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Jewish World Review April 12, 2001 / 19 Nissan, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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In Every Generation

Coping with the reality that the conflict will endure -- THE notion of a problem without a solution is utterly alien to the American way of thinking. The stereotypical 19th-century American was a person who had a gadget for every form of work and a hard-headed solution to every conflict.

Jews, too, tend to be appalled at the idea that there are some things that cannot be fixed. For us, it’s not so much a “can-do” spirit that will conquer all, but our predilection toward messianic solutions to the world’s problems that makes us “cockeyed optimists.”

Judaism is a civilization and a faith that gave the world the concept of the End of Days, in which justice will prevail throughout the Earth and all will acknowledge the sovereignty of our Creator.

Some of us take a pietistic view of the universe, and think that nothing much good will happen until the arrival of the Messiah. But the keynote of Jewish intellectual and cultural life of the past century has been the idea that we can change the world and make justice prevail in it even before the long-delayed Messiah makes his appearance.

Jewish intellectual contributions to secular left-wing ideologies, such as socialism, bore the marks of this faith-based conception of a perfectible world. Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, also bore some of the marks of messianism, with its desire to create a “new Jew,” and revolutionize Jewish life by making a powerless and homeless people sovereign in their ancient land.

But along with our messianic urge to perfect the world came an impatience with its imperfections. Those who think they can change history believe they can do anything. That is especially true for those who believe they are accomplishing such tasks without heavenly aid. Such hubris has led to the commission of some of the worst crimes in human history.

Yes, there are some problems with no easy solutions. But attempts to solve them with a bold stroke will often cause even more sorrow.

And there’s no better example of this than the conflict in the Middle East.

As we celebrate Passover this year, the idea that there is no end to warfare between Israelis and Arabs weighs heavily upon Jewish hearts. The events of the last seven months have put an end to the optimism that prevailed for the previous seven years about an imminent end to the conflict.

Rather than looking upon the peace process as a manifestation of the “Next Year in Jerusalem!” refrain that closes the seder, we are now left stuck on a much earlier passage in the Haggadah: “For not only one enemy has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us … ”

Though the Haggadah follows this sentence with the promise that G-d will “rescue us from their hand” as he did in Egypt, the certainty of a future in which there will be no shortage of enemies is a tough pill to swallow.

And it is one many of us have tried, at all costs, to avoid.

But in the aftermath of the latest incidents in Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat’s war against Israel, there is no getting around the fact that all of the goodwill in the world will not bring about peace. Arafat rejected former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s ridiculously generous offer of a Palestinian state in more than 90 percent of Judea and Samaria — with half of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount thrown in! Today, only those bent on self-deception can pretend that Arafat’s goal is peace.

We didn’t need to see the pictures of a 10-month-old Jewish baby shot down in cold blood by a Palestinian sniper to confirm that remorseless violence against Jews has become part of the culture of Palestinian Arabs. But now that we have lived to see such a thing, who can pretend that the battle between Jews and Arabs over that tiny strip of land is merely about borders?

We also didn’t need to watch videos of the latest attacks by suicide bombers in Israel — whose deeds are lauded by Arab crowds and leaders, then rationalized by Arab writers on the opinion pages of newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer. But now that we have seen them, how can we refuse to admit that the future will be a long, hard fight for survival, with no messianic photo-op in sight to conclude it.

So how do we go on living under such a shadow? Throughout the debate over the fallacy of “land for peace” that came to be accepted as the only solution to the standoff between Israelis and Arabs, the peace camp within both Israel and American Jewry challenged their opponents to come up with a viable alternative.

Though the peace crowd were wrong about many things, in this they were right. The opponents of concessions had no comprehensive plan that could compare with the appeal of land for peace. But if there were no reasonable compromises to be reached with the Palestinians, the left asked, what remained to us except more conflict? And how could we bear to live with such an answer?

Yet, now that the failure of Oslo is confirmed, we have no choice but to live with that reality. Having failed to bring on the Messianic age through our own efforts, we must fall back inevitably on faith. But this should not be a blind faith of the sort that would have us think that those who seek our deaths will miraculously turn into humanitarians, as those who propagated the “New Middle East” thesis tried to convince us.

Acknowledging the truth that exists in the concept of “in every generation … ” gives us the understanding that Jews will survive despite the ongoing efforts of our enemies to bring us down even though the text provides no pat answers for our questions as to why “they” will rise against us again and again.

Our frustration about this paucity of answers should not overwhelm our ability to accept the promise the Haggadah also offers — that none of our oppressors will ultimately succeed.

But our atavistic identification with our ancestors who were led out of Egypt to freedom should lend us the strength to cope with the harsh reality that the struggle is not over. In the face of hatred and violence, it is our duty to endure. Israelis now have no choice but to stand firm in the face of terror. And American Jews are correspondingly obligated to speak up in their defense and do our best to prevent the enemies of Israel from prevailing.

We don’t have all the answers and never will. What we do know is that our survival as a people and a faith, along with our affirmation of all the joyful, positive aspects of being Jewish, cannot be held hostage to the hatred of others.

If we can take that message away from Passover 5761, we will have done our part to make certain that future generations will be prepared to face similar challenges.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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