November 14, 2015 | 2 Kislev 5776
“Palestinian” – What does that word conjure up in your mind… especially in recent days? It’s not very difficult to imagine some of the words and descriptive phrases you and I would offer in response to that question. If we focused on Palestinian leadership, we might use words that I can’t say from the pulpit on a Shabbat morning.
But in polite terms, we would probably express ourselves in these ways: Palestinian leaders lack any worthy values and, as a result, they harm their own people; Through both their silence in the face of violence at times and their explicit incitement of it at other times, they inflame Palestinians; Through their failure to change an educational system that is overtly anti-Semitic, in both its classical ways and its newer anti-Israel forms, Palestinian leadership perpetuates conflict.
I could say more, but in a nutshell, that’s a polite way of describing thoughts that come to mind when the word “Palestinian” is associated with “Palestinian leadership.” But what about the average Palestinian, the proverbial “man on the street”? What images come to mind? We think we know him. He’s a terrorist, a would-be killer of Jews. Do I exaggerate?
Think about it – You hear someone speaking Arabic. Immediately, your antenna shoots up. Your fears may be aroused … and all those negative images come rushing in. Why? Why do we think “terrorist” when we see a person who looks like an Arab or hear him speak Arabic? Why do our hearts beat a little faster? Quite frankly, why do Palestinians scare us? Why don’t we trust them? Why? Because, amidst the undeniable kernels of truth that lie at the root of our concerns, there lies another ugly truth – We demonize Palestinians.
We have taken images we rightly have of irresponsible Palestinian leadership, combined them with sickening images of Palestinian terrorism and applied those images to all Palestinians. The Torah cautions us this week.
“Vayeetrotzetzu ha’baneem b’kirbah …” (Gen 25:22) When Rebecca became pregnant with twins, Jacob and Esau struggled inside their mother’swomb. Their sibling rivalry began in utero!
The medieval commentator, Rashi, gives us a glimpse into how Jacob and Esau’s rivalry became much larger than brothers vying for family leadership. He cites a midrash in Genesis Rabbah (63:6) that captures our tradition’s demonization of Esau and, by association, of the people it understands to be his descendants, the Arabs.
“Vayeetrotzetzu” – In that word, the Rabbis recognized the word “rahtz” – “to run.” In a midrash, they said the following – Whenever Rebecca would pass by the entrance to the yeshiva of “Shem V’ever” Jacob would “run” – he would struggle to come out of his mother’s womb. But whenever Rebecca would pass by an idolatrous temple, Esau would “run” – he would struggle to come out of his mother’s womb.
At first reading, it’s a cute story … a yeshiva in the Torah? Jacob, a would-be Torah scholar long before the Torah and yeshiva exist?! But read the midrash again and reflect on it. Read it with the knowledge that our tradition came to see Jacob, eventually renamed “Yisrael”, as the father of the Jews while it came to see Esau as the father of the Edomites, the Arabs. Read it that way, and the midrash is no longer so amusing. Read other rabbinic commentaries 1500 years ago and you will see an Esau who is portrayed as truly evil despite the fact that according to the Torah, Jacob cheats him out of the blessing of the first – born that is rightfully his! And who initiates reconciliation between these two brothers? Again the Torah is equally clear – Esau!
Nonetheless our rabbis repeatedly demonized Esau. Those images never changed. We have demonized his descendants, the Palestinians.
Today, amidst the very unsettling situation in Israel, to us, all Palestinians are potentially the next stabbers of Jews. Let me be clear. Terrorist acts must be confronted harshly. Whatever Israeli military personnel or police do to stop the perpetrator is justified … practically and morally.
But who is this knife-wielding Palestinian? Is he evil? If not, why did he do this terrible thing? Isn’t it reasonable to ask how his circumstances – his home life, his education, his life experiences, among other factors – have impacted him?
Of course, circumstances never force a person to act in a particular way. He has a choice. But those circumstances can impact him in significant ways. The Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, certainly thinks so.
Earlier this week, the Shin Bet released a report about the people who have perpetrated stabbings in recent weeks. It found that many of those young perpetrators acted based on “national, economic and personal deprivation.” To us, these perpetrators are “animals” and Palestinians are “terrorists.”
But here is a truth that too few of us consider, and the Shin Bet report only reinforces what we already know. Palestinians suffer – They suffer at the hands of their irresponsible leadership, and they suffer because of what Israel must do to protect its citizens.
A young Palestinian is hopeless. He has no job. His freedom of movement is curtailed…and the situation never changes. He has no reason to think it ever will change. That is the agonizing reality of Palestinians on the West Bank today.
Some fall prey to the anti-Semitic education they have received or to incitement and to glorification of terrorism in Palestinian society. But are they really evil? We cannot justify their actions, of course. But we can understand them, and we can curse the Palestinian leadership that has educated its youth to hate.
Someday, God-willing, new Palestinian leadership will arise, and Israel will find a true partner for peace…difficult to imagine, of course, but a vision we must always lift up. In the meantime, however, let us recognize that our demonization of Palestinians will only get in the way of working toward the realization of that vision.
The midrash I cited earlier – Jacob and Esau still in the womb, Jacob struggling to get to the yeshiva and Esau struggling to get to the idolatrous temple – should be a cautionary tale for us today.
Demonization harms and only irreparably separates. It precludes the possibility of any positive future. Stereotypes, especially when events seem to reinforce them, are difficult to change.
So, even as we pray for the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters in Israel, let us confront our demonized images of Palestinians. Then, I pray we will be able to address them.