I fall in with a foreign journalist: "Were you just at the High Court?" I nod; we’d both attended the first hearing of a case which has since led to demolition orders on the entire Palestinian village of Susiya, which pre-dated the West Bank settlement of the same name by generations.
"I like it in Israel," she says, "But I felt so much more hope in Cairo. Are you hopeful?"
"Yes," I answer, "Because I think there’s nowhere else in the world where so many people per square kilometre care so deeply for their ideals as here in Israel."
A moment later I go into a hairdresser’s. "For donating to the children with cancer at Zichron Menachem?" asks the barber, picking up the pony-tail he’s just cut from a young girl. She nods.
That’s what inspires me, a rabbi who visits Israel two or three times each year from London. There may be plenty wrong here, with food security, health care, education, but there are always people struggling to make it better. Later on I meet a representative of Leket Yisrael and learn of the seven hundred thousand meals they provide the hungry every year. Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t have dared say "There’s no such thing as society" if she’d lived here.
But the question about hope haunts me.
A member of Rabbis for Human Rights, and with friends in Ta'ayush, I go out to the South Hebron hills. We stop at a small Bedouin village. Above are the houses and young green trees of a settlement. “Everything here has a demolition order,” a young man tells me, “only we don’t know when it’ll be carried out.” I ask myself what there’s left to demolish; surely not these tents, meagre shacks, goats, donkeys in the heat, people with little hope? “The settlers complain about the smell,” the friend who accompanies me says. But, unlike in the settlers’ homes, there’s no running water here and no connection to the national grid. I’m shown an unfinished cistern: “The rock’s hard and no-one would dare bring a digger down here for fear of being set upon.”
We meet a group of Italians in the village of at-Tuwani who come from Operation Dove, an organization committed to non-violence which has been present in the region since 2004.
"We make sure the soldiers fulfil their commitment to accompany the Palestinian children to school," they explain. "They have to pass between two settlements and have sometimes been attacked." I don’t feel great as a Jew realising that foreigners have to oversee the basic safety of children in the Promised Land. The Italians have since themselves been attacked.
The worst is to come. We drive off the highway on dust tracks to the Bedouin village of al-Araqib, which finds itself in the middle of the JNF's new Ya’ar Ha'Shagririm, the Ambassadors’ Forest. Scarcely could a place be more ill-named; this is disastrous diplomacy for Israel. The Sheikh explains that the village has papers from the Ottoman, Mandate and Israeli authorities.
Then I’m shown video footage of its destruction. Many hundreds of soldiers gather; the apparatus of the State is thoroughly involved. Houses are crushed, trees ploughed up, ducks waddle disconsolately by, children pick at remnants of their homes. What seeds are being sown in their hearts? A few families hang on determinedly around the cemetery, “Israel can’t destroy that.” I’m told the villagers were handed a bill of two million shekels for the cost of the destruction; I don’t want to believe it, it resonates too badly. “Judaism is about justice,” says my friend to the Sheikh, leaving the rest to silence.
Sometimes I think there’s a basic ideological conflict here. There are the neo-Darwinists, who consider that survival is all and that it depends almost exclusively on the most effective use of force. Then there are the ethicists, who believe that right and wrong have power too. Surely the essence of Jewish teaching is that outcomes are secured "not by might," but by justice and compassion for human dignity. If that is true, then how can these be the actions of the Jewish State?
I feel afraid, as well as horrified, as we drive away. Wrongs don’t just disappear; they have an after-life. Injustice eats at the foundations of societies and sooner or later the consequences will out. As a believer, I don’t consider that one can discount the functioning of moral law in history.
So do I have hope? What commitments does Zionism entail today? I won’t join those for whom criticising Israel is the cloak by which they legitimise their bigotry and who attack whatever the country does. I will speak up against them for the necessity of Israel’s existence, for its remarkable achievements, courageous ideals and numerous inspiring initiatives.
But I also feel a moral compulsion not to be silent or inactive when ancient Jewish ideals are undermined by blatant injustice. Love of Israel, hope for Israel’s future, forbids it.
Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and has strong family, communal and charitable connections with Israel.
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