When It Comes to the Middle East, It Can’t Be All Black and White

by Kendra Gerstein

As a community, we feel deeply the recent acts of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is painful to see these senseless attacks being repeated day after day. Many of us feel both angry and sad as these events continue to unfold. As fears and tensions rise, the outcry is getting louder and the filters that keep discourse civil are being peeled away.

This week, I am in Israel attending the World Zionist Congress, where I am proud to be an ARZA delegate representing the Reform Movement. The World Zionist Organization is the umbrella group for Zionist organizations of a wide range of political leanings and affiliations.

It is easy to think of your own thoughts and views as center. That is until you meet the people who are either to the right or left of you and you realize how far away you might be from them. When I attended the pre-congress meeting in New York a few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet many of the delegates from other parties. I was surprised to learn that the conservative movement’s party is called “Mercaz” or “center.” How can this be? I thought. The very name of the movement suggests that they must be much further to the right that I am… right? Using my own social media feed as a litmus test, I find myself positioned safely in the middle.

I’m not completely naive. I know that I hold certain views that automatically place me on the left end of the spectrum. For example: I am deeply upset by the policies in Israel that say that Reform rabbis cannot legally perform marriage ceremonies in Israel. I think building Jewish settlements in the West Bank is wrong, and I can’t believe that anyone who is interested in lasting peace thinks that this tactic is in any way a step toward that.

But upon meeting delegates from the other parties. I realized that my perception of the entire spectrum was off. I hadn’t quite realized until that moment how far left I was on the political spectrum.

As a delegate to the congress and de facto member of the World Zionist Organization, I included the WZO in my feed. I found images, posted by the organization (its not followers) with the following messages:

First, a quote attributed to Ben-Dror Yemini, Israeli Journalist:

“There is a delusional school of thought which claims that if we would only grant the Palestinians a political horizon and some hope, we wouldn’t have this violence…The most painful wave of terror occurred during the 1990s. Those were the years of Oslo. Years of hope. There was a political horizon, there was a government striving for peace. It seemed that a solution was at hand. Did this bring quiet? As if. We got non-stop terror. And it’s still going on. An even bigger wave of terror began with the Second Intifada. It happened precisely when Israel agreed for the first time not only to a Palestinian state but also to the division of Jerusalem. But instead of peace we got a festival of blood…”

Understandably, there is a deep and growing frustration surrounding the political situation in Israel and the fate of the Palestinian state. But this feels profoundly pessimistic – not the sort of thing I would expect from the WZO. What’s worse, of course, are the comments that follow:

“Bibi, enough is a enough. Israelis are being terrorized and murdered in the streets. Time to stamp it out – do whatever it takes.”

“They’ll never be satisfied until Israel is no more. It’s a great pity Israel can’t get rid of the lot of them.”

“The only things the Arabs understand is death, and Israel should oblige them.”

You can tell me that social media lends itself to extremists, but there are hundreds of comments of this nature, many with the faint echoes of a call for genocide. That might sound extreme – because it is.

Another post depicts an a man standing at a microphone holding a knife with the caption, “A Palestinian imam encourages worshipers to knife Jews.” It is juxtaposed with a young boy holding a knife with the caption, “A Palestinian teen carries out the sermon.” The headline reads, “Teaching Terror. Why is the world silent?”

Again, the comments are frightening:

“Take ’em out! That’s all you can do.”

 “What they need to do in Israel is shoot to kill all these ‘teenage terrorists.’ They are old enough to hold a knife and hurt people, they are old enough to face the consequences of their hate and stupidity.”

 “The world is upside down. Just send them a friendly nuke. That will get those haters away from Israel. God Bless Israel!!!!”

It’s difficult for me to accept that this just a fringe minority feels this way, in part because this image was shared 1,650 times. How can the prevailing wisdom be that the solution is to simply eliminate the entire population of Palestinian?

Where are my contemporaries in this conversation? Where is the moderate progressive voice in all of this? We often hear about how young Jews feel disconnected to Israel. Is it because they think loving Israel means they have to support this hateful rhetoric? I understand that sometimes it’s hard to know what to say. The issues are complex. It’s easy to condemn violence, harder to offer a solution.

When I told my friend the other day that I was thinking about writing a D’var Torah whose main message was that genocide is wrong, she asked, “Well, isn’t that obvious? Are you really saying enough?” In light of some of these comments, though, it appears that it might not be obvious. It is certainly not enough to stop there, but it feels like a place to start.

This is the time of year where we read stories about how God created something, didn’t like it, destroyed it, and tried again. God flooded the earth and got rid of all the wicked people, set Sodom and Gomorrah ablaze because there was nothing worth saving there. But I thought the deal or brit was that God (or insert whatever word or phrase makes you comfortable — the universe, humanity) would not destroy the world ever again (a.k.a. wiping people out because you don’t like them is no longer an option).

The idea of wiping out our enemies seems to me to be a childish notion and paints the world in black and white, good guys and bad guys. Hopefully, we as adults know that the world is more complicated than that.

For many years, I taught 7th graders. We would always begin the year with a conversation about Israel, and inevitably, a student would respond with something like, “Palestinians are terrorists. We should really just get rid of all of them.” The implication here was that Jews/Israelis are the good guys.

Seventh grade also happens to be the year that our students study the Holocaust in greater depth, which, as it should, makes them think twice about calling for genocide. It is my hope that, by the end of the year, they see people as being more complex than this. We read stories from multiple perspectives. We talk about some of the uncomfortable things Israel has done. Hopefully, we see ourselves as part of this story, with the ability to shape the future for the better.

It certainly gives me pause to be part of an organization (WZO) that seems to further promote the idea that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys, full stop. But here is where I need to remind myself that people and organizations are more complex than this.

WZO is a pluralistic organization, and I am a part of it. I also get to have a voice and speak up for what I think is right. This is why I am a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. This is why I am excited to be a part of this historic congress. A progressive voice is desperately needed, and I only hope that I can live up to this awesome responsibility

As a Reform Jew, a lover of Israel, a member of ARZA, and a human being, this is what I think: We need to find a way to be part of the same world. Inciting hatred and fear is not productive or helpful. We need to try to treat each other with compassion and understanding. Because, this is the world we have, we have to find a way to live in it. We aren’t going to get another one

For all my liberal and moderate friends, consider this your call to action. Add your voice to the conversation. Join the WZO and speak out against hateful rhetoric, which only further divides us. Join ARZA for the love of God/Israel/all that is holy! If you have progressive values and care about Israel, this organization exists to represent you. Don’t let the extremists’ voices be the only ones that are heard.

Maybe together, we can shift the conversation in a more positive, productive, and peaceful direction.

Kendra Gerstein grew up in Champaign, IL, and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a BFA, a major in Visual Communications, and a minor in Business; she also received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies at Spertus College. Kendra has a deep passion for Jewish education sparked by her many years as both a camper and counselor at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI).

Read additional blog posts about this year’s World Zionist Congress on the ARZA Blog, the ReformJudaism.org Blog, and the NFTY Blog.

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