Choosing Vision Over Victimhood

May 19, 2021Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

We moved to the rural Galilee from the U.S. in 1990 and found great satisfaction in living in Israel's "laboratory" for Jewish-Palestinian cooperation.  About 50% of the Israeli citizens in this region are Palestinians. Our own village sits in a mosaic of Jewish and Palestinian villages and towns. As a tour educator, I spent my days bringing American Jewish tourists to meet local Palestinians in their villages. Thus, the riots and violence of 2000 came as a shock, and helped me understand that for all that apparent cooperation, there were strong undercurrents of mutual fear – and feelings, on the part of the Palestinians, of exclusion from Israeli society, economy, and centers of power.

The current violent events in Israel have a strong tinge of déjà vu for me. However, over the past two decades, I’ve had the time to envision what a Jewish state might look like, especially focusing on the seeming conflict between "the nation-state of the Jewish People" and a democratic "state of all its citizens."

It occurred to me that one possible antidote to the frustration and despair arising from the current round of violent conflict might be to step back from our narratives of victimhood and focus on a vision. To help do that, here is an excerpt from the conclusion of my book, Contested Utopia: Jewish Dreams and Israeli Realities (JPS), in which I narrate an imaginary birthright trip to Israel in the future; the participants hear a presentation by the Speaker of the Knesset, a Muslim woman. 

Here is what she says:

Her topic was how the nation-state of the Jewish people can be a state of all its citizens. She explained that the sword that had finally cut the Gordian knot of Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the resurrection of the old idea of two symmetrical ethnic nation-states living side-by-side. Each nation has a national home and self-determination; each has a potential place of refuge and a cultural center for members of the nation who live elsewhere. The two are independent democratic states, but their constitutions, which were developed in tandem, contain a number of distinctive features:

  • Open borders: Any holder of an Israeli or Palestinian passport may cross the border without restriction, and stay as a tourist for up to three months; longer stays require a temporary or permanent visa. Israel and Palestine constitute a free-trade zone: no customs restrictions between them.
  • Bilingual communications: Hebrew and Arabic must be taught in all education systems and appear on all road signs and government publications and forms.
  • Minority representation: Each state represents the interests of its national minority living in the other state.
  • Joint governmental administration of select areas and resources: These include the city of Jerusalem; water, pollution and waste management; customs duties; holy sites; intercity highways; and rail lines.

According to her analysis, the turning point came when grassroots movements in both nations arose with the explicit agenda of shifting the discourse from one of competitive victimhood to one of competing visions. Out of this ferment political parties, or factions within existing parties, formed, demanding a leadership prepared to accept the principle of symmetry—that is, that both the Jews and the Palestinians are nations, equal in their authenticity, equal in their right to national self-determination, and equal in their claims of attachment to the Land of Israel. In time, and admittedly it was far from a smooth process, this led to a public and formal acceptance of the division of the land into two states—and also, to acceptance of shared responsibility for the suffering caused by the conflict over the decades. Thus, the way to the tandem constitution was opened.

The speaker spoke movingly of her own experience as a full and equal Palestinian citizen of Israel, able to accept and live with the Jewishness of her state because her identity as a Palestinian draws support and enrichment from the Palestinian national home just a short drive away. The harmony—and open border—and bilingual culture— eliminate, in her opinion, any sense of dual loyalty, or resentment of the Jewish majority culture. Symmetrically, many Jews have chosen to live in mixed cities or in homogeneous communities in Palestine, where they are full and equal citizens.

Utopias, are, by definition, "no place;" i.e., unable to by fully realized. However, they help us keep our gaze on what we want and not on what we have; on what we want to do and not on what we feel compelled to do; on dreams and not on resentment and revenge; on taking responsibility and not on assigning blame. 

If the above sketch isn't congruent with your dream for Israel, take this moment to imagine your own vision of a Jewish state in harmony with the values you hold dear.

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