Commonly, the American-Muslim community is criticized for not speaking out against terrorism. I think that criticism is wrong. American-Muslims repeatedly speak out against terrorism, including some of the extremist Islam-inspired groups that perpetrate it. What American-Muslims do not do very often is speak out against either the lackluster effort of the Palestinians to make peace with Israel or the forms of Palestinian resistance that are antithetical to peace (such as the textbooks used in Palestinian schools). Sadly, with precious few exceptions, I hear no criticism from my American-Muslim friends when it comes to anything done by either the Palestinian government or the Palestinian people aside from gunning down innocent Jews on the streets. Even with respect to the latter, the criticism is muted and brief at best.
Being a peacemaker is difficult work. It requires showing tough love to your friends. It does not permit people to pick a side and then simply lash out at the “other,” turning a blind eye whenever your favored side is in the wrong. Unfortunately, there seems to be in the American-Muslim consciousness today the idea that the Palestinians are the Davids and the Israelis the Goliaths, so that criticizing the former would be perceived as blaming the victim. I have had Palestinian friends confide in me that they dare not publicly criticize the ways that the Palestinians respond to Israel, lest they be ostracized by their own community. Somehow, however, I am supposed to tolerate this state of affairs on the grounds that the injustices heaped on the Palestinians are so grave that any form of Palestinian resistance – terror included -- should be viewed as “understandable” given the circumstances. “Understandable” isn’t quite the same word as “acceptable,” but they are the closest of cousins.
By contrast, American-Jews frequently criticize Israel, including not merely the Israeli government but the very existence of a Jewish State. American Jews have formed groups, like the ironically named “Jewish Voices for Peace,” that explicitly support the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel but rarely have anything to harsh to say about Palestinians or other Arabs. Even some self-proclaimed Zionist American groups like J-Street devote far more effort to criticizing the policies of Israel than the policies of Palestinians. Indeed, it is common for American-Jews who publicly criticize Israel to refer to themselves as “Jews of Conscience,” which implicitly levels quite a charge against those American-Jews who are uncomfortable lashing out at Israel. What, after all, is a Jew who lacks a conscience? The prison guards of the Holocaust (kapos) immediately come to mind.
I have no interest in joining the chorus of leftist Jews who treat the Palestinians like children who are so punch drunk from Israeli injustice that they can’t possibly be expected to see two sides of this geopolitical issue. In other words, I have no interest in joining the chorus of leftist Jews who apply a double standard to this conflict – one in which the Israelis are expected to behave like Prophets, and the Palestinians are expected to behave like immature trauma victims. As the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I apply the same standard to Israelis and Palestinians alike. They are all descended from Peoples of the Book, which means that they ought to recognize from their Book that a person is a flesh-and-blood, often hateful, often loving, frequently-irrational but largely redeemable creature. The truth is that I believe deeply in the dream of a peaceful and secure Jewish State side by side a peaceful and secure Palestinian state. But like I said, it takes tough love to get there, and just as it is important for American-Muslims publicly to criticize their Palestinians brothers and sisters, we American Jews must be willing to do the same when it comes to Israel.
With that as prologue, let’s take a look at an item that dominated the mainstream American-Jewish press this past week. In what is definitely a rarity, we’ve seen a barrage of criticism leveled by Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews against Israel. Over and over again, American-Jewish media outlets have lambasted Prime Minister Netanyahu for cow-towing to his Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) coalition partners and reneging on a deal several years in the making. Undeniably, this deal promised to have tremendous religious significance for the more progressive branches of Judaism, which generally dominate American-Jewish life.
Currently, if you go to the area above the Wall and look down at what is known as the Holiest Place on Earth in Judaism, you’ll see two large areas where people pray facing an ancient limestone wall. This is for Jews what the Kaaba is for Muslims or St. Peters Square is for Roman Catholics. The larger of these prayer areas is available to men only. The smaller area, roughly one-third the size of its counterpart, is set aside only for women, assuming that they comply with certain restrictions (such as the prohibition against prayer shawls). In most forms of American Judaism, religious life is fully egalitarian, meaning that it involves men and women praying together. In Israel, however, movements like Conservatism, Reform and Reconstructionism are viewed as fringe, and religious life is dominated by the Orthodox. If, for example, a convert to Judaism wants to get married in the state of Israel, they had better be able to prove that the rabbis who converted them were Orthodox; otherwise, they would not be accepted as a Jew for the privilege of obtaining an Israeli wedding.
Obviously, that perspective doesn’t sit well with the American-Jewish establishment. That is why it was such a big deal when the Israeli powers-that-be had agreed that a portion of this most treasured of sites would be set aside for egalitarian prayer. Bu this week, Netanyahu and Company went back on their word and decided that the Wall as we know it will remain a place where the prayer spaces are invariably segregated. Oh sure, for a few years now, a small platform not far from the primary prayer areas have been set aside for egalitarian prayer, but few people go there, which is not surprising since you can’t even see it from the primary prayer complex. Essentially, it resembles a servant’s quarters of an estate, which is close to, but very different from, the main residence. In this case, the best real estate belongs to the Orthodox Men, the second best belongs to the Orthodox Women, and anyone who wishes to pray like most American-Jews pray (men and women together) get what’s behind door number three.
It’s no wonder that the American-Jewish establishment has cried foul. No Jew wants to be treated like a second class citizen in a nation that calls itself a state for all Jews.
Do you know what’s funny, though? Many of the same American-Jews who are so shocked and appalled this week about the intransigence and anti-pluralism of Israel’s right-wing government don’t seem to be nearly as vocal about those attributes when Israel is stomping on the claims of Palestinians. It is bad enough for right-wing Israelis to assert dominance over a religious site like the Western Wall. But isn’t it far worse for these same Israelis to build Jewish settlements east of the Green Line – in the very portion of the region that peacemakers want to set aside for a Palestinian state? How can we American Jews be outraged when we can’t pray together as men and women in front of our holy wall, but we’re no longer outraged when the Israeli government seems to have given up on the dream of a two-state solution? Or do we expect such a solution to include a Palestinian state that looks like a tiny piece of Swiss cheese? Is that Jewish justice?
There has been a lot of talk this past week criticizing Republicans in Congress who are invariably afraid to criticize the President about anything involving national policy (be it health care, climate change, or whatever), but are “shocked and appalled” when he dares to tweet disrespectfully about a female media celebrity. Well, I have the same impression when it comes to the American-Jewish community and its willingness to criticize Israel. If we American Jews are so free to bash Netanyahu and the Israeli Haredi when it comes to subjugating our right to pray as Jews, why do we tolerate the conduct of Netanyahu and Company when it comes to subjugating the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and autonomy? Personally, I would much rather be a progressive American-Jew who is forced to pray only with other men than a Palestinian who for decade after decade is living as a stateless person.
So, just as I can’t stand by and watch my Muslim cousins stay silent when it comes to the unwillingness of Palestinians to open their hearts to a Jewish State in the heart of the “Arab world,” nor can I watch my Jewish brothers and sisters settle the very land that must be given back to the Palestinians in order to make such a state possible. Being “Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine” actually means being willing to criticize both. For me, as much as I would love to pray together with men and women in what is truly my favorite spot on earth (the area overlooking the Western Wall), I would much rather see Israel’s hard liners soften toward the Palestinians than soften toward American Jews. Trust me, we’ll be fine. Will Israel?