I have to confess I have friends in the settler movement. One family, with whom I spent a beautiful, warm, and moving Shabbat some years ago, lost a son in the recent Gaza war. The mother, a wise and witty social worker, and the father, a skilled and dedicated physician, created as fine a family atmosphere as I have known.
But when we came to discuss the future of the occupied territories, the dad opened a map of Greater Israel, including Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and even parts of Lebanon and Jordan, and said that this was ancient Israel, as promised. When I asked about the fate of the Palestinians, he said, “They can stay. They can have their goats…”
Another family I know consists of a husband and wife—I’ll call them Saul and Sarah–who are leaders in education and communications within their movement, and five children who have all served in the IDF. Unlike with some of my Tel-Avivian friends, who are much more congenial to my philosophy, I never heard Saul or Sarah express the view that their children might do well to avoid service because of the ideology or policy of a particular Israeli government they disagreed with.
They, like me, were originally New Yorkers, but they have lived in the West Bank for most of the occupation, and they believe it belongs to the Jewish people. Like the kibbutzniks of old, their children are sabras, fighters, Jews. One dusty day after I had visited with them, after they had showed me around and bragged a bit—“You see those new buildings? They’re illegal!”—we drove down to Jerusalem together.
They pointed out the Jewish settlements, always in privileged spots on hilltops and ridges, and in the wadis the Arab villages, almost as ancient as the dust. The end of the tour and the waning sun emboldened me to ask them, “Is there any circumstance in which you could see giving up even a single settlement?” “No,” was Sarah’s simple answer. This was before even the Gaza withdrawal.
So I asked, “What will happen?” There was a long pause, pregnant with shared understanding of the impasse and danger this nay-saying would occasion, and then she said, “Moshiach will come.”
If I was speechless, it wasn’t just because I don’t literally believe in the Messiah. It was because of their assurance that they knew what would bring about the advent of this divine messenger, and that they felt it relieved them of responsibility to try to think through more mundane solutions. Even in my religious heyday, I believed that God helps those who helps themselves, and that it was arrogant to feel sure that you could count on God’s help with a plan of your own.
When Maimonides articulated the Thirteen Articles of the Jewish Faith—incidentally, in Arabic–he did include faith in the coming of moshiach (“Though he may tarry, yet I await him”) but he did not seem to say that we should count on this hero to show up just at the moment when our own plans need a convenient solution. After nine centuries of divine tarrying since, through Jewish crises large and small, should we be certain that an act of God will intervene to solve the Palestinian problem?
One might equally speculate that moshiach awaits evidence that we can solve our own problems. Perhaps he is thinking not of the fullest extent of the Promised Land, but of a different kind of promise. For instance, the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
If I were awaiting the coming of the Messiah, I would be wondering what he is waiting for, not feeling sure that I already knew. And I would at least consider that decent treatment of the Palestinian stranger among the Jewish people might be a prerequisite for this ultimate blessing—especially since that very stranger was also present when the first Jews read that passage in the Torah for the very first time.