A mother poem which is also a Sukkot poem
The empty month

We are family

Emily Hauser's recent post The problem begins with a statement of plain fact: she has family in a West Bank settlement. And then she goes on:

Everyone on that side of the family — all modern Orthodox, all parents of many children — has never been anything but kind and welcoming to me...But the truth is that it matters not in the least that they are kind, or warm, or gentle. Because they are the problem.

They — in the broadest sense: they, and their friends, and their beautiful houses, and their armed guards, and their by-pass roads — are what stands in the way of peace and security for 7.3 million Israelis and 4 million Palestinians.

Living in Jerusalem for a summer gave me the opportunity to learn more about how settlements work and what their implications are. To be clear: I'm no expert here. But I understand enough to be a lot more distressed than I used to be. (If this issue matters to you, I recommend reading Land Expropriation and Settlements, a report published by Israeli human rights organization B'tselem. There are also several links featured at the bottom of Emily's post which offer context on the issue of settlements, among them Bradley Burston's Confessions of an Israeli anti-settler bigot, which is also well worth a read.)

In my understanding, the settlements are a large part of what's preventing the possibility of peace. But the people who share that understanding are often not very compassionate toward the settlers -- and the people who disagree with my assessment are often not very kind to those of us who share it. I disagree with the settlers in pretty much every way; I think what they're doing has disastrous repercussions not only for them but for my Israeli friends and family who are forced to protect them. But that doesn't give us on the pro-Israel pro-peace left the right to slam them as human beings. (Neither, for the record, does it give those on the "other side" the right to slam us.) Would we relate to each other differently if we had family on the other side, whatever that other side may be?

Let me shift focus for a moment to something closer to home for me, geographically anyway. In the current issue of Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi writes about the Tea Party in an article called Tea and crackers. It's well-written. It's powerful. And it doesn't pull punches.

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it...

They're completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I'm an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I'm a radical communist? I don't love my country? I'm a redcoat? Fuck you! These are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head as you listen to Tea Partiers expound at awesome length upon their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are.

Taibbi is angry. Justifiably so. As it happens, I agree with him on why the Tea Party's problematic. The popularity of the Tea Party scares me. That's not my vision for this country, not by a long shot. But I find myself wondering about the ultimate usefulness of preaching to the choir the way he's doing. No one who disagrees with him is going to be convinced by that article. (No one who disagrees with him is especially likely to read it.) So where does it get us?

Emily Hauser has settlers in her extended family. I've got Republicans in mine. I don't think I have any Tea Party supporters, but I might; you might, too. Every family spans people of good will whose opinions differ, sometimes profoundly so. And that's why I wish we could find a different kind of discourse. We have to be capable of treating each other with compassion, even when we disagree. As a (soon-to-be) rabbi, as a Jew, as a human being, that's my baseline. And all too often, we don't; we regard the people on the other side of whatever ideological divide as so wrong that they've forfeited their right to be treated with respect. Can't we do better than that?

Every time I post about Israel or about Islam, I brace myself. Some of the responses I get are thoughtful and polite, like the rest of the conversations we have here at Velveteen Rabbi. And then there are the angry responses, the ones that call me names, the ones that accuse me of things I will not repeat here. Every time, I come away thinking, how are we ever going to make things better if we can't talk to one another like human beings? My religious tradition tells me that each of us is created in the image of God. Every single one of us: me, you, the Tea Partier, the settler, the Israeli, the Palestinian.

I remember, a few years ago, hearing my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi speaking to the ALEPH ordination programs student body about conversions. The gist of what I remember him saying is this: when you work with someone who wants to enter the Jewish people, you need to make sure that they understand the breadth of the Jewish family. If someone's comfortable in a Reform temple but wouldn't be comfortable walking through Mea Shearim, then you're doing them a disservice. (And vice versa.) Anyone who enters the Jewish family needs to recognize that Hasidim and Reformim are both our cousins. We don't all have to agree with one another; we don't all have to practice the same way. (Indeed: God forbid that we should lose the rich and splendid variability of Jewish life and practice!) But we need to know that we're all family.

Maybe that's why Emily's post about having settlers in her family resonates with me so much. If we could see each other as family, maybe we wouldn't be so quick to demonize people who think differently than we do.