Sermon: Between Right and Right

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 January 2019

With the death last week of Amos Oz, the world lost not only an exceptional novelist, but also one of the most significant voices for peace in Israeli political life.

That voice is nowhere found more powerfully than in a tiny little book – one which has received little attention over the last week, but which historians will, I believe, one day cite as the clearest expression of the logic and case for a two state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The book is called “How to Cure a Fanatic”. Originally published in 2004, it consists of two essays first delivered as speeches – later supplemented with additional material.
The second essay, after which the book is titled, in truth, I can personally take or leave. But the first – the first is the one text I would encourage anyone to read before making any judgements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this short essay, Oz presents –beautifully, with the gentle humour you’d expect, but tightly, in just 40 pages – his understanding of the nature, challenges and ultimately the only, to his mind, possible solution to the conflict.

It’s a work that all those on the extremes of politics and Zionism ought to read. And especially, for what it is worth, those on the British left for whom the waving of Palestinian flags has become a unifying badge of honour, often disconnected from any real reflection on the situation.

What Oz emphasises – speaking especially to those looking on from the outside who wish to make simplistic proclamations – is not to see this as a simple picture of right and wrong. “Who are the good guys” the essay begins. “When it comes to the foundations of the… Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, things are not so straightforward. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie”.

Rather, Oz stresses the complexity of the situation, for both peoples have a just and lasting claim on the land: “Israel is not an accident of history… Israel is not an intrusion… Israel happens to be the homeland of the Israeli Jews, no matter how painful this is for the Palestinians.
And “we Israeli Jews have to say loud and clear that Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian people, very inconvenient as this may seem to us.”
And, further, that while it is easier to portray one party or other as victim, this is, in his words, “a conflict between two victims”.

For those living within the situation, he cautions against a particular type of what we would now call Othering, projecting one’s own story into the other. “Each one of the parties”, he writes, “Looks at the other and sees in the other the image of their past oppressors.” It is an especial warning to those in our communities who draw a line from the Pharaoh of our Torah portion to Amalek to Haman to the modern Palestinian leadership; and also those who seek to portray today’s Israeli Jews as an extension of early twentieth century European colonialism.

Ultimately, Oz teaches, a peaceful solution will require compromise – in his eyes, the compromise of a two state solution. In this short essay he makes a powerful case for the importance of compromise, in language that has particular resonance for today’s political discourse: “The word compromise has a terrible reputation,” he writes, “… especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary… the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devotion; the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”

Part of why this essay has such resonance, I think, is not only the wisdom of his words, not only the hopefulness (a hopefulness which just 15 years later is in such short supply). It is also that the ideas he stresses are deeply Jewish ideas, we might even call it applied rabbinics, practical Talmud. His voice brings some of the most important ideas in our tradition – ideas that many in this room have heard repeatedly in my sermons over the years.

One of the core foundations of Rabbinic Judaism is the recognition, with Oz, that the line between right and wrong can be complex, that voices in tension with one another can both be right, can both be sacred. This is not, I emphasise, to legitimise a flagrant disregard for truth, but to recognise that life is often complex. The answer that our tradition gives to such a scenario is not simply to force a choice between voices, nor to forever bash our heads in conflict, but, in the words of the Tosefta, an early collection of rabbinic traditions, asking how we can possibly engage with Torah when sages, voices of authority can disagree on matters of halachah: “make for yourself a heart of many rooms, and enter into it the words of [this school and that school], the words of those who declare a matter impure, and those who declare it pure”. That is, to live with the disagreement, to build a space capable of holding both truths.

Fundamental to Judaism, too, is Oz’s observation that we tell the same stories in different ways. This is the basic model of midrash which contains multiple versions on the same page. It is best articulated as an idea in Tractate Gittin of the Babylonian Talmud, in which two rabbis, Rabbi Evyatar and Rabbi Yonatan, argue about the details of a story in the Book of Judges. They ask Elijah the prophet exactly what the background to the biblical story was. Elijah asks God and God replies “Evyatar b’ni kach hu omer; Yonatan b’ni, kach hu omer” – “Evyatar my son, this is what he says, Yonatan my son, this is what he says”. But surely, they protest, one of the versions, or neither, must be true – for “there is no doubt in heaven”? Elijah tells the Rabbis concerned, “Eilu va’eilu divrei Elohim chayyim hein” – “These and these are the words of a living God”. That is, in the telling of our stories it is not that one is necessarily true and the other not, but both renderings of the same events can be sacred and true.

And when confronted with two rights, the Talmud, with Oz, advocates p’sharah, compromise. The example the Talmud gives is of two ships in a narrow channel or two laden camels on a mountain pass – A court might find reasons that one or other should move, but ultimately if neither ship or camel has to give way – then neither can move without compromise. And if both try to move, both insist they have the right, they are right, then both might sink; both might fall from the mountain. The text comes as a commentary on the phrase from Deuteronomy Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – the pursuit of justice requires both the first tzedek – Din, law, judgement – the possibility of a correct choice, but also the second tzedek, the possibility of P’sharah – of compromise.

Rereading the few pages of Oz’s essay this week, the power is not only because of his message about Palestinian-Israeli relations, not only because of the Jewish echoes, but also because it speaks to so much else in these challenging times. As Jews we live with a deep connection to one of the most painful and intractable conflicts in the world, as Brits we are living through a period of extraordinary uncertainty and division, as people we live at a time of great societal and political polarisation. We live in the complex place of the title of his essay, we live “Between Right and Right”.

The wisdom of Amos Oz in this tiny little book is to help us to negotiate what it is to live in this place. That we should seek to hear the truth in the voice of those with whom we disagree; that we must be wary of the danger of simplification, be careful not to see in the other only what validates our own story. And perhaps especially this year, we must learn the importance of compromise, not a dirty word but a path to peace and justice.