January 2009 was an exciting time for me to be in Washington, D.C. We had a new President – an African-American with a silver tongue and a passion to unify. I was in the process of co-founding a new organization called the “Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington” or “JIDS.” And Middle East Peace Groups were sprouting up, including one I joined – Yes We Can, Middle East Peace, or “YES-MEP” – that was clearly inspired by the rhetoric of the new President.
Boy, have things changed in seven years, don’t you think? More precisely, we’ve seen change, but lost a lot of hope. We have pulled ourselves out of a Great Recession, but for most of us, economic prospects look bleak. Our kids leave school awash in debt, decent housing for them is unaffordable, and our transportation infrastructure is falling apart. The rich get richer while every other family either stagnates or deteriorates. What’s more, our climate has changed for the worse, and we’re running out of time before we can stem the effects of industrialization on Mother Nature. Famines are likely to consume millions of lives across the Pond, and even here in the US, big coastal cities may soon disappear. Our President has spoken about these problems, but the American public has long stopped listening to his oratory. He’s now just another middle-aged guy with gray hair -- another cautionary tale about how difficult it is to change the culture of Washington, D.C. and enact forward-looking legislation. Somehow, this well-meaning, diplomatic, thoughtful man has turned into a widely hated, divisive figure, and we will soon be engrossed in a nasty unpopularity contest for the next Custodian-in-Chief.
But look at the bright side. At least we’re not Israel/Palestine.
People frequently ask me whether I started JIDS in order to work for peace in the Middle East. In part, the answer is yes. There didn’t seem to be much we could do here in DC to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together directly, but I thought we could at least model reconciliation and enlighten ourselves about what it means to be first cousins in the family of Abraham. Just like Obama, JIDS has kept on trucking; we met as recently as May 15th, and we have a planning meeting set for June 5th. We have no plans to give up, but nor do we suspect that the warm feelings we’ve generated in our interfaith community are replicated in Jerusalem. When I traveled there in 2015, I was struck by how alienated the two peoples are from one another. As for the peace movement, it seemed dead as a doornail.
This past fortnight has been another dark one in the Holy Land. The consummate politician/survivor, Bibi Netanyahu, jettisoned his center-right Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, and replaced him with Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has been one of those Israeli pols who have long attacked Bibi as being too moderate and wishy-washy on the topic of the Arabs. If Lieberman had his way, the Palestinians would be sent on a trail of tears to Jordan as if to rid Israel of a pestilence problem. This guy is the real deal – the id of Israeli tribalism. Cold, ruthless, ideological, dangerous. We’ve seen his type come to power before in many countries, and trouble almost always follows. With Lieberman at his side, Bibi is now ready to lead the most right-wing government in the history of the Jewish State.
Here in Washington, D.C., the number of gatherings devoted to Middle East Peace isn’t anywhere near what it was seven years ago. Yes-MEP, for example, is long gone – a victim of the ideological divisions that swallowed it up from the inside. Many Palestinians here in the DC area will no longer tolerate dialogue; they want action – meaning efforts to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel (BDS). Many American-Jewish peace advocates have grown fed up with the Jewish State and blame it, rather than the Palestinians, for the fact that a two-state solution has never been reached. These Jews have generally disowned the term “Zionism,” viewing it as “divisive” if not downright pernicious. Some explicitly affirm BDS; others refuse to go that far, but neither do they seem hopeful that the trend to the right in Israeli politics will ever be reversed. Generally speaking, when it comes to the Middle East Peace movement, there is doom, gloom, and shame on the part of the Jews, and the only thing that brightens the hearts of the Palestinians is the prospect that BDS may bring Israel to its knees. They must know that prospect is a long shot, but it’s the only hope they have at the moment.
At times like this, we’re all advised to take a breath and get a little perspective. These trends we’re talking about are just that – trends. They are signs of the times. They are not permanent. In fact, if anything, whenever times seem bleak, that’s usually an indication that the motivation will exist to react against recent developments and strongly impel us in the opposite direction.
Look what’s happened in America with the young people clamoring for a real revolution – not one based on empty slogans and beautiful oratory, but on concrete proposals to identify a set of rights that are extended to all Americans. No, Bernie Sanders won’t win the White House this year, and I dare say he won’t win in 2020 either. (As we say in Brooklyn, “He’s not getting any younger.”) But nor do I think he will quickly abandon his movement and fall in line, the way the Corporatist Wing of the Democratic Party would like him to after the California primary is over.
For those who are mocking Bernie as not a “true Democrat,” most of his supporters would respond “Exactly. And that’s why we love him.” Bernie is offering a progressive alternative to a Democratic Party that has been ruled by fat cats who gorge themselves on campaign contributions and re-elections. Perhaps the generation that is “Feeling the Bern” will look for a different kind of politician – someone who is candid, straightforward, and in it primarily for the sake of the poor and the working class -- and stop fighting for sell-outs whose only legitimate rallying cry is that they are less right-wing than their Republican rivals. Remember, even if some members of the Bern generation lose their souls as they become older and more established, there will be other, younger Americans who emerge from college with the same amount of idealism. Maybe that’s the great benefit of coming into a stagnant economy with lots of debt: you tend to keep your idealism longer. Every cloud has a silver lining.
As for Israel, the good news is that, like America, it is a democracy. As more people throughout the world lose respect for the Jewish State, thanks in large part to leaders like Netanyahu and Lieberman, young Israelis will surely take notice. The strategy of circling the wagons might work for a while, but my guess is that it will wear thin eventually.
Now I know the common response – that by the time the majority of Israelis come to their senses and embrace peace, there will be too many West Bank Settlers to make room for a Palestinian State. “You can’t unscramble an egg,” say the doomsayers. Perhaps not, but you can surely roll back some settlements if the will of the Israeli majority is to do so. And you can have a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with land swaps, which can include giving the Palestinians land that is on the Israeli side of the Green Line. If the Israelis and Palestinians truly embrace peace, we can yet have a two-state solution. And since Israel is a democracy, we only need a majority of Israelis to get on board. (Sadly, when it comes to giving up land, this may ultimately require a majority of JEWISH Israelis – it may not be enough if the majority is composed of Palestinian Arabs and Jews -- but that is not out of reach either.)
The good news is that when it comes to peacemaking, time is on our side. Eternity is a long time. Sooner or later, we can find benign and pragmatic leadership in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and, yes, Gaza City. Sooner or later, we can find leaders whose love for peace and reconciliation exceeds their passion for perfect justice. We have found them before, and we’ll find them again.
And let’s not forget that even if one enlightened leader is assassinated by the evil in our midst, another enlightened successor can pop up in her place. That’s the beauty of building movements from the grass roots. Individuals come and go, but principles and values survive – and the greater they are, the more they manifest themselves.
Thankfully, we are a resilient species. So when it comes to change, never lose your hope.