The place was packed and tense before the meeting even started. To make things worse, the air conditioning wasn’t working and it was rapidly getting as sticky and humid as a locker room. Usually getting a seat at a meeting of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights is not a problem, but not last Thursday; the local Jewish Community was out in force and the North Coast Coalition for Palestine had brought in a number of people from all around the Bay Area, as well. Why? The North Coast Coalition for Palestine was before the Human Rights Commission to recommend that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors consider discontinuing its long-term contract with Viloa , which has successfully run the county’s bus service for a number of years, because it also does business in Israel .
The meeting was called to order and the preliminaries seemed promising as a number of statements were read suggesting that this was not the right forum to decide such an issue. My feelings exactly! How was this local commission with no real power or expertise going to fairly adjudicate such a complex issue? If they would have just stopped there, those there to speak against the recommended action would have happily gone home, but in fact, that was just the beginning of what proved to be a long and difficult evening.
NCCP presented first. They used a number of voices, a few Palestinian Christians I know from Santa Rosa and a few “ringers” brought in from the outside, including a very articulate Jewish, Israeli woman. While they say they are working for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, a closer look at who they are suggests that their true goal is nothing less than the destruction of Israel as we know it. In fact, NCCP is part of an international movement whose goal is to bring down Israel through a three-pronged approach of boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Omar Barghouti, the founder of the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, could not be more clear about this then when he said:
“Good riddance! The two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is finally dead. But someone has to issue an official death certificate before the rotting corpse is given a proper burial and we can all move on …”
They liken Israel to South Africa during Apartheid or the southern United States before the Civil Rights movement, and bring into question, through a variety of tactics, Israel’s legitimacy. They blend together fact and fiction with lots of righteous indignation, operating under the premise that if you say something over and over again with enough conviction, people will begin to believe you, whether you are telling the truth or not. It was a long night.
After the NCCP presented, Viola was given a chance to respond to the various allegations that the NCCP had made. Between and after the two presentations, anyone who wanted was allowed one minute at the microphone. I’m not sure how many people spoke, 100? Whatever the number, the meeting started at 5:30 pm and at 9:00 pm when I left, people were still speaking! It is an understatement to say that it was hard to hear what many of these people had to say about Israel. At the end of the night, the commission voted 5 to 4 to table the proposal. It was a victory of sorts, but not something to feel good about. While some folks were reasonable, others were not; at times it felt like the comments devolved into what our tradition calls, sinat hinam, baseless hatred; mean-spirited, and often false, hurtful remarks.
This all seems especially poignant happening right before Tisha B’av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 567 BCE and 70 ACE. Why? Because according to the ancient Sages of the Talmud, it was sinat hinam, baseless hatred that caused the destruction of our axis mundi, our holy center some 2000 years ago.
We will probably never know what caused the destruction of the Temple, but we do know that sinat hinam is a real challenge in the Jewish Community today, especially around Israel. (On this subject see also this excellent and chilling article in Tablet by Daniel Gordis: Sinning Against Each Other)
This was evident in the commission meeting where it was particularly hard to hear Jews attack Israel with such venom.
Equally hard to hear was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Buchenwald say that he was very familiar with Jewish collaborators who, over the centuries, have always been used as tools against their own people. He then ended his remarks by saying, “They were usually killed last.”
He had the right to say what he said – I don’t question any Survivor’s right to speak their mind – but it was painful to hear.
While it is tempting to demonize those Jews who were critical of or attacking Israel that evening, I refuse to do so. After all, I have stood where they stand. When there was a viable peace process, when it seemed like Israel had a true partner for peace, I pushed hard for that process to go forward and was openly critical of Israel when I thought it was not rising to the challenges and opportunities that peace posed.
And I was regularly attacked and criticized for my positions: a new narrative that recognized the suffering of the Palestinians; land for peace and a shared Jerusalem. It was not easy to take those stands…
When the Palestinians exchanged the peace process for violence, I changed my approach for I felt (and still do) that it was suicidal to push for Israeli concessions when there is no partner on the other side.
Still, I appreciate the courage of those Jews who criticize Israel. I also recognize the price they pay for their views, and believe they have a right to express them as long as they are what Jewish Tradition calls, y’soril shel ahavah/chastisements of love, not hate. As long as those who criticize do so out of true concern and yes, love for their people and country, I respect and even welcome their participation in the life of the community. If vitriol is all they have to offer, as far as I am concerned they have no place amongst us.
Sinat hinam is not just a Jewish problem. How about the political climate in this country?
You know Obama is really a Muslim terrorist and a Communist – right? How refreshing it would be if politicians actually focused on the many challenging problems we face and how best to solve them; Jerusalem was destroyed by sinat hinam and the great USA may go down that way, as well.
Sinat hinam is not just a problem of American politics either; it reflects a basic human weakness.
It’s when you don’t even remember what happened, what you said, but you feel awful and the person you blasted feels worse.
So what can we do about sinat hinam? The place to start, the place where we have the most control, is with ourselves.
The Great Rav Isaac Kook , the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, once said that:
“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. “(Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)
Sounds cliché to say that “love is the answer,” but as individuals, on a human level, I believe it is the answer. (See my Rosh Hashannah Sermon on “Loving Kindness” for more on this subject.
There is an argument in the Talmud over what is the single most important verse in all of Torah. Of course, there is more than one answer, but Rabbi Akiba, perhaps the greatest rabbi of the Talmud, argued it was “love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is certainly the way of the Tzaddik and it is possible for us as well.
It’s a love that must start with the self and emanate out from there. To hate is to walk around with a hot coal in your hand – it burns, it destroys the flesh, it leaves you raw.
Rav Kook was a messianic mystic beyond most of us to emulate, but he still had an immense amount of practical wisdom to share.
Hatred leads only to death and destruction; “we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat hinam as opposed to sinat hinam.