A View from the Bleachers: ‘Who are we to give up on Hope?’

By Rabbi Steven Garten

In September, Israelis will once again march to the election booths to determine who will lead their democratically elected government. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked to form a government following the April 9 election, he was unable to cobble together a mishmash of right-wing secularists and right-wing religious parties into a majority of 61 Knesset seats. The opposition Blue and White party hopes this time their middle-of-the-road, slightly to the right-of-centre approach will have greater success.

In the second election of 2019, no major party will speak about peace with the Palestinians as a priority. In the months leading up to the election, representatives of the Trump administration will convene a meeting of interested parties in Bahrain to unveil the long-awaited “Trump Plan.”

Ostensibly, a plan intended to bring an end to the 72-year conflict between two peoples claiming rights to one land, appears to avoid the issue of peace and rapprochement. The summit is meant to drum up support for the economic component of the yet publicly unrevealed, but privately discussed, peace plan. It is not clear at this writing if representatives of the Palestinian Authority or the government of Israel will attend an economic summit.

While peace has never seemed further from reality, there is a ray of hope. Very much like distressing and chastising haftarot that usually end with a nechemtah (a phrase of consolation and a message of eternal hope), so too, in the midst of expanding settlements, promises of Golan Heights expropriation, terrorist attacks, violence in Jerusalem and Gaza, Shaqued Morag, executive director of Peace Now in Israel, who spoke May 15 in Ottawa, offers a message of hope.

Peace Now is the largest and most enduring Israeli movement advocating for peace. Founded in 1978, following the visit of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel, in an act known to Israelis as the “The Officer’s Letter,” 348 reserve officers and soldiers implored then prime minister Menachem Begin to move quickly and not lose the opportunity for peace. The NGO has continued to advocate for a two-state solution and to publicly hold successive Israeli governments accountable for behaviours it deems morally questionable.

It has been a long circuitous road that Israel and the Palestinians have travelled since 1978. While treaties of peace and cooperation have been signed by Israel with Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, the long-sought final resolution is no closer at hand.

Therefore, it would have been understandable if Morag had brought a message of resignation and despair. But quite the opposite message was delivered, her message was one of hope. She reminded us of the message which permeates the history of Zionism: that Israel was not created overnight. In fact, from the second century CE until 1948, Jews prayed for a homeland, perhaps never really expecting one. In the same siddur which asks us to believe in the return to Zion, we ask for shlaimut (peace), wholeness in spite of being surrounded by a world perpetually at war with the Jewish people. Morag’s message was that hope is the value which motivates all of Jewish existence.

It is hope that serves as the foundational message of Peace Now. The programs of Peace Now have been reformatted away from mass demonstrations to more intimate gatherings of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, whether they be Israeli citizens or residents of the West Bank.

I spoke with Morag the day after her formal presentation and she eloquently reminded me there are many Israelis yearning for peace, they just need a public spokesperson to galvanize them the way Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and others have done. She believes with all her heart that a new leader will arise to remind Israelis of their destiny: a homeland with civil liberties for all its citizens.

The week before Morag spoke in Ottawa, hundreds gathered in Ottawa to observe and celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut. The highlight of any observance is the heartfelt rendition of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah” (The Hope). Originally, “Tikvatenu,” a nine-stanza poem written by Naphtali Herz Imber in 1878, it was read by Imber to the earliest settlers in Petah Tikvah. “Hatikvah” became the anthem of the Zionist movement in 1897, and there are reports that it was sung at Auschwitz while Jews were beaten by SS guards.

If Hope served to fortify those facing certain death, and those facing an uncertain future in pre-mandate Palestine, who are we to give up on Hope?