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Hillel’s Message to AIPAC and all American Jews: Now Is The Time To Make A Two State Solution Happen (Part 3 of 3)

May 24, 2011 1 comment
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”

“And if not now, when?”

Hillel ends his admonition with an imperative:  The time is now.  And so it is for Israelis and Americans who truly want to preserve Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.  Although it has been said for years that the window of opportunity is closing, like the boy who cried wolf, this time it is really true.

Map of Israel and Territories

There are three major trends in the Middle East which underscore why it is so critical to move boldly and swiftly towards peace.  The first is the Arab Spring.  Everybody loves democratic uprisings – when they first begin.  However, they do not always end up quite the way we hope.  The very nature of grass-roots rebellions is that they tend to be short on organization, which opens them up to co-option as things move from the emotional frenzy of demonstrations in the streets to the reality of picking up the garbage in the streets.  In Egypt, which is probably the best example of successful regime change, the final outcome is indeed still open to question.  But the response of the Israelis seems to be that of delay. In March, we spoke with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky who had just come back from Israel bearing the message from Israelis leaders that “Now is not the time for action.  We need to let things settle down.”  While there is some logic in that point of view, the counter argument carries a lot of weight as well.  That is, it might make better sense to get an agreement moving farther along (including the support of other world nations) before things blow up around or in the Palestinian territories.  In other words, it seems just as likely that spontaneous developments in the region will actually give the Israelis less control at the negotiating table than they have now.

The second factor is the movement towards a unified government that Fatah and Hamas have taken.  This took everyone by surprise (by all accounts, Mahmoud Abbas included) and as a result it is not totally clear whether the arrangement will work out or what the results will be if it does.  But what is clear from the reaction of the Israeli and American governments is that everyone on this side of the table is scared to death.  Although the excuse is that Hamas is a terrorist organization, it seems that the real fear is that no one really understands Hamas’ motivations or its ability to politically control and organize its factions. I am not sure why people are reacting with such repulsion.  It seems to me that we should take the advice of that old Texan, LBJ, on this one:  “It’s much better to have him (LBJ referring to J. Edgar Hoover) inside the tent pissing out, than having him outside pissing in.”  It would certainly be much easier to assess what Hamas is thinking if we met with them rather than to simply turn our backs – which is what both the Israelis and Americans are doing.  A former Israeli General once said to me:  Never turn your back on a Arab (which by the way, was not said with malice or derision, but simply as honest
advice).  So why turn your backs on Hamas? Additionally, the current position gives Fatah nowhere to turn.  Simply saying “it’s Israel or Hamas” makes good political rhetoric, but if you think about it, it actually gives additional power to Hamas because they know that Abbas does not have enough political support to reject Hamas at this point in time – so the Israelis haven’t given him a real choice.  Under normal circumstances, it might be best to wait to see what happens between these two factions.  However, there is a third
factor that overrides this:  September.

The Palestinians have slowly and methodically been paving the way to go to the UN in September to seek recognition as a nation of the world. The resolution will first go to

UN Flag

the Security Council where the US will be able to veto it.  However, it will then move to the General Assembly for a vote of all of the nations.  It is quite likely that they will be able to
get the votes needed to pass the resolution as there are already over 100 countries that have recognized the Palestinian Authority.  One Israeli official has been quoted as calling the possibility of UN ratification a “train wreck”, and rightfully so.  If Palestine is recognized as a sovereign nation, it totally changes the legal relationship with Israel according to accepted international law.  And while many American and Israeli spokesmen have minimized the validity of the vote and its potential impact, that seems to be the naïve point of view.

So, the Arab Spring, the Fatah-Hamas détente, and most importantly, the anticipated Palestinian quest for statehood at the UN, all underscore the fact that time is closing in on Israel’s opportunities to control their own fate.  But instead of urgency, what we hear loudest from the American Jewish community is denial.  American Jews can stonewall and contend that the Israelis cannot possibly deal with terrorists (although let’s recall that the PLO was the foremost terrorist group in the world at one time) and that there is no one to make a deal with, and that the world is delegitimizing Israel, and that that old UN is once again being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.  We can do that.  But that doesn’t stop the clock towards UN declaration of a Palestinian state from ticking.  Why do we want to put the fate of Israel and Palestine in the hands of the UN?  If we don’t act now to do everything we can to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to the table, we may well leave setting the terms of the agreement to others.

Instead of continually reciting all of the obstacles to peace, we American Jews should do all we can to urge Israel to engage with the Palestinians.  And soon.  Instead of a wholesale rejection of Hamas, why not be creative?  Find some clever way of giving Hamas an out that will allow them to save face with their own people, while providing some assurance to the Israelis that they are moderating.  For example, while some in Hamas have maintained their hateful rhetoric, Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal has already indicated his openness to accepting an agreement under certain circumstances.  Why shouldn’t Israel use these statements to open the door – even if it’s just a crack?

This is just an example, but if you examine the information being distributed and promoted by the Major American Jewish Organizations, most of it consists of reasons why peace cannot be accomplished.  It lists all of the obstacles to peace.  Underlying all of this is an unstated (or sometimes stated) assumption that Israel has too much to risk by making peace.  But there are two problems with that.  First, it fails to recognize that
it is no longer 1948.  The relative powers in the region are very different than they were back then.  As Hillary Clinton said last year at the AIPAC Policy Conference, the real dangers to Israel lie in demography, ideology, and technology – not from conventional military attack.  And secondly, it fails to recognize the very real risks of doing nothing.  More former Israeli political and military leaders than you can count have emphasized that the status quo is simply unsustainable.

So, my hope is that my fellow AIPAC members and the rest of the mainstream American Jewish community will go beyond the same old platitudes that give all the reasons that peace is not possible and instead, urge the Israeli government and our elected leaders to make definitive, substantive steps towards peace.  It is time to be bold and brave.  We Jews are strong enough, we are tough enough, and we are smart enough to cut a deal with the Palestinians that, if well thought out, implemented and monitored, can bring better lives to everyone in the region.

The time is now.

Hillel’s Message to AIPAC and all American Jews: Now Is The Time To Make A Two State Solution Happen (Part 2 of 3)

May 23, 2011 Comments off
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”

“And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

The second phrase of Rabbi Hillel‘s aphorism implores us to attend to the other.  In this context we might also give attention to what is perhaps Rabbi Hillel’s most famous quote. As the Gentile stood on one foot, Hillel summed up the Torah:

The Gentile

“What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole Law, the rest is Commentary.”  This is one of the most clear-cut and direct definitions of Jewish Values that one can find (and with a better pedigree than the kishke test) and one that should be appropriately applied to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people – no matter whether there is a peace agreement or not.

In this context, one of the biggest issues being addressed by AIPAC, the Jewish Federations, and other major Jewish organizations is the “delegitimization” campaign against Israel.   There certainly are people who are purposefully trying to weaken or even destroy Israel by making it a persona non grata among the nations of the world.  But there are others who raise very legitimate questions about Israeli government and military policies.   It is time for the Major American Jewish Organizations to recognize the difference between those who seek to purposely delegitimize Israel as a strategy and those who honestly and objectively are concerned with the treatment of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and whether this treatment lives up to the standards enumerated in Israel’s Declaration of Establishment.  Currently, virtually any criticism of the Israeli government or military is labeled as “delegitimization”, and any issues raised are blindly dismissed by these American Jewish groups.  Presumably, the argument is that admitting any wrong-doing simply provides ammunition to Israel’s enemies.  The opposite is actually true.  Failing to criticize any Israel policy at all or refusing to recognize obvious, documented incidents only destroys the credibility of the anti-delegitimization campaigns.  In essence, the Major American Jewish Organizations are delegitimizing their own campaigns against delegitimization! 

A simple example:  The day-to-day treatment of the Palestinians as they try to travel through the checkpoints.

Scene from a Checkpoint

I have seen with my own eyes the disrespectful, disdainful, and humiliating way the Palestinians are treated.  It is wrong – plain and simple.  My very first experience crossing into Bethlehem was to witness a nineteen year-old border guard leaning back in his chair in the glass enclosed control booth, talking on his cell phone and simply ignoring an old Palestinian woman trying to show her passport to get into Jerusalem.  It was a very light day and she was the only one in line at that time.  We watched as she waved and waved her papers to no avail.  The guard continued to ignore her.  Finally, after she banged on the glass, he simply waved her along with a sneer of impatience and contempt.  Not the end of the world, one might say.  Perhaps.  But again, I use a simple criterion:  How would I feel if it was my bubbe being treated this way?  Outraged.  And I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t feel the same way.

Sure, this example doesn’t rise anywhere close to a human rights abuse.  But it does illustrate an important point:  as concerning as the impact of this type of behavior is on the Palestinians involved, the effect on Israeli youth may be even worse when viewed through the prism of Jewish values.  The attitude displayed by this young man (and this was not the only incident like this that we observed) shows a callous disregard for the very humanness of the other.  This sector of the Israeli military has gone from being brave defenders of Israel’s very existence to being masters over the day-to-day lives of others
who are powerless.  As Peter Beinart pointed out several weeks ago when he spoke at Northwestern University, you measure the nature of a people not by how they treat others when they are in a position of weakness, but rather when they are in a position of power.  Israel is taking young eighteen and nineteen year-olds and putting them in positions where they are lording it over men and women two and three times their age.  These young people are allowed to treat the Palestinians with disrespect and contempt.  And either through neglect or purpose, there appears to be little supervision or questioning of these attitudes and actions.  A whole generation is growing up with attitudes that would make our bubbes cringe.  This is the insidious part of the current situation:  the fact is that when a society is in the position of controlling another people it morally rots from the inside (more posts on this to come).  It is time for American Jewish organizations to make realistic, open and candid analyses of Israel’s policies and actions with regard to the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.  They should then state publicly the very real abuses they will almost certainly find.  And finally, openly engage with the Israeli government and military to change or eliminate objectionable behaviors.  To do otherwise calls into question the veracity and integrity of their anti-delegitimization campaigns, but more importantly allows a moral cancer to fester within Israeli society.

While addressing these issues should be done as soon as possible, there are even more pressing needs that require immediate attention as will be seen when we examine the third phrase of Hillel’s admonition.

Hillel’s Message to AIPAC and all American Jews: Now Is The Time To Make A Two State Solution Happen (Part 1 of 3)

May 23, 2011 1 comment

One of the most profound aspects of Rabbi Hillel‘s brilliance was his ability to express the essence of Judaism in basic core ways that doesn’t require the years of study demanded of a Talmudic scholar.  Perhaps the most well-known of Hillel’s aphorisms (which our congregation repeats in song each High Holiday) reflects the essence of what it means to be both a human and a Jew:
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
 And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
 And if not now, when?”

This statement of simple eloquence seems to be an appropriate  guide to how we, as American Jews, should approach the Israel-Palestinian conflict:

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”

There is a very visceral connection to Israel for Jews around the world that begins with our historical, Biblical lineage. And whether you are a believer in the divine covenant or a cultural Jew – whether a Jew by matrilineal descent or a Jew by choice – whether an ardent Zionist or an indifferent secularist – there seems to be an intangible link to the land of the matriarchs and patriarchs.  There is also a connection created by the sweat and blood of the early Zionists who really did make the desert bloom.

But what is really at the heart of the American Jewish relationship to Israel is the desire and the need to protect its very existence. The number one goal is to protect and preserve Israel as it is envisioned in its Declaration of Establishment:  as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.

The need for a safe haven for Jews is self-evident to even the most skeptical observer in light of the 2,000 years of the Diaspora culminating in Hitler’s attempt at the Final Solution which was met by apparent indifference from much of the world.  Although some in the world try to deny the Holocaust, that very denial amply proves the point of the need to preemptively prevent another holocaust by maintaining the state open to all Jews without question.  And while some in the West, particularly those of the younger generation, forget or dismiss the reality of anti-Semitism, new currents of this age-old sentiment have been bubbling closer to the surface in dangerous ways.  Though most American young people cannot conceive of a return to the explicit anti-Semitism that existed until the last generation or so, history tells a different story. Although we can hope that the trend will not continue to grow, it would be naive to blithely believe that it won’t.
So, even today, the need for a refuge remains very real.

But, the most prominent message (that often drowns out all others) of AIPAC, the Federations, and many other Major American Jewish Organizations is that danger lurks around every corner: Terrorists waiting to blow themselves up killing innocent women and children; missiles amassed at Israel’s border – now with the capability to strike at the heart of Israel’s civilian population; the specter of a nuclear Iran looming ever closer. Unfortunately, they are right.  There are very, very real treacherous enemies that will not rest until every “Zionist” is driven into the sea.   However, the message conveyed by the Jewish organizations is usually simplistic and absolute.  Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranians represent the devil incarnate – evil and implacable with the sole goal of wiping Israel off the map.  The message preserves the images from 1948 of Israel surrounded by hostile armies ready to cross the border at any moment.  The tone is of tense fear often cloaked in the language of righteousness and the an absolutist version of history.  Again, it is certainly true that there are a significant number of jihadists in these groups who fit this definition – but it doesn’t take much digging to find examples of the voices of moderation in each of these groups.  Ironically, the monolithic characterization actually works to Israel’s detriment.

First, ignoring the moderate voices has the effect of strengthening the more radical elements.  Examples of some moderation include the Green Movement and current inter-governmental turmoil in Iran, the voice of Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal
saying that he will conditionally accept an agreement with Israel, and the recognition that both Hezbollah and Hamas have social and political arms which provide necessary services to their populations.  Not recognizing these moderate elements only supports the radicals’ contention that the Israeli and American governments are blindly seeking to destroy the Muslim world.  It is hard to see how widening the gap between Islam and the West does not increase the influence of the radical Jihadists.

More importantly, simplistic characterizations lead to a dangerously poor understanding of the complexity of one’s enemy, Israel’s geo-strategic situation, and therefore the best ways to avoid attacks as well as the most effective ways to defend against them should they occur.  Tactics will always change as facts on the ground change.  For example, in a recent conference call, Major General (Ret) Natan Sharoni, a member of the Council for Peace and Security, pointed out (in response to the criticism that President Obama has taken with regard to his explicit public endorsement of setting the borders based upon the 1967 borderswith land swaps) that the importance of “defensible borders” has diminished significantly.  The concept of “defensible borders” is really based on a misunderstanding of the current state of military technology and military tactics. What he said was that we no longer have huge armies massed on the border of Israel.  In  1948, Israel was threatened by standing armies from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Egypt.  But today, neither Iran nor Iraq have expeditionary forces. Egypt and Jordan have both signed peace treaties with Israel, and Syria cannot and will not act alone.  The inveterate framing of the military threat as that of conventional armies attacking across physical borders is now highly unlikely. Instead, General Sharoni points out that the military threat now comes from 1.Terrorism, and 2.Missiles. Neither of these threats is particularly mitigated by borders per se.  In addition, although he did not mention this factor, the logistical
capabilities of 2011 including helicopters, cellular and satellite communication, and naval capabilities, make the military advantage of cutting off Israel’s North and South quite a bit less critical than it was in 1948.  And while military strategists and tacticians can certainly debate these assertions, it is precisely the benefit of debate which the mainstream Jewish organizations need to recognize and embrace. Rehashing the old naïve and simplistic phrases that we constantly hear from AIPAC, the ADL,  the AJC, et al, prevent a
realistic assessment of the military threats facing Israel.

But there is an even more insidious danger to the Jewish People that arises from the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that is the transformation of the State of Israel into a country whose values are no longer representative or even recognizable as “Jewish”.  That is to say, Jewish values as expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Establishment: “[Israel] will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”  It seems impossible to see how many recent actions and proposals of the current Knesset meet these criteria.  I use a simple litmus test to determine whether or not Israel’s actions reflect my personal Jewish values.  It is not the legal definition of whether Israel’s actions fit the letter of international law.  It is not whether Israel has the right to defend itself (of course, it does). It is not whether some world leader denounces Israeli actions. No, my test is simple.  It is called the kishkes test.  When I read the newspaper, listen to the news, or see something on TV, do I cringe and feel a deep sense of shame in the pit of my gut – my kishkes?  If so, then there is something inherently wrong with the action.  Ironically, one of the unshakable demands of the current Israeli government is that the Palestinians unequivocally recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”.  By my way of thinking, we need to be even more concerned that Israel recognize itself as a Jewish state in accordance with its Declaration of Establishment.

Hillel’s admonition to be “for myself” rings true in every one of the above contexts with regard to how American Jews should relate to Israel.  But Hillel also posits that it is not sufficient to think only of one’s self.

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