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Getting it wrong
Posted by Angela Himsel
I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in September of 1982 when the Sabra and Shatila massacres occurred in Lebanon. My new, leftist, Jewish friends immediately denounced Ariel Sharon and the Israeli army for allowing the Lebanese Maronite Christian militias into the Palestinian refugee camps and not preventing the killing of Palestinian civilians. I grew up as a Christian in Indiana who believed that this was the devil's world and until Jesus returned, there would be no peace. The political situation in the Middle East simply corroborated this view of the world.
Though I would have preferred to bury my head in the sand and wait for Jesus to return to make the world better, during the two years that I spent in Israel, I was forced to confront any number of political and personal realities that tested my cherished convictions and required that I face the possibility that maybe I was wrong.
It was a small incident on a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv that served to reinforce this message. What happened was an ultra-Orthodox man wearing a long black coat, pants and black hat sat next to me. I had learned that, according to the strictest interpretation of Jewish law, a man was forbidden to come into potential physical contact with a woman who was not his wife. A second later, I felt a hand against my leg. He must think it's his leg so I'll just move over. And I moved my leg. His hand followed. Maybe it's my hand on my leg. Something crept under my backside. Impossible! I continued in denial, and in my shock, did nothing. When his hand began squeezing, I looked him in the eye and said, "You have to move." He got up and moved to another seat.
The bus incident served as a physical metaphor for the unexpected, metaphysical challenges to what I had always held to be "the truth." On the first day of my "The Bible and the Near East" class, the professor maintained that there were two different accounts of the same story of the creation of the world in the book of Genesis. Written by two different authors - not Moses - the versions contained contradictions to one another.
I had never called into question the veracity of the Bible. What I had been concerned with was the interpretation of the words. But if the words themselves were suspect, then maybe the Bible was not the word of God, and maybe Jesus hadn't been the Messiah. Maybe I was wrong.
Religion is supposedly a question of faith, not of right or wrong. But I continued to believe that there was one right answer, with the rest wrong answers, and if I only but studied enough and learned enough, I would arrive at the Truth. To summarize the following years, I attended various churches, looked into the Goddess religion, became a Buddhist for about five minutes, and then ultimately converted to Judaism.
What I have learned, sort of, though I wouldn't swear to it, in these many, many intervening years is to always entertain the possibility that, no matter how certain I am of something, maybe I'm wrong. Those three words have enabled me to look at situations from other perspectives, to think out of the box, to venture into unknown territories.
It is a quarter of a century later, Israel is back in Lebanon, Ariel Sharon has suffered a severe stroke and lies unconscious in a hospital in Jerusalem. Hezbollah, the self-proclaimed "Army of God," who took up residence in Lebanon when Israel withdrew, who hides behind civilians, who has stated its intention to annihilate Israel, who has launched thousands of rockets against Israel forcing a million Israelis into bomb shelters, who has admitted to being in cahoots with Iran, who targets civilians, and who is on record as saying, "Only Allah's congregation shall be victorious," is at war with Israel.
The world at large has condemned Israel for "disproportionate" violence in its incursion in Lebanon. Images of the wounded and of the destruction in Beirut might appear to corroborate this view. But things are not always what they seem to be and not rushing to judgment is an important life lesson to learn. There are many views of reality, but stretching one's myopic outlook on the world requires not being so invested in being right, allowing one's ego to be deflated, something that Israel has done repeatedly, even to its detriment.
Israel accepted responsibility several years back for shooting a Palestinian child - only to later find that it was not an Israeli bullet that killed the child, but a Palestinian one. When a Palestinian family was killed on a beach, Israel was blamed and they acknowledged and apologized for it. Later, it was revealed that a Palestinian land mine had caused the death.
Now, Israel is blamed for many deaths in Kfar Kana, even though it warned the population days in advance to leave and even though Hezbollah used the village and its people as human shields from which to launch its deadly rockets against Israel. After Israel had apologized, come to find out that the timeline of the attacks and the collapse of the building was suspicious, and much of the coverage seemed to have been staged for the benefit of CNN and the West. Would that Israel might allow itself not to always assume that it is in the wrong. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Hamas deny ever being in the wrong. Their worldview is the correct one, and everyone else - Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, all non-Muslims - must bend to them. Or be killed.
And yet, personally, old habits die hard.
A while back, before the Jewish Book Awards began at the University Club, I asked a guard where the bathroom was. He gestured me down the hall, I zipped in and saw that the stall was occupied. Looked like a man's shoes. He must have wandered into the women's room accidentally. I waited patiently for him to finish, prepared to smile sympathetically at him. Strange, too, that there was only one stall in the women's room.
The door opened, out stepped a man, and I smiled and said "It's okay". He looked at me as if I was some sort of pervert, and exactly at that moment I noticed the urinals. I wondered what the urinals were doing in the women's room.
The man beat a hasty retreat; I used the facility, thinking how ungrateful he'd been when I had been prepared to be magnanimous about his error, and then I walked out. Glancing at the door, I saw that it said "Men." You mean I was wrong? I asked myself incredulously. Had I ever pulled my head out of the sand? I was 19 again, on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I wondered if I had ever debarked.
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