This week, the Knesset began the process of overhauling Israel’s judiciary, removing the only checks and balances that currently exist in Israel’s government. It has done so with the slimmest of possible majorities, in defiance of the months of demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of protestors and international condemnation, including from some American Jewish institutions.
As Israeli democracy is shaken to its core, I have received other messages from the American Jewish community — messages that acknowledge little about the judicial overhaul, nothing about protests, and less about increasingly emboldened settler violence that has unfolded between Purim and Tisha B’Av, I say to myself: “How? How can this be?”
As the words leave my mouth, I realize that the first word of the Book of Lamentations, the central text of this week’s Tisha B’Av fast, is “eicha,” or how, and gives the book its Hebrew title. “How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people!” it begins in disbelief.
Many of us in the Jewish community are echoing this cry of “Eicha — How?” as we seek to understand the monumental, anti-democratic shifts going on right now within the Israeli government, or try to address Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinians.
For years now, one of the central tenets of our communal and educational institutions is that if we just continue repeating the same talking points about a shiny, illusory Israel, rehearsing them for ourselves and inculcating our children with them, then no matter what is actually happening on the ground, they will be true. This fixation on only one side of the picture belies the growing fear and pain expressed by the very people these institutions serve: Israel may no longer be a democracy, and for some, it has never been.
This eve of Tisha B’av provides a moment to consider the rabbis’ thoughts about this exclamation, “How?” as they reflected on the destruction of Jerusalem. In the first chapter of the rabbinic commentary on Lamentations (Eicha Rabbah), some of the commentators understood the initial cry as God’s. In need of a model for mourning after the destruction of the Temple, God was looking for direction and asked the angels, “How does a king of flesh and blood mourn?” The angels reply, “‘He sits in silence” and “He sits and weeps.”
“That is what I will do,” God replies, according to the commentary.
The meaning of "how" – then and now
We must find a way to shift from the paralyzed silence of the “how” in Lamentations to the frankness and honesty of “how” we should be speaking with one another. None of us should find ourselves sitting in silence, alone and in mourning. We must rededicate ourselves to critical conversations, so we can openly confront the pain of Israel’s reality and find a path forward together.
We have been in the silence for a while already, and it’s part of what has brought us to this place. Tonight and tomorrow we may need to sit in deep lamentation, but what about the day after Tisha B’av?
We have a collective fear that if we start to deal dynamically with the reality on the ground, the picture of the world we have so carefully constructed will fall apart. But we can’t make violence go away by pretending we don’t see it. Only by confronting hard truths together do we stand a chance of keeping our real world from falling apart.
So we ask once again, “Eicha? How?” How do we move from paralysis to action? The first step must be to find constructive rather than destructive ways of engaging.
We already have models in our community for opening conversations about the really hard things that matter to help us hear one another and face reality together. In my work at NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, we convene groups across a wide spectrum of differences to break down polarizing terms that obscure our understanding of one another and what is at stake for our communities, and we broaden our perspectives through listening to one another’s experiences and stories.
Resetting the Table, another group focused on facilitating hard conversations, uses its “core technology” to help communities “grapple, argue, and learn across political differences” in Hillels, synagogues, federations and, increasingly, churches, throughout the country. Libby Lenkinski of the New Israel Fund and anti-racism educator Jonah Canner, in their article “The Elephant in the Bunk,” remind us that summer camp can be a place where young Jews seeking to define their Jewishness are invited to think, feel and listen to one another about why and how Israel matters to them.
At the end of Tisha B’av, we get up from mourning and move toward the reflective month of Elul, toward Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is never too late for teshuvah, for repair. But we must do the work, which means we have to engage these communal questions together and reflect upon our own complicity. To continue to sit in silence is but to bring on more destruction. Reckoning with reality is the only way to bring redemption. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.