Tomorrow night, in Arlington, Virginia, the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) and eight other organizations will come together for an event entitled “Envisioning Peace/Salaam/Shalom between Israelis and Palestinians.” The co-sponsors represent a wide variety of communities – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Unitarian-Universalist (UU), and Interfaith. The event, which is hosted by the local UU church, takes place on the night of Tisha B’av, a traditional Jewish day of mourning commemorating the various tragedies that the Jewish community has experienced over the millennia. Tomorrow, however, the participants will not so much mourn past tragedies as confront tragedies in the present and future. As someone who loves Israel and whose trip there in 1981 forever changed my life, I find real tragedy in the fact that the land of Zion has turned into a perpetual war zone, replete with a subjugated, disenfranchised population playing the role that the Jews sadly played for centuries.
Because I’m moderating tomorrow’s event, I must keep my own opinions to myself. Others will have the opportunity to begin the evening talking about their respective visions for peace. Then, in the second part of the session, we’ll break into small groups to discuss how to get from here to there. In other words, what would we like to see the Israelis and Palestinians do to create the conditions for peace? And what can we Americans do to help? Or can we help at all? Again, I’ll have to keep my opinions to myself tomorrow night, but not today. Not in this blogpost.
My vision for peace involves two states for two peoples. The boundary separating these states would be drawn based roughly on the ’67 borders. There would be land swaps, but not enough to allow Israel to keep settlements that go deep into pre-’67 Palestine. In other words, Israel would keep the clear majority of the land from River to Sea but would have to give up some of its most cherished settlements. Residents of both states would be ensured access to their holy sites and to ample supplies of water. Further, while Israel would remain a “Jewish State” that will celebrate Jewish culture and history, recognize Jewish holidays as state holidays, and provide immigration benefits to Jews, it would also fight strongly to provide minority rights and the same sense of equality that, say, England provides to citizens who don’t come from traditional British backgrounds. Moreover, the peace plan would make room for a significant number of Palestinian refugee families to return to their ancestral home towns. Other Palestinian families with legitimate claims to pre-’67 Israel would receive compensation, as would Israelis forced to vacate their settlements in the West Bank. West Jerusalem would become the capital of Israel; East Jerusalem of Palestine. (Now, if I had my druthers, Jerusalem would become an international city devoted to God, but even I realize that’s a bit utopian.)
So how do we realize such a vision? Therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? In the region, we will need both reconciliation efforts spearheaded by NGOs and efforts among statesmen to enact peace treaties. The latter aren’t likely to get very far any time soon. The sad truth is that power brokers in the region who will fight for a two-state vision risk losing their lives. Just look at what happened to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who was assassinated by an Israeli after signing peace treaties with the Palestinians and Jordanians. Rabin is a hero to people like me, but a villain to many others who saw him as giving away what belongs to Israel. If he had a Palestinian counterpart, that person would no doubt be equally hated as a sellout to the “colonizing power.” In short, regional leaders who are actually effective as peacemakers will need to recognize themselves as soldiers who, no less than those in the military, may pay the ultimate price in service to their country.
I could go on pontificating about what the Israelis and Palestinians should do to take us from war to peace, but I’m more interested in what we in America can do. That, after all, is something we can control directly. Some of my friends urge us Americans to butt out, arguing that the concerns of the religion need to be addressed by the residents there, not by officious intermeddlers from across the pond. With respect, that would be a lovely idea if the Palestinians and the Israelis were equal in power, but they’re not. If Americans and Europeans simply sat back and watched the situation on the ground unfold, is there any doubt that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank would spread, the prospects for a two-state solution would dim, and the Palestinian plight would worsen? Just look at what happened this past week, which the New York Times aptly characterized as “Israel cements a right-wing agenda with a furious week of lawmaking.” The Times was referring to bills that, respectively, bar certain critics of the West Bank Occupation from speaking in public schools, preclude Palestinians from accessing the Israeli Supreme Court in real estate disputes, prevent single men and homosexual couples from having surrogate children ... and those weren’t even the most controversial laws. The Netanyahu regime saved the “best” for last – a “nation-state” bill that, among other things, downgraded the status of Arabic as an official language and failed to stress the importance of minority rights while providing the Jews with “an exclusive right to national self-determination” in Israel. Left to its own druthers, the Netanyahu regime isn’t exactly poised to implement the kind of two-state solution I mentioned at the top of this post.
So what can we Americans do? It depends on what community we come from. For me, as a Jewish-American, I’ll need to become even more vocal about the perils of right-wing rule in Israel. It almost doesn’t matter what specific cause we tackle; if we can legitimately confront right-wing Israeli extremism, we can help Israel find its way to a more just and peaceful state.
Perhaps the most effective way of doing that is to stress not only Netanyahu’s policies toward Palestinians but also his opposition to the rights of Israelis who practice progressive forms of the Jewish religion. Netanyahu has made a deal with the Orthodox community that they are entitled to monopolize what it means to be a religious Jew in that country. They decide, for example, how Jews can get married and which conversions are valid. Here in America, by contrast, religious Jewish life is blissfully diverse. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanist Jews practice their faith with institutional support and societal legitimacy. Collectively, they form the bulk of religious Judaism in America, whereas in Israel they are marginalized and trivialized. For the most part, Israelis are either Orthodox or secular. Now they have a government committed to keeping things that way.
We American Jews need to become far more vocal about how the Israeli battle against religious pluralism strikes at the very heart of Judaism as we understand it. Netanyahu’s government will take our money and our support, but they are denying Americans our Judaism. They look at our preachers as faux rabbis, at our ceremonies as faux ceremonies, and at our converts as Gentiles. Isn’t it time we sounded the alarm about this outrage?
I am a dyed in the wool Zionist. I will continue to oppose efforts, like the BDS movement, that treat Israel as a pariah. I also plan to support Israel in its right to survive not only as a state but as a Jewish state, and to oppose organizations that can only bring themselves to criticize Israel and never to defend her. But that doesn’t mean I should sit back and watch that land that I love become an exclusively right-wing domain. That doesn’t mean I should let Israel define “religious” as “Orthodox only,” or treat progressive religious Judaism as ersatz Judaism. And that doesn’t mean I should wash my hands of the plight of the Palestinians. American Jews – we need to find our voice in this debate, and we need to find it fast.
Oh, and if you’re an American Gentile who wants to get involved in these issues, I’m sure you’ll find groups in this country that share your values and vocalize them. The one exception might be that if you’re a Palestinian who truly supports a two-state solution – not as a “stage” on the path to a one-state solution but as an end in itself – I’m not sure you’ll find an organized group of like-minded people yet. So start one. It’s never too late to work for peace, and as visions of peace go, my Palestinian cousins, I think two states is as good as you’re going to get.
That’s all I have to say on the topic for the weekend. The Empathic Rationalist will be on holiday for the next two weekends and will return on the weekend of August 11th-12th when – you guessed it – the White Nationalists will be marching on Washington. We sure live in interesting times, don’t we?