With the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, I again became obsessed with the need to build a movement among American Jews that would support the movement for a just peace in Israel, and this became a center of my political work for some years.
During the past year it has become clear to me that American Jews practice two different religions.
One is the Judaism I grew up with, at Temple Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee, where our beliefs were summed up in the words of Micah 8: "It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." Or in the famous story about Rabbi Hillel who, when asked to recite the whole wisdom of the Torah while standing on one foot, replied, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary."
In my childhood, every service ended with the prayer: "Grant us peace, Thy most precious gift, O Thou eternal source of peace, and enable Israel to be its messenger unto the peoples of the world." The words bring tears to my eyes when I think of them now. This Judaism stressed the continuity of our people through centuries of wandering that included service and achievement as well as martyrdom and suffering. If this tradition could be personified in a mythic figure, it would be the prophet Elijah, or perhaps the Lamed Vovniks, the 36 just human beings without whom the world would end.
Unlike the historical Judaism, the second religion practiced by American Jews is one of death and resurrection: Jewish martyrdom in the Holocaust is redeemed by Jewish resurrection in the state of Israel. Its central watchword is "never again," a slogan of terrible ambiguity—does it mean that we should make sure such horror never happens again to anyone, or that we should get our enemies before they get us?
To followers of this religion, our centuries of wandering are nothing but a series of disasters, illusions and betrayals leading inexorably to Auschwitz, for only in contrast to the dark smoke from the chimneys can the full radiance of the resurrection be appreciated. Its practitioners therefore build Holocaust museums rather than institutions that celebrate Jewish life, art, culture or history; every city must have its Holocaust museum just as every Egyptian pharaoh had to have his tomb. Anyone who questions the need for so many Holocaust museums, or, for that matter, who questions anything that Israel does, is attacked with the ferocious zeal of those who defend an article of faith: the death and resurrection, the body and the blood. This new religion is personified by the heroic Israeli warrior whose "manliness" has redeemed the American Jewish male from his connection to those shameful ones—also mythic, since there was a Jewish resistance—who went "like lambs to the slaughter."
Whatever one might say about this second religion, it is certainly not Judaism. Making a god out of a state looks a lot like idolatry. Worshipping the land, to the point where justice and human lives are insignificant next to "facts on the ground" and a dream of Greater Israel—isn't this what the prophets sought to end when they cast down the standing stones? The God of Moses was not a god of land rights but a "god of way," with a mobile sanctuary.
Whatever one might think of the annihilation of the Midianites, the mainstream of our tradition does not exalt violence; our heroes have been rabbis and thinkers, not soldiers. To those who follow the second religion and look for a military solution to the problems of our people, this has seemed a weakness. But it has become horribly clear that their military solution is not a solution at all, but a disaster that is making Israel more insecure every day and prompting antisemitism all over the world. Yes, suicide bombers are horrible, appalling—so why does Israel pursue a scorched earth policy that will produce thousands more?
It is time to cast down these idols, stop exalting militarism and revenge, and return to "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor." Only through justice can we remain true to ourselves. Only through justice can we find peace. This is true at every level, for each individual and for us as a people, both here in the Diaspora and in the State of Israel.