Parashat Devarim (Haftara to Shabbat Chazon)

In the following post, I am primarily going to discuss the Haftara to this week’s parasha. This Shabbat is the last shabbat before Tisha b’Av, and we read Isaiah’s entreaty, prophesied in the name of God, begging the people of Judah to reform their ways so that they may avoid the calamity that is about to befall them:

“Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards. Why are you beaten when you still continue to rebel? Every head is [afflicted] with illness and every heart with malaise (…) Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land – in your presence, strangers devour it; and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers.


Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts? You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths, calling convocations, I cannot [bear] iniquity with assembly. Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood.


Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:4-17. Translation from

What strikes me in this passage is the recognition that man can go either way – man can be kind or wicked, can produce good or evil, and most importantly, man can change. Just because men have been acting badly does not mean that they need to continue to act badly; they can choose to reform their ways, “cease to do evil” and “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthened the robbed,” etc. But becoming good is a process – notice the verbs “learn”, “seek”, “strengthen” – they all point to a process that takes place over time, in the same way that the Jews’ descent into corruption was a process: “They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards.” Rome was neither built, nor destroyed, in a day, and neither was Jerusalem.

I would like to compare this to another vision of man – I’ll call it a Christian vision of man, but I am aware that Christianity is complex and multifaceted, and I am using “Christianity” more as a foil for Judaism than to say something about Christianity itself.

From what I understand, a Christian understanding of man is much more black and white. Man is born in sin, and remains steeped in sin, unless he accepts the salvation that Jesus offers, at which point man is transformed into a sinless person. Man is either saved or damned; and the process of salvation, of transformation from bad to good, is instantaneous and involves appealing to forces outside of the self (Jesus).

Isaiah, on the other hand, offers us a different path towards “salvation.” The salvation in question is not a state into which man passes once he’s saved. According to Isaiah, if the Jews reform their ways, they will have a chance “to redeem Zion.” The salvation will come to Zion, but not necessarily to man. For the process of man is never over. The struggle between our baser and higher instincts will continue. Isaiah doesn’t offer man a remedy that will free him from his evil inclinations, but he does remind man that there is more to him than just evil, and encourages him to try to be good instead.

And the reward for being good, rather than evil, is a redeemed Zion. We might not be able to change our essence, or eradicate the mean and petty that is within us, but if we try and be good, just, and kind, we can change the world around us, and mold our environment to be more good, just and kind – redeemed.

Parashat Pinchas

Already in parashat Chukat, God announced to Moses and Aharon that they will not be leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan, as a punishment for striking the rock to get its water rather than talking to it like God had commanded. Aharon dies shortly thereafter, but Moses continues to lead the people. In chapter 27 of this week’s parasha, after Moses and Elazar, Aharon’s son who took over as high priest, count the Israelites and ascertain that the entire previous generation had been replaced, God reminds Moses of the punishment.

The Torah is full of the phrase: “And God spoke to Moses saying”. Here, for the first time, following God’s reminder that Moses is not going to lead the Israelites to their final destination, we have the phrase “And Moses spoke to God saying.” (Numbers 27:15).

And what does Moses have to say that is so important? “God, the lord of the spirits for every flesh, should appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, and the congregation of God shall not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (27:16-17).

From the unusual phrasing “and Moses spoke to God saying”, it seems as though asking God to appoint a successor for Moses was wholly Moses’ initiative. How can that be though? The past couple of parashas describe the nation challenging Moses’ (and Aharon’s) leadership time and time again. The nation is not an easy nation to lead, and when the nation does not feel safe and cared for, they make trouble. What was God going to do had Moses not asked for a replacement upon his death?

I think that God actually wanted to lead the people directly, without mediation. I was reminded of the scene right after God tells the people the ten commandments. It’s supposed to be a moment of deep spiritual communion between the nation and God, but the nation can’t handle such intensity: “And the entire nation saw the voices and the flames and the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking and nation was scared, and they trembled and stood far. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we’ll listen, and God won’t speak to to us, so that we don’t die.”

The deeper the nation settles in the physical world, the less of a place for God there is. He is too majestic, too unstable, too powerful, too disrespectful of the natural, rational order of the world, and it is impossible to really build a life for oneself so long as God can come at any minute and turn everything upside down. But God, who created the world and the laws of nature and mankind, is unable to recognize that for his world and his creation to function, he needs to take a step back. Moses, the human, needs to remind him.

This episode reminds me also of the story that takes place towards the end of Samuel the Prophet’s reign. Samuel has gotten old, his children are corrupt, and the people, no longer satisfied with having only a prophet in the highest seat of authority, demand a king to lead them. The tell Samuel: “Here you have gotten old, and your sons have not followed in your path. Now place upon us a king to judge us, like all the other nations.” (Samuel 1, 8:5). Samuel is upset and goes to talk to God, who comforts him, saying: “Listen to what the people are saying to you, for it is not you that they have grown tired of; it is me.” A king derives his authority from his position; a prophet derives his authority from his connection to God. Thus, having a king lead the nation is one more distance between the people and God. But by now, God understood the creature that he created, and He (very reluctantly, especially if you take into consideration the rest of that story) agrees to do what is right for man, even if it hurts God a little. 



Parashat Chukat

A lot happens in this week’s parasha, and I am going to share the thought I had on the beginning of the parasha. The parasha opens with the instructions to the ritual for purifying people who come in contact with a dead body. The ritual involves cremating an unblemished red cow, and splashing a person who needs to be purified with water sprinkled with a little red cow ash. This ritual is described as a “chukat olam” – a “forever statute”.

image (1)Having detailed the ritual, the parasha returns to the narrative:

“The children of Israel and the entire nation came to the desert of Zin on the first month. And the people sat in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and she was buried there. And the nation had no water, and they united against Moses and Aharon.

And they quarreled with Moses and Aharon, saying: “If only we had died the way our brothers before the Lord. And why have you brought God’s congregation to this desert to die there, us and our livestock?” (Numbers 20:1-4).

At first glance, it appears that the nation is worried about survival: “why did you … bring us to this bad place … and there is no water to drink” (Numbers 20:5). But they could also be upset about their inability to properly perform their newly assigned burial ritual, which requires spring water. They had just been told that they are all going to die in the desert, that they will be impure when they come in contact with a dead body, and that the only way to get pure again is to be splashed with some ash water. And then, one of the most prominent people in their community dies, and they cannot perform the purification ritual because they are stuck in a desert without water.

This may seem like a far-fetched explanation, but here is a little support for it. I highlighted the word “livestock” above, because that is the the translation for the Hebrew word “בעירנו” that the Chabbad translation provides. But I didn’t find anywhere else where that word refers to livestock (if you know otherwise let me know please), and the root of the word actually is flame, or fire – so maybe that word refers to the red cow ash, that needs water to be “alive” and working for the ritual.

Moses and Aharon are really flustered by the people’s demand for water. Although God tells them to get water by talking to the rock, Moses ends up hitting the rock, twice. Water gushes out, but God is upset and tells them that do believe in him enough, and so they won’t be completing the journey to Israel. I’m not sure how all of this ties together, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

The Smile of the Lamb, David Grossman

In honor of David Grossman winning the Man Booker Prize for his newest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, I decided to review his first ever novel, The Smile of the Lamb (published in Hebrew in 1982, and translated into English in 1989). For those who may not be familiar with Grossman’s work, I urge you to pick up one of his books for your upcoming summe891158541.jpgr beach reads.

I read this book slowly, both because the narrative is so engrossing, and the pace does not really pull you along. There is a lot to absorb in each of the characters, I didn’t want to rush through it and miss a detail mentioned seemingly offhand, that may end up being consequential.

It has the trappings of a classic love story—there is romance, an affair, war, and death, but it contains much more than the usual dichotomy that plagues lovers; alternating between utter desperation and mind-blowing hope.

This might be the first novel in Israeli literature to portray the Palestinian “other” and the conflict in fictional terms. The main characters are Khilmi and Uri, the former is a Palestinian who lives in a cave near the Palestinian village of Andal,  where Uri, an idealist young Jewish Israeli, (modeled after Grossman) and his company commander, Katzman, are stationed. Katzman is having an affair with Uri’s wife, Shosh, and for all intents and purposes, Uri doesn’t seem to mind. He spends most of the novel in Khilmi’s cave, first at will and then under duress. The story balances multiple competing plots, each chapter told though first person narration of one of the four main characters. What makes the novel compelling is the overarching echoes of cruelty paired with the sensitivity and vulnerability the main characters explore regarding their difficult circumstances.

Khilmi is a storyteller, this is where the magical realism sets in. Now, almost thirty years later, Israeli novelists shy away from these portrayals; romanticizing the other through the rhetoric tactics of mysticism. But as much as this mode of discourse is outdated and no longer readily employed by writers, it appears as if Grossman wrote the whole book only for Khilmi—to give his unique narrative of truth a voice. Grossman makes a statement about the conflict that could only be understood through a narrative imbued with Khilmi’s logic. In this sense, he is not romanticizing the Arab other, making him exotic by imbuing him mystical qualities of time travel, weaving the past and the present, or telepathy, connecting with souls through his Lemon and Terebinth trees, but rather, making a statement about the conflict, and its absurdity.

Uri and Katzman, by novel’s end, have given up on any attempt to find truth or justice. I would use stronger language; Grossman spits in the face of truth or justice, or of the practical use of these concepts in a place like the West Bank. And maybe thirty years ago this mysticism might have led the reader to look at Khilmi as the “noble savage”, but now, with the rightwards shift of Israeli politics, and religion’s outsized place place in Israeli society, our historical past is commonly being used as a justification for the present, often in terms that verge on the mystical.

Using the past as an excuse for the present remains no longer merely the esoteric rantings of a madman, but a practical political ploy to win more votes, and lead us further from freedom, truth, and justice. Truth and justice are often employed as dictates of intellectual thought and persuasion, and Grossman exposes the inherent dichotomies in using objective notions of truth and justice in a place where the thorniest aspects of the conflict lie in the narrative.

Uri tells Katzman: “You see, it isn’t his cave, it isn’t the lemon tree or the grape bower. It’s the lies. It’s the blue tunnel into his right eye where words flow like fiction. . . . And whenever I argue with Katzman about the occupied territories, I answer him through Khilmi, using Khilmi’s arguments against him. That way I can slip out between the two kinds of justice.”

Grossman doesn’t abandon the notions of justice and truth outright; all the characters search for it on their own terms.  In the end, Khilmi’s own logic to try and make sense of the circumstances is not romantic, its not imbuing the other with a mystical power, maybe Grossman just doesn’t believe any truth or justice exist. And if this truth remains objective, then it surely isn’t useful, “we don’t really know much about the Arabs. We buried them beneath our contempt.”

Katzman expresses similar contempt for justice, when describing his insecurity with his new position as commander, he laments that notions of justice may be just a ruse:

“But there was a nagging fear that underlay his excuses, like a pea under a dozen of mattresses, that maybe there is no justice, maybe there can never be. The concept of justice was probably insidious. He’d always felt that, only now he was condemned to take part in some cruel experiment designed to verify this hypothesis. He was governor of twenty-five thousand people who didn’t want him there. And by his efforts to maintain the framework of their daily lives, by bringing in another bus line, repairing the bumpy roads, obtaining uniforms for the junior soccer league in town, or whatever, he had only managed to compound the injustice, and bind it even more tightly to the groundwork of reality.”

Grossman is fighting back against the religious and philosophical beliefs that hold that truth will free us from all spiritual, intellectual and political bondage. Those who want to be free need to seek the truth through the data available to him or her—but what if this data is apocryphal to begin with?

“Before he told me that truth is a natural force. That’s what he called it: a strong, vital force that required nurturing and protection, though like any other force in nature, it’s utterly despotic, and can split a man down the middle in its haste to be translated into action. “

(For the sake of space, I didn’t give you any biographical information on Grossman, but he has a very interesting life story, and has written succesful non-fiction books. So if you’re looking for a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would highly advise one of them. Read his Paris Review interview, here ).

Parashat Shelach

This week’s parasha recounts the story of the spies. The main points are well known: At God’s request, Moses sends twelve spies, one representative from every tribe, to tour the land of Canaan and report back their findings. The spies then report back that although the land is fruitful, it is inhabited by giants and other intimidating warriors who will make conquering the land impossible. The Israelites hear this and become very distressed, crying and complaining that they would have rather stayed in Egypt. The Israelites prepare to stone Moses and Aaron, when God suddenly appears. He is very angry, and he tells Moses that he is going to kill all the Israelites and create a new nation out of Moses’ descendants. Moses, who was about to be murdered by the Israelite mob, nevertheless tries to appeal to God’s pride and insists that God complete his original plan, which is to bring the Israelites safely to the land of Israel. God relents, but announces that he will lead the Israelites through the desert for forty years – one day for each day the spies toured the land – so that the current generation that rose up could perish. Some Israelites try conquering the land right away, but they are killed in the battle.

The parasha continues with the story of the “mekoshesh etzim” – the “wood gatherer”. The community finds one of their members gathering wood on the sabbath – an act which is forbidden. Not knowing what to do, they ask Moses, who asks God, who answers that the man must be stoned, outside the camp, by the entire community. Overall, it is an incredibly violent parasha, with a lot of the violence coming directly from God.

Instead of understanding and trying to calm the Israelites’ fears, God is ready to kill the entire community and start again; how can He then expect blind devotion and faith from the people if, in His eyes, they are so replaceable? And why order a public stoning for a man who was merely gathering some wood?

I usually find a lesson or a deeper meaning if I only read the text enough times, but this week I’m coming up short. I’m really struggling to understand what positive message I am supposed to take away from this – about my relationship with my community, with my leaders, and with God. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Parashat Bo and Beshalach

I didn’t post last week, so this week I’m writing on both last week’s parasha (Bo) and this week’s parasha (Beshalach). And this post is le’ilui nishmat evelyne gabrielle bat dina, my grandmother.

Parashat Bo recounts the actual exodus: the final plagues; the instructions to the Israelites of the day to prepare for the exodus; the instruction to commemorate these events for the Israelites of the future; the death of the Egyptian first-borns; the actual exit of the Israelites from Egypt; more instructions regarding the commemorations.

Parashat Beshalach recounts the aftermath: God deciding and leading the way; Pharaoh’s second thoughts about sending the Israelites out, leading to a final show-down between God and the Egyptians at the Red Sea; the splitting of the sea and its closing again on Pharaoh’s army; Moses and the men’s poem of thanksgiving; Miriam and the women’s spontaneous celebration through song and dance. The second half of the parasha recounts the end of the honeymoon period between the Israelites and God, with the hungry and thirsty Israelites complaining that their basic needs aren’t being met, and God obliging them before getting fed up with the complaining.

A large chunk of Parashat Bo is spent with God describing the proper way to remember the exodus, and the symbolic acts and ceremonies that should happen, now and in the future, to mark the day. The story that is to be told on those future occasions will be one of success, of strength, and of triumph:

“And the blood will be for you a sign on the houses in which you are, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you and there won’t be a plague that will decimate you when I strike in the land of Egypt; and this day shall be commemorated, and you shall celebrate it, a festival for your God, for all your generations, forever.” (Exodus 12:13-14)

“And when your children shall ask you, what is this work for you? and you shall tell them, it is the Passover offering for God, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he struck Egypt, but our houses He saved.” (Exodus 12: 26-27)

“And Moses said to the nation: ‘remember this day that you went out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for with a strong hand God took you out of this; leavened goods should not be eaten.'” (Exodus 13:3)

The exodus is a big deal in the history of the Israelites, and must be commemorated accordingly: with symbolic acts, with ceremony, and with a narrative that tells of the triumph of God and the docility and ultimate rescuing of the Israelites. This is not so different from other nations’ “national day” (Fourth of July in the US, Bastille day in France, etc.) that come with their own symbolism and their official narratives about beating the bad guys and triumphing as the good guys.

However, this isn’t the only narrative that is presented. In fact, already in the following Parasha’s (this week’s Beshalach), we see a more complicated story emerge: the Israelites are in fact not so docile and appreciative, and actually complain quite a bit about their circumstances and even about the exodus itself; Moses gets annoyed at the people, and then at God; the people get attacked by Amalek, and must give a hard fight before prevailing instead of being easily saved by God.

The problems that emerge in the aftermath do not detract from the triumphant moment that is the slave Israelites leaving Egypt with the permission of the Pharaoh and the (maybe not totally freely given) blessing of the Egyptian people. And when we take one day, as a nation, to commemorate the exodus, we commemorate the triumph. But we, as a people, were also given the entire Pentateuch to study, so that we can become aware of the context for the exodus which we celebrate, and so that we can learn the history of our people beyond the simplified story of success in the face of adversity that we tell once a year.

My grandmother was a historian, and I remember wondering as a child why it mattered what happened hundreds of years ago. We know the basic chronology; what’s the point of digging deeper? But if we only have a basic grasp of the foundational events in our history, we risk caricaturing ourselves, our opponents, and our past. If we only learn about the exodus once a year, at the seder, and we learn that we were slaves and God intervened and saved us, we have a different image of ourselves then if we also learn that before we became slaves, Joseph had all the Egyptians enslaved in exchange for food in a time of hunger (Genesis 47:19-25); or that after God took us out of Egypt we complained that we missed it there (Exodus 16:3).

I don’t want to conclude with a lesson as to what exactly we’re supposed to learn from studying the history contextualizing foundational events, because I don’t think there’s only one lesson to be learnt, and I think that the lesson is different depending on the person who’s studying the history and the time period in which it’s being studied. My point is more that it’s important to study history, period, because that’s the only way to truly understand where we come for and what we are made up of in the present. And it’s the only way that we can really try and see the world that we live in, with its messes and its complications. If our history is simple, how can we make sense of and accept a complicated present?

If we don’t study history, we are relegating our present stories to be overly simplified. We are forcing onto ourselves a myopic view of the present in which every complication, every bit of data and every experience that doesn’t fit in with the abstract narrative that frames our present is simply ignored. Only by accepting that the past is multicolored will we be able to stop seeing the present as monochrome.

On Balance: Adam Phillips, Pt. II

(This is part two of my review of Adam Phillips’, On Balance. Part I is here).

On What is Fundamental“, a lecture Phillips gave to the Columbia Psychoanalytic Society, covers both the social and psychological aspects of the 21st century phenomenon  of fundamentalism. He starts with the fact that the fundamental things in life are usually the ones that lead people to lose their composure, and no matter of education, or self-imposed civility can regulate this tendency. And so, if we want to learn how to achieve balance, we need to first understand it’s opposite? Nope, sadly, Phillips’ stays clear of such sententious advice, and instead dives deep in the paradoxes and nuances involved in both fundamentalist emotional and social states.

What is Fundamentalism?

This essay felt relevant to our current socio-political reality. While balance is still idealized, it appears to have taken a back seat, amidst both real and imagined fears, espoused by both sides of the political spectrum. Fundamentalism is pitted against democracy, because, while democrats revere debate, fundamentalists have a difficult time accepting rival claims.The difference between fundamentalists and democrats, in Phillips view, is that the lines of constraint are fixed for the former, while for the latter, they may be redrawn to a small degree, by a small number of ‘legitimate’ people. However, all contemporary liberal democracies don’t believe that everything is negotiable; many European countries set limits to free speech around incitement to racial hatred, and most democracies limit incitement to harm. This much is clear.

Why does fundamentalist rhetoric elicit such uncompromising responses from the modern liberalists on the other side—can you only fight fire with fire? How do we escape the liberal conundrum, whereby “we” (used in this context as the secular, modern liberals) avoid violating our core beliefs in the ways we defend them? And who has the authority to define the parameters of a fundamentalist—do our definitions of fundamentalism aptly describe the current reality of the processes we’re witnessing, or do they only serve political interests?

A tad idealistic, but more germane now than ever, Phillip’s quotes the liberal philosopher, John Gray, and his goals for liberalism:

“Liberalism is not a partisan claim for the universal authority of a particular morality, but the search for terms of coexistence between different moralities.”

If today’s political landscape proves anything, we might conclude that liberals have failed at this project.The modernist liberal and the fundamentalist give into what Freud termed resistance—Both sides feel that they have access to some deeper truth, which the other side refuses to acknowledge. If the other side could only see things as they were, we could live as we should, in a world dictated by God, or by the relevant secular laws of the land.

Narratives of conflict between modernists and fundamentalists are a mainstay feature of our modern international landscape: from the clash of multi-culturalism versus assimilation in Europe, ISIS in the Middle East, and the rise of the alt-right in America. Fundamentalism is not reserved for minority groups on the fringes—fundamentalist tendencies are both a characteristic of the religious right, and the secular, liberal left. If coexistence is our last hope, what tools can we employ against those who do not believe in coexistence—who value their fundamental ideas over their own lives?

Freud’s Schema as a Model

Phillips, as an avid Freudian, uses fundamentalism to help understand Freud’s seminal theory of the super-ego, id, and ego. In classical Freudian thought, the ego acts as a sort of referee between two conflicting, fundamentalist parts; the super-ego, which dictates our biological drives, and the id, which provides the moral dictates.

For Phillips, the modernist has a role akin to that of the ego. He tries to find a compromise, and live as satisfyingly as he can, while tempering his potentially murderous desires. Phillips’s model of the mind as a war of contending fundamentalisms provides his answer for how to deal with fundamentalists—which is, in some ways, not to deal with them, but to seek for co-existence, understood as a mutually agreed-upon acceptance of the other’s existence. This search for the terms of co-existence between competing moralities is a fitting definition for psychoanalysis.

“Rather like us secular, liberal moderns observing in some trepidation the fundamentalisms of the East and the West, the ego sees itself as the one who establishes—who looks for—the most harmonious relations possible; like the ego, we see ourselves as the only one’s capable of observation and reflection while they blindly go their violent, self-righteous ways.” “That in short, where fundamentalism was, there rationality can be; where revelation and scripture was, there conversation can be.” (Phillips, p.65).

He takes the comparison one step further, into a territory that is far too Freudian to be truly applicable, but nonetheless is useful, as he touches on some important insights:

He relates to the commonly articulated notion that fundamentalist movements of our day in age should not be viewed as some ancient apparition—they may reject the scientific rationalism of our current civilization, but fundamentalist movements have evolved in response to this new system, ultimately developing a symbiotic relationship with modernity. As Olivier Roy, the French sociologist explains in his seminal book, Globalized Islam, fundamentalism is thus both a product and agent of globalization. (He refers to the current wave of Islamic extremism as neo-fundamentalism, read a synopsis of his theories here).  New conditions have forced millions to reassess their religious traditions, which were created for a different type of society.

So, how does this fit Freud’s schema? That childhood is religion, and adolescence, or “growing up”, is comparable to the transition that takes place from religious traditionalism to secular modernity. A child is a ultimately a fundamentalist; he seeks the adoration of his parents at all costs—known as the Oedipus complex. Yet, these infantile desires are not made for our society, and a child must thus “sacrifice” his desires, trading it in for a less gratifying, but hopefully more productive pattern, that is personal growth, progress, and maturation.

So What?

Phew, now that that’s over, Phillips ends his essay on a depressing, somewhat contradictory note, attempting to answer the conundrum of why secular modernists have failed to persuade the traditional fundamentalists?

Because, “When we talk about these issues in this way, our liberal vocabulary begins to sound meager; words like ‘compromise,’ ‘negotiation’, discussion’, ‘persuasion’, ‘progress’—unmoored from any shared ground for disagreement—seems feeble.”

To make this point more poignant, he asks what kind of compromise should we hope to reach with a convicted racist, or how could we persuade a Palestinians that the Israelis are well meaning?

So, yes, indeed I do agree that civil influence, coexistence, and conciliation of rival claims may seem like a worthy, albeit lofty, Utopian solution, more fitting for those sitting in universities, or the perennial optimists among us. A lesson I learnt in Israel, one which, much to my dismay, may prove beneficial to American’s in the coming years: “the more horrified we are, the more committed we become to the dream of unity.”

Perhaps being truly horrified is the only way to engender change.

“What fundamentalism highlights for us—if only as a phrase—is the question of what is fundamental for us, and what a god relation would be to these fundamental things; what kind of connection we have to the things that matter most to us, both consciously and unconsciously.”

Freud, in Phillip’s view, believes that through psychoanalysis we may be able to articulate, or reach a better understanding of the things that are fundamental to us. But, we should also realize that what is fundamental to us, will not necessarily be conducive to harmony within ourselves, or with others.

The clichéd truism—that only what makes our lives worth living is worth dying for—leaves us with little solace. He ends on an even more depressing note, saying that what is the point in having respect for people who do not respect our respect for them, and that if fundamentalists truly prefer a world where the persuaded, or the enemy are not part of the solution, then “we have a very serious problem.” Such a fatalistic view is perhaps warranted by someone of Phillips age and experience, but I reject it, wholeheartedly.

Is Fundamentalism at the Core of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? (Yael’s rant)

Since he brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a few times in his book, I feel a slight duty to respond, very briefly, with my own insights. I could spend pages describing the real and true grievances both sides harbor against the other, and why both are justified, in moral terms, in continuing to view the conflict as a zero-sum game. But, Phillip’s use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of fundamentalism is deeply flawed, and leaves out a large motivator of human interactions—one that does not fit the secular/religious paradigm, and belongs to evolutionary psychology.

I would argue that labels are very important here. We run into problems when we talk about fundamentalists; since the concept is foreign to many liberals, they imbue these labels with a meaning that may not be relevant, or honest to the real experiences of millions. As we see with Islamic fundamentalism, our knowledge is cursory, as Islam has been branded something in the 21st century that is far from how the majority of Muslims view themselves.

Regarding Phillip’s question of how to justify to a Palestinian that Israeli’s are well intentioned, obviously trust is a crucial aspect in conflict resolution, but is convincing Palestinians that Israelis are well intentioned really going to bring the two sides any closer, when, in my view, the underlying tension of the conflict is one of conflicting narratives of each group’s collective histories.

“People will become more motivated to put their histories of blood behind them and try to forgive their former enemies when the benefits of cooperation are undeniably superior to the unforgiving, zero-sum status quo”, social psychologist Michael McCullough writes.

He goes further, saying that,

“when we design societies so that people’s right’s are protected, so that they experience justice, and so that they have incentives for cooperating with their former enemies, then forgiveness arises as a natural consequence of how our minds evolved to operate.”(Michael E. McCullough, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, p. 192.)

Obviously, the circumstances for such a positive-sum solutions are not ripe in the current geo-political reality of the Middle East. But, I have no shame stating clearly that I truly believe that the enmity that exists, and has existed for generations between the two sides, is not a product of any primordial hatred, and is rather a product of history and fate. Both sides, for a variety of reasons, have done a poor job in coming up with creative solutions to reconcile their differences, and to avoid the tragic confrontations that continue to plague both sides.

If we had a leaders who were willing to publicly acknowledge that the land of Israel, or historic Palestine, is a land that belongs to two peoples, and these peoples need to find a way to live together and work towards a common future, then perhaps we would not find ourselves in a world of fundamentalists, a world where to be an optimist is to be a traitor.