This past Memorial Day eve, I tried something different. I went to a service organized by the bi-national group Combatants for Peace, and we used the Israeli holiday to remember the victims of our wars from both sides of the battlefield. Remembering only our fallen soldiers, I have observed, has not successfully contributed to our will to end the conflict with our neighbors. In some ways I think it embitters us toward them. Maybe my expectations of the day are mistaken. Professor Avishai Margalit wrote a book about The Ethics of Memory which was triggered by a news article about an officer who didn’t remember the names of his fallen soldiers, even though he remembered the soldiers lives in detail. He starts with the question, what are our ethical obligations to remember. I am not sure what the purposes of Memorial Day are, but certainly a healthy society doesn’t want to add to the list of those it mourns for.
Yesterday, I went with the Combatants for Peace to Kfar Yanoun, a village of 300 that has dwindled down to 36 residents as a result of attacks by settlers who have built illegal outposts on every side of the village and who insist on making the villagers lives miserable. When I say miserable, I need to explain because some of the things these “idealistic,” “pioneering” settlers have done are beyond my active imagination. In Kfar Yanoun, for instance, they found a murdered dog thrown into their drinking water tanks. Snipers have randomly shot taxi drivers bringing villagers to and from town, and the army is often called in to stop them from farming. Currently, they claim, they subsist from working only 3% of their registered agricultural fields.
Combatants for Peace is an organization that refuses to engage in the familiar paradox, fighting for peace. They are made up of equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in each area that they work. They insist on being a collaboration of former enemies. For this reason, they brought a bus load of “beautiful souls” from Tel Aviv to work together on agricultural projects in the village. The term “beautiful souls” is pejorative in Israel. It tries to mock the good intentions of Israelis who are trying to creatively seek out a better mode of coexistence than the current, failed model. It tries to serve as a substitute for more literal terms like foolishly naïve.
In Kfar Yanoun, we planted trees and moved boulders to create a path through the village to the water towers. It was symbolic work. We weren’t needed to get the job done. We were very needed to send the message that there still exists a segment of Israeli society that recognizes the humanity of the other.
After lots of thought on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv, which included a humiliating stop by our own border patrol at the check post, I decided that my work on Shabbat was not a desecration but, rather, a sanctification of God’s name, to borrow from the religious Jewish lexicon. By going to Kfar Yanoun and helping with agricultural projects on my day of rest, I was upholding two of the most basic Jewish values. I was loving my neighbor as myself and I reaffirmed my conviction that all humans are created in the divine image.