What happens to a dream deferred?


This has been a sobering summer for all of us who care deeply about Israel and have been hoping for some progress toward Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation within the framework of a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict. The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers: Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. The revenge kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager: Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. An explosion of hatred and racist violence between Arab and Jew. A rain of Hamas rockets on Israel. A rain of Israeli bombs and artillery shells on Gaza. Israeli troops searching for rocket launchers amid the twisting tunnels and byways of Gaza. Collateral damage: the deaths of several hundred civilian men, women and children.  

Many of us in the Jewish community of greater Rhode Island have friends and relatives in Israel, and we are viscerally worried. We know that if but a single Hamas rocket eludes the Iron Dome missile defense system and hits its mark, the results could be catastrophic.

Speaking personally, my niece-through-marriage and her 11-year-old triplets, on a family visit to Israel, spent the night of July 9 in a bomb shelter in Beer Shev a. Afterward, they moved in with other family members in Beit Shemesh, where the kids had to keep themselves within close proximity to the bomb shelter in their new home away from home.

At this point in the evolving crisis, I consider it counterproductive to ask: Who is to blame? I would argue that there is more than enough blame to go around. Right now, as I type these words, this is the question we need to be asking: How can we turn back from the abyss of violence and destruction? Let us begin by ratcheting down the rhetoric, the howls of hatred, the threats and counter-threats.  In the long run, a continuing escalation of hostilities means that everybody will be losers.  

Ironically, the sanest voices in the recent outburst of violence have come from the bereaved families of the murdered teenagers. Yishai Fraenkel, uncle of Naftali, one of the Israeli kidnap victims, spoke on the phone with Hussein Abu Khdeir, father of the murdered Muhammad; the two men, Arab and Jew, crossed the ethnic divide to bring comfort to each other. As Naftali’s uncle told the press, “the life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew. Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab.”

In a similar gesture of human solidarity in this time of profound suffering, Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, chair of the religious council of Gush Etzion, arranged for Palestinians in the vicinity of Hebron to visit the bereaved Fraenkel family. One of the visiting Palestinians is quoted as saying, “Things will only get better when we learn to cope with each other’s pain and stop getting angry at each other. Our task is to give strength to the family and also to take a step toward my nation’s liberation. We believe that the way to our liberation is through the hearts of Jews.” Such attempts to understand the heart of “the other” should remind us that most Palestinian Arabs and most Israeli Jews contain overflowing reservoirs of human compassion; the current nightmare has been brought about by the failure of decent citizens and their governments to condemn and to curb the actions of the lunatic fringe of both societies.

As I continue to reflect upon the unfolding tragedy in Israel, I hear in my mind’s ear the words of the Afro-American poet, Langston Hughes (1902-1967), who begins his 1951 poem, “Harlem,” with a series of questions: “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?/Or fester like a sore – /And then run?” It seems to me that at least one explanation for the most recent outbreak in hostilities is that for too many years both Palestinians and Israelis have been living under the heavy weight of dreams deferred. Both peoples live with the still unrealized dream of a life without fear, without hatred – a life of peace, cooperation, mutual affirmation.  

As of yet, neither Palestinian nor Israeli has found a way to transform dream into reality. The price of the dream so long deferred is all too often the eruption of violence, as Hughes warns with the pointed question that ends his poem, “Or does it explode?” The pain-filled events of this summer provide the tragic answer to Hughes’ urgent question.

Most observers understand that there can be no long-term military solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; for the problem is essentially a political one that requires a political solution. In the short term, Israel must use its military might to defend itself from Hamas rockets. The issue, then, is finding a balance between Israel’s short-term military requirements and the long-term need for peaceful and prudent political accommodation. Israel’s late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin well expressed this conundrum by insisting that the state fight terror as if there is no peace process and pursue peace as if there is no terror.  Are there at this time Israeli and Palestinian leaders who possess the wisdom and the courage to achieve these paradoxical goals?

JAMES B. ROSENBERG, rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington, can be contacted at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org