D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha & the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of 2010

This is a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2010. Though it is now almost a decade later, and we continue to lurch from Gaza-Israel crisis to crisis, as I just re-read it, it seems very applicable to this time.

In this week’s Torah portion, called Shelach Lecha, we find the Israelites at a critical crossroads in their early history as a free people.  A little over a year has passed since they escaped slavery in Egypt, and they’ve arrived close to the border of their destination – the Promised Land.  God commands Moses to select a team of 12 leaders – one from each of the tribes – and assign them the mission of scouting out the Promised Land. They are to take a full tour of the land, and then return and make a report to Moses and the Israelites.  

Logo from an Israeli winery featuring the Israelite scouts carrying the ginormous grape cluster as told in the Torah story of this week’s parashah.

After spending 40 days scouting out the land, the team returned to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness of Paran.  They brought samples of the land’s produce, including a cluster of grapes so large it had to be attached to a large wooden pole and carried by two men.  

Many of you already know how this story plays out.  The majority of the spies offer a demoralizing report to Moses and the people.  They report that the land is rich and wondrous as Moses had said it would be, but its inhabitants are too mighty and powerful to confront.  There is no hope in making an attempt to enter the land. The entire mission of the exodus is pointless. Going into the Promised Land is a suicide mission.

Upon hearing these discouraging words, two of the 12 scouts stand up and dissent.  Caleb and Joshua confirm that the land’s inhabitants are fierce, but they urge the people to trust that God will ensure their successful conquest of it.  Unfortunately, the masses of the Israelites end up panicking at the negative report of the other 10 scouts, and they turn against the entire mission of establishing their home in the Promised Land.  A popular revolt against Moses begins to simmer. Many of the Israelites even go so far as to begin planning to find a new leader who will take them back to Egypt so they can beg for mercy from Pharaoh.  

God responds to the Israelites’ collective loss of heart by condemning this generation of them to wander in the wilderness for a period equal to one year for each day that the scouts had spent investigating the Promised Land.  God tells Moses: “…your children shall be wanderers in the wilderness for forty years, and shall bear your unfaithfulness, until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:33)

As one of my teachers, Rabbi Avram Davis, likes to say, “Torah is not a book of logic.  It is a book of stories.” These stories live in the realm of mythos – that place in consciousness where sacred stories and images, metaphors and mysteries teach us about things that are ever unfolding in the human experience, things that are part of the fabric of reality with a capital R.  

The story of the 12 spies and the public panic that follows the peoples’ hearing of the spies’ majority and minority reports is a story about how we as human beings face challenges that present us with the opportunity to transform our world from what it is now into what it could be.  As Rabbi Michal Shekel writes, it’s a story about how we sometimes miss these opportunities because of our shortsightedness and our fear of trusting. We have our world as it is now – a difficult and hostile wilderness – and we have the Promised Land just over the Jordan River in front of us.  It’s going to take an act of collective trust, collective courage, for us to cross that river and live in a better world. If only a few among us are able to find that trust, that courage, we don’t cross the river. The cost of that failure of vision, leadership, and collective courage can be steep.  It can put the next opportunity for transformative positive change off by an entire generation.

This story, like so many in the Torah, carries with it the wisdom and timeless perspective on human affairs that can only come from the mythic sensibility, and it offers us much to consider as we continue to try to make sense of the painful and disturbing events that took place in the ocean off the coast of Gaza this past week.  

As one Israeli advocacy organization has put it, “Rarely have we felt as much emotion as in the hours since the tragedy off Gaza’s shores. Few among [us] lack for an opinion or an emotional response – which is natural, human and reflects the diversity of viewpoints [among our people].”

By Free Gaza movement (originally posted to Flickr as OntheWay) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Like so many other terrible moments in the war-torn history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there isn’t even agreement about the basic facts of what happened.  If you listen to groups that historically despise Israel, the story they tell is that the Israeli government sent macho commandos on an attack mission against a non-violent humanitarian flotilla.  Israeli soldiers callously attacked civilian peace activists who were simply trying to bring essential goods to the suffering people of Gaza, who have been victimized by an illegal Israeli blockade since 2007.  According to this narrative, this act of wanton brutality by the region’s mightiest military against civilians on a mission of mercy fits a long-standing Zionist pattern of heartless disregard for the value of non-Jewish lives, particularly the lives of anyone sympathetic to Palestinians.  The world is rightly condemning Israel, these people say, for once again being a militarist and aggressive outlaw regime.

On the other side of the propaganda war, you can hear the voices of the part of the pro-Israel community that detests the Arab world – and there is such a part of the pro-Israel community.  The story they tell is that a flotilla sponsored by an organization with terrorist ties set out on a mission to provoke a fight with Israeli forces, in the hopes of creating a PR disaster for Israel.  They succeeded in part thanks to the anti-Semitism of a bunch of European and Third World governments that rushed to judgment and issued unfair condemnations, using typical moral double standards to judge Israel more harshly than they judge other countries or even themselves.  Meanwhile, the Israelis, who’ve maintained a legal blockade of Gaza because Hamas has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians, had gone out of their way to let the flotilla know that, while they would not permit them to go to Gaza, they were willing to unload and pass along to Gaza all their humanitarian aid supplies except for those items that could be used to attack Israelis.  When the Israeli soldiers, armed primarily with paint guns in order to avoid fatalities, attempted to board the ship, they were mob attacked with improvised but still dangerous weapons, and in an act of self-defense they shot and killed some of these so-called peace activists.

Both sides have YouTube videos backing up their versions and their world views.

These two narratives are mirrors of each other.  What they have in common is the loathing and dehumanizing of the other side.  And in the extremes both narratives go to to dehumanize and demonize the other side, they both reveal their ridiculousness.  

I mean seriously.  Could it really be that those Israeli soldiers who slid down those ropes onto the decks of that boat did so with the thought in their minds that what they really wanted to do was kill people?  That out of a desire to be brutal and callous, to massacre defenseless civilians, the Israeli military sent small teams of young people onto these boats – young people armed primarily with paint guns and with instructions to steer the boats to an Israeli port?  I mean, if the evil Israeli military machine really just wanted to kill the people on board the boats, wouldn’t they just torpedo the boats and sink them? Why take the risk of boarding the boats? If you’re nothing more than a brutal, colonizing, racist oppressor, why make a plan involving paint guns, direct human contact with the activists, and the redirecting of the boats to an alternate port?  If Israelis have no conscience and no sense of Palestinians’ humanity, why agree to unload the cargo and pass most of it along to Gaza? Why not just say “they’re our enemy, we’re at war, forget it. No aid to our enemy.” This line of propaganda hopes to keep people in the progressive community from asking relevant questions about the flotilla and about the blockade – questions like, “Why is it that the organizing group behind the flotilla has ties with militants and has historically hoped to find a way to disrupt the Israeli-Turkish relationship?” And questions like, “What would you do if an organization like Hamas took over territory next to your country and vowed to fight for your destruction, invoking a mix of rigid political and religious ideology?  How would you defend against that?” This line of propaganda especially wants to suppress this last question, because this is the kind of question that causes people to humanize the Israelis – to identify with their predicament even if they don’t end up agreeing with their actions. Once people have humanized Israelis, it becomes harder to buy the ideology that says they have no right to exist.

And going the other direction, we find a similar dynamic.  Are we really supposed to believe that all the activists aboard the flotilla were pseudo-terrorists bent on martyring themselves just so they could put Israel in a negative light?  And that all the countries in the world that have come out against what Israel did are completely wrong, or even anti-Semitic, because they have a problem with a state launching a commando mission against civilian vessels in international waters, or because they have an ethical concern about the impact of Israel’s blockade on Gazan civilians?  Israelis themselves are openly questioning the wisdom and the ethics of this mission and of the blockade, and they have no illusions about the motives of those who organized the flotilla.  Just look at the Israeli newspapers. And yet this line of propaganda hopes that we in the American Jewish community will suppress the question of whether Israel went beyond what is necessary to defend itself.  The justification for suppressing this very natural question relies on recasting the people aboard those boats as cartoons of humans – terrorists, terrorist sympathizers, or the useful idiots of terrorists. But surely this is an oversimplification that seeks to distract us from many important and relevant questions.  Whatever the ideologies of the people on these boats, and whomever sponsored the flotilla, at the time the boats were boarded by Israeli navy personnel, the people on board were civilians on a cargo vessel in international waters. The pro-Palestinian politics, or the hopes for confrontation by some of the activists on these boats, shouldn’t negate reasonable questions about whether there were other ways Israel might have dealt with its end of the situation.

What both of these propaganda spins do is the repeat and reinforce a way of thinking about the conflict that leaves everyone wandering in the wilderness, potentially for yet another generation.  This is where our Torah story may be helpful to us. You see, for our moment in history, the challenge of our people isn’t to find a way to enter the Promised Land. We’re there. If you’ve got a little bit more than $1700 and a US Passport, you can drive to the Eugene airport and celebrate next Shabbat in the Promised Land yourself.  (If you do, please bring me back some Elite brand instant coffee and that chocolate spread that they make that’s kind of like Israeli Nutella.)

The challenge isn’t for us to get ourselves into the Promised Land.  No, for us the seemingly insurmountable challenge is achieving peace and greater justice between us and our neighbors.  When we do that, we’ll have crossed the Jordan River and entered a new and better reality.

The Israelites Cross the Jordan River (Josh. 3:1-17), from Doré’s English Bible (1866)

The Gaza flotilla disaster, and the ensuing media spinning by the Israel haters and the Israel-right-or-wrongers is analogous to the moment the 10 scouts gave the demoralizing report to our ancestors in our Torah story.  This heart-sinking moment is a potential trigger for a collective loss of hope among us – a collective loss of hope that comes on the heels of a decade of increasing despair and cynicism.

If we listen to the loudest choruses of voices; if because of this tragic event we give in to despair and lose hope that there truly is a Force in the universe that bends towards peace, reconciliation, and justice for us and for the Palestinians, then we risk dooming yet another generation to this agonizing violence and hatred.  To cross the river into the Promised Land of peace and human dignity for Jews and Palestinians, we need to listen for those thoughtful, quieter voices that haven’t come unglued during this crisis, and those voices are certainly in the minority right now.

These are the voices that are reminding us that this crisis grew out of a larger situation that is unsustainable, a larger situation that produces these kinds of crises.  These are the voices that honor the Jewish ties to our holy land while simultaneously honoring Palestinian ties to a land that also is their home. These courageous voices in the minority are saying to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike: “don’t rush to judgment,” “don’t write your enemy out of your heart,” and “now we must take the scary step of embracing new ways of thinking about the conflict.”

These courageous, minority voices have scouted out the future of peace and co-existence, and this is what they saw: a state of Israel and a state of Palestine living side-by-side; a Muslim world finally accepting the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland in the region; an Israel finally ending its role as an occupying power.  They saw the energies of both of these creative and gifted peoples being put to positive purpose. They’ve seen this new Promised Land, and the obstacles to getting there, and they acknowledge that the challenge is daunting. But they’ve glimpsed that it’s possible, and that God exists and wants to help us, but we’re going to have to take some risks and trust.  Now is the time to listen to these quieter, humanity-affirming voices. Now is the time to re-engage, to support groups that are doing Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation work on the ground; to support American policies that urge all the warring parties towards peace talks; and to support those who are in the trenches, day in and day out, trying to help us all get to a new land of milk and honey, speedily and in our time.

Shabbat shalom.

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