Torah says you can be for Israel... and for Palestine
A two-state solution reflects the Torah’s call for justice, says Rabbi Elizabeth Tivkah Sarah, ahead of Israel Independence Day next week
Life/death; blessing/curse; good/evil; love/hate; peace/war; left/right; black/white; right/wrong — the list of binary oppositions is endless. On the face of it, it may seem entirely reasonable to make sense of the world in binary terms: does the Torah not, indeed, urge us to “choose life” and “good” — and reject “death” and “evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15ff)?
The trouble with these binary choices is that sometimes they force us to choose between right — and right. The logic of binary thinking dictates that when there is only one singular right possible, the other contender must be wrong.
And so it is with Israel/Palestine: if I am “for” Israel, I cannot also be “for” Palestine; but the fact is I am for Israel and Palestine — and for bona fide Jewish reasons.
The binary impulse found in Jewish teaching as elsewhere, is not, as it happens, the dominant motif. Indeed, Jewish teaching embraces both particularistic — that is, Jewish people-centred — and universalistic concerns. The problem is, Jewish individuals and denominations often choose to emphasise either the particularistic or the universalistic; either/or — another binary affliction.
The case for Israel is well-rehearsed. Equally, the case for Palestine — made on the part of those caught up in the flip side of the binary trap — is also well- rehearsed. But there is another approach, which, rather than “taking sides”, acknowledges the just claims of both Israelis and Palestinians.
If we return to the source of Jewish teaching, the Torah, we find that the long narrative of our ancestors’ journey towards the land promised by God is accompanied by a framework of legislation fuelled by an ethical imperative.
At the heart of the Torah, we find this week’s parashah, Kedoshim, known as the Holiness Code, which opens at Leviticus chapter 19. Most of the chapter is taken up with a series of ethical injunctions. Towards the end, we find these verses (19:33-34):
“And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger that sojourns with you shall be like the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal, your God.”
The Hebrew noun for “stranger” here is, actually, “sojourner” — ger — which is related to the verb, yagur, “sojourns”. Rabbinic law understands ger as “proselyte”, that is, one who converts to Judaism. However, clearly, these verses suggest, simply, that a “sojourner” should be treated like one “home-born” (ezrach) — which is rather ironic: the Israelites are not home-born; they did not originate in the land; they were sojourners in the land of Egypt –— which is why they should not wrong other sojourners and, indeed, rather empathise with them.
As we read in Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 23:9): “And a sojourner you shall not oppress, for you know the innermost being [nefesh] of the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Parashat Behar underlines the point in the context of the legislation concerning the Yovel, the Jubilee year, by making another one (Leviticus 25:23): “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and settlers with Me — ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi.” Sojourners in Egypt, the people of Israel are also sojourners in the land — because the land belongs to God.
This year, we read Parashat Kedoshim on the Shabbat morning before Yom Ha’atzmaut, and we begin reading Parashat Behar on the Shabbat afternoon that follows, less than two days later. This juxtaposition gives us pause for thought.
For Israelis, Yom Ha’atzmaut marks a joyous moment, the birth of the modern state of Israel; for Palestinians it marks naqba, the day that ushered in “catastrophe”. It is only possible to reconcile these two opposing narratives by recourse to justice. We read in Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:15): “You shall not pervert judgment; either by showing favour to the poor, or by deferring to the great; in justice shall you judge your people, amitecha.”
In justice shall you judge your people — only your people? Verse 18 seems to reinforce the message: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Eternal — v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, Ani Adonai.”
But if the system of justice applies only to the people Israel — and “neighbour” here clearly means a fellow-Israelite — why does the Torah in the same passage, as we have seen, go on to specify that Israelites must not wrong the sojourner (33)? And why, echoing verse 18, does it exhort Israelites to love the sojourner “like yourself”, kamocha (34)?
Ultimately, justice is impartial. We read in Deuteronomy, in Parashat Shoftim (16:19-20): “You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons; neither shall you take a gift; for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, so you may live and inherit the land, which the Eternal your God gives to you.”
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof”, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”. In Hebrew syntax, the verb usually comes first; here, the noun, justice, tzedek, is placed in advance of the verb for emphasis: justice you shall pursue: But why the repetition of justice? In the context of the preceding verse, the repetition emphasises the point about impartiality towards both sides in a dispute.
We could leave it there, but the phrase that follows brings us back to the land: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so you may live and inherit the land, which the Eternal your God gives to you.” Again: the land belongs to God — not to the people of Israel: “You are sojourners and settlers with Me” (Leviticus 25:23); inhabiting the land is conditional upon the execution of justice, and that includes the just treatment of the other sojourners: the non-Israelites.
So, justice, justice you shall pursue — justice for the Israelis; justice for the Palestinians; two sovereign states, both pursuing justice.
Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah is rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue