Uk’ratem D’ror Ba’aretz: Proclaim Release throughout the Land
After another news-filled week, I thought it might be nice to take a break from thinking and talking about American politics and instead focus on something less fraught: Israeli politics. All kidding aside, this week marks a significant milestone: it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. To refresh all of our memories: Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1967, the nineteen-year old State of Israel was on the precipice of non-existence. As author Yossi Klein Halevi describes it, “On May 16, 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt evicted United Nations peacekeeping forces along the Israeli border and remilitarized the Sinai Peninsula…. Six days later, Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s southern shipping route. Arab leaders promised Israel’s imminent destruction. Syria and Jordan began massing troops along Israel’s borders. In Arab cities, demonstrators chanted, ‘Death to Israel.’ Newspaper cartoons depicted massacres of hooknosed Jews. Cairo Radio’s Hebrew-language program advised Israelis to flee while there was still time.” And so, on June 5, 1967, in response to the imminent threat of attacks by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel launched a preemptive strike. In just six days, Israel decisively won the war on all three fronts and tripled the size of its territory, taking control of Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Old City and East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. Jews once again had access to our holiest sites, including the Western Wall. The Six-Day War was a stunning, almost unbelievable triumph for Israel. It was a cause for pride and celebration for Jews around the world. American Jews and Jewish organizations now proudly proclaimed their Zionism. In the years that followed, 1,000,000 Soviet Jews were inspired to fight for the right to emigrate to Israel. Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, writes, “There was sheer elation at the swift and conclusive end. Israel crushed Egypt, Jordan and Syria — countries thought to be militarily powerhouses in comparison with the Jewish state. Israel, little Israel, David to the Arab Goliath, was victorious, virtuous, united. For Jews far away in America, the Six Day War became a dramatic turning point, reshaping ethnic and religious identity and rekindling pride. The stunning military victory legitimized Israel’s moral right to exist.” Eisner vividly captures the awe and sheer euphoria of the Jewish community in 1967, and the pride many Jews still feel today in such a seemingly miraculous triumph.
And yet. This week marks not only the 50th anniversary of the military victory, but the 50th anniversary of one major result of that victory, the occupation of the Palestinian people and territories. What does “occupation” mean? It means that the 2.6 million Palestinians living in the West Bank are not citizens of Israel or of any country. In the best circumstances, their travel is restricted to Palestinian-only roads and checkpoints, their work is limited to where they can get permits, their political involvement is reduced to voting in local elections, if they’re lucky, and they are under the jurisdiction of Israeli military courts for everything from traffic violations to stealing a carton of milk. At worst, their land is confiscated, their homes are raided or demolished, and their bodies are threatened by violence. And if you are tempted to believe that this worst-case scenario is reserved for Palestinian terrorists, I will just tell you that my seven-year old niece, whose father is Palestinian (and not a terrorist) and who spends time in the West Bank every year, is afraid of anyone in a police or military uniform. She remembers the Israeli soldiers who burst into her house without warning or purpose three years ago. After pulling my niece away from her father and shoving her into another room, then harassing and intimidating my niece’s family, the soldiers left. There were no injuries or damaged property, but you can imagine how a four-year old might be scarred by such an experience. This is life under occupation.
This week, you could read countless articles on the meaning of this anniversary and analyzing the causes of the occupation and what should be done about it. You will not be surprised to hear that there is no consensus, although the one thing that did seem to be a common theme is that a peaceful and just end to the conflict seems as unlikely as ever; no one is particularly hopeful that a solution is on the horizon. As Aaron David Miller writes for in The Atlantic, “[A]t the core of the impasse is a reality that shows no signs of changing: the gaps on the core issues—1967 borders, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state—are Grand Canyon-like.”
It is so tempting to stare into this Grand Canyon-like abyss, throw up our hands and say, “I give up.” As in American politics these days, it is all too easy to look at the current state of affairs in Israel and fall into cynicism, resignation, anger, or despair.
There are no easy answers, but I did find one interesting way to frame the questions. T’ruah, an organization of rabbis and cantors from all denominations who work together to promote human rights, has suggested that on this anniversary of the Six-Day War, we look to our Jewish sources and explore the biblical concept of yovel, the jubilee. According to the Book of Leviticus, every fifty years, a yovel or jubilee year was declared as a sort of reset button, in which all debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and land that had been sold was returned to its original owner (Lev. 25:8-24). As T’ruah explains, “Through the Yovel Project, Jewish communities are exploring the Jewish concept of yovel—the biblical cycle of fifty years meant to shape our relationship to the land and people around us—as a way to get unstuck, and perhaps to bring about a new and better reality for both Israelis and Palestinians. This project does not aim to offer an ancient prescription for contemporary political challenges. Rather, we ask, in dialogue with the vast textual richness of the rabbinic tradition, how entering yovel-consciousness might shape our understanding of our contemporary moment.”
It is not altogether clear to me what, as T’ruah calls it, “entering yovel-consciousness” means, although it does sound like something my dad was into in the 60’s. And I am not confident that studying an ancient and probably imaginary institution like the yovel can bring peace to the Middle East. But it does do one important thing for us: this passage, like the shofar that is sounded at the beginning of the jubilee year, is a piercing wake-up call, awakening us to our values and our responsibilities: Here is what Leviticus says about the yovel: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family… Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Eternal am your God. You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security…. But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land” (Lev. 25:8-24). The commandments for the yovel are surprisingly resonant in our current circumstances: “Proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God.” “Faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security.” And finally, “The land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” Studying this passage reminds us of our ideals and calls us to recommit to them, to realize them in whatever ways, large or small, we can, even when it seems impossible to turn them into reality.
So on this fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War, let us remember and proclaim that these are our values: that the Jewish State should be secure within its rightful borders with none to make us afraid; that Palestinian lives are every bit as worthy and precious as Jewish lives, and therefore the Palestinian people should also have a state in which they are secure and free; that a truly Jewish State would be not only a haven for Jews, but also a haven for Judaism and Jewish ideals; and that even when it looks like there is no hope, it is forbidden to despair. As the Sikh activist Valerie Kaur (“core”) reminds us, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” And as Theodor Herzl reminds us, “Im tirtzu, ein zo aggadah.” If we will it, it won’t be just a fairytale. Peace and justice in Israel and Palestine may be a fairytale today, but someday, they will be a reality. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be God’s will, and, even more importantly, may it be our own.