Based on a talk delivered at “Reconstructionists Expanding Our Conversation About Israel/Palestine“
I think it is fair to say that the topic of Israel is one of the most — if not the most — divisive forces in American Jewish life. It is a division that is experienced not just communally but personally, with family members unable to talk with one another about what is happening in Israel/Palestine,[i] with friendships torn apart and deep heartache on all sides. We have a collective incapacity to deal productively with or even talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in helpful ways. It is a spiritual and moral crisis afflicting the American Jewish community.
And yet, despite the depth of that crisis and despite the ongoing suffering on the ground in the Holy Land, I am not feeling despair. There is a new consciousness afoot among forward-thinking Israelis and Palestinians that gives me hope. The challenge for us here in America is to be willing to shed old ways of thinking about the situation and to step up in ways that will promote greater spaciousness in our hearts and minds that might lead to our being part of the solution, and not just part of the problem.
The suggestion I offer in this essay comes from my perspective not as an Israeli or Palestinian, but as a North American rabbi who has worked for most of my adult life to bring some measure of peace, justice and well-being to both the Jewish and Palestinian residents of the Holy Land. In offering this, I am following the lead of visionary leaders on the ground in Israel/Palestine, yet my suggestions are not for the people there, but for those of us here “outside the land,” looking on and hoping to be of solidarity and support.
The frame in which most of our current engagement with Israel and Palestine occurs is that of “sides.” Whether the sides are understood as Jew vs. Arab or oppressor vs. oppressed, Israeli vs. Palestinian or colonizer vs. colonized, the basic structure is the same. If there are sides, then I have to choose a side to support — to be Zionist or anti-Zionist, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. In locating myself on a side, I inevitably have to distance myself from those on the other side to mark all the ways I am not like them. We spend an inordinate amount of energy far from the conflict itself deciding who is in and who is out, what constitutes betrayal, who must be kept at a distance. It is both exhausting and unproductive.
In May of 2021, as rockets launched by Hamas flew into Israel and Israeli bombs wreaked havoc inside the Gaza Strip, a different image came to me. I knew that people in my congregation were suffering from this violence happening thousands of miles away. We had members who were frightened and concerned for the safety of loved ones huddling in bomb shelters inside Israel, and members who were heartbroken and enraged at the death and destruction in Gaza. Some members were experiencing both. And in struggling to figure out how to respond in a meaningful and helpful way to the situation, the language of “sides” led me nowhere. What I really wanted to do was put my arms around everyone in my community. I wanted to put my arms around everyone suffering across Israel and the Palestinian territories. I wanted to somehow address all of the fear and anger and pain, and to leave no one on the side.
A few months later, I participated in a seminar for rabbis organized by the Shalom Hartman Institute, much of which addressed the division in the Jewish community around the topic of Israel. The last session was with the scholar Yehudah Kurtzer, who invited us to explore the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, “love of Israel/the Jewish people,” as a way into the broader question of what it means to be part of the Jewish people in difficult times.
Kurtzer began by talking about all the reasons that he doesn’t like this mitzvah. It’s not particularly well-developed in Jewish sources, and the obligation to “love the Jewish people” can be and has been misused to (somewhat ironically) create artificial boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out” of the community. There’s also the danger that “loving the Jewish people” becomes a rationale for ethnocentrism and discrimination.
After exploring the problematic aspects of ahavat Yisrael, Kurtzer suggested that if we want a model of what doing this mitzvah might look like, we should turn our attention to the one character in the Torah who is actually described as loving the people Israel — and that character is God.
In the book of Exodus, God chooses the Israelites to be a “nation of priests,” a holy people, inviting them into sacred covenant with Godself and with one another. The people agree and then almost immediately screw up, causing God to get angry, and to threaten to completely erase the Israelites and start all over with Moses. Ultimately, God’s compassion for the people and their shortcomings overcomes Divine anger. The Source of Life has made a covenantal commitment to the people, and even when they stray from their part of the bargain, the relationship remains. God is compassionate and forgives, over and over again.
Kurtzer argued that this type of ahavat Yisrael — a Godly model of compassionate, covenantal relationship — can inspire Jews to stay in relationship with one another even when, or especially when, the going gets tough. It is a love that incorporates accountability as well as compassion. In Kurtzer’s words, I heard a heartfelt plea for those of us who care deeply about what happens in Israel/Palestine to not turn our backs on the Israeli Jewish population in moments of crisis.
But as I was listening, I realized that ahavat Yisrael is not enough. As I thought about the most recent violence in Israel and Gaza, it became clear that the mitzvah of “loving the Jewish people” could not help me figure out my obligations not just to Israelis but also to the Palestinians who were suffering. It didn’t help me respond to the anguish in my own heart — and in the hearts of so many in my community —at the senseless deaths of children and other innocents in Gaza. The question that confronted me was this: What was my covenantal obligation to everyone involved?
What I realized in that moment is that the establishment of the State of Israel, the creation of Jewish sovereignty in the land known as both Israel and Palestine, the fact of Jewish power and Jewish responsibility along with Jewish suffering, has created a new mitzvah for those of us in the broader Jewish community. I am calling this mitzvah ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz, the mitzvah of loving all those who dwell in the land. It is a mitzvah that, I believe, the historic success of Zionism now demands of us as Jews.
This mitzvah is, for me, an approach that dissolves the metaphor of “sides.” It creates a Jewish covenantal obligation to, above all else, stay in relationship with everyone. With all Israelis, Jewish and Arab, and other. With all those who live in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, the Palestinian populations of Gaza and the West Bank. It doesn’t allow me to separate myself off from the half of the global Jewish population that lives in Israel, even as it doesn’t allow me to separate myself from the Palestinian people whose lives have been profoundly affected by the creation of the Jewish state. The mitzvah of ahavat yoshvei ha’aretzcreates a particular way for us as Jews to relate to what is going on in that place known as Eretz Yisrael and historic Palestine.
The frame here is not a universal humanistic commitment, although I am all for universal humanistic commitments. But given our particular history and our unique relationship to what is now going on in Israel/Palestine, I believe that we need a particular Jewish way of relating to the situation. And while this Jewish frame needs to include the full range of Jewish experience, both suffering and responsibility, it also needs to have a positive aspect — something that we are called to do, for our own people as well as those with whom our destiny has become intertwined. For me, the mitzvah of ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz is generative and potentially transformative.
As modeled by God, covenantal love does not mean condoning every action of those with whom we are in relationship. Quite the opposite. Sacred anger is appropriate — is, in fact, demanded — when human dignity is violated, when human blood is shed. Covenantal love does not mean ignoring power differentials or structural inequalities. It also doesn’t mean ignoring our own personal connections to specific people and places in that land or denying our own Jewish narratives. It doesn’t mean having to particularly like anyone. What it does mean is figuring out how to be in relationship even with those who infuriate me and refusing to place anyone off to one “side” in such a way that I no longer recognize or honor their humanity.
While this idea of a new mitzvah— the mitzvah of ahavat yoshei ha’aretz — arose in my mind as I responded to Kurtzer’s presentation, in reality it is something I have been learning over the course of many years from many remarkable people in both the Palestinian and Israeli communities. These are people who have taught me what it means to stay in relationship even with supposed “enemies” for the sake of transformation and to not allow oneself to be defined by negating another’s reality.
I may have first learned this mitzvah from my kibbutz mother, whom I met when I lived in Israel right after high school. She had moved to Israel in her early 20s from her hometown of Detroit, accompanying the Israeli man who became her husband. A little more than a decade later, he was killed in the Yom Kippur War. I met her a few years after that, in 1980; she was the single mother of three children. She was heartbroken at the loss of her beloved, but she was not bitter, and she was not hateful. She remained a committed Israeli peacenik, and she is to this day.
I have learned this mitzvah from my friend and teacher, the Palestinian nonviolence activist Ali Abu Awwad. As he and other leaders in the Palestinian nonviolence movement Taghyeer work to build Palestinian resilience and leadership at the grassroots level, Ali also understands that, in his words, his greatest enemy is not the Jewish people but Jewish fear. He models what it looks like to not let fear define us, and to take action from a place of compassion for self and others.
There are many others on the ground who are my teachers. People like the members of Combatants for Peace, Israelis who have served in the army and Palestinians who have been jailed for violent resistance, who together are committed to seeking collective liberation and ending the occupation through nonviolent means. They are committed to hearing each other’s stories even when they don’t agree. People like the staff and students of Israel’s Hand in Hand schools, where a new generation of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jerusalem are learning what it truly means to create a shared society.
Those observing the mitzvah of loving all who dwell in the land do not fall along the usual political lines. One of its Israeli pioneers was the Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Froman, who lived in Tekoa, a religious settlement on the West Bank. Rabbi Froman, whose legacy is continued by his wife, Hadassah, and many of his students, emphasized both Jewish and Palestinian connections to the land, and the need to recognize the full rights of all who dwell upon it. Rabbi Froman engaged in conversations with members of Hamas and other Palestinian leaders that other Israelis considered untouchable. He saw no contradiction between his profound love of the land and commitment to the Jewish people and his connection to his Muslim neighbors. Some of his students are among those who founded Roots, the remarkable organization building relationships of solidarity among Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank.
There is a growing conversation involving both Israelis and Palestinians that understands that we need radical new thinking to move beyond the oppression and ongoing violence of this moment. This new conversation affirms the historic and religious connection of both peoples, Jews and Palestinians, to the entirety of the Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael, Palestine. It is a conversation that does not need to erase one people’s narrative to fulfill the other’s aspirations. It is a conversation that acknowledges the disparities in power, that recognizes the structural oppressions of the current system, yet also affirms the humanity and the self-interest of each community.
Among those involved in this new conversation are members of a relatively new Israeli-Palestinian organization called A Land for All, which calls for two states in one homeland, recognizing the claims of both peoples. The Palestinian human-rights activist Jonathan Kuttab recently published a book called Beyond the Two-State Solution, where he makes the case for “a new entity, a state which is a hybrid, a unique entity in all of the land of historic Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. This entity would embrace and validate the essential elements of both Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism, while rejecting those elements in each movement which degrade or deny the Other. It is a vision for a vibrant democracy for all its citizens, where citizens can both be proud of their unique individual and collective identities, but where they are prohibited from forcing such identities on others.” In 2014, IPCRI — Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a joint research body — brought together an enormous amount of research into a publication called “Two States in One Space.” Taken together, this new conversation that these individuals and organizations are promoting cut across many of the usual divides of right and left.
In embracing the mitzvah of ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz, I would argue that it is incumbent upon us in the American Jewish community to actively support those on the ground in Israel/Palestine who are doing this holy work. These are the people who have not allowed themselves to be dehumanized by this conflict. These are the groups committed to a path of nonviolence that doesn’t mean just refraining from physical attacks, but which actively seeks to transform hearts and minds as an integral part of the work of justice. Instead of turning away in disgust or despair, we owe these people all that we can give them of ourselves.
I am calling ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz a “mitzvah” because I understand “mitzvah” in a number of ways: as ethical and ritual obligation, and also, following a Hasidic play on words, the idea of “mitzvah” as “connector.” For the Hasidim, a mitzvah connects a Jew to the Divine. My Reconstructionist understanding of mitzvah is an action that connects me in many ways: to other people, to my ancestors, to the earth, to my own heart and to the Divinity that runs through it all. By embracing the mitzvah of ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz, the mitzvah of loving all who dwell in the land, we take on the obligation of staying in relationship, of staying connected — to that place, the holy land, and to its people — all of its people. Not just for their sake but for ours as well.
So, what does it mean to take this on as a mitzvah? One important step is actively listening and learning. I recently read the biography of Sulaiman Khatib, as told to his friend Penina Eilberg-Schwartz (In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation). Khatib is a Palestinian activist who was jailed during the first intifada, at the age of 14, for stabbing two Israelis. Over the decade that he spent in an Israeli prison, he gained a deep education in revolutionary politics and nonviolent activism. He also had an awakening in relation to his Israeli oppressors. One night he watched a film about the Holocaust. The movie shook him, and he began to read, learning not just about the Holocaust but about Jewish history in general. Eilberg-Schwartz writes: “Certain foundations he’d rested on felt shaken. … Maybe the Israelis were a little right. Maybe they were a little in need of a place. Maybe Zionism was not just colonialism out of nowhere.” [Khatib and Eilberg-Schwartz co-authored the Evolve essay, “To Live This Utopia, For Moments“.]
This realization was the beginning of Khatib’s journey of political and spiritual transformation — a path towards what he calls “collective liberation” — for all who dwell in his homeland. His experience models for me what it means to be truly open to learning about the other, to being willing to have our foundations shaken. I know that this kind of foundation-shaking experience is what many in the American Jewish community have experienced in recent years, as we’ve learned the truth about 1948, about the ongoing Nakba, the “catastrophe” that the creation and maintenance of the Jewish state has meant for the Palestinian people. I think we in the American Jewish community are really at the beginning of trying to figure out how to tell the Palestinian story along with the Israeli story, how to educate our children so that they understand the multiple truths, the difficult truths, entangled in our history.
For some American Jews, those who feel deeply aligned with Palestinian suffering and aspirations, enacting this mitzvah will mean being open to Jewish and Israeli narratives that may not be our own. It entails a commitment to remaining in relationship with the half of the global Jewish population that lives in Israel, whatever our own feelings about Zionism and the creation of the state. It means, ideally, actually going and seeing for ourselves. It means not demonizing an entire nation or an entire people.
Ultimately, the mitzvah of “loving those who dwell in the land” invites us into some radical acts of compassion. It is easy to feel compassion for those with whom we identify; can we do it for those whom we find alien, threatening, immoral? The spiritual practice at the heart of this mitzvah is to identify who I find it most difficult to have compassion for and to begin to practice compassion for them.
I realized a number of years ago that I was feeling little compassion for Jewish settlers in the West Bank who were the victims of violence by Palestinians. I figured that they had asked for it by living there. When I realized my lack of compassion, I was horrified at myself. This was how I had been dehumanized by the conflict. And while I still have deep disagreement with the vast majority of settlers, while I take action when I can to oppose the violence emanating from that community, I also want my heart to be open to their suffering. I want to stop painting all settlers with the same dehumanizing brush. I want to keep my mind and my heart open.
For some of us, the challenge will be feeling compassion for Israeli soldiers interrogating Palestinians at a checkpoint, or for Palestinians whose anger and despair drive them to violence against Israelis. Having compassion does not mean letting anyone off the hook, not holding them accountable for their actions. It does mean recognizing their humanity and trying to come to some understanding of what motivates them. It means that we work to understand how their liberation is bound up with those whom we more readily embrace. It means that we try to understand their suffering, and our responsibility towards that suffering.
I know that this mitzvah I am suggesting is not easy. And I know that realities in Israel/Palestine are far from hopeful in this moment. But my hope is that a powerful segment of the American Jewish community can remain engaged without tearing one another apart. That together we can learn, and together we can support those Palestinians and Israelis who are undertaking the transformative work that all who live in that land so desperately need.
[i] I am using this name — “Israel/Palestine” — to indicate a region that has been known by both of those names historically by Jews, Palestinians and others — Eretz Yisrael and historic Palestine. According to international law, this region encompasses the State of Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The use of this term also acknowledges that for the people who live there, it is a disputed territory that some know primarily as “Israel” and others primarily as “Palestine.” For me, “Israel/Palestine” is a useful, inclusive shorthand for all of these realities.