in this land is not a contest, and the right to live in Israel shouldn’t be contingent on how far back you can trace your family (“I was here first.” “No, I was here first!”). We all have a right to live in Israel, and an obligation to share it. But in the State of Israel, if you break the law, and certainly if you commit murder, you lose certain rights. Across the board: Jew, Arab or Martian.

-There was no Israeli national policy in 1948 to commit ethnic cleansing or expel Palestinians. It did happen in some cases that Palestinians were expelled (Read Benny Morris, “1948.” No “side” comes out smelling too nicely…), and we must be sensitive to the fact that most Palestinians feel cheated and robbed no matter how we may interpret it; but it is much more complicated than most people think. For instance, if a village helps an army or terrorists to shoot at civilians, can you attack the village and stop them? And if you attack, and the civilians flee, did you evict them? Depopulate them? Ethnically cleanse them?

These are complicated issues, and there aren’t simple answers. Some classic examples: Tzippori in the Lower Galilee, Biriya in the Upper Galilee, Tantura on the coast. In general, those villages that didn’t attack were on the whole left alone (there are a number of exceptions). These are the Arab villages that dot the State of Israel today.

-The IDF has a very good record of being compassionate, kind, and understanding on one hand, while on the other hand having to separate terrorists from civilian population, at the risk of their lives. There are some exceptions, and there are some racists and haters here and there, but they are rare. Hate is not a motivating factor in the IDF. If this claim sounds ridiculous to you, you need to familiarize yourself better with the IDF, and not base your opinion solely on YouTube videos of a soldier beating a Palestinian.

Danger: Fog

There are lots of smoke-screens and camouflage around Judaism and Israel. Things are often NOT as they seem at first glance (this is true of many things in life). Beware of traps from any side when trying to figure things out. The media can help, but it can also skewer. Just because somebody wrote an article and it got printed or broadcasted, doesn’t mean it’s right (and that’s true about this article, too!). You can’t just read about Judaism, you have to taste it in many forms: liquid, solid, homemade, take-away, restaurants, meat, vegan. You can’t just read about Israel, you have to live it, hike it, farm it, talk to people with diverse and sometimes polar opinions, talk to kids (who rarely get interviewed by journalists), get firsthand information as best as possible. Whatever you do and however hard you try, you’ll never get the whole picture, and what you do get will raise more questions. But such is life. Keep an open mind.


Be pro, not anti. A participant once came up to me on the first day of a program and introduced himself: “Hi! I’m pro-Palestinian.” I said: “Great! So am I. And I’m pro-Israeli. In fact, I’m pro-human!” If we concentrate on the positive, on the pro, we’ll usually be okay. If we’re always negative and anti, it will usually spread the negative energy to all walks of our lives. BE PRO. Do you sympathize with the Palestinian cause? Fine. Can you envision yourself sympathizing with the Israeli cause? Do you sympathize with the Israeli cause? Fine. Can you envision yourself sympathizing with the Palestinian cause? You can choose sides, no problem. But that doesn’t mean you should close your mind. What you don’t like – read more about! The same is true with Judaism. Find the things you like. Go with them. What you don’t like, study!

The Day I Learned to Pray for Compassion

There is a lot of pain and frustration on both “sides” of the religious/secular Jewish conflict, as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict. What can we do to help, even if we’re not part of any official decision-making team? I learned a new answer to this question during a recent stint of IDF reserve duty south of Jerusalem, when we were situated between a Jewish village and a Palestinian refugee camp. We had just come back from a very long day: while trying to keep the roads safe (for anybody traveling on it, regardless of nationality) and not get maimed, we were attacked by rocks, marbles shot from slingshots, homemade guns, glass bottles, paint bottles, and petrol bombs. When we absolutely had to, we shot rubber bullets and tear gas. The people attacking us were boys in their late teens and early twenties, who could have been in school, in after-school activities, playing soccer, learning a trade, farming, helping around the house, doing national service, or praying. It was overwhelmingly sad to see this, especially as a parent to boys of the same age. When they got frustrated and finally went home and left traffic alone, we went home too, to our base. (The formula was very simple and not secret in any way: “Leave traffic alone and you won’t feel our presence; attack traffic and we will stop you.”) We got back to base and had chocolate milk (for some reason there is always a surplus of “shoko” in the IDF), and then someone said that it was time for the evening prayer in the army base synagogue. As I walked in with some other guys, I saw one man – exhausted from the day’s events – go up to the ark and kiss the curtain with his eyes closed. Then he leaned on the ark and said quietly: “God, we need so much compassion.”


I felt like somebody just slapped me out of my tiredness. I, too, was contemplating the day’s events, judging if my actions/our actions were right. But I never thought of this angle. After all, what did he mean? Did he mean: “God, we need to have YOUR compassion”? Or did he mean: “God, WE are the ones who need to be compassionate”? Perhaps he was saying both at once? Tzfat sunsetWhat he said, what he implied, and even HOW he said it, got me very emotional. I thought about all the years that I’ve been going in and out of synagogues, praying, contemplating, celebrating, thanking, requesting, yearning…but never once, not even once, did I ever ask for compassion. I didn’t ask to get compassion and I didn’t ask to give it. In fact, I couldn’t think of the last time I even used the word “compassion” in a sentence.

And the more I thought about it, the more I concluded: This is a very worthy prayer. And yet. This is not “turn the other cheek” compassion. If I see someone trying to unjustly hurt another, I will focus on compassion to the hurtee, and not the hurter. Therefore, a terrorist does not deserve compassion. He or she deserves to be prevented from hurting, stopped and tried in court. During reserve duty, we caught three teenage terrorists on their way to shoot at Israelis. We surprised them at night as they were walking, pounced on them and threw them to the ground, searched them, confiscated their weapons and ammunition, handcuffed them with cable ties, and put them in a vehicle and brought them to a pre-trial jail. This was an ethical act; we showed compassion for the Israelis who would have been shot at, and could have been maimed or killed. But on the way to jail, as they were lying down in the truck blindfolded, I checked their cable-ties to make sure they weren’t digging into their skin. This, too, was compassion.

This Month

As we begin the countdown to the Jewish New Year (based on the traditional date when humans were created, and coming just when the rain season begins in Israel), as we begin the month of Elul which is referred to in Hebrew as “the month of compassion and forgiveness,” this is a great time to start emphasizing compassion. Two sides of a conflict that have compassion will be sides that have hope and understanding. And this is where the basic principles of Judaism and Israel can meet. We can be compassionate Jews and compassionate Israel-supporters. I believe that the State of Israel should exist (that is the most basic non-political understanding of the word “Zionism” – that the State of Israel should exist), and that in it should be Jews who are living, farming, working, helping, building, protecting, and making the country a better place. But I don’t want to be here alone. I want to share. With peoples different than my own. And most of us (hundreds of thousands of us) are getting along quite well (although we all gripe about the government, because that’s a part of democracy and that’s a part of caring). But you will most likely not hear about this “getting along” between different peoples in Israel. The media will not focus on it, there won’t be protests about it, books won’t be written about it, professors in universities will not acknowledge it, countries won’t boycott it, and student bodies won’t divest from it. Yes, it’s frustrating. But we’ll have to deal with it, and try to shine light on the unknown, and open portals in peoples’ minds. One person at a time.

Facts are important. But in the end, it’s not about getting our facts right. It’s about getting our hearts right. The rest will follow.

Chodesh Tov, Michael

Written by 

Originally from Syracuse, NY, Meir received his BA in American History and Political Science from Tulane University and his MS in Resource Management from SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry. He arrived in Israel in 1992, served in the Nahal Infantry Unit before moving to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. On Kibbutz, Meir was Assistant Manager of the... Read More

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