I recently traveled to Israel and the West Bank with a group of Jews and Presbyterians. Although I had already written roughly 1500 words about our  trip, I decided to stop with my description of our first day. (I gave up with probably another five or six thousand words to go. Brevity and I have a kind of Walt and Jesse meth-making relationship. Some days we see the reasons we need each other. On other days, we’re ready to shoot to kill.)

Why surrender?

Read Rabbi Steven Morgen’s speech (see below) and you’ll know why. (And it’s not because he beat me on the word count, although I will admit I was seriously intimidated by his religious attention — figuratively speaking — to footnoting so many of his points. I never liked having to footnote in high school or college, and if I had to use footnotes in my blog, the odds of me ever writing anything again would be roughly the same as the Texans beating Baltimore with a fourth string quarterback.)  The good rabbi nailed it. His personal insights might not always mirror mine, but he wins on footnotes.

And he also wins on  analogizing  our Middle East protagonists’ views. Now blend the footnotes and analogies together and what else is there I can say…other than a blend used often enough would probably result in a neologist proclaiming “footalogy” as his latest dictionary entry. But I digress.

Rabbi Morgen, the floor is yours:



My trip to Israel with Presbyterians and Jews from Houston

Rabbi Steven Morgen, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, November 28, 2014


In religion, as in politics, we often tend to focus on what divides us instead of on what unites us. We have different sacred scriptures, different images or ideas about God, different beliefs about what our relationship with God should be like, whether God rewards good people and punishes bad people (and if so how), and many other questions.

As you know, I participate in a variety of interfaith activities in Houston. I believe it is important to explain Judaism and the Jewish people to our neighbors who are not Jewish. A lot of hatred and prejudice is based on ignorance. It is easy to be afraid of something you know very little about, or to believe bad things about people you don’t really know. When I participate in these programs I often describe two models – two metaphors – for thinking about how religions that are very different from each other can still be engaged in the same endeavor: trying to understand God and what God wants from us.

The first one is a story that is actually from India and originated either in the Jain, the Buddhist or the Hindu tradition.[1] It is about several blind men who encounter an elephant. It seems that these blind men each came in contact with a different part of the elephant. One grasped the tusk, one touched the trunk, another found an ear, yet another the tail, and so on. Each of the blind men believed that what he had encountered was the elephant and each described the elephant according to the part he had contacted. They proceeded to argue about the nature of the elephant, each one insisting his perspective was the correct one. They decided to ask a wise man which one of them was correct. The wise man responded that each one of them was right, but that each one of them was also wrong. They were correct in describing the part of the elephant they had contacted, but they were wrong in thinking that what they encountered was the entire elephant.

The moral of the story is that when we are talking about God, we are all like the blind men, groping in the dark. We occasionally feel we have encountered God in our lives in some way, and then we try to describe that encounter. But the experience is different for different people, and even for the same person at different times.

The second metaphor is one I think I invented myself. (It’s not always easy to remember if you came up with an idea or if you heard about it first from somewhere else …) The idea is that religions are like telescopes: they are designed to help you see God more clearly than you could on your own. But just like when you go to the optometrist and he or she asks you “better, or worse” as you look through different lenses, so too it seems, different religions help different people to see God better. Although we use different telescopes, I believe our telescopes are all pointed in the same direction. We are all looking through our different faith traditions to try and see (or understand) God.

But these two allegories (about the elephant and the telescope) can also be used to try and explain the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And just a couple of weeks ago, I went on a trip to Israel with a small group of 10 Presbyterians and 6 Jews. In addition to seeing a variety of Jewish and Christian historical sites, we also visited and spoke with a wide range of Jews, Christian Arabs, and Muslim Arabs about the situation now in Israel, the West Bank and the countries surrounding Israel. And on this trip I was constantly thinking about these two metaphors – the elephant and the telescope – to try and put some coherence on the often conflicting narratives each spokesperson presented.

Let me give you a few examples. We had the extraordinary privilege to visit the Mukataa[2] (the Presidential Compound) of Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. We did not meet with Abbas himself. But Abbas, we were told, has a very close personal advisor on religious affairs named Mahmoud Al-Habbash. He is so close to Habbash, we were told, that even though no one can hold meetings in the Mukataa without the President himself being there, he allowed Habbash to hold our meeting with him in a conference room.

We were told that Habbash wants peace. He believes that religion can be part of the solution to the conflict, rather than part of the problem. He gives the official sermons from the national mosque of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and (we were told) he conveys this message in his sermons.

Habbash told us that the entire cause of the conflict is “The Occupation.” In order for a doctor to cure a patient, Habbash insisted, he needs to know first what the disease is. The disease, Habbash told us, is the occupation. So to cure the patient, we must end the occupation.

I asked him about the peace offers made by Ehud Barak and later by Ehud Olmert. His reply was “they were not serious offers,” and that “no specific borders” were plainly drawn on a map. But unfortunately I was not able to ask a follow up question: so if you didn’t think this was a serious offer, why didn’t Abbas make a serious offer himself? In the Middle East, negotiations are much like the haggling in the shuk – the marketplace. One way to get the price you want is not to make a counter-offer at all and let your opponent keep bargaining against himself.

In his defense, I agree that what he calls “the occupation” is devastating for the Palestinians. But I would disagree that it is the disease. It is, in my opinion, only a symptom. Poll after poll indicates that Israelis would love to “end the occupation”. But they would not be willing to sacrifice security, nor would they be willing to sacrifice the Jewish majority of their country, nor would they be willing to sacrifice the Jewish holy places in Jerusalem. The “disease”, if it can be called that, is incompatible expectations, distrust and even hatred. As one example, Habbash has stated many times that the Palestinians will not concede one inch of Jerusalem.[3] Even if he meant only the Old City, and not the modern, western part built by Jews over the last century, it is a complete non-starter for Israel to concede control over the Old City, particularly given the history of Arab control over Jewish sites.

In fact, only a couple of days after we met with Habbash, he specifically said the Western Wall (which he called the “Al-Buraq Wall) was Waqf.[4] In other words, it is holy Muslim territory that no Muslim has the right to sell or transfer to non-Muslims. In many instances he essentially denies that there was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem at all.[5] Jerusalem, it would seem, is a Christian and Muslim city, but never was a Jewish city. Of course, Jerusalem is important to Christians only because Jesus – who was Jewish – lived (for a time) and died there. And it is holy to Muslims only because Mohammed is believed to have traveled to the site of the (Jewish) Temple on a flying horse-like creature named Buraq. I guess it would not pay to point these details out to Mr. Habbash.

There are many examples from his speeches where he clearly states it is a Muslim duty to liberate “the entire land of Palestinian” which is considered “Waqf.”[6] In these speeches he does not specify if “the entire land of Palestine” includes all of Israel, but the mere fact that he does not specify could easily be interpreted by his listeners – his Palestinian audience – that he does in fact mean all of Israel. This is particularly so since every single map of “Palestine” used by the Palestinian Authority shows all of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Habbash has also made references to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah when speaking about the “Peace Process” with Israel. The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah was a treaty that the Mohammed entered into with the citizens of Mecca because he could not conquer the city. Two years later, after building up his army, Mohammed attacked the city and conquered it.[7] Habbash specifically saw this peace treaty with Mecca as a model for what the Palestinian Authority is doing now in negotiating peace with Israel. Arafat said the same thing when he was negotiating with Israel.[8]

It is statements like these that cause Israeli leaders to believe that the Palestinian leaders are not serious about making peace with a Jewish State. These statements are reasonable grounds to believe that Israel must – at a minimum – protect its security interests in any peace treaty so that it can defense itself if and when the Palestinians decide it is time to abandon the treaty. It is statements like these that call into question whether the Palestinians have really given up the so-called “right of return” of the grandchildren of the refugees from the 1948 war – a “right” which, if exercised, would dilute the Jewish population in Israel to a minority status, thus destroying the Jewish State from within.

In other words, although Habbash says on occasion that the conflict is not religious, he very often bases the Palestinian narrative precisely on religious foundations. Although he says the “Occupation” is the problem, his statements in other contexts reflect that the conflict is more about the existence of a Jewish State at all. It is more about, as I said earlier, incompatible expectations deeply enmeshed in religious beliefs and rhetoric.

Habbash also tried to argue that no other people has ever been displaced as refugees for so long, and that no other people has ever had their country occupied for so long as Israel has oppressed the Palestinians. So I asked him about Tibet.[9] I think the question took him by surprise, because he didn’t seem to have a good answer. (As far as refugees are concerned, I could also have asked him about the 100,000’s Greek refugees from Turkey after World War I[10], or the millions of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims who were displaced by the partition of India and Pakistan around the same time that Israel was created[11], or the 100,000’s of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries after Israel was established.[12])

It seems important to Habbash (and I imagine for many Palestinians) to believe that their plight is the worst ever in world history, and that they are totally innocent victims of Israeli malevolence. That is why so many of them deny the Holocaust, while at the same time they blame the historic plight of the Jews only on Christian/European anti-Semitism, and not on similar oppression and discrimination in Arab and Muslim countries.[13] That is why Abbas makes the absurd (and outrageous) claim that the Israelis perpetrated a “genocide” in Gaza last summer.[14] Genocide? As Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Gaza military operation was surely destructive. Over 1,000 Palestinians were killed. But half of them were combatants. And what did Abbas really expect Israel to do when Hamas launched 1000’s of rockets at Israeli cities? In any case, to call it a “genocide” is to wrench the term out of any recognizable meaning. I am not trying to deny their suffering, which is real. And I do not want to minimize how they perceive it. But, in my opinion, they are – to say the least – only grasping a small part of the elephant (and willfully ignoring the rest of the “elephant in the room”).

Habbash also spoke about the Israeli assault on the Al Aqsa Mosque. In doing so, he repeated a charge made often by Arab leaders ever since the 1929 Arab riots which were largely inspired by a similar claim that the Jews intended to destroy Al Aqsa.[15] It is not that surprising, then, that the current Palestinian Authority seems to be agitating on this subject which is at least part of the reason that the violence in the past few weeks has escalated.

The current claim of an assault on Al Aqsa is based on some prominent Jewish Knesset members and other Jewish leaders urging a right for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. I believe we should have a right to pray up there. After all, that is where the Jewish Temple stood for 1000’s of years (regardless of whatever Habbash says or believes on the subject). But, do I think this is a battle worth escalating right now? No. Do I agree with the political grandstanding of these politicians? No. On the other hand, no one – other than some extremists who have no power to actually do anything – is suggesting the destruction of Al Aqsa.

So it all depends on which part of the elephant you have seized. It depends on how well your telescope helps you to see the entire picture. It’s complicated.

We visited a Christian Palestinian leader in Bethlehem (Isaac Munther) who believes that Christians should support movements to boycott and divest from Israel.[16] But we also met with another Christian leader in Ramla (Rev. Samuel Fanous) who strongly disagrees. Rev. Fanous does a lot of interfaith work with Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, and tries to promote peaceful coexistence. Fanous is very happy to be an Israeli citizen and has argued against some of the more extreme positions of his co-religionists. Ramla, by the way, has a very mixed population of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Its mayor is from the “right wing” Likud party, but he is working hard to promote interfaith relations. It’s complicated.

I could go on about all of the other people we met and the various perspectives they offered. On several days we met so many people, we would go home with our heads swimming in contentious dialog among the various points of view. David Horovitz, the editor of the online news journal, Times of Israel, told us if you think you really understand what is going on, you undoubtedly have missed something.

Which is why, in my opinion, the Presbyterian Church USA’s national office, which has forced through its agenda to divest from a handful of companies that do business in Israel, is so terribly misguided. The assumption of such a position is that Israel and Israel alone holds the keys to the solution. And if only Israelis would just see the truth, they would do the right thing and “end the occupation”. But those darned Israelis are just too stubborn or blind or both, and so for their own good we need to put pressure on them to go ahead and do what “everybody knows” should be done. As if the Palestinians themselves had no part to play at all in the stalemate. As I said, the disease is not the occupation. It is incompatible expectations of what the solution looks like, coupled with distrust, and all too frequently, hatred.

Which leads to the other major reason we went on this mission.

Our local Presbytery, the Presbytery of New Covenant, under the amazing leadership of a wonderful, thoughtful and compassionate person, Mike Cole, has been active in trying to stop the BDS movement at the national level. He was a principal writer of a full page ad that ran recently in the New York Times that was signed by dozens of Presbyterian leaders criticizing the approach of the national office.[17] Instead of divesting from companies doing business in Israel, Mike Cole and our local Presbytery have promoted the idea of investing in organizations in Israel that encourage peaceful coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis.

Specifically, the local Presbytery has made a contribution to one organization in particular, jointly with members of the Houston Jewish community. That organization is called Yad b’Yad – or Hand in Hand.[18] Yad b’Yad is a school that brings together Arab and Jewish Israeli kids to learn in the same school from pre-school through High School.

In Israel, there are separate public schools for Arabs and for Jews. (They are not segregated by law, but rather by choice of the Arab and Jewish families and their respective communities.) The Arab schools teach in Arabic, and the materials are geared toward the Arabic culture and history. The Jewish schools are taught in Hebrew and are obviously geared toward Jewish culture and history. The Jewish schools, by the way, are also segregated (again by choice, not by law) into dati or “religious” schools for Orthodox Jews, and hiloni, or “secular” schools for the rest of the Israeli Jews. On the one hand, it is understandable that parents would want their kids to learn about their own culture and history and to learn in their own language. But at the same time, what this does is it separates Arabs and Jews in Israeli society so that ignorance, suspicion, and eventually hatred, can easily flourish.

And that is why Yad b’Yad was founded: so that Jews and Arabs would learn together about each other’s culture and history, in both Arabic and in Hebrew, and therefore the stereotypes, ignorance and bigotry can be substantially lessened. Yad b’Yad now has a few schools in different parts of the country including Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem. In addition to making a financial contribution to Yad b’Yad, the Presbytery of New Covenant collected money to fund a volunteer position at the Jerusalem school. This Presbyterian volunteer, Kathi Neubert, writes a blog on a regular basis which is read by Presbyterians across the U.S.[19] She is able to give a different perspective about Israel than the information the national church is disseminating.

Naturally, on our mission, we visited the Jerusalem school (and Kathi herself) and we spoke with two middle school girls who are learning there, one Arab and one a Jew. During this past summer when the rockets were falling on Israel and the army was bombing and destroying the terror tunnels in Gaza, there was a lot of tension and anger on both sides of the Israeli population: the Arab Israelis and the Jews. Lots of ugly things were written and said and there were also a number of acts of violence. But the families of the Yad b’Yad schools were out on the streets with large banners advocating for peace and tolerance. “We refuse to be enemies” they wrote. And their demonstrations encouraged other Israelis to join them. That is a very tangible and immediate positive outcome of these schools.

Despite a wide variety of opinions among the people we talked with, one thing nearly all of them seemed to agree upon: there is a desperate need for the average Jewish Israeli and the average Christian or Muslim Arab Israeli to meet and get to see each other as human beings. The Yad b’Yad schools are a very intensive way to make that happen. These schools won’t be suitable for everyone – at least not right away. But we need to support this project so that they can expand their reach. They currently only have about 1200 students across the country. But many of these students may very well grow up to be among the leaders of the next generation. The schools are public schools supported by the Israeli government, and they are getting excellent test score results from their students and are gaining respect from important government officials. But they cost much more than the ordinary Israeli school because of the dual-language teaching that requires two teachers for each class – at least in the early grades, and the additional social service support required to help the students and families deal with the tensions they might face in their home communities.

A peaceful settlement between the Arabs and the Jews is, in my opinion, unfortunately not in the immediate future. Indeed, it is hard to see how there can be any peace until programs like this one, with Yad b’Yad, are able to break down the cultural barriers that prevent the two communities from understanding each other better.

In politics and religion, as with all things in life, one can see the world as a glass that is half full or half empty. As a lawyer, I often felt that my job was to see the glass as half empty, and to look for the potential problems and conflicts that might arise in a business deal. As a rabbi, I think of my job as trying to see the glass as half full – to judge everyone (as it says in Pirkei Avot “dan l’kaf zekhut”) with the scales tipped in their favor.

Those who see the glass as half empty are rarely disappointed, and are sometimes pleasantly surprised. While those of us who see the glass as half full may be disappointed at times, we can still be pleasantly surprised when we actually succeed in promoting goodness in the world, and certainly when things go better than we expected. And for those times that we are disappointed, well … that just means we need to work harder.

When I look through my Jewish Telescope to try and understand what God wants from us, I am convinced that this is an essential part of our mission as Jews, and as human beings.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mukataa

[3] See, e.g., http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=859 and http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=157&doc_id=13272

[4] “All of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, including its plazas, stone benches, prayer niches and walls, including the Al-Buraq Wall (i.e., the Western Wall of the Temple Mount), including the blessed Al-Buraq Wall – all these are waqf to us (i.e., an inalienable religious endowment in Islamic law). All this is waqf and kharaj land (i.e., land belonging to Muslims) and no one is permitted to sell it or negotiate over it or forfeit it. It is ours and will remain ours. The occupation is the one that will leave.” [Official PA TV, Nov. 7, 2014] http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=157&doc_id=13272

[5] See, e.g., Official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Mar. 14, 2011. “The report noted that Jewish organizations had embarked, on Jan. 3, 2011, on a campaign of electronic Judaization, in an attempt to falsify the history of the Al-Buraq wall [Western Wall]. The so-called ‘Western Wall Heritage Foundation’ launched a worldwide electronic service for the i-Phone, making it possible to watch the goings-on at the Al-Buraq wall in real time. He stated that this service made it possible for the viewer to take a virtual tour of the Al-Buraq tunnel and the tunnel of the western wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and noted that there is also a service [providing] a worldwide compass which points in the direction of Jerusalem, in order to hold Jewish prayer in the direction of the alleged Temple.”

[6] See, e.g. Official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Oct. 22, 2014. “Al-Habbash emphasized that according to Islamic Shari’ah law, the entire land of Palestine is waqf (i.e., an inalienable religious endowment in Islamic law) and is blessed land, and that it is prohibited to sell, bestow ownership or facilitate the occupation of even a millimeter of it.” http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=859

[7] Id. “Official Palestinian Authority TV, July 19, 2013”:

All this never would have happened through Hamas’ impulsive adventure, but only through the wisdom of the leadership, conscious action, consideration, and walking the right path, which leads to achievement, exactly like the Prophet [Muhammad] did in the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, even though some opposed it… The hearts of the Prophet’s companions burned with anger and fury. The Prophet said: ‘I’m the Messenger of Allah and I will not disobey Him.’ This is not disobedience, it is politics. This is crisis management, situation management, conflict management… Allah called this treaty a clear victory… Omar ibn Al-Khattab said: ‘Messenger of Allah, is this a victory? Is this logical? Is this victory? We are giving up and going back, and not entering Mecca. Is that a victory?’ The Prophet said: ‘Yes, it is a victory.’ In less than two years, the Prophet returned and based on this treaty, he conquered Mecca. This is the example, this is the model.”

[8] http://www.palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=711&fld_id=723&doc_id=486

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incorporation_of_Tibet_into_the_People’s_Republic_of_China Of course, “occupation” is a politically and emotionally loaded term. In the case of Tibet – as with the case of the West Bank and Gaza – a reasonable argument could be made that sovereignty over the territory (and its boundaries) are disputed. But from the Dalai Lama’s perspective, Tibet is occupied. From the Palestinians’ perspective, the West Bank and Gaza are occupied. (And, as I have argued above, the Palestinians really claim that Israel itself is occupied territory that they ultimately believe they will recover – one way or another.)

Another example of occupation is the Turkish occupation of about half of Cyprus. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_invasion_of_Cyprus. Although no country other than Turkey recognizes Turkey’s right to occupy its part of the island, you do not see the UN making constant pronouncements about Turkey’s illegal occupation.

In Israel’s case, since the Arab nations were the ones that attacked Israel, it is more than reasonable for Israel to demand a peaceful resolution to the conflict in exchange for ceding territory to a brand new State of Palestine. And that is precisely why the territories are still “occupied” – because there has not yet been a “meeting of the minds” on the terms of the peaceful resolution. And given the rhetoric of the Palestinian leadership I reference here, there is – unfortunately – not likely going to be a “meeting of the minds” any time soon.

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_refugees

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partition_of_India

[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_exodus_from_Arab_and_Muslim_countries

[13] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/Jews_in_Arab_lands_(gen).html

[14] http://www.timesofisrael.com/full-text-of-abbas-speech-to-un/#ixzz3M7ezOYji

[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1929_Palestine_riots

[16] He also supports the Kairos Palestine document about which Christians for Fair Witness in the Middle East responded here http://www.ccjr.us/dialogika-resources/themes-in-todays-dialogue/isrpal/662-cfw10jan4 and Presbyterians for Middle East Peace responded here http://www.pfmep.org/kairos-palestine/37-kairos-palestine/74-the-kairos-palestine-document-and-pcusas-response-time-for-a-candid-discussion Christian scholar, Malcolm Lowe, has analyzed the Kairos document here http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/60512/sec_id/60512 and a follow up here http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2697/kairos-palestine

[17] The ad was described here http://www.jta.org/2014/11/20/news-opinion/united-states/presbyterians-against-divestment-take-out-full-page-nyt-ad, and here http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/national/prominent-presbyterians-push-back-divestment-0

[18] http://www.handinhandk12.org/inform/schools/jerusalem

[19] http://theinvestmentreport.blogspot.com/

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