STOCKBRIDGE, Massachusetts - I approached the Norman Rockwell Museum, a stately monument to pride and shame, unaware that it would be the perfect, if also the most unlikely, of places to think about the Jewish year about to unfold, and to look anew at Israel and Palestine.
Unlikely, because this place celebrates a man who, perhaps more than any other, spoke to Christian and white America about itself. Perfect, nonetheless, because it celebrates the ability to perform the fundamental commandment of the dawn of a Jewish New Year: to reconsider.
This is an uncommon time in Israel, in Palestine, and, no less, in America. All three peoples are engaged in pitched internal battles, in effect, brushfire civil wars, to recast the futures of their societies. Through it all, there is a distressing, very 21st Century tendency, to reduce debates to twitter-worthy sloganeering.
In America, ever the island in the face of war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, war in the Holy Land, and confrontation with Iran, the tone of debate over health care reform is no less lethal than it is in Israel/Palestine
The day I visited the museum, a woman who opposed health care reform was photographed at one of the borderline-violent "town hall" public discussions elsewhere in America, holding a sign reading "I Want My America Back."
A visit to the museum might have done her good. It juxtaposes Rockwell's early works, reinforcements of the myths of a deeply flawed but outwardly self-satisfied society, alongside his later pieces, shocking in their power to reflect the stubbornness and potency of bigotry and injustice. The paintings include Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi), a response to the brutal killing of three civil rights activists, and The Problem We All Live With, showing federal marshals escorting an African American girl to school, the wall behind her stained with hurled tomatoes and the scrawled word Nigger.
A third piece, a prophetic departure, is titled Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ. The 1970 cover illustration of Bethlehem for Look Magazine, foreshadows the dark future of the then-nascent occupation of the West Bank.
This, in sum, was what I learned from my summer vacation: Memory and hope make the best liars.
Like the woman who wants her America back, we, the peoples of the birthplace of Christ, remain hostages to unrealizable hopes and to carefully manicured memories of a past which was vastly more complex than we choose to believe.
The minority of Jews who cannot abide territorial compromise are more than content to keep the rest of us from a future shared with the Palestinians, no matter what the burden or the risk. The Palestinians who cannot bring themselves to accept a permanent state of Israel, effectively keep themselves from having any state at all.
Even for visitors inured to missiles, bombs, and the sound of gunfire in the night, there was something frightening in the television footage of apoplectic opponents of health care reforms, in part because the issue seemed a stalking horse for so much more – in particular, an effort to turn back time itself.
The level of debate, the ferocity of the opposition, appeared incomprehensible. Until, that is, my daughter commented that extremism is a form of mental illness.
On my summer vacation, I came to believe that it is time to put an end to a particularly seductive, endlessly potent form of hope. It is time to put behind us our sentimental fondness for fundamentalism, our childish belief that radical holy men can know what God wants for us, the kind of hope which shrouds our eyes and reduces people we disagree with, to people who are keeping us from having a future.
A hundred years of fighting have proven, if nothing else, that hope for a future in which one side gets all that it wants, and the other goes without, is hope for no future at all.
We know what kind of peace we can expect in the years to come, and it is bound to be, to say the very least, uneasy. We will need to betray our fondest hopes to achieve it. May God speed us in the effort.
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