Based on a sermon delivered at West London Synagogue by Rabbi David Mitchell*
What do you want first, the good news of the bad news? I have good news which should reassure you and bad news which should trouble you. I’m afraid that you’re going to get both, but which would you prefer first?
(The congregation chose to hear the bad news first)
I recently participated in CCJ’s interfaith study tour to Israel-Palestine. The participants on the tour were Reform and Orthodox rabbis, alongside several church leaders, including an Anglican Bishop, a Catholic senior priest, a senior cleric in the United Reformed Church, a Methodist minister, and a senior lay representative of the Church of Scotland. In addition, there were senior leaders from interfaith organisations. Our tour had two aims: The first was for us to enter a dialogue with each other. The second was for this dialogue to be set against the troubled landscape of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
There were two agendas. For the Jewish members of the delegation, and to a lesser extent the Christians, we were trying to get a better understanding of the situation for the near 170,000 Christians living in the Holy Land, of whom just over 110,000 live in Israel proper, 50,000 reside in the West Bank and just 3,000 live in the Gaza strip. The second agenda was for the all members of the delegation to try and get our heads around the unconscious bias we may have when it comes to the Israel-Palestine question. This trip forced us to review our opinions, which are often based on our perceptions rather than on objective facts.
Like the spies in this week’s Torah portion, who were sent ahead to explore the land, we came to the trip with our own ideas. Those spies in the bible were not unanimous in their feedback. Ten were determined to share only the bad news – that the land was full of mighty and heavily armoured warriors, living in unconquerable cities with giant security walls. But two of the spies took a different approach, courageously reporting back a more accurate and positive account.
Unfortunately, we all know that bad news sells better than good news. Bad news is the lifeblood of every newspaper and news channel. People lap up bad news. And that’s what the Children of Israel did after hearing the negative account of the ten spies. This lack of ability to discern fact from fiction cost them dearly, forty years of wandering the wilderness.
I must admit that going on this interfaith trip, I was worried that I would only uncover bad news. But I was wrong, for I have bad news and good news.
Bad News – I’m afraid that the peace process is dead. Since the collapse of Oslo and the start of the second intifada in the year 2000, the Israeli Left has been in terminal decline, today they hold fewer than 6 seats in the Knesset. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority is in a vulnerable position. We met with one of the key negotiators of The Oslo Accords. What became clear from our conversation with him is that there is no credible plan for peace, especially not whatever the Trump administration puts on the table. In fact, the PA cannot even hold democratic elections because of the fear that Hamas will win in the West Bank. In short, the PA is not able to see Israel as a partner for peace, likewise, Israel does not see the PA as willing to play ball, not least because of recent years of violent resistance of the occupation. Shalom Achshav – Peace Now, feels much close to Peace Never!
Good News: in a broken peace process, neither side is winning. The situation for ordinary Palestinians is a miserable one. The situation for most Israelis is a mixture of denial, as they live their lives behind the protection of security walls, alongside despair as the world condemns their disproportional strength. But things are changing. With this collective desolation comes a new realisation that the broken status quo has to change, especially if both peoples are to find that all elusive peace. But that change will not be a simple, quick-fix solution, it will involve honest encounters at every level of society, and it will involve avoiding another regional war, something which I worry is very much on the cards. However, and this IS the good news, lots of people have not given up hope. Certainly, many individuals are becoming more nuanced with their language.
More Bad News: On our second day we visited both an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian Refugee Camp. We asked more questions. In a settlement I asked a resident what he would say to those in the Jewish world who call the settlements a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, bringing Israel and the Jewish people into shameful disrepute. He brushed me off with a religious definition of a Chillul Hashem, showing no recognition for the political disaster being caused by the settler movement. Likewise, having visited the claustrophobic concrete jungle of a 50-year-old refugee camp in Bethlehem, I found myself sitting a few hundred metres away in the marble-clad, spacious municipal offices. I mentioned the stark contrast and asked our speaker whether there was a way to help the wealth trickle down – his disappointing response was that UNRWA is responsible for the refugees, not the Municipality of Bethlehem. Clearly, the existence of the refugee camp serves a political purpose which eclipses the need for humanitarian relief. I’m afraid that both the settler and the politician wanted to perpetuate the broken status quo.
But There’s Good News: Both the settlement and the refugee camp were in areas of limited water. Israel’s development of desalination technology means that there is not a single place in the country where they have to go without water. Whilst the political motivation for sharing water may not always exist, the potential is there to avoid a war over water. Moreover, there are many on both sides of the conflict who are capable of sharing support. We met a small charity called Roots where settlers and Palestinian refugees come together to learn about the other, to dialogue and to build a working farm. It is humbling to see how traditional enemies can co-exist on the micro level. At the Roots farm I kept thinking of the passage from the prophet Isaiah (2:4) about beating swords into ploughshares and spears in pruning hooks.
Last bit of Bad News for now: Cynicism is rife and people have lost their hope. The relentless heat and the relentless heated atmosphere are grinding people down. The graffiti on the separation wall says it all: ‘Nightmare’, ‘Monster’, ‘Cancer’, ‘Jihad!’
Last bit of Good News: There are hundreds of on-the-ground projects which are building a new society at the grassroots. We visited a coexistence school in Jerusalem called Hand in Hand. 50% of students are Israeli Jews and 50% Israeli Arabs. Classes are bilingual, always with two teachers, a Jew and an Arab. Difficult issues are not avoided, but tackled head-on through dialogue. The palpable buzz of friendship is everywhere, from the artwork, to the educational environment. And yet, we were shown a room that, one terrible night, had been attacked by a group of young Jewish extremists. They had broken in to the school, piled up some bilingual Hebrew-Arabic textbooks and set them on fire – graffitiing on the wall – ‘There is no co-existence with cancer’. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished, but not before the room was a burnt-out shell. The next morning hundreds of students, their families, other pupils from Hand in Hand schools across Israel, and dozens of neighbours, came together outside the school to sing songs of peace and to prove that hope will always trump hate.
So that’s the good news and the bad news.
Our faith provides us with a blessing for hearing good news: Barukh Atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech HaOlam, Hatov V’ha-mei-tiv. Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who is good and does good.
Likewise, our faith provides us with a blessing for hearing bad news: Barukh Atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech HaOlam, Dayan HaEmet. Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, the judge of truth.
May we, who live with this awareness of the good and the bad, of the hopeful and the depressing, of the dual narratives, of the injustice and pain on both sides, of the mutual anger, of the welling hope, of the struggle to seek the truth, may we hold both in our hands and in our hearts, so that we are always engaged in a dialogue, not a monologue.
*All views expressed are those of the author who writes in a personal capacity.