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The Third Option
Mitchell Plitnick, USA
July 19, 2002
As I write these words, it is the waning hours of Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of
the Month of Av, the most profound day of mourning in Judaism. Tisha B'Av
commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temple. The First Temple, or the Temple of Solomon, was said to have been destroyed as
punishment for the Israelites' forsaking of God (if it existed at all, which
current archaeological and ancient historical evidence does not support,
though it does not blatantly contradict it either). The Second Temple,
Herod's Temple, is said to have been destroyed because of what is called in
Hebrew "sinat khinam", genera hatred. We certainly do know that the first
century C.E. was a time of intense competition and conflict in Judea, with
many different groups (including Christians) vying for supremacy and pushing
their completing claims to being the "true Israel". And we know that much of
the destruction of that time was wreaked not only by Romans but by different groups of Jews against each other.
It was with this ancient history in mind that I saw, in the Israeli
newspaper, Yediot Akhronot, that a leading settler rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, had
stated that it was permissible for commanders to execute soldiers who
refused to serve in the military. Other rabbis, even radically right wing
ones, disagreed with this statement, but it haunts me, just as the
statements of some rabbis justifying Yigal Amir's assassination of Yitzhak
Rabin haunt me. The idea that the Second Temple and the ensuing exile were a divine punishment for "sinat khinam" should be a cautionary tale for rabbis,
and other orthodox Jews. Yet as violence continues to spiral out of control
in Israel and the Occupied Territories, we Jews who speak for peace, for
justice and for what we see as the only ethical path face recriminations,
harassment and threats of violence and even death for doing so.
As a Yeshiva-educated Jew who has chosen a secular path, but still remaining very much a Jew, my view of the destruction of Herod's Temple is somewhat different from a traditional rabbinical view. Yet whether one approaches the events from a theological or from an historical viewpoint, the fact that internal strife was a central cause of those events is inescapable.
Traditionally, rabbinic Judaism drew two major lessons from these events.
One was the peril of anger raging out of control, "sinat khinam". The second
lesson, drawn from the disasters brought on by those factions that insisted
on fighting the Romans, was that Jews were meant to endure their exile
passively. This was expressed in the concept of the "Three Oaths", one of
which enjoined the Jews not to rise up against the Gentiles until God
determined that our exile was to end. It was this tradition of passivity
that Zionism, in both its secular and religious forms, rejected. Zionist
historiography takes pride in the actions of the Zealots who fought Rome; in
Bar Kokhba who led a revolt that succeeded for a short while but then
brought an even greater defeat to the Jews; and in the last of the fighters
at Masada, who preferred to kill not only themselves but their families as
well rather than surrender to Rome, all episodes generally viewed negatively
in traditional Jewish texts. Zionism determined that Jews needed to defend
themselves and to acquire the strength to be able to do so most effectively.
In my view, we need another option. The traditional passivity led European
Jews to one exile, one persecution, after another. And, while Jews in the
Islamic world did not suffer anywhere near that level of persecution, their
fate did vary according to the times and the whims of different rulers. The
militaristic approach has led to Israel being born out of a war that led to
the exile of many hundreds of Palestinians, to a 35-year-old occupation, and
to the violence that has accompanied Israel's existence all along. It has
led to many Jews falling into the trap of blind nationalism, supporting
Israeli actions no matter what, and has recently brought a sharp increase in
anti-Semitism around the world. Both the traditional and the Zionist
approach to the dilemma of Jewish life and security have at their center a
view of Jews as apart from the rest of the world.
Progressive Jewish movements in both Europe and the United States in the 20th century saw Jewish tradition, whether religious or cultural, as
demanding civic involvement and advocacy for social progress. Many Jews
continued to be rooted in their traditions, and their religion, while still
seeing themselves as part of larger communities, as citizens of their
countries. It is this aspect of modern Judaism that we need to reclaim, and
to enhance and develop. We must not head back toward traditional passivity.
Indeed, we do need to ensure that the pogroms, the expulsions, and the
murders, right up to the Holocaust, that we have endured are not repeated.
But at the same time, we cannot do this by becoming that which has harmed
us. Not only have we seen that this re-ignites the flames of that very same
hatred, of vile anti-Semitism, but more importantly, it turns us into the
oppressors of others. If there is anything worse than being the victim of a
grave crime, it is being its perpetrator. No moral reckoning that I can see
can justify our acting to secure ourselves by causing so much harm to
The way forward, the third option, is to stand, in strength, with others, to build with those with whom we live, a better future. That is the way forward for Jews, in the Western Hemisphere, Europe and, most crucially, in Israel as well. The only way out of the abyss Israel finds itself in today is to
build the future where Israelis are part of the Middle East community, not
as a hegemonic power, and not as an occupier, but as citizens of the region,
with no less and no greater rights than their Arab brethren.
Mitchell Plitnick is the Newsletter Editor of A Jewish Voice for Peace, a San Francisco Bay Area grassroots organization dedicated to the human, civil, and economic rights of Jews, Palestinians, and all peoples in the Middle East.