CLAL Special Features Archive

Welcome to CLAL Special Features where you will find articles by guest columnists and roundtables on hot issues and special topics.

Our authors are especially interested in hearing your responses to what they have written. So after reading, visit the Special Features Discussion.

To join in conversation with CLAL faculty and other readers click here.
To access the Special Features Archive, click here.

The Ethics of Jewish Power Today

By Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Part III

United Jewish Communities: 2000 General Assembly

11/11/00 to 11/15/00

Full Text of Speech by

Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg

"The Ethics of Jewish Power Today"

(and ensuing question and answer session)

(TAPE 2, SIDE 2)

[When you see the] videos of the Israeli soldiers [being lynched] it would be a very honest understatement to say they are animals, but if one would say they, meaning all Palestinian Arabs, are in fact animals and should be treated that way from here on in, that's where it violates the fundamental assertion of Jewish tradition that every human is an image of God, that they are unique and equal and deserve to be treated in their own right, and not lumped together, particularly not in degrading images that would make it easier to mistreat them next time. Keep in mind moral statements are not just theoretical statements. If I think they are animals, I am much less willing to be sensitive to their requests, sensitive to their humiliations or their slights, sensitive to their legitimate requests, and I am going to be much less worried if I accidentally or deliberately overshoot or overkill. So the key to preserving Jewish moral dignity is a continuous process of one, not demonizing the Arabs. It's bad enough when they are not demonized. I'm not saying we should paper it over. When I describe what they are doing, what they are saying, but not seek to evoke in the people or in ourselves a kind of a hopeless generalization you can't trust any of them, you can't deal with them, they don't keep their word, so anything goes. Now it's a very thin line to walk, and I realize it's difficult, but we are trying to explore together what I think would be an adequate moral response to this moment.

Last but not least, I believe - and I think the prime minister should say it every day - he should say - in fact, it's in Israel's declaration of independence. What they said in the declaration was: here we are surrounded, being invaded. At a time of war and threat. We hold out our hand in peace and friendship to all the Arab peoples of the Middle East and ask them and offer them partnership and peace. I think the Prime Minister should every day - there's nothing more heartbreaking in my job every day than to come to the office and realize that you don't make peace with us so we can't make peace with you. It's heartbreaking to me every day that soldiers (remember Golda Meir's famous old line) we'll forgive you for our soldiers that you killed, we'll never forgive you for making our soldiers kill others. I think that has to be said every day to ourselves and to the Arabs; even if they don't listen.

Now I do believe that as long as we're strong enough and as long as we keep our political support high enough, the Palestinian Arabs will have to come to grips with the fact that they are going to have to live with Israel if they intend to seek their own dignity. At moments like this there is clearly an upsurge of hope on their part that they don't have to, but I believe our strength is such that they will have to, and therefore the most likely prospect is that we're in for a few years where there seems to be no obvious outlet, no obvious breakthrough possible, even though I think we have to continuously offer to negotiate. And the key will be (this is the covenantal plan I started with) not just love but commitment. You have to have enough commitment to hang in there and not to let despair take over. Because when despair takes over you start lashing out and you start degrading and you start doing awful things.

I'm sorry, I didn't think I would talk this long because I want to give you a chance for comments, questions and responses, but I do want to allow myself just three minutes about American Jews' relationship to Israel. I have spoken the whole time - it's a covenantal ethic of power. Covenant starts with love and commitment, but Rabbi Soloveitchik about 40 years ago wrote an essay in which he tried to define what does it mean when we share a covenant together. What is my obligation under the covenant to the person who is my partner? He said the Jewish covenant/brit has four elements. If you share those four elements then you are truly observing the covenant. He said one is shared history, meaning that when something happens to a Jew somewhere else, I don't say that's their history, I say it's my history. The Holocaust didn't happen to them in Europe; it's my personal history and I identify with what happened and I'm committed to keep it alive. I'm committed to learn the lessons, I'm committed to make others come to grips with what happened there. So shared history. Secondly, he said shared suffering. If a Jew is in trouble, I share their pain. If Israel is tormented politically or morally struggling, I share that pain. I don't say they are making a mistake or they are doing wrong. I take this personally and I share in that responsibility, which is why I have an obligation to give feedback as best I can. So shared pain. But I can go a step further. Shared pain means if Jews are in danger, I don't say well I'm lucky, they're thousands of miles away so I'm not in danger. I'm willing to share that danger. I'm going to come back to that. Third, there is shared responsibility. In other words, if they are in trouble and need help, I feel that responsibility even though I myself may not be directly in danger. Fourth, shared action. I actually act on that responsibility. I don't just talk, I do something. That's concrete.

Now I want to speak directly to the shared pain and to shared action. The hotels, I am told, are 10% full right now in Israel and obviously there has been a collapse of tourism. I understand why Christian tourism should stop because people when they go off on tourism they are having fun and they don't want to have to worry about security issues. But I would argue that Jewish tourism cannot collapse under those circumstances because that means you are just another tourist. But in fact the central point is shared pain and shared action. So I would argue that the community really has to ask not, (and by the way many communities have done this - it's wonderful to send solidarity missions) but I don't think that quite cuts it. What we are really talking about is mass tourism. And again I understand. I didn't go because I'm very busy right now, but I made plans, we'll go in a month or two. So that's real also. It's not going to go away in a month or two.

My last example here (and I was told not to say it, but I'm going to say it anyway) we have this Birthright Israel program which you may have heard about. There are 7,500 college students registered to go in December, with 17,500 on the waiting list, and so far there are very few cancellations. Now it's true, people tell me it's because they don't forfeit their deposit for another 3-4 weeks, so it will probably happen in December. But I honestly don't believe so. I'm counting on three things - one is that maybe they're a lot more Jewish than we give them credit for in understanding what I'm saying about sharing faith. I'm counting on the fact that when you're in college you don't listen to your parents. So when your parents tell you not to go, to spite you will go. I'm counting on that secondly. And thirdly, I'm counting on the fact that if the first group drops out, there's 2 times that on the waiting list. I'm counting that between all three, we'll get there in a full complement. I was told what else I shouldn't say and it is my complaint. Someone made an obvious suggestion - the community should stand up and say well I think if 7,500 go, it's an incredible statement of solidarity right there. We should announce that we're going to raise money and we're going to provide for another 2,000 or 5,000 students to go so it won't be 7,000, it will be 12,000. [Applause] I appreciate your applause but the overwhelming bulk of the execs said don't even bring it up. As it is there's a big fight going on, you know Birthright is taking too much money. You're not going to loosen them; you're talking to the wall. But I really think it's wrong. I really do. I feel it's not like, thank God, I'm not speaking in the tone of that they are about to be wiped out. Thank God we're not at that point, so I understand people don't feel quite the same urgency as after the Yom Kippur war when Israel came that close to being destroyed. But are they in danger; really of a different kind? Not of destruction, but of isolation? Of losing the sense of hope? Of the capacity - are these actual dangers? The answer is obviously yes. And under those circumstances it seems to me that there is a kind of a moral obligation; or, to put it another way, Jews of Diaspora have to decide are we lucky and do we want to exploit that we are not on the firing line? Or in some sense in Jewish history, is there a way in which every Jew who shares the covenantal commitment is on the firing line? Again, I don't want to make a comparison. It's a great firing line to have to stay at the King David Hotel. I can think of slightly less ideal circumstances in the Israeli Army or some other army so I don't want to be over dramatic, but sometimes it doesn't need dramatic drama, it doesn't need life risk to express the fundamental point. The ethic of Jewish power in the end will depend on our capacity as Jews to draw upon moral reserves. A) to keep the dream strong because we still believe that peace and life win out. And at some point if we're strong enough there will emerge a partner who will understand that that's the way to go. Secondly, if we have strong moral reserves during the period of frustration, defeat and setback one will not go out of control but will exercise the most prudent, responsible, flawed but moral behaviors and that takes reserves. And last but not least C) to continue to proceed when there is no clear immediate promise of a good outcome.

I wanted to finish with that point. I can never get over the wonder of this. For 1800 years, Jews said next year in Jerusalem. I understand the first year they said it - after - in the year 71 - I understand why they said it. I understand by the year 80. But I often asked myself by the year 100 or by the year 200 or by the year 1000, did nobody ever get up and say what do you mean next year in Jerusalem? I mean, based on statistical probability, it hasn't happened. They said this now for 879 years; we've said it now for 1922 years and it still hasn't happened and why do you still say it? That's what I mean by commitment, where love is backed by commitment. The obvious answer is, and you know as well as I, that 1978 years later, it actually came true. Or to put it another way, there are times when the ultimate strength comes from having the inner hope and the inner confidence to proceed without losing our values and our goals and I believe eventually you get there.





Please note that the following are Rabbi Greenberg’s answers to various questions from the audience.  Unfortunately, parts of the questions themselves were inaudible on the tape as indicated by lines (blanks) in the text.

Q:  For a long time I’ve been thinking about your comments that I’ve heard before that mean a lot to me, and when I look across at people who put their children on the front line, it’s hard for me to synthesize that with any part of the equality between us.  How do you work your way through that? 

YG:  The question was how do you reconcile treating people as your equal and unique and with full respect when they send their children on the firing line, and clearly, are literally sacrificing children in order to make a political lie or propaganda advantage? 

Let me say first of all: 180 people, let’s say 150 of them are children.  I don’t want to make it sound cynical or cruel to say it that way.  I assume that for every child that was killed, there are 10s or 20s or even 100s out there that are in fact demonstrating but don’t get hurt, and thank God for that.  But if you add it up, it still adds up to what 1500 families or 10000 or I don’t know how many families have sent their children to demonstrate.  That leaves a lot of families who haven’t sent their children to demonstrate.  And we have to start with that reality.  In other words, yes, when I saw those quotes and they are appalling and they are frightening and they are horrifying.  You know, a mother says I lost this child and I can’t wait until my second child becomes a martyr because that’s ______.  Now frankly, when we look back at this period, Islam someday, I don’t know if it will be 100 years or 1000 years from now.  Islam will be deeply ashamed of this period.  It’s not just the last year.  In other words, you had a period now of 40-50 years when in the name of Islam there has been preaching, not only terrorism and murder of innocents, but also genocide in the name of Islam.  And during this period there has not been a serious sustained moral criticism from within the religion.  That the religion has, on balance, either been silent or has generated a kind of gleeful or more enthusiastic practice of these practices. 

Also, that in the interim we have to look at – part of my sadness now is that Jewish religion also had to play a very great role. _______________ that from the traditional sector in our religious community has been overwhelmingly with Gush Emunim in a kind of triumphalism that has not taken Arabs all that seriously or in out and out, I mean Ovadia Yosef, one of the great rabbis of the 20th, now 21st century, that he allowed himself to say publicly you know they are a bunch of snakes and so on, is really a disgrace.  And someday, and he is one of the giants of halacha, and I have an enormous respect for many of the things he has said and written.  But a fact is that a person of that stature could do that, it’s a tragedy – and it’s a terrible measure of where the religion has to go.  Or to put it another way, we have a lot of work to do with our own religion as well.  And much of the strength morally has come from modern culture or from the Jewish community that has modernized this religion.  I’m not proud of that but I’m happy it’s there.    And I think traditional Jews should listen and learn from that too.  So I recognize this. 

But again, if you will take seriously the point that a) many families didn’t send their children, b) there’s a culture that’s encouraging and saying you’re allowed to do this and it’s a mitzvah to do this but that’s a culture that should be criticized and checked.  You can’t allow yourself to say therefore, either I’m allowed to act equivalently or I’m allowed to sort of write it off.  Now what hope do I have that it can get better?  The reality is that in fact Judaism and Christianity have gone through major periods of confronting their own moral questions under the impact of modernity.  I think that as democracy, as modernization comes to the middle east, you will get similar trends in Islam.  And I think without glorifying modern culture that this is what we have to work for.  Will it take a year?  Will it take a century?  Will it take a millennium?  I don’t know.    As long as we’re strong, I think we have to have the patience to do that. 


Q:  I’ve heard three people on the same topic _____________ past few days and if I were an Arab _____ they’re attacking us _____________

YG:  I appreciate your point.  I just want to get a chance -- Mort you want to make the comment now or later?  I will respond to that -- it’s a good point. 

Q:  There is no occupation of Arab people and it is ___ to make that statement...___________ barren land where no people live.  There’s no occupation.  You better understand that too.  Secondly _____________.  After reading the book by the Holocaust fellow, Goldhagen, _____________ Germans hated the Jews more than ____________.  When you look at the ____________ done by the Arabs themselves three months ago, ______________ when the question is asked ____________ you support a monster from the Israelis.  87% of the Arabs say yes when you ask them do you support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state 77% say no.  When you ask do you support a ____________________ weapons 91% say yes so we must understand _______________ that the vast majority of ____________ Arabs for whatever reason _____________ have enormous antipathy toward the Jews so we talk in generalities about Arabs being vicious to the Jewish people, not willing to ___ Palestine _____________ Israel, __________ it’s true.  I don’t understand _______________ broad general statement __________________ 87%. 

YG:  Let me respond in this way.  We want to have a chance to hear a variety of viewpoints here -- it’s very constructive.  Let me just come back to the initial point here.  I said before there will be a political shift, I believe, because the voters will say that since you made that risk and it didn’t work, you have to try something else.  I believe, to the extent that the Israeli voters believe, that the present behavior grew out of a reading of Israel somehow being weak or somewhat weak, -- to that extent there is also likely to be a political shift. 

Having said that, I don’t believe that if Netanyahu is elected or Sharon is elected that they will do a policy much different than the present one and there is no evidence in what they are saying.  The fact is when Netanyahu was in power, in many ways he carried out all the commitments and all the policies of the government before him.  Now again, I don’t want to say 100% because on specifics including, not to be dismissed, on the Temple Mount, I could see why there would be a great hesitation on their part to do it -- although I think in the end people are going to realize that there is no other way to work this out but through some division of sovereignty.  But having said all that I want to come to the main point.  We can’t live with illusions and I was not trying to give you a pacifist version of Judaism at all.   

The question here is, and this is essentially different, unlike Germany where they all hated us, where the Jews were isolated and individualized and then victimized, we are in the most powerful nation in the Middle East.  That’s the fact of life.  Now you don’t want to be irresponsible here; you don’t want to leave yourself totally vulnerable.    But given that truth, I think the rest of what I said follows from that.  The real challenge is to be strong enough to work this through until a partner comes along that is willing to revise.  Now I haven’t seen the specific study you referred to, Mort; but three months ago and six months ago the survey showed that reluctantly, reluctantly -- I have no illusions that they all love us -- a significant majority of the Palestinians were prepared to go the route of peace, to explore these kinds of commitments.  And I believe that by not following through, you have unleashed a lot of the old worst, most regressive tendencies.  And that’s why I say it may take years until we rebuild a sense a realism on both sides.  I keep stressing this, the ethic of Jewish power starts with the most ethical basis of power is - what - a balance of power.  Because even if you feel hateful and if you feel evil, you can’t act out because the person on the other side is strong enough to protect himself.  So to me, that’s the beginning of the moral rebuilding of the Middle East.    That there’s a balance of power in which we are clearly too strong to be destroyed.   

Now where do we go from there?  My answer is it’s equally a challenge (as we work and wait for those partners to come up) not to be corrupted in the process ourselves.  And part of the real issue here, really it’s very difficult -- had Barak not made those kind of offers and had the same kind of intefada, whatever they’re calling it now, this one there would be a very serious division in Israel right now.  And Israel would be far weaker in my judgment than it is right now, not just politically with the world, but with its own people.  It’s very hard to live under constant siege for 45-55 years.    If people do not feel a sense of confidence that they are fighting, not for some extra piece of territory, but for the dignity, security and right to live on their own, if people do not have the confidence that their government really tried everything, and therefore they had to go out and shoot kids, you have to -- not because there’s some bloodthirsty or unthinking or unfeeling government, but because we’ve tried everything else and if that’s the last resort, then you do it as little as you have to.  If we didn’t have that, I think we’d be in far worse; so this is not a question of weakness.   And if the Arabs would read that as weakness, it’s the same weakness they make when you read in a free press or democratic press, criticisms of the government.  It turns out that free countries we have lots of criticism and lots of debate.  I don’t consider what I said a criticism, I consider it to be an assessment.   The honest answer is they turn out to be far stronger, with far stronger support and far stronger commitment from their army than all those dictatorships. 

Q:  __________ 

YG:  The choice to live and the choice to what -- is no longer ______ meaning what? 

Q: __________

YG:    I didn’t hear Rabbi Steinsalz, but someone referred to the fact that Rabbi Steinsalz said Israel is a tool, it’s a means, it’s not an end in itself.  And then you raise the question whether at some point is the means so expensive that it’s no longer valid or justified -- in other words, then the death or the suffering it takes to keep it going, makes it no longer valid or justified.    What I want to say -- I’ll give you my optimistic answer and my pessimistic answer.   

My pessimistic answer would be that frankly even if you thought so, if the Jewish people ever surrendered or left Israel, I think the existence, the security, and the dignity of any Jew around the world would be down the tubes equally.  To me, one of the most shocking things, I have to say, we visited our daughter who’s in Brussels temporarily and I was really shocked at the extent of anti-Semitism in Europe.  In other words, I realized I had been living a fantasy too.  I’m so spoiled by America that I kind of thought worldwide where there is democracy, there is kind of anti-Semitism on the way out.  Well it turns out it is not that simple.  And in Europe you have not only severe anti-Semitic behaviors, you have violence and actual threats and so on.  And there is no doubt in my mind that, God forbid, Israel was in danger, the people in Europe would be immediately in much greater danger.  And I believe, in the long run, American respect and American dignity, which is remarkable, and there’s nothing in the culture right now that suggests that it is waiting to come out; nevertheless, I honestly don’t believe that that kind of a moral example shown, would not profoundly affect negatively the standing of American Jews.  So the answer honestly is, is there such a thing as too much cost for Israel?  My answer is, is there too much cost for life?   

Jewish tradition says that you are supposed to choose life, but there are circumstances under which you only can choose life by risking death or by taking on death.  It seems to me that we are so far from that stage in Israel where the cost is too high I think the question almost answers itself.  In other words, the overwhelming consensus of Israelis as well as American Jews -- you haven’t had a mass yeridah; you haven’t had a mass backing away – so I think it’s overwhelmingly clear the opposite.  That sometimes the way you treasure life more is when you realize how precious and how vulnerable it is.  Okay, I’ll take one last question. 


Q:  ___________ 

YG:     Well, again I appreciate you raising the question for another reason which I want to communicate to all of you too.  To the extent I think one of the errors when they analyzed the political behavior the last 2-3 years, and I want to credit you know, Scharansky pointed this out months ago.  When people analyzed the mistake, one of the fundamental mistakes made was on not making a much bigger fuss out of the continuing teaching of hatred.    I think it’s true. It was a kind of a feeling, in part, we’re hoping to get there -- once we get there, they’ll stop doing it.  Or, there was, in part, the fear or the belief that in fact they do hate us but if we have a deal, we’ll protect ourselves.  Let’s just get the deal.  In retrospect, one of the reasons Arafat didn’t make the deal was because the people were still being taught hatred and he would have lost his own standing if he would have flip-flopped, so to speak.  So I agree with you that before there will be a serious peace deal, there will be serious revision of teaching and of public speaking about Israel as part of that deal.  I have no doubt that that is going to come.   

Having said that, I want to come back to the basic point -- what basis do I have for optimism and faith in this matter?  My answer again is that people in Germany hated France with an unqualified bitterness; they had three wars within 40 years.  But when the physical circumstances, peace, prosperity, etc. changed between these two countries, there was a fundamental -- there is still some hostility of Germany to France and vice versa, yes, but it’s not genocide, it’s not murderous.  Now again, Germany has the advantage of being a modern country and Islam has not revised its teachings in the same way.  So again, I’m not asking for naivete or for simple faith.  What I’m saying is that record of history shows many times, if you have the right structures -- the right structures are Israeli political and military strength and incentives and structures that encourage Arabs to revise their teachings and to revise their behavior, -- this is not a pipedream, this is the reality itself.  And it has functioned in a limited way for these 20-30 years.   

(COMMENT FROM AUDIENCE.)  Excuse me, the problem with your suggestion in the end, past suggestion, if there is no hope what’s the alternative?  Obviously we either drive the Arabs out which is what you just hinted in the last comment, or (I’m not accusing you, I’m just saying that’s the hint implicit in that) or, secondly, the alternative is that you simply live as Sparta for the rest of history.  Now I don’t think personally that that does justice to either the Jewish people and its desire to live and its capacity to live.  In other words, I think it’s a far more morally and religiously promising approach to say I can live with nuance and I can live with attempts at moving, shaping and reshaping politics and culture and economy, because it’s been done before, it can be done again.  If we’re strong enough, then I believe we can.  So I want to end just on that note.   

It’s never a note of simple hope.  Jewish tradition believes that you have to back ideals with realities.  That’s what covenant is all about.  So clearly, the key to my hope is that the Jewish people will remain strong, that Israel will remain strong.  But I believe strength does not mean that you whitewash or paint in one color (blackwash) the enemy or the opponent.  I think .the strength is our ability to recognize our limitations, our flaws and to correct them regularly.    The most moral people have Yom Kippur every year -- they confess sins and they clean up their act. I think Israel has shown a remarkable moral balance, even in this situation, not easy to uphold.   If we keep our moral guard up and if we keep our self-strength and our self-correction high, I believe Israel will win through.      Thank you.

Due to the length of the speech it is reprinted here in three parts. Click on the links below to read parts one and two.
Pages: 1 | 2 | 3


To join the conversation at Special Features Discussion, click here.
To access the Special Features Archive, click here.
To receive  CLAL Special Features column by email on a regular basis, complete the box below:
 Receive CLAL Special Features! 

Copyright c. 2001, CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.