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When will the Left start talking about Israeli trauma?

Without recognizing how deep-seated the trauma of ordinary Israelis really is, the Israeli peace camp will continue to be seen as elitist and disconnected.

By Yakir Englander (translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse)

Peace Now at the Rabin memorial rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, November 1, 2014. (photo: Oren Rozen/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Peace Now at the Rabin memorial rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, November 1, 2014. (photo: Oren Rozen/CC BY-SA 3.0)

My political opinions are aligned with Israel’s Left, but I was not born that way. Even today my personal Israeli narrative is far from typically liberal. I grew up in a modern ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the city of Bnei Brak, and although I am sociologically far from that context today, many of the core values that still influence me stem from the Hasidic tradition. When I was an adolescent, I became part of the religious settler movement. And while I am not connected to it today, the courage that I witnessed in that society, one that allows you to take action in the real world, remains with me until this day.

I understand that I may have no choice but to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike the majority of the “moderate Zionist Left” in Israel, however, including opposition leader Isaac Herzog, I see the establishment of two states as a painful separation. This solution will tear me apart from my dearest Palestinian colleagues, as more walls and checkpoints will put an end to our daily contact with each other.

In recent years, I have founded and worked as part of an interfaith peace organization that seeks to an end to the conflict. And still, like many Israelis, I find myself further and further from the Israeli Left, be it moderate, Zionist or radical. There are two reasons for this: firstly, because the leaders of the Left act similar to religious preachers who claim to know the Truth, even when it is ideological rather than divine. Their grasp of the Truth makes it hard for them to listen to others enter into a genuine dialogue. Secondly, I cannot relate to the leaders of the Left because of their language, which falls far short of expressing the complex emotions of fear and pain that I hear every day on the streets of Jerusalem.

Stop blaming the traumatized 

There is something tempting in the Truth: it protects people from the need to remember, every single minute, that they might be wrong. Certainly, this is why some are attracted to religion: it promises them access to the Truth.

It is fascinating to note that it was in fact Orthodox Judaism that was most pressed to compromise for generations on its ideas of Truth while living in the diaspora. Living in exile as a minority in a non-Jewish culture, Jews had little power, and they often had to act in ways that contradicted the commandments of divine Truth. A good example is the dictate of Jewish law known as “for the sake of peace,” according to which Jews must be sensitive to the values of their non-Jewish neighbors. This principle taught Jews to conduct themselves within non-Jewish society in ways that often starkly contradicted the letter of divinely ordained Jewish law, all for the sake of good relations with the non-Jewish world.

Family members of Israeli Border Policewoman Hadar Cohen mourn during her funeral at the military cemetery in Yehud, near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 4, 2016. Cohen was shot and killed by three Palestinians at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on February 3, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Family members of Israeli Border Policewoman Hadar Cohen mourn during her funeral at the military cemetery in Yehud, near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 4, 2016. Cohen was shot and killed by three Palestinians at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on February 3, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The Babylonian Talmud (written in the diaspora) took this idea a step further when it explained that “Jerusalem was destroyed because the Jewish people living there based all their judgments only on the divine Torah.” Remarkably, it was this uncompromising insistence on the Truth of divine halakha (Jewish law) that brought upon the fall of Jerusalem. This is because reality is always more complex, and often requires the humility to take a step back from the Truth.

By contrast, statements by the leaders of Israel’s Left reference notions such as the Truth or justice without any flexibility or understanding of how complex reality is here. “The Right has lapsed into fantasy,” says Stav Shaffir, “and only the Israeli Left – ‘mature and responsible’ – remains reasonable, with true and serious plans for the future.” The late Yossi Sarid spoke of the separation of left from right as “a separation in the State of Israel between the sane people and the Messianics…” These are only two examples among many.

Such language is problematic. Firstly, it is easy to counter the Truth that such language claims to represent. For example, one may challenge the assumption of Israel’s Zionist Left that there is an essential difference between the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 and the earlier Jewish expropriation of Palestinian land in Tel Aviv, Galilee, Jerusalem and elsewhere from the beginnings of the Zionist movement in the early 20th century. The Truth is always open to interpretation.

Another problem with claims to the Truth lies in their appeal to logic and reason, while human beings are in fact composites of reason and feelings, often with pain and trauma etched deeply into the human body and psyche.

Labor MK Stav Shaffir (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor MK Stav Shaffir: ‘Only the Left is mature and reasonable enough to lead.’ (Photo by Activestills.org)

The Second Intifada was at its height by the time I completed my army service and enrolled at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. My reserve duty required me to serve in a unit that identified the remains of victims, and I was called to several scenes of painful terror attacks. The personal crisis I experienced there led me to my first encounters with the Left: Israelis and Palestinians at Hebrew University. I came to their meetings feeling very confused, with no idea what was right, as well as a burden of pain and trauma. At the meetings people were busy mocking political leaders, the failed peace agreements, the corrupt occupation, and religion as the root of the disastrous reality. Everyone agreed that only speedy progress toward a two-state solution could bring about peace and justice.

I remember coming away from these meetings with a heavy feeling — that I was being blamed for living in a reality of ongoing trauma (terror and violence had not et ceased). At the same time, I felt I was being told that I must abandon the two things that had been able to give me any sense of safety: the army and religion. I stopped going after a few meetings, realizing that I had left an ultra-Orthodox society that demanded my total allegiance to its Truth, only to align myself with a new political form of ultra-orthodoxy.

Talking about the Truth is important and valuable for those few people who dedicate their lives to understanding what is “right” and what is not. These days, however, Israeli society is not really being helped by lectures about how wrong and harmful it is. Not because Israeli policies are not harmful, but because there is no spiritual ability today to listen to these criticisms. As the Rabbi from Radin put it: “The obligation to convince someone can be practiced only when they are actually able to hear you.”

Israeli society needs leaders who are capable of speaking to this society’s pain and fear, who through dialogue with our feelings can free us from the powers that are destroying Israelis and Palestinians alike. We need leaders who show by example how to sacrifice part of their own Truth in order to heal wounds and bring about transformation. The Israeli peace camp must not be defined by the Left; it should include all who are ready to dedicate themselves to the process of healing themselves, and in this way to cease harming the Palestinians.

Negotiations with tears

We need a peace movement that will stop clashing with the Right about what is right what is wrong. For example, I am far less worried about whether every piece of evidence presented by Breaking the Silence is proven to be exact the military investigators. What is more important is to realize that thousands of Israelis who risk their lives in the defense of their country return home as I did, traumatized and in crisis. That we realize the crisis stems from the assumption that the army is purely a defensive one.

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Daily confrontations between politicians from the Left and the Right only serve to emphasize the failure of the Left. Right-wing activists do not solely engage with logic. They bring up issues that relate to the fears that reside deep in our Jewish and Israeli D.N.A.. All these relate somehow to the conflict and its solution: shaking the moral foundations of the IDF; the feeling that Israeli critics are not speaking with their opponents but about them; the fear of non-Jews; the deep-seated suspicion of Palestinians and their leaders; the anxiety that if peace comes, Jews will marry non-Jews; and the underlying pain stemming from the conviction that Europe has never really come to terms with the trauma of the Holocaust.

The Israeli Left speaks about democratic values, but the Israeli public generally sees “Western values” as a language of logic — one that fails to speak to our hearts. If only the Israeli Left could speak to the people of this nation with the voice of 2,000 years of Israeli-Jewish culture, it is likely that the silent majority of Israelis would stand up and join the effort for peace.

A group of Israeli settlers refuses to evacuate the Gaza settlement of Bedolach, August 17, 2005. (photo courtesy of the Israeli Defense Forces)

A group of Israeli settlers refuses to evacuate the Gaza settlement of Bedolach, August 17, 2005. (photo courtesy of the Israeli Defense Forces)

The discussion of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife,” which was recently disqualified from the national curriculum by the Education Ministry, would be richer if the Israeli Left could cite examples of how the Kabbalist sages of North Africa would once study together with the Muslim Sufis, or if leaders of the Left could show that they themselves had demanded that the national curriculum include the painful poetry of expelled Jewish settlers from Gaza. The credibility of Breaking the Silence would only increase if they spoke about talmudic rabbis who insisted on learning from or with those who criticized the rabbinate.

The Israeli Left must internalize that a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will not begin when the two sides sit down at the negotiating table. Rather, the agreement begins today, yesterday, and tomorrow, within and together with the people — all people.

There is an old story of a couple who came to Rabbi Karelitz, chairman of the rabbinical court on Bnei Brak, before their marriage, asking how to achieve a healthy life together. The rabbi answered them curtly: “If you wanted advice on living together, you should have come to me 18 years ago!” When parties to an agreement sit down to negotiate, the spiritual orientation of the negotiators — and of the peoples they represent — is already formed. Their ability to compromise is limited by the existential situation of the societies they speak for. It is the work of the Israeli peace camp to work with the Israeli public (the same, of course, holds true for Palestinian leaders) so that the public, and their leaders, will approach the negotiations in a spiritual state that is as conducive as possible to achieving a healthy agreement. To this end, the peace camp must create and speak a new language — or become irrelevant.

The Israeli peace camp must become an open house for every Israeli, no matter what their orientation: orthodox, religious-Zionists, Mizrahin, expelled settlers from Gaza, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Jerusalemites, settlers, Ethiopians, and all the rest. The peace camp must use a language of dialogue with all people, even those who do not agree with its arguments. It must understand that Jewish culture (and not just orthodoxy) must be part of the culture of the Left, rather than viewing it as a stumbling block.

Jerusalem was destroyed only because those who lived there based their judgments on divine law. Jerusalem will be rebuilt only by those who are capable of embracing the pain we share, gathering our tears, and bringing them to the negotiating table.

Yakir Englander is the project director of Kids4Peace International and a Shalom Hartman scholar. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      In the early 2000’s I met a guy from Yesh Gvul, a sort of sister organization to Breaking The Silence. I drove him around to his speaking engagements and at every stop he made the same point to the audience: he would ask why Israel is such a violent society – by which he meant much domestic violence – and then he’d give his answer. He pointed out that a lot of Israeli’s served in the West Bank where they saw that the people had no rights, and then they’d come home and start to think that maybe if the Palestinians had no rights then maybe other people had no rights, maybe his wife had no rights, maybe he was the one who decided who had rights and who didn’t….anyone who thinks that the Occupation hasn’t had a gross coarsening effect on Israeli society is naive.

      And as for Palestinian violence, I do so wish that stateless people who have seen their homes randomly demolished for the last half century didn’t resort to extreme measures, I wish human nature was other than what it is…but there you have it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Whonoze

        That fact that you have to make up-stuff to besmirch Israelis goes to show how desperate and psychotic anti-Israel/anti-Semitic lunatics/jihadis out there really are. What a pity you. What a waste.

        Reply to Comment
        • Robb wexler

          No one is making anything up and peace will never be achieved with blinders on.

          Reply to Comment
          • Whonoze

            Perhaps now would be a good moment to address some of the foolish claim you made.

            In United States where you claim you come from (you also claim that you come from Britain which is more likely given you Muslim background), you can be shot at an elementary school. You can be murdered at a church or movie theatre. You can even be executed on live TV. Gun-related violence and death is a public health problem in the US, according to studies. More than 32,000 people per year are killed by guns in the United States — at least. That is the cold, hard fact. The average number of people murdered per year in Israel is 159. Now, do the math and tell us what the murder rates: (a) ‘Israel vs. The United States’ is and (b) how that squares with your MADE-UP story: “why is Israel violent” blah, blah, blah. You can do math, can’t you?

            While you are at it, take a look at this horrifying statistics on violence against women in the US: http://www.ncadv.org/learn/statistics, moron. In the US at least 1-woman is beaten every 9-SECONDS, while in Israel it is 65 women PER DAY! Can you do math, moron, or, are you more interested in using made-up stories to besmirch Israelis, demonize the Jewish State and quench your anti-Semitic thirst?

            Reply to Comment
          • Lo

            Prima: “Israel has a problem with violence.”

            Secunda: “OH YEAH? WELL AMERICA IS EVEN MORE VIOLENT! It’s positively blood-soaked!”

            Prima: “…okay? Why is that a good thing, or how does it mitigate proclivities to violence in Israel?”

            Secunda: *hissing*

            Reply to Comment
          • Whonoze

            “I drove him around to his speaking engagements and at every stop he made the same point to the audience: he would ask why Israel is such a violent society – by which he meant much domestic violence – and then he’d give his answer.”

            a. That is the STORY you wrote;

            b. Your entire STORY was MADE-UP to portray Israel as “such a violent society” and Israelis as “such a violent” people, because, ACCORDING to YOU, “Israeli’s served in the West Bank where they saw that the people had no rights, and then they’d come home and start to think that maybe if the Palestinians had no rights then maybe other people had no rights, maybe his wife had no rights, maybe he was the one who decided who had rights and who didn’t….anyone who thinks that the Occupation hasn’t had a gross coarsening effect on Israeli society is naïve”.

            c. BUT, the cold, hard FACT is that Israel has far less violence than some Western countries, incl. Norway, Latvia, etc. Jordan, UAE, Malta, Turkey, etc. that are not even at war with their neighbors and are not “occupying” anyone;

            d. Therefore your anti-Semitic lie in an attempt to smear and demonize Israel and Israelis with made-up stories of being “such a violent society” and “such a violent” people not only failed but goes to show how psychotic and hateful you are.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Dani

      This article is one of the best ever published on this website. It puts most of the other bloggers to shame.

      Reply to Comment
    3. jjj

      @Mike Cantrell

      Aside from being a blatant lie, Zionists never intended to commit ethnic cleansing and certainly not genocide (on the contrary, my friend, see Haj Amin El-Huseini romance with Hitler).
      And indeed, many tectonic decisions occurred in the 1920’s-1940’s in the middle-east – Israel being just a small portion, which is magnified to cataclysmic proportions solely due to political reasons. Even today, events that dwarf any Israel act since its very inception are being perpetrated. At the very very least, Palestinians are welcome to leave, or recognize Israel and live peacefully alongside it.
      Of course, Palestinians can resist and defy the very existence of Israel – in which case, we shall continue to meet on the ends of barrel of guns.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Lior

      Amazing.

      Really amazing. This is the best article I remember reading on Israel and in this site. I, as a south american ashkenazi jewish, share the same feels as the author: the words of the left are elitist and disconnected, as if coming from a fantasy bubble in Tel-Aviv. They speak of peace, but their Israel is one in Europe or North America, not in the middle east. Worse, they think of themselves as unequivocally right.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Antares

      The only and short answer to this lamenting article is: Stop being a jew and be yourself. It is all about identity and that is the root cause of the problem. As long as the world is being interpreted as jewish/non-jewish the existing problems cannot be addressed.

      Not being a jew anymore one can take a more objective look at the situation. f.e.: Did I have the right to return? According to research most jews originate from eastern Europe so it is not a return. No return means no right. But this is an indigestible truth for someone who beliefs to be someone one isn’t. The solution is: stop believing it and check the facts.

      The article however touches an interesting point where it addresses pre and post 1967 that the author may not have fully understood.

      The main problem of Isreal boils down to 1967, when a lot of peole have warned severely against the idea to invade the Westbank. If you draw an israeli circle that includes the Westbank you have suddenly more ‘arabs’ than jews inside the border. That’s why a democracy is no longer an option. Right-wing parties can use this to assert that equality is unacceptable and this gives them the ability to play the hard card. Israeli governments have become bolder and bolder every four years since then.

      Equality would lead to a normalisation of the situation, normalisation would lead to equality and equality would lead to a democracy. Since 1967, there is no motive anymore for Israel to become a democracy. The politicians prefer endless wars and the public will vote accordingly.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        “Stop being a Jew”

        Yea, now there is an idea. Every person in the world has to become identical. We all have to wear the same clothes. Speak the same language, have the same religion. Have the same culture. Think the same. Eat the same things. Do the same things. Like the same things. In short we must become the same proto human with the same serial number. I have only one question. Who decides what is the accepted standard? Oh, I know, according to the jerk who posted the above inane post, as long as one stops being a Jew he/she would be Halal. What a bigot!

        We all originated in Eastern Europe? Funny that. And when more Jews lived in Eastern Europe they were told to go to Palestine and since most didn’t listen, 6 million were murdered. But we are the racist haters according to the racist haters who accuse US of being racist haters.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      I think you mean well, Yakir Englander, and you have travelled a lot of ground mentally and emotionally, but this long essay wades in and out of confusion and barely keeps its head above water. You start out glorifying thieves driven by fanaticism (the religious settler movement) as heroes of “courage.”

      You then say that you “see the establishment of two states as a painful separation” that will “tear me apart from my dearest Palestinian colleagues, as more walls and checkpoints will put an end to our daily contact with each other.”

      Do you hear yourself? There is a world of self deception and self-righteousness in that statement. How on earth will a two state solution with two countries living side by side in peace, and economic interdependence and dignity create “more walls and checkpoints” than what the Israeli Army subjects the Palestinians to now? You claim some special knowledge of what goes on in the West Bank but, excuse me, what West Bank are you talking about? What checkpoint have you waited at endlessly? What humiliation have you suffered at the hands of the Israeli Army? At the hands of settler “youths”? At what protest have you been shot in the face with tear gas canisters and suffered brain damage and at what protest have you been shot by snipers with live ammunition from ruger rifles? What Army officer chased you down and shot you in the back and walked away? What olive groves of yours have been cut down? When have you been beaten and had your land and water stolen? 99% of your dear brethren among the settlers treat the Palestinians not as dear colleagues but with utter racist contempt. Following the dictates of that “2000 years of Israeli-Jewish culture” you warmly enthused about.

      This is a lot of self-created drama. Your “courageous” settler movement coldly set out to create irreversible facts on the ground 49 years ago and now you whine about the pain of your ‘heartbreaking work of staggering genius’. Oh the drama. Did the settlers ever show one ounce of sadness, did their heart tear once for the Palestinians whose property they stole and who they cruelly dispossessed of even their dignity?

      “the anxiety that if peace comes, Jews will marry non-Jews”

      This is as frank an admission as there is that the right fears peace itself and values war in its own right as a core value of Zionism. Now we are getting somewhere.

      “The complex emotions of fear and pain that I hear every day on the streets of Jerusalem.”

      Who created that? Who sustains that?

      “If only the Israeli Left could speak to the people of this nation with the voice of 2,000 years of Israeli-Jewish culture, it is likely that the silent majority of Israelis would stand up and join the effort for peace.”

      What magic incantatory words are these of “2000 years of Israeli-Jewish culture” that you want spoken for this miraculous irenic effect? Please explain. Thousands, millions of words have been spilled. You just got done telling us that being “sensitive to the values of their non-Jewish neighbors…starkly contradicted the letter of divinely ordained Jewish law.” So please tell me how it all fits together. Because up to now, though there are progressive elements that flicker at intervals inside your essay, much of what you write still seems confused and laden with complacent assumptions, with a strange noblesse oblige governing what still seems like entitlement and a narcissistic preoccupation with your “pain.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Whonoze

        Another loooong rambling mumbo jumbo.

        “Did you hear yourself” you ask? Well, take a very looong hard look in the mirror and you will see a jihadi who (a) looks but won’t see, because he is blind – though his eyes are open, (b) listens, but won’t hear a thing, because he is deaf – though his ears are wide open, and (c) reads, but won’t understand a thing, because he is as dumb as a rock. You will see a jihadi who is not capable of reflection and reason? The immensely thoughtful, reflective words of Yakir Englander was/is not meant for you and your ilk, but for those who are capable of rational thought and reflection.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Bob

      One of the most sensitive, perceptive pieces I’ve read on the situation. Your article clarified my thinking. The vitriolic responses are depressing.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Tony Litwinko

      I have a question about the translation in one paragraph towards the end:

      “We need a peace movement that will stop clashing with the Right about what is right what is wrong. For example, I am far less worried about whether every piece of evidence presented by Breaking the Silence is proven to be exact the military investigators.”

      I assume that the first sentence should read “about what is right [and] what is wrong” but I cannot figure out the sense of the second sentence. It looks like a whole clause has gone missing.

      What is the correct sentence? Thanks.

      Reply to Comment
      • Whonoze

        “I assume that the first sentence should read “about what is right [and] what is wrong” but I cannot figure out the sense of the second sentence. It looks like a whole clause has gone missing”

        No “whole clause has gone missing” and I am not surprised that you “cannot figure out the sense of the second sentence”, because you are cherry-picking and quoting incompletely and out-of-context. Here is what Yakir Englander wrote:

        “We need a peace movement that will stop clashing with the Right about what is right [and] what is wrong. For example, I am far less worried about whether every piece of evidence presented by Breaking the Silence is proven to be exact [by] the military investigators. What is more important is to realize that thousands of Israelis who risk their lives in the defense of their country return home as I did, traumatized and in crisis. That we realize the crisis stems from the assumption that the army is purely a defensive one”.

        Do you understand it now, or are you more interested in apparent (editing) typos, than in substance? That section and the rest of the article are the solemn meditations of Yakir Englander: someone who is not interested in propaganda, recriminations, pointing fingers and scoring cheap political points against his fellow Israelis of different political convictions, but instead genuinely seeks to engage them in a productive debate re where they – in his opinion – got it wrong in the pursuit of shared Jewish Values, National Goals and Objectives.

        Reply to Comment

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