Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Conscientious Objectors - Parshat Bereishit Edition

Returning to Bereishit - the beginning of the Torah - brings a certain comfort: a return to the familiar and a revisiting of stories that we know but reread with a fresh perspective. It was in this light that a read an article in this morning's Jerusalem Post: "High-school students decry 'occupation'":
Claiming to represent over 80 of their peers, four high school seniors on Monday publicly announced their refusal to serve in the IDF because of what they termed the "occupation and oppression in the occupied territories."
"We, male and female Jews and Arabs from all across the country whose signatures are below, declare that we will take action against the Israeli government's policy of occupation and oppression in the conquered territories and in Israel, and therefore refuse to take part in those actions, which are done in our names by the Israel Defense Forces, We were born into the reality of the occupation and many in our generation see it as something 'natural.' For most of society it is obvious that at the age of 18, every young man and woman must join the Israeli army. But we cannot ignore the truth - the occupation is a violent, racist, inhumane, illegal, undemocratic, immoral and an extreme condition that presents a mortal danger to both peoples. We, who were educated on the values of liberty, justice, honesty and peace, cannot accept it."
Reading about their objection, what struck me wasn't their naivete, or chutzpah or lack of appreciation for the IDF. I wondered: Only four students? That's it? And even if they really do represent eighty, only eighty? That's all the students that they could find? I'll explain.
These students have been spoon-fed a left-leaning liberal education from kindergarten, completely devoid of any Jewish value or content. In their worldview, the State of Israel is simply one nation among many, without any special or unique claim to the land. It promotes freedom, democracy and human rights for all people (which it does). From that perspective, the Palestinians have just as much right to be here as we do, if not more. After all, they've been here longer than most of us (at least most recently).
This is, of course, the perspective that drives much of the liberal camp campaigning against Israel from the United Nations, to the Hague to the Netherlands (see Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize). In a way, I truly do understand them. If we have no unique claim to the Land of Israel, then it's easy to see us as "occupiers" who "oppress" the Palestinians in the West Bank. They do not have a say in their elected representatives - at least in the larger sense. They don't live in their own country. Their land was taken over by military force in 1967, and we really have no business being there. I get it.
But if these are the values which underlie these kids' noble sentiments, what strikes me isn't their passion and commitment, but the lack of any such passion on the part of their peers. There shouldn't be four or even eighty conscientious objectors - there should be hundreds! Where are the rest of the liberal Israeli youth, refusing to serve in the imperialist IDF? I can think of only three possibilities:
  1. Most kids get a substandard liberal education, so they don't really appreciate the worldview enough to stand against it (quite possible)
  2. The education is fine, but teenagers are too self-centered and apathetic to take a stand like these kids (most likely)
  3. The kids are getting an education, but one rich enough in Jewish values to forestall this ultra-liberal perspective (much less likely in my view).
What Jewish values? Actually, it's the first Rashi in the Torah.
אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מהחודש הזה לכם שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו בה ישראל ומה טעם פתח בבראשית משום (תהלים קי"א) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל ליסטים אתם שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו:
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: the Torah should only have begun from "This month is to you" which is the first commandment in the Torah that Israel was commanded. Why does the Torah begin at Bereishit? Because, "The power of His deeds He told to His nation, in order to give them the portion of the nations” (Psalms 111) That if the nations of the world say to Israel, "You are thieves! You conquered the land of the seven nations!" Israel could respond, "The whole world belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whoever was righteous in His eyes. With His will he gave it to them, and with His will He took it from them and gave it to us."
The very first Rashi in the Torah (by the way, my wife Rena wrote a great piece on this Rashi available here) addresses the concerns of our four students: we didn't steal the land. God gave it to us. But these kids lack a fundamental fact underlying Rashi's premise. Rashi assumes that the Jews appreciate the difference between themselves and other nations; that they appreciate the calling of the Jewish people, and our special and unique role in the world. But our passionate Israeli kids feel none of that. Let's return to their letter in which they write,
Out of responsibility and concern for the two nations who live in this country, we cannot stand aside.
In their mind, the State of Israel isn't a Jewish State. It's a democratic state, inhabited by both Jews and Arabs, both with equal rights and claims to the land. We're not different or unique. Rather, we're just one of "two nations who live in this country". Rashi fundamentally disagrees. The verse in Pslams that states "The power of His deeds He told to His nation, in order to give them the portion of the nations” teaches us two critical things:
  1. We are "His nation" - God's nation - with unique responsibilities and obligations
  2. We are not "the nations". We stand apart, separate and distinct
Without an appreciation for those two fundamentals, you cannot accept Rashi's argument. If everyone's the same, then we did steal the Land.
I'm not angry at these children. I don't think that they're ungrateful or selfish; quite the opposite. They seem passionate and committed to the beliefs. What they do make me is sad - for them and for us. They were raised in the Modern State of Israel, as Jews living in one of the most exciting times in Jewish history. And yet, they have zero appreciation for the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and no understanding of any Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. That's not their fault. It's our fault.
Bibi Netanyahu recently said that the Palestinians "must recognize Israel as Jewish state for there to be peace". Before we start worrying about our enemies, we better start paying more attention to our own children.