Optimism Now, Apocalypse Later
Tue, 11/30/2010
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

I was scheduling a lifecycle event with a congregant the other day and we ran into a snag having to do with his 27-year-old daughter's vacation schedule. "Oh, sorry rabbi," he said, "that weekend will be impossible. Amy will be trekking in Vietnam."

Come again?

It turns out that she'll be there with a friend, another young congregant who, as I recall, became bat mitzvah the day before yesterday. It also turns out that 'Nam has become an increasingly popular place to visit, to the tune of five million tourists this year, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the highest number in two decades.

It used to be that most Americans 20-somethings who went over to Vietnam did so rather more reluctantly, many returning in body bags. But those who were once terrified of sending their sons are now freely sending their single young granddaughters.

If Americans can be welcomed as tourists in My Lai, it seems logical that Palestinians and Israelis might be able to sip tea together in Ramallah. Why not? As the world continues shrinking, the inconceivable is becoming routine overnight. Thirty-five years ago, when the last Americans helicoptered out of Saigon, who could have imagined a world where one could freely crisscross Berlin or buy matzah in Moscow. If the Pope can endorse condoms, then pigs truly can fly - or at least they can practice safe sex.

A new kind of domino theory is taking hold, replacing the antiquated ethos of the Cold War era. Everywhere we look, walls of separation are crumbling. France and Germany share the same currency, Turkey and Greece share tourists by the boatload and South Africans all share the same multicolored flag. Wherever you look, ancient feuds are melting away. Shimon Peres' vision of a New Middle East seems to actually be happening, at least everywhere but in the Middle East.

Israel long ago got aboard the global gravy train and the dissolution of international enmities has fueled its economic rise. Jews have always flourished in a world without walls. Now we hear that Israel's high-tech prowess might have yielded an enormous security dividend - the Stuxnet computer worm, rumored to have caused extensive damage to the Iranian nuclear program. Add to that the recent discovery of massive natural gas and oil reserves, along with the improved security and economic situation for West Bank Palestinians, and this year's Chanukah lights might just be signaling us to abandon cynicism and believe in miracles again. This time, the peace process could actually work.

After the collapse of Oslo, it's not easy to be an optimist. But guarded hopefulness should not be confused with messianic fervor. Messianism is in fact our greatest danger, for it leads to xenophobia and military adventurism. The rabbis understood that, which is why the name Maccabee, which they came to associate with such adventurism, was virtually expunged from the Talmud.

It's the messianic yearnings of those who detect darker trends in history that threaten to hijack the peace train. Fundamentalism in all its guises is the enemy right now. The Iranian mullahs and their Gazan and Lebanese proxies rank highest on that list - by far. Jewish fundamentalists, while far less destructive, also possess a dark vision of the world, one fueled by visions of apocalyptic devastation, conspiracy theories and a stark delineation of Us from Them, with the definition of "Us" growing narrower by the minute.

And because the haredim and nationalist extremists hold disproportionate sway in the Israeli government, they are especially dangerous. Each outrageous act only serves to isolate Israel more and more in the eyes of the world and American Jewry. If the greatest danger to Israel now is delegitimization, their provocations are only adding fuel to the Goldstone-stoked fire.

The squabble with the Obama administration over the settlement freeze would hardly have caused a ripple if it had not occurred immediately following last summer's Rotem Bill fiasco and the plethora of annulled conversions, the arrest of Anat Hoffman for carrying a Torah, the creeping haredi annexation of the Western Wall, the Jim Crow-like treatment of women on busses and public streets, and talk of loyalty oaths and the transfer of Israeli Arabs. Throw in the repeated insults to Joe Biden over Jerusalem construction and excuse us for wondering if Glenn Beck is running the show over there.

There's been much consternation lately over J Street. A synagogue near Boston even disinvited their president Jeremy Ben-Ami recently, sending a horrible message to turned-off Jews everywhere. But with all the questions raised about J Street, some quite justified, no one has asked how such a "radical, fringe group fronting for Israel's enemies" now counts over 500 in its rabbinic cabinet. I would venture to say that not every one of them is an unwitting lackey for the so-called "Puppet Master," George Soros. Some rabbis are actually fairly bright people.

I know why I was one of the signers, and why I did not disinvite Ben-Ami when he appeared at my synagogue just a week after the J Street-Soros connection was revealed.

I signed because my fear of an Israel driven by dark apocalyptic visions trumps my more limited fear that American Jews are speaking with multiple, conflicting voices.

Israel can survive vigorous diaspora dialogue - it has for decades. But it cannot survive with people at the wheel who think God loves land more than peace, who deny the humane values that Jews have held for millennia.

My concern for Israel is so deep that I am willing to proclaim publicly that the messianists could be messing up the last good chance for peace. I love Israel too much to stay silent.

Miracles happen, and all conflicts end, eventually. Even the Hatfields and McCoys signed a truce not long ago. Our girls are trekking in the very homeland of "Apocalypse Now." There's no reason this pig can't fly.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and writes the Hammerman on Ethics column for The Jewish Week online. He and New York Times “Ethicist” columnist Randy Cohen will participate in a Jewish Week Forum on “Ask The Ethicists” on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El, 10 E. 66th St. The event is free but reservations are suggested. Events@jewishweek.org.

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I have always had great respect for Rabbi Hammerman, and now I commend his courage and clear thinking. Thank you so much for this, Rabbi.
Apparently it doesn't bother the rabbi that PA President Abbas and Fatah as a whole are unwilling to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people --or that the Palestinian leadership and PA find no historical connection between the Jewish people and the Western Wall. Or that the Palestinian leaders are still honoring perpetrators of terrorist acts. Please be realistic, rabbi.

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