Donate to RNS

There is a stain on the Jewish soul

Yes, I am ashamed of what happened on the West Bank. But it does not define my Judaism or my Zionism.

A Palestinian man walks between scorched cars in a scrapyard, in the town of Hawara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, Feb. 27, 2023. Scores of Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage in the northern West Bank, setting cars and homes on fire after two settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman. Palestinian officials say one man was killed and four others were badly wounded. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

(RNS) — Once upon a time, there was a group of Jews who lived in Russia. It was the early years of the 20th century, and being somewhat urbane and sophisticated people, they had a group of gentile Russian friends. Everyone got along great.

Until one evening, they all got a little drunk, and they started opening up to each other.

One of the Jews, Berl, asked his Russian friends: “Tell me, because I would really like to know. What do ‘you people’ think of us Jews?”

Ivan fielded the question. “By ‘you people,’ I assume you mean we gentiles, yes? Actually, come to think of it, we like you very much.”

Berl said: “Really? That’s great to hear! But, is there anything about us that you don’t like?”

Ivan thought for a moment. “Well, now that you mention it, there is one small thing. Sometimes, you can be a little pretentious and presumptuous. Like, you think that you’re better than us, that you have some kind of exalted moral purpose.”

To which Berl responded: “But, it’s true! We Jews are morally better than you Russians! We do have a higher moral purpose!”

“See, that’s exactly the problem! Why must you insist that you are better than us?”

Berl responded. “Well, you see, it’s like this. You Russians hunt. We Jews don’t hunt. That’s it. End of story.”

To which Ivan laughed uproariously. “You silly, pretentious Jews! Of course, you Jews don’t hunt! We don’t let you own guns!”

The rest of the evening passed in silence.

I retell that story, partially in memory and in honor of the late Leonard “Leibel” Fein, one of American Judaism’s greatest writers, pundits, public intellectuals and activists.

Leibel died in 2014, and no one has replaced him — his voice, his quick way of turning a phrase. More than almost anyone else, he was the man who made me want to become a Jewish writer. I was lucky enough to call him a friend. I miss him on a regular basis, often asking myself: WWLS — What would Leibel say? — about what we are experiencing in the Jewish world today.

Leibel loved to tell that story, which he might have invented himself.

And, he added a coda to it.

Whereupon the group turned to Berl and said: “Tomorrow we pack, then go up to the Land, to Jerusalem, and there we shall prove that even with guns we will not become hunters.”

That was always the hope and that was always the promise — we might have to defend ourselves but we would never become hunters.

I tell myself that story today, as I contemplate the horror that has happened in the northern West Bank city of Huwara. In the aftermath of the killing of two Israelis (as well as an American citizen, Elan Ganeles, who grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut),  Jewish settlers went on a rampage, torching dozens of homes in that city. This is happening within the context of larger civil unrest in Israel, with protests against the government coaxing hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets, jamming the nation’s highways.

There is only one word that is adequate to describe what happened in Huwara — and that is “pogrom.”

Apparently, the “pogromchiks” interrupted their mayhem long enough to pray the evening service.

The irony is too large, too painful. “Cause us to lie down in peace,” they would have prayed. Just “us” Jews? Not the citizens of Huwara? Are they not worthy of lying down in peace, of a restful night?

Few have put it as eloquently, and as starkly, as Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum of Kehilat Zion, a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem:

What happened in Huwara is a mark of Cain on Jewish morality and the State of Israel. And if we do not stand up to this together, as human beings, as siblings to all human beings who were born in the image of God, we will not be allowed to stay. The land will vomit us out. The Torah will vomit us out.

Once upon a time, we might have imagined Jews would be incapable of such things.

But that was naive. At this season — on Feb. 25, 1994, erev Purim — Baruch Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and shot up the mosque, killing 29 worshippers and wounding an additional 125.

This is the Kahane-inspired man whom Itamar Ben-Gvir idolizes, whose photograph he had venerated. This is the sort of person whom certain elements of the current Israeli government admire, and is their ideal Jew.

What text rings in my ears and in my soul?

It is the closing moments of Genesis 34, to the story of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah. If you have read Anita Diamant’s famous novel, “The Red Tent,” then you know the story.

Dinah was raped by a Canaanite prince, Shechem, whose name is also the name of the place where it happened — the modern city of Nablus, on the West Bank. Dinah’s brothers retaliate against the people of Shechem. They kill them all.

When their father, Jacob, learns of what has happened, this is what he says to his sons.

“You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my fighters are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

To which his sons answered: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

That dialogue contains and defines the inner Jewish moral conflict.

The brothers perceive the attack on their sister as an attack on them and on their masculinity. Out of a sense of their own powerlessness, they have acted horrifically, in a moment of violence that goes above and beyond anything imaginable or credible.

But, focus on Jacob’s initial response. This is what he was saying:

You have not only perpetrated this horror on the people of Shechem. Your actions implicate me, and therefore, you. Your actions have sullied our reputation, our moral core, our narrative which we are still in the process of creating.

Yes, we are vulnerable to attack. But, we are also vulnerable to the consequences of what we have done and vulnerable to what the surrounding nations will say. Because it goes on our permanent record.

Jacob is the ancestor — not only of the Jewish people, but of a certain inchoate Jewish attitude toward our own actions, a self-corrective, that antique Yiddish expression that our grandparents used and we might have forgotten — that sense of  “past nischt “— that there are some things Jews just don’t do.

Are you looking for a little bit of redemption?

Here it is. An Orthodox Jew and Israeli left-wing political activist, Yair Fink, a former Labor Party candidate, launched a crowdfunding campaign for the residents of Huwara. He has raised more than $400,000, with the sum still growing.

In his fundraising appeal, Fink mourned the murder of the brothers, Hillel and Yigal Yaniv, and then wrote: “Even in our place of deep rage and sorrow, we must never lose our humanity. That is not our Judaism.”

He is right. This is not our Judaism. This is not our Zionism. This is the yetzer ha-ra in action, the evil inclination. This is no more Judaism and it is no more Zionism than Jan. 6 was Americanism and democracy.

We speak of tikkun olam, of repairing the world.

We must now speak of tikkun ha-am, repairing the Jewish people.

And, yes, we must speak of tikkun ha-medinah, repairing the Jewish state.

And, with it, tikkun ha-hefesh — the repair of the Jewish soul.

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!