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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 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.

What’s Different About the New Israeli Peace Initiative?

April 8, 2011 1 comment
Map of Israel, the Palestinian territories (We...

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As many of you know, a group of former Israeli military and political leaders released an Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI) (full text here) on Tuesday to coincide with the visit to the United States of Shimon Peres, Israel’s President, and his meeting with President Obama.  [Contrast that with what came from the Israeli government: a “coincidental” announcement by the Israeli Municipal Planning Commission that they had approved almost 1,000 new permits in the settlements].  The Initiative essentially combines elements of the Geneva Initiative of 2003 and the Arab League Initiative of 2002, but in substance doesn’t offer any dramatically different content.

But there was one thing different from anything that I have seen come out of either the Netanyahu administration, the PLA, or most of the “sense of Congress” letters (particularly those with the most signatures).  That is the Preamble:

The State of Israel,

  • Reaffirming that Israel’s strategic objective is to reach a historic compromise and permanent status agreements that shall determine the finality of all claims and the end of the Israeli Arab conflict, in order to achieve permanent and lasting peace, lasting and guaranteed security, regional economic prosperity and normal ties with all Arab and Islamic states,
  • Recognizing the suffering of the Palestinian refugees since the 1948 war as well as of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, and realizing the need to resolve the Palestinian refugees problem through realistic and mutually agreed-upon solutions,
  • Realizing that wide-scale multilateral economic cooperation is essential in order to ensure the prosperity of the Middle East, its environmental sustainability and the future of its peoples,
  • Recognizing the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002 (API) as a historic effort made by the Arab states to reach a breakthrough and achieve progress on a regional basis, and sharing the API statement that a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties,”

This statement not only reflects the truth, but also a fresh breath of humility.  Both the Palestinian and the Israeli governments claim to want peace, but inevitably each of their statements contain some element of accusation about the other side – whether the attack is overt or covert, or just in a related context [viz., the housing announcement referenced above].  And you know what?  Usually those accusations are correct.   But is that any way to actually get to peace?  At the same time that you claim to be reaching out to your adversary, you excoriate them for everything that they have done.  While there are plenty of excoriations to go around, the point is that you have to move beyond the past, and even the present, to the future.  The Palestinians and the Israelis will only make peace when they can both envision a different, more productive, more secure life for the region.  That is precisely the vision conjured up by the those behind the IPI.

One other thing that I like about this proposal is that it bases itself on the Arab Peace Initiative  (API).  While the API is not perfect, it does recognize the reality on the ground and makes several important philosophical concessions.  But it is extremely significant  that the drafters of the IPI chose to reference the API.  It gives important recognition and respect to the other side’s views.  Again, that is a crucial element that has been missing from the Israeli, Palestinian and mainstream American Jewish messaging.  Without respect for the other, reconciliation is impossible.

 

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Word of the Day: “Unprecedented”

March 1, 2011 Comments off

The J Street Conference ended today.

There was a lot of good information – straight, no chaser..
There was a lot of insightful analysis.
There was a lot of nuance.
There was a lot of learning.
Most of all there was a lot of energy.

And, if there was one overwhelming theme that permeated the conference, the theme was that we have entered into a period of unprecedented change in the Middle East. Dennis Ross politely characterized as a “Period of Uncertainty”. The implication of this for almost all of the speakers was obvious: with events unravelling so quickly and with little predictability, it is imperative to move the Peace Process along swiftly and strongly.

And, although Ross went on to say that President Obama believes that the world is changing – and will continue to change because there is a new generation of youth rising in the Arab world. And he further believes that we “need to be ahead of the curve”. Further, Ross went on to say that we “can’t get stuck in the unsustainable status quo”. Then, remarkably, he followed that up by saying “Negotiations are the only way forward.” And proceeded to lay out a meager list of activities the Administration was taking that were clearly dwarfed by the gravity of the situation. Essentially, he presented the same concepts that have guided US policy for the past twenty or so years.

Thinking about this, I like to use common sense logic. Let’s examine this. Ross clearly indicated that we are in a period of uncertainty which requires us to stay ahead of the curve. Yet the policy recommendations are essentially the Same Old, Same Old.

Virtually every other speaker agreed about the conditions, but drew a very different conclusion. The conclusion is that time is extremely limited and we need to be pro-active and dynamic with our policies. If not, we shall almost certainly stay behind the curve – which means that eventually the heady perfume of democracy and freedom will waft across the borders into the West Bank and Gaza. As one J Street leader asked me – what will the Israelis do when faced with 100,000 non-violent protesters marching through the streets of Hebron? This no longer seems to be a simply theoretical question – because it is likely that if the Palestinians and Israelis continue with the same Mexican standoff that has been going on year after year, this will be the result. At that point, there will be few good options.

Again, the situation logically calls for a renewed urgency in making some real progress towards peace so that the Palestinian Street can have some hope. But what is the word from Israel? A congressman that just came back today from meetings there was told by the Israelis: “This is definitely not the time for action”. Frankly, I was dumbfounded. The only explanation that I could come up with for this attitude was that the Israeli government continues to feel they can ‘ride out the storm’ – despite the fact that virtually every observer can see that what is happening in the Arab world has taken on a power of its own. It appears that the strongest country in the Middle East – by almost every measure – is being paralyzed by fear. While there are clear risks of taking some bold actions towards solving the problems, given the events of the last 8 weeks, I believe that the risks of doing nothing are much, much larger.

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