Hillel’s Message to AIPAC and all American Jews: Now Is The Time To Make A Two State Solution Happen (Part 2 of 3)
“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:
“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.
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.
Anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue who didn’t hear Peter Beinart speak at Northwestern on Tuesday really missed something. Although the headline above looks like everyday hyperbole, if those who were there would have to agree that he captivated the near capacity audience for ninety minutes.
Beinart’s NY Review of Books June, 2010 article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment sent a shock wave through the American Jewish community. Why this article has become a phenomenon among those who follow Jewish issues is not patently obvious. The ideas in it are not earth shatteringly unique. There are no secret papers uncovered. Not even any shocking off-the-record quotations. Instead, the article is simply so well written, its arguments so well documented, its organization so logical and compact that it strikes the reader (particularly those involved with the major American Jewish organizations that Beinart writes about) full in the chest like a hammer (one might say, a Hebrew Hammer – but that’s another story). And it certainly helps that he brings tremendous credibility as someone who comes from the Center Right, and who practices Modern Orthodoxy.
These same characteristics came through in his speaking. Not only his prepared remarks, but his answers to ad hoc questions were so well structured and economical that the listener was just carried along. It was amazing to me that he could construct responses to questions that were not only logical and understandable, but were chock full of facts, figures and quotations. This is a very rare gift. I have heard him speak several times, and regardless of the content, I find that listening to him speak, how he structures his points and arguments, is analogous to listening to Itzhak Perlman play the violin. Peter Beinart is simply a virtuoso.
But beyond admiring his intellectual and rhetorical abilities, what he is trying to tell us, the American Jewish community, is so very important. His main thesis can be summed up by a quote from that article:
For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
Those in the Major American Jewish Organizations are at their own peril if they reject his analysis of the schism between today’s Jewish American youth and Israel. Since his article was published in NY Review of Books he has quickly become one of the most incisive commentators on what may turn out to be the most significant crisis in American Jewish history: the disaffiliation, disconnection and delusion of a majority of today’s non-Orthodox American Jewish Youth with Israel, and beyond that to their very Jewishness. Beinart’s ability to boil down complex themes and/or questions into an organized holistic answer – on the fly – is truly a gift. He is knowledgable, thoughtful, logical, insightful, understandable and direct, and quietly passionate. If you were not there, I urge you to be there when he returns. You will not be disappointed.