Helicopter Gunships and the Golden Calf


With the Passover season behind us and the Seders of Liberation concluded, the time to think through the difficult impasse in Israel and Palestine is once again upon us. The Seders of Liberation point to a fundamental contradiction in our lives as Jews when we are free and others are not, especially those on the other side of our power who see the State of Israel as a sign of oppression and Passover as a sign of contradiction.

Though Palestinians are often thought to be our enemies, with the characteristics of enemies – deceitful, unruly, base, and terroristic – they also may carry the opposite characteristics – speaking truth to power, struggling for freedom and dignity, critiquing unjust policies. While there is no need to romanticize the Palestinians – were Jews in the Warsaw ghetto deserving of freedom only if proved perfect? – the demonization of a people usually points to a difficulty in arguing a case against them in a rational way. Demonizing Palestinians is a way of deflecting their critique of the use of Jewish power in Israel and silencing Jewish dissent at the same time.

Israeli helicopter gunships firing on defenseless Palestinian cities, towns, villages and refugee camps is one way, perhaps the only way, of arguing against the veracity of the Palestinian witness to Jews. That witness is simply worded though with extraordinary consequences: What we as Jews have done historically to the Palestinian people is wrong; what we as Jews are doing today to the Palestinian people is wrong.

Most Passover Seders ignored this witness of a people experiencing encirclement, enclosure, house demolitions and tank bombardments. At most Passover meals, with family and friends gathered and the bread of affliction and the wine of celebration in abundance, helicopter gunships were rarely the topic of conversation.

And yet there are Jews, mostly far from synagogues and organized Jewish life, who, during this Passover season, cling stubbornly to the images of helicopter gunships. For these Jews of conscience, helicopter gunships are a symbol of a sea-change in Jewish life. A change from which there may be no return.

Recently after delivering a lecture at a university, I was asked a question by a Jewish student who, a few weeks earlier, had visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C. “Is there a relationship between the Holocaust and Israels use of helicopter gunships?” she asked. “When someone visits the Holocaust museum should they also think of Israels weapons of war?” As she stated the question, I felt in her tone the innocence of the young. It reminded me of Jews my age, raised in the 1950s and 60s, who as youths could not have imagined this use of Jewish power against another people. We had yet to grapple with the enormity of the Holocaust. How could we imagine that Jews would oppress another people and cover over that oppression with pious calls for unity?

Her question remains with me as a profound and disturbing statement. Can Jews any longer speak of our suffering when we use our power to cause suffering to others?

As it stands today, the concluding visual statement of the Holocaust museum is the testimony of Holocaust survivors and the hope that democracy guarantees that holocaust, indeed all events of mass suffering, will be consigned to history. Should we now add another image to this visual statement, an Israeli helicopter gunship, adorned with the Star of David, hovering over Ramallah or Gaza City, firing rockets?

Passover leads to Shavuot, a celebration of the time where Moses, with the assent of the people, accepted the Torah. Part of the teaching of the Torah is the refusal of idolatry, most obviously worshiping an alien deity, but also confusing the trivial with the important and moving toward injustice.

Idolatry is action that belies belief. We are what we do. We worship what we are.

Words of praise, including the praise of God, are empty if they are idolatrous. The Torah speaks boldly on this theme. If the stranger, widow and orphan are left on the outside, maligned, denigrated or forgotten, if the rulers are silent on oppression or call for unity to deflect policies of oppression, then the prophets speak boldly of Israels broken relationship with God.

Reflecting on the students question, coming as it does in the season of liberation and the giving of the Torah, another image, this one involving idolatry, comes to mind. If we are what we do and worship what we value, perhaps the Torah scrolls, found in the Ark of the Covenant in every synagogue, are in jeopardy. The Torah is removed from the Ark during the services, read from in the most ancient of Jewish rituals, and then brought out among the congregation to be touched reverently. Because of our abuse of power, should the Torah reside somewhere else, at least for the time being? When the Ark is opened, instead of the Torah, perhaps we should find placed there a helicopter gunship. The congregation will revere it. We will admire its power. And bow before it.

Israeli helicopter gunships are central to Jewish religiosity today. They represent who we have become as a people. Though many Jews will deny this, some with anger, others with resignation, the Palestinian people understand this in the most realistic of ways. They understand it the way we as Jews once understood the power of Christianity and Christian claims to innocence.

Will Jews of conscience be denigrated or heard? Will their pleas fall on deaf ears or become the start of a new appraisal of Jewish life? Helicopter gunships, as the Golden Calf of ancient times, present a stark warning and a possibility. Will we let helicopter gunships define us? Will we refuse to bow before the golden calf of our time?

In the face of Israeli helicopter gunships and the insistence of Jewish leadership on unity and silence, Jews of conscience are weak. Jewish history and a future worth bequeathing to our children is at stake. The hour is late.