December 15, 2018

A night of anger and reflection

How do you explain Israel’s resounding success? How do you explain how a tiny country surrounded by medieval violence has managed to create an extraordinary society of more than 100 different nationalities that is on the cutting edge of culture and modernity?

How do you explain how a Jewish state, with all of its social tensions, can still produce an Arab chief justice who sentences a Jewish president to jail, or an Arab medical student who finishes first in her class at the Technion?

Those questions were on my mind last week as I witnessed a nasty verbal assault on Israel at the Culver-Palms United Methodist Church in Culver City. On the night before Erev Rosh Hashanah, I sat on a panel co-sponsored by KPFK radio and Jewish Voice for Peace on “what our role should be, as Americans, to foster peace in Israel/Palestine.”

My fellow panelists included representatives from American Muslims for Palestine, U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, United Methodists’ Holy Land Task Force and J Street. Our moderator was Alan Minsky from KPFK.

To give you an idea of the anti-Israel sentiment throughout the night, the audience continuously sneered at my J Street co-panelist, Amos Buhai, even though he vigorously criticized Israel’s settlement policies and repeatedly expressed his support for peace and the creation of a Palestinian state.

As for me, as I sat there listening to accusations that Israel is guilty of genocide, ethnic cleansing and every other crime in the book, something crazy happened — I stayed calm.

Instead of fighting anger with anger, I kept my composure. Instead of playing the “I’m a bigger victim than you are” game, I played the “I feel sorry for your anger” game.

Maybe it was the time of year. Here I was, about to enter the holiest moment of the Jewish calendar, when as Jews we are obligated to reflect on our mistakes of the past year and commit to genuine self-improvement. How could I indulge in anger at such a time?

In my opening remarks, I spoke about being born in an Arab country where for centuries my Sephardic ancestors prayed to return home to Zion, and of the immense blessing I felt to be born in the generation that did, in fact, return home to Israel. I spoke of my empathy for Arab culture and the Palestinian people, and I expressed sadness that their hearts and minds were “occupied” with so much Jew-hatred.

My sadness was reinforced when, later in the evening, I asked the crowd of about 100 for a show of hands of those who believe in Israel’s right to exist within pre-1967 borders, and only a few hands went up.

Did all of this hostility make me regret showing up? Not for a minute. It  just made me stronger. I countered the lies, but more important, I realized the power of not playing victim. 

After losing 6 million people in the Holocaust, I said, the Jews had every right to wallow in victimhood. Instead, the new country of Israel accepted the “two-state solution” declared by the United Nations in 1947 and looked forward rather than backward.

Israel made a desert bloom. It built roads, schools, hospitals, universities and great cities, and, no matter how many wars it had to fight, it never stopped looking forward. Yes, Israel has made plenty of mistakes, but it also has shown its willingness to make painful sacrifices for the sake of a genuine and enduring peace with its Arab neighbors. 

Despite Israel’s societal problems, I told the group, I am proud of the fact that Israeli Arabs have infinitely more rights in Israel than my Jewish ancestors ever had in Morocco; and I am proud that countless human rights groups throughout Israel have the freedom to fight against injustice of any kind. 

I went as far as to dream that one day, Israel would turn into a “light unto the Middle East” and become a crucial resource for the region. But if I moved anyone with my message, it didn’t show. The anger and bitterness toward Israel was relentless. While I spoke of Israel’s mistakes, at no time did I hear any panelist suggest that Palestinians themselves have made mistakes. 

I’m not worried about Israel, I said in my concluding remarks. I’m worried about the poor Palestinian people who have been taught by their corrupt leaders to value permanent victimhood.

The evening was a perfect example of how bitterness and resentment can never lead to peace. The crowd did not come to learn. It came to hear what it wanted to hear — and when I challenged them, all they showed was frustration and anger.

What the evening needed was not anger but humility. We needed a ritual that would help us learn from the past so that we could build a better future. What we needed, in other words, was a collective ritual of self-reflection and self-criticism like the High Holy Days.

Maybe that’s the secret to Israel’s success.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at