A shack housing a family whose home in the village of Umm al-Khair was demolished by Israel, seen in 2012. (Photo/Wikimedia-Friends123 CC0)
A shack housing a family whose home in the village of Umm al-Khair was demolished by Israel, seen in 2012. (Photo/Wikimedia-Friends123 CC0)

Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the kaleidoscope

When I arrived in Israel last summer to study to become a rabbi, I knew I had arrived in one of the most complex regions of the world, but I was prepared for outrage.

I’m a millennial who grew up in liberal circles in San Francisco, and like many people with my background, I have been convinced for a long time that Israel treats the people of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unfairly.

I believed it was important to hold onto the simplicity of the injustice of the conflict, for the approach of civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis had made a deep impression on me.

In a 2017 podcast, Lewis explained his motivation for risking his life for the civil rights movement in a straightforward, relatable way. After he described segregation in the South, including “whites only” waiting rooms and segregated seating on public transportation, he said plainly that he had “tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and he didn’t like it.” Lewis’ explanation of his motivation seemed to illustrate how moral clarity can propel great historic change.

Soon after I arrived in Israel in July to begin my studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, I saw plenty of obvious examples of the injustices Israel perpetrates against Palestinians.

On one occasion, I watched a televised World Cup game in the community center of Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian village that was slated to be bulldozed by Israeli authorities because it was built without permits that are almost impossible to obtain. (The Israeli government later backed down from its plans, but Khan al-Ahmar’s long-term status remains uncertain.)

Another time, I went with a few classmates to Umm al-Khair, a Palestinian village south of Hebron. As we got off a bus, we saw a curious collection of mangled pieces of corrugated metal and various other debris scattered around the village’s community center. Despite possessing documentation that they bought their land legally decades ago, the villagers found that every time they built permanent structures on their land, Israeli authorities demolished them. We learned from one of the courageous leaders of the village, Awdah al-Hathalean, that we were looking at what was left of bulldozed homes.

And yet during my time in Israel — and particularly through my studies at HUC — I have been struck by how Israeli perspectives can complicate basic narratives about the conflict. By learning more about the history, I have come to better understand the common view held many Israelis that their country is surrounded by hostile neighboring states.

Last month, my class went on a field trip to Netivot, a city of about 33,000 a few miles from Gaza. We met with therapists who work in schools to help children navigate the trauma that comes with the periodic rocket attacks from Gaza.

On another occasion, one of our teachers showed us the street where he witnessed the goriness of a terrorist attack that blew up a bus. I later learned that two years before that event, in 2002, there was a suicide attack against Israelis basically every week — 47 in total that year.

As writer Matti Friedman articulated in January in the New York Times, Israelis tend to see the conflict as regional. Israelis point out that the many wars in the country’s history — including Israel’s existential scares of 1948, 1967 and 1973 — were fought against hostile countries surrounding them. So while many liberal American Jews think of Israel as a powerful country that can afford to ease up on security policies that unjustly affect Palestinians, most Israelis still see Israel as vulnerable.

I’ve also gained a better appreciation for the safe haven Israel has offered Jews, including in the decades after the Holocaust. Some of my classmates and I visited the Museum of Babylonian Jewish Heritage in Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv and learned about the more than 120,000 Jews who immigrated from Iraq to Israel in the early 1950s. God only knows what would have happened to these Jews had they stayed in Iraq.

As I consider how Israelis see the conflict, I often think back to John Lewis speaking out directly and clearly against the injustices he experienced.

This prophetic voice, of course, runs deeply through Jewish tradition. The Prophet Isaiah wasn’t caught up in the nuances of ancient tax collection or the public policy of resource allocation when he excoriated the Jewish people to “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.”

As my year in Israel comes to a close, my intention is to hold at once the complexity and the simplicity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In doing so, I don’t mean to conflate simplicity with Palestinian perspectives and complexity with Israeli ones. There is a richness to many Palestinian analyses of the conflict, while the injustices of rocket attacks on children and terrorist attacks on innocents speak for themselves.

There are certainly segments of the American Jewish community that don’t speak out against the occupation because they are underinformed, just as there are simplistic and uninformed narratives that come from the far left. While this definitely means condemning those who call for the destruction of Israel, it also means being skeptical of reductionist slogans, such as the claim that Israel could completely end the blockade of Gaza tomorrow if it wanted to.

It is important especially for us liberal Jews not to lose ourselves in the complexity of the conflict or to use it as an excuse for inaction. The expansion of settlements is wrong and must stop. Demolitions like those in Umm al-Khair are immoral. We must not only name these injustices but also assess our communities’ complicity in those policies.

For example, the Jewish National Fund — an organization with a longstanding connection to many liberal American Jews — has been playing an active role, according to news reports, in evicting a family from its East Jerusalem home in order for a settlers’ group to take control of the property.

After John Lewis described on the podcast the injustices perpetrated against him, he explained how he studied the history of social movements and how his movement used a disciplined, nonviolent strategy.

Today those on the far left need to learn from this discipline and craft intellectually rigorous and reasonable messaging. And those closer to the center must not lose sight of the moral imperative of action. The lives of many are stake, as is the character of the Jewish people.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.