…An old joke, but it’s actually an effective summary of the nature of Halachic law. The underlying theme here is the idea that everything is truly relative; that nuance, detail and context are crucial to understanding and resolving conflict.
Sadly, Western media is devoid of any of that when it comes to coverage of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — historically for sure — and especially in the latest conflagration, which is the bloodiest in seven years and may even be headed towards a Third Intifada.
The context and history missing from the heated conversation occurring across our screens today is key to understanding the conflict in its entirety. Indeed, it’s impossible for most people to be dispassionate when we’re witnesses images of dead children, and that emotional response is absolutely valid. My hope is that the more people who understand the nuance and the context, the more people who will be able to influence leadership across all factions to find common ground in the quest for peace.
So let’s set some ground rules for this discussion:
- Palestine has a right to exist.
- Israel has a right to exist.
These rules are mandatory.
This conflict is not now, nor has it ever been, black-and-white. And yes, we have to acknowledge this again: It’s okay to criticize the decisions of the leadership factions of both Israel and the Palestinians without engaging in Muslim- or Jew-hate. But it’s incumbent upon everyone who engages on the subject to remain committed to that ideal.
A brief history of Sheikh Jarrah and Shimon HaTzadik
Underneath the rockets and the riots happening now all over Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is a story about a modest neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Palestinians who live there call it Sheikh Jarrah. Jews who live there call it Shimon HaTzadik. It’s a bit like how some Denverites still refer to the “North Side” while others call it “The Highlands.”
The reason for that is because it’s where Simeon The Just’s tomb is located. His Hebrew name was Shimon HaTzadik, and he was a Jewish Kohanim — or high priest — during the era of the Second Temple. He died and was entombed here sometime during the 3rd Century BCE — close to a millennium prior to the birth of Islam itself.
At the core of all of this latest round of bloodshed is a disagreement over the ownership of what amounts to the homes of four Palestinian families. These families face eviction from a group of Jews who lay claim to ownership of the property, based on deeds they provided dating back to 1876 — when their families purchased it from Arab landowner while it was under the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Jews lived in the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood until expulsion by Jordanian forces who claimed it after the 1948 war, and Palestinians moved in.
Israel’s Absentee Property Ownership laws crafted in the late 1960s allowed for Israeli land owners — in this case, the Jews who had been expelled by Jordanian forces during the War for Independence in 1948 — to reclaim their property as long as they could provide documentation proving ownership.
(This is an important point that gets lost in the quick-take nature of social media today combined with the lack of decent world history education in American schools — that Jews have been there all along and are the oldest existing ethnic group in that region. Indeed, the Mizrahim are still the majority Jewish ethnic group across all of Israel; Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardic (North African/Spanish) Jews hold second and third place, respectively (and they are in fact, descendants from the Mizrahi, prior to the Diaspora). This is where Judaism itself was born; Mizrahi Jews have always been in this region and look just like their Muslim brothers and sisters. They make up more than 60% of the Jewish ethnic population in Israel today.)
According to investigative journalist John Kunza, “In 1972, the Sephardic Community Committee (which previously owned the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik) first sued for ownership over a property in the neighborhood, and the court ruled in their favor in 1976. Then in 1982, (Palestinian) residents signed a legal agreement that allowed them to remain in a Sheikh Jarrah property as long as their status changed from owner to tenant and that they would pay rent. Since then, the Palestinian signers say they were coerced into signing and no longer recognize the agreement.”
Lower courts in Israel have ruled against four Palestinian families who have denounced their tenancy status and refused to pay rent over the last several years. Appeals proceeded to the Supreme Court of Israel, which was set to rule on that on May 16. However, amid the sparking violence of the prior week and a request from Palestinian families to have Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s input, the Court agreed to postpone its ruling by a month.
And the flame of conflict we now witness began to smolder. As evictions for those families loomed ever closer, protests sparked a month ago, which eventually snowballed into the raging fire we bear witness to over the last 11 days. This BBC timeline marks the flashpoints.
Today, Israel finds itself immersed in the quagmire of a politically unwinnable conflict that appears to be fanning the flames of antisemitism across the globe, from Germany to London to Spain to Vermont to New York to California where a caravan of Pro-Palestinian activists attacked some Jews in Beverly Hills last weekend…And to say the internet is ablaze on its own would be an understatement.
As an American Jew, I’m watching this latest conflict with heartbreak. It is impossible to ignore the imbalance of power between the factions. Palestinians have been largely abandoned by the rest of the Arab world, and they are a people under rule of a surging Hamas leadership that appears to embrace their destruction as a form of spiritual victory.
This current conflict is a drubbing. And Israel continues to do lasting damage to its own standing under the glare of international spotlights — thanks to ill-advised strikes against targets that included the offices of Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press, not to mention strikes on refugee camps and the resulting horrific death of innocents, including 59 Palestinian children (and at least two Israeli children on the other side) as of the time of this writing.
The excuse of Hamas using children as shields simply isn’t enough. No matter how decisively Israeli military response obliterates Hamas terrorists, dead Palestinian children do far more lasting damage to Israel. And Hamas knows that — each dead child only furthers their mission. The ripple effect of that is to further marginalize Jews the world over. And that surging antisemitism just galvanizes the far-right in Israeli leadership. The cycle continues, getting more polarized and more bloody with each revolution. More children will die. And those children will be Jews and Arab alike.
Golda Meir wrote in her autobiography, “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons. Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” That line of thought carried substantial weight against the backdrop of Israel’s struggle for security in the early 1950s. But the Israel of then is nothing compared to the might it wields today and the defensive capabilities it possesses.
Yet no barrage of missiles, no awesome Iron Dome defenses, no brutal airborne firepower will ever compare to the strength it takes to create a lasting peace. To learn to love the children of the enemy as much as you love your own.
I pray for Israel to find that strength.
UPDATE: Israel and Hamas say they have agreed to a cease-fire, scheduled to begin at 2 a.m. Friday, local time. Hopefully this will stick.