From ‘Is’ to ‘Ought’: An Open Letter to Peter Beinart

by Bonna Devora Haberman

Thank you for contributing passionately to the conversation about Zionism. The significance of Israel to American Jewry is indisputable. As different communities of the Jewish People evolve, many of us still feel that our fate is vitally linked. Understanding our mutual relationship better and sharing our challenges with caring and commitment is a welcome proposition. As we engage, let us be conscious that our terms, analysis, and prescriptions are not theoretical, but about people. While our lives are intertwined, our families, communities, and nations are very far from one another; our risks and responsibilities are quite different. I offer some observations that arise from the intersection of your ideas with the daily experience of this conflict in which my life is immersed — body, mind, and soul.

Like you, I am concerned about children. I parent a medical intern, past and present elite commandos, an officer-engineer in Israeli Intelligence, and a border police commander. Serving two to six of their prime years in the IDF, they are often called upon to negotiate among competing core human values in real time. Our kids strive to uphold the full dignity of every person — with feminist and ecological conscience — even as they put their lives on the line. I do not propose to speak for Palestinian parents and children – their own voices must be heard. In many hours I spend with Palestinian high school students, young people, and women, I find readiness to change our painful pattern. I recently attended a women’s Muslim Friday prayer service, and later that evening led a hundred Jewish and Muslim women dancing and singing together the traditional prayers welcoming the Jewish Shabbat. Surrounded by oppression and conflict, our hearts and muscles sore from enmity, we struggle with the heavy burden of protecting and saving life while we stride toward peace and joy.

Neither the end of the occupation, nor Palestinian statehood will erase the challenges of Zionism in this region, though we fervently hope that they will ease. Nor will the end of the occupation and Palestinian statehood ease American offensives and vigilance against inimical forces in the Middle East until the Arab world attains a more open, accountable civil society and government; full and equal citizenship and progressive education for women and men; respect for diversity; commitment to non-violence; peaceful development; and responsible participation in global affairs.

A couple of years ago, I left the academy to put my effort to Israeli society. Together with a Palestinian partner, I co-direct an activist community theater project, YTheater. We create provocative performances and workshops in Arabic and Hebrew that enable growth through collaboration with and beyond words. This work is rooted in our unmediated face-to-face encounter and embodied exploration — rehearsals for better living. We persevere through ruptures, probe despite disagreement, reformulate our routines, experiment and re-invent our emotions, roles, and behaviors. Our goal is to immerse Israeli and Palestinian communities in mutual awareness and compassion, experiment with alternative narratives, incubate hope, and equip with tools for responsible decision-making and fresh initiative. Together, we can be far more creative than to be “caught in the jaws of a pincer” that you describe.

When we speak of Zionism, let us aim to be transparent about the very human predicament we all share – failure to fulfill our ideals. At a personal level, and as nations, we too often inhabit the zone of “is” rather than “ought.” Addressing threats and violence ethically, resolving conflicts responsibly, dealing with difference with integrity, protecting and providing for minorities, weak, and vulnerable people — these are some mightily challenging endeavors for which America, Israel, Palestine and every society must be more accountable.

Many Americans and Israelis often find “liberal” values poorly represented by our governments, their priorities, policies and practices. Bombings, shootings, racial profiling, arrests, prison systems, immigration rulings, exploitation, waste, unfair distribution of resources, discrimination in services, opportunities, and power are some of our failures to fulfill the commitments we espouse. These systemic problems are no less urgent or real for Americans and Palestinians than for Israelis. Palestinians are active participants and partners — in conflict and necessarily in resolution. The complexity of Zionism in particular and statehood generally exceeds flashy slogans (“nondemocratic Israel”) and polarizing dualisms (Jewish Israel v democracy, Jewish v Arab Israeli, Obama v Netanyahu). Humbling ourselves to inquire, work, and strategize together to better fulfill our ideals, let us join hands and focus our efforts on the difficult but exceptionally rewarding immigration from “is” to “ought.”

This op-ed was originally published in The Times of Israel and can be viewed here.

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