The disengagement from Gaza has exposed raw emotions and wrenching scenes of families being uprooted from their homes of decades.
Many in the Jewish community, while believing that the disengagement was necessary and even overdue, have felt the pain of the settlers. Some have even found a measure of truth in the settler slogan that “a Jew does not expel a Jew.”
We all empathize with those who have had to leave their homes, especially the children born and raised in the settlements of Gaza. But their pain — and our hand-wringing over it — must be placed in perspective. The settlers were given months of notice that the elected government of the State of Israel planned to remove them from Gaza — a decision supported by a solid majority of Israeli citizens. They were offered attractive compensation packages of up to $400,000. In addition, we cannot forget that they were living on land that most of the world, including the United States, regarded as illegally occupied.
Our sympathy then must be tempered, especially when the settlers and their supporters have the temerity to compare their plight to that of Jewish victims of Nazism. The government of Israel and the entire Jewish world have treated the Gaza settlers with a degree of respect and generosity that few groups of protesters have ever received, in Israel or elsewhere. Why don’t we conjure up the same sympathy for the Israeli soldiers who demonstrated tremendous restraint in the face of taunts and threats from recalcitrant settlers who refused warnings to vacate?
And why we don’t conjure up the same sympathy for the 1.5 million people, including every third child, who live below the poverty line in Israel, good and decent folks in Jerusalem and Yerucham, Be’er Shevah and Bat Yam, who struggle to make ends meet and never receive anything remotely resembling $400,000 government grants? For far too long, settlers have received lush government benefits to support a high standard of living while the underprivileged in Israel’s cities and developments towns have gone hungry. Why does their fate escape our attention?
And while we empathize with the small number of Jews uprooted from their homes in Gaza, do we ever dare to consider the fate of Arab citizens of Israel? Do we ever think of the Palestinians whose houses are demolished without reason in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem? Even more unlikely, do we allow ourselves to think of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were dispossessed during and after the 1948 War?
It is not just that they left their homes and were not permitted back. Nor is it that hundreds of their villages were destroyed and millions of dunams of their land expropriated in the State’s first years. It is that almost every trace of their previous existence has been erased from the Israeli national landscape — from road-signs, maps, and other place-markers.
These claims are deeply discomfiting to us, but we cannot dismiss them as mendacious anti-Zionist propaganda. (One need only consult the exacting and painful account of former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti in “Sacred Landscape.”)
The point of this self-reckoning is not to insist on the repatriation of the 1948 refugees nor to delegitimate the State of Israel. The right of Jews to national self-determination in their homeland is clearly established in international law; likewise, the right of Jews to a peaceful and secure existence cannot be subject to debate. But still we must ask, in the best tradition of Jewish asking: Why does the fate of the Other escape our attention? Why do we turn off our well-tuned humanitarian sensors when it comes to Arabs (or underprivileged Israeli Jews, for that matter)?
Why are we so selective in our compassion, caring only for our own, and even then, only a precious few among us?
As we approach the New Year in the spirit of teshuvah, we should certainly recall the settlers who have lost their homes. But we should also recall the teaching of the late French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who devoted much of his career to exploring the ethical responsibilities toward the Other. Levinas taught that the face-to-face meeting with the Other is an essential ethical act of humanization. We may never come to know the Other fully, but the encounter reminds us that we do not dwell alone in our own autonomous universe. Rather, we must share the world with all of God’s creatures, including and especially those who are foreign to us.
Some may see Levinas’ teaching as naive and weak-kneed universalism in a world of hardened tribalism. But we can also choose to see it as the very essence of our Jewish identity, resonant with the biblical injunction to “love thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) no less than with the modern value of tolerance that we hold so precious. If we do follow this alternative path, then perhaps we will come to see that the circle of misfortune and dispossession extends far beyond Neve Dekalim.
David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA.