Saturday, January 06, 2018

Straight Talk about the Palestinian Leadership

Happy New Year, everybody.   For me, last year ended with a bout of bronchitis and an even more severe bout of indigestion.  In the case of the latter, it was a combo of heartburn and reading about the new tax law.   Talk about the ol’ one-two.   Personally, I’m looking forward to: (a) a massive infusion of national debt at a time when the economy doesn’t need a boost, (b) a massive tax cut to those Americans who need it the least, (c) tax increases to those who live in states who have implemented progressive tax systems, and (d) the inability for most of us to continue to take deductions on charitable contributions.  They have pills we can take for heartburn.  If someone knows of a drug that we can take for God-awful tax legislation – legal drugs, I mean – please let me know. 

The tax bill was surely the most significant development of December 2017.  But there was another event that transpired earlier in the month about which I was also highly critical in this blog – the President’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  That decision has spurred a cavalcade of critical comments on the left.  It has led many of us to point out that the men who now control Jerusalem are showing less interest in a two-state solution and more willingness to leave the Palestinians in a condition of permanent statelessness and dependence on Israel’s good graces.  If you have any concern about the well-being and the rights of the Palestinian people, the recent conduct of the right-wing Israeli government is highly troublesome.

With that said, I want to interrupt the regularly scheduled “progressive blogpost” with a reality check.   This just in:  the Palestinian leadership has not exactly been the easiest group to make peace with.  There was a time when their tool of choice was terrorism.  Remember Yasser Arafat?  Nobel Peace Prize winning Yasser Arafat?  He was the face of the Palestinian leadership when I was young.  Now, we have Mahmoud Abbas.  For years, I’ve been hearing my friends in the peace movement praise Abbas as the kind of guy Israel can truly work with.  He has been hailed as the best partner for peace Israel can reasonably hope to find, and far and away preferable to the alternative: Hamas.  Peaceniks tend to dislike Hamas, to be sure, but Abbas?  You will rarely hear him criticized in such circles.  For every critical comment I’ve heard about Abbas, I’ve probably heard 30 about Netanyahu.  That’s no exaggeration; it’s a fact.

Well please, allow me to speak for a moment about Abbas.  For I am tired of being part of a peace movement where Israel’s leaders are constantly trashed (including, frankly, by me) but Palestinian leaders are treated with kid gloves, as if they are children or mentally-handicapped people who aren’t responsible for their conduct.  As many of you know, I am the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, and I spend much of my free time working to build bridges between Jews and Muslims.  Those bridges start with mutual respect, which must include the ability to speak about one another as adults.  So allow me to hold the Palestinian leadership to the same high standards that I would hold the Israeli leadership.  And allow me to point out where Mr. Abbas, the so-called peacemaker, is demonstrating just why he does NOT appear to be the partner that Israel needs to end this conflict.

Last month, in response to Trump’s provocative declaration, Abbas gave a speech in Istanbul that included the usual denunciations of Trump and threatened even to abrogate previous peace agreements.  As translated by the Times of Israel, the speech also included the following statement about the Jewish people:

“… I don’t want to discuss religion or history because they [the context implies a clear reference to the Jews] are really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion. But if we read the Torah it says that the Canaanites were there before the time of our prophet Abraham and their [Canaanite] existence continued since that time, this is in the Torah itself. But if they would like to fake this history, they are really masters in this and it is mentioned in the holy Quran they fabricate truth and they try to do that and they believe in that, but we have been there in this location for thousands of years.”

The comment that the Jews are excellent at faking and counterfeiting history and religion isn’t simply a slap at Zionism, it’s a slap at the Jewish people and our faith.  For me, it is reminiscent of all the times that Palestinians and other Muslims have told me during the past decade that so-called Ashkenazic Jews like me have no historical claim to a state in the Middle East because we’re not actually descended from Middle Eastern Jews; rather, we are simply Eastern European people whose family at some point converted to Judaism.   Palestinians, I have been told, actually have more Jewish blood than the Ashkenazic “Jews.”   

The game that Abbas is playing is certainly one that Jews can play as well.  Remember that the Muslim claim to Jerusalem as the third holiest place for that religion stems from a journey that Muhammad is said to have taken in which, during a single night, a steed whisked him from Arabia to Jerusalem where he ascended to the heavens, meeting one ancient prophet after another.   Now tell me, do you think this claim to Jerusalem is, as a matter of “history,” equal to the Jewish claims established by men like King David, King Solomon and generation after generation of their descendants?  

Last month, while Abbas was de-legitimizing Judaism in Istanbul, I was preaching to a synagogue in Chevy Chase about the beauty of Islam.  Over the next six weeks, I plan on participating in many more meetings designed to foster an appreciation for the fact that Jews and Muslims truly are the closest of cousins.  And at the end of February, I will be giving a talk to a mixed audience about the Biblical Patriarch Abraham, the father of both of these wonderful faiths. 

Frankly, it is because I love Islam so much that it makes me sick to see a man like Abbas hailed as a “peacemaker” when in fact he is obviously willing to trash my religion.  Israel is a democracy, she has had progressive leaders in the past, and there will come a time when she will have a progressive leader in the future.   But if, at that time, the Palestinians will be led by men like Arafat, Abbas, or worse yet, the heads of Hamas, then I think we can pretty well guess what will happen at any peace talks. 

Remember – Israel has control over the disputed land and the military might to retain that control.  If the Palestinians hope to gain the state that folks like me want them to have, they are going to have to convince the Israelis that they are truly partners for peace.  I’m not sure Abbas is the man for the job.  And if he’s the best hope we’ve got at the moment, then the naysayers are right – things are only going to get worse before they get better.

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