Posts Tagged ‘Israel Palestinian conflict’

It has been an interesting week. In the aftermath of a summer that began with the ill-timed and ill-begotten Presbyterian resolution to divest from some companies that invest in Israel, followed by the horrifying war between Israel and Hamas, I find I am spending more and more time speaking to non-Jewish groups about Israel. In addition, because of the editorial I co-wrote in July on the Gaza conflict with my friend, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, I find I am one of small group that actually interacts with Muslims. The editorial made first page of the Huffington Post. Parvez and I both lament the tensions and realize our responsibility to model a different way to engage in interaction. What made this week interesting is that in two speaking engagements, I saw the poles of the Israeli/Palestinian problems – one that was discouraging and one that was hopeful.

On Sunday morning I was asked to speak at First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. I was one of two speakers and my task was to present the Israeli perspective on both the most recent conflict as well as the overall issues with the Palestinians. The other speaker, presenting the Palestinian perspective, was a member of the “Students for Justice in Palestine,” a student group not only on the Florida State campus, but many campuses across the country. I had heard of the group but never interacted with it, as my only reason to go on campus is when I am a guest lecturer for a class. The speaker was a young woman, a Christian, whose grandparents lived in Palestine until 1948, when they were forced to leave.

I was asked to speak first. I said it was hard to give a single Israeli perspective for two reasons. First, there are a lot of opinions within Israel about the conflict and how it came to be. The official position of the Netanyahu government is different than the editorial pages of Ha’aretz, for example. Second, the problem is very complex, despite many people’s attempts to force it into simple axioms. Different people, depending on the narrative they wish to convey put the start of the problems at different times, 1967 (aftermath of the Six Day War), 1948 (Declaration of the State of Israel and the resulting war), 1916 (Balfour Declaration). I suggested that to understand the conflict one had to realize there have always been Jews living in Palestine, not a majority of the country, but they have always been there; and that the modern increase in Jewish presence leading to the eventual creation of Israel has its beginning in 1894 – when Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus trial.

To summarize the Israeli perspective I stressed three things. First, that one must not conflate the Palestinian people and Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization but the Palestinian people have legitimate needs and grievances. Second, that the death of civilians especially children, was deeply tragic; third, that I oppose attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel but I disagree with much of the policy of the current government. I ended my 15 minutes by saying once again it is a multi-layered problem that should not be reduced to simplistic statements.

Then it was the young woman’s turn from the SJP. She gave a moving account of her grandparents’ story, how they were forced to leave their home in Palestine in 1948. This clearly drove her emotions as she then proceeded to continually condemn the “Zionists” for taking Palestinian land, for driving out the people, for destroying what she described as a lovely kind of utopia where Jews, Christians and Muslims all got along. That was only one of her historical mistakes. She showed no real acquaintance with the history leading up to 1947. She stated that Jews were only 1 third of the population of Palestine in 1947 yet got 56 % of the land under the UN partition plan. While technically true, much of that land was the Negev desert. Most of the partition plan awarded each people the land where their population was the most concentrated.

During the question and answer period, it got worse. She stated that Hamas had the right to do whatever it wished as it was fighting for the liberation of an oppressed people. No acknowledgement of its anti-Semitism or its religiously radical agenda that brands it outside the pale. She advocated a one state solution, but offered no way how to get there.

I was faced with a choice. Do I go into direct debate with her, contradicting her “facts” and allegations? Or, do I just try to state very reasonable embracing positions, emphasizing my sympathy for the deprivations of the Palestinians. I chose the latter. I felt at that point I did not need to speak to the Presbyterians, but to her. She needed to see and hear a Jewish leader who was not a chest thumper, but who would give a reasonable, balanced presentation. To correct all of her facts (I did offer a couple of corrections) would have made it seem like the older man being condescending to a young woman. That was a no win path.

Yesterday, Thursday, I had a very different experience. The director of the interfaith office at North Florida University in Jacksonville, where Parvez teaches, asked if we would speak at a weekly gathering they have called “Difficult Conversations.” Having read our editorial, she felt we might be able to model how a Jew and Muslim can speak about the Israeli/Palestinian issue. She said usually 30 to 35 students and faculty attend and she thought that might go up to 40.

First, I met Parvez for lunch. We had our usual conversation about the latest in Philadelphia sports. This week we relished an Eagle victory to open the season. We then went to campus to attend the event. When we walked into the room it was already overflowing. In the end 65 attended, double what they usually have. The crowd was diverse racially and religiously. We spoke about our friendship, how that relationship allows us to speak honestly about issues. We stressed that we find much common ground as we are sensitive to the sufferings of each other’s people. We talked about not trying to prove a narrative, but to try to understand the other person’s perspective – why someone feels the way they do. We spoke about the uselessness of shouting at each other and chest thumping. Most of all we emphasized the need to form relationships, friendships.

The students were wonderful in their responses and their questions. It was clear they heard and appreciated the message. What moved me the most was that the presidents of the Muslim Student Association, and the Jewish Student Association, both came. Neither had been to this forum before. Neither had met the other before. When the session was done I found the two of them exchanging phone numbers and deciding to have lunch together. Parvez and I both encouraged them to seek a better path. They agreed. As we left the event Parvez said to me, “Jack, today we had a victory.” I agreed.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo tells of the declaration of blessings and curses from the tops of two mountains. The blessings are to come from the top of Mt. Gerizim, the curses from the top of Mt. Ebal. The tribes are divided into two groups, with one on each mountain. A valley yawns as a gulf between them. This week I took a turn on the top of each mountain, one of curse and one of blessing. I pray that one day, if more of us can spend time on the mountain of blessing, we can bridge the gulf.

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Some day it will end. The horrifying bloodshed of this Gaza war will end. The rocket fire will cease. Israeli strikes will stop. Israelis will heave a collective sigh of relief for the respite – whatever length it turns out to be. There will be appropriate congratulations over the discovery and destruction of the tunnels that very well could have led to indiscriminate slaughter of Israeli civilians. There will be the declarations of triumph by both sides. Netanyahu will declare that Hamas was dealt a crippling blow. Hamas will crow about its bravery in standing up to Israeli military might. After 5 or 6 weeks of brutal war, the springs that had been so tightly wound will be released. Then, they will begin to rewind once more; tightening ever so relentlessly to the point when violence will inexorably spring forth yet again. It is inevitable. Or is it?

Watching the deadly dance between Israel and Hamas is like watching a bloody version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” The day keeps repeating itself again and again. In the movie, the cycle does not end until Bill Murray’s character learns enough about itself to change his outlook and behavior. That is a great metaphor for what has to happen for both Israel and the Palestinians. They are doomed to repeating the same sequence again and again unless someone learns enough to change their outlook and behavior. What are the possibilities for change? What needs to be learned?

Israelis need to do an honest assessment of how they arrived in a situation of a Gaza being dominated by Hamas. It is a convenient narrative (and not without a measure of justification) to lay the full blame on Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization masquerading as a liberation movement. It has radical religious goals that reach far beyond the political goals of freedom for Palestinians. Hamas uses absolutely brutal methods, from employing children to dig the invasive tunnels into Israel (some reports indicate 200 children died doing this) to placing weapon sites in the midst of civilian populations, banking on high casualties from Israeli strikes; to its readiness to just kill Jews. Israelis, however, have to ask themselves: to what degree have their own policies fostered the growth of Hamas?

The blockade of Gaza was seen as a necessary measure to keep weapons out of Hamas’s hands – yet clearly it has failed. Hamas has all the weapons it needs and ever more sophisticated rockets. Instead, the blockade has impoverished the civilian Palestinian population, creating in essence a large, restricted refugee camp, while at the same time providing fuel for Hamas to garner Palestinian support. Further, by not working seriously for a two state solution, Israel has undercut the one Palestinian leader – Abbas – who has shown some willingness to come to the table. Israelis must ask themselves this question. Would a better strategy be to help facilitate a stable Palestinian state that would share an economic future with Israel?   Would it not be better to create some prosperity among Palestinians making it more profitable to focus on peace and growth rather than fostering the despair that leads to support for Hamas? Gideon Levy raises these and many more questions Israelis must face in this editorial in Ha’aretz http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.608118

As hard as it will be for Israelis to break their “Groundhog Day” tendencies, it will be even harder for the Palestinians, who must come to realize exactly what Hamas represents – death, destruction, and radical religious theocracy. However, at the very core of changing Palestinian attitudes is a turning away from the rampant anti Semitism embraced by so many in the Arab world. Arab anti-Judaism is so bad that it is spilling rapidly into Europe, where in France, Jewish stores are being vandalized and the Jewish population intimidated. I must ask the Arab and Muslim communities how Israel can be expected to act with more restraint in the face of such obvious hatred of Jews? The blatant anti-Semitism in the Arab world creates heightened fear not just in Israel, but among all Jews. We have no choice but to support Israel as a rampart against what seems to our community, a continuation of centuries of scapegoating of Jews for the world’s wrongs.

My friend, Dr. Parvez Ahmed has told me that the path for Palestinian freedom lies in the formation of a non-violent peace movement that aligns itself with like-minded Israelis. I totally agree. But in order for this to happen, the Arab world has to confront its anti-Semitism. This would result in a rejection of the radicalism of Hamas and give hope that there might be a path to a peaceful, more prosperous, and most importantly – a shared future.

And isn’t that really the central point? If there is to be any kind of decent, prosperous future, it must be a shared future. There is grand potential in a region that harvests the already successful economic and technical advances of Israel when paired with the creative potential of the Palestinians – one of the most educated groups in the Arab world. The aftermath of the Gaza war is not fated to be a continuation of “Groundhog Day.” Palestinians and Israelis can choose to accept each other –and the world would then indeed wake to a new day.





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They are gone. We say Kaddish. We mourn. We are angry. We look for a response that will salve the wounds of their murder. We want to know why Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach, three Israeli teens, had to be kidnapped and murdered. We want to know how people, even those who see themselves oppressed by Israel, can rejoice at their murders. How can even a radical fringe rejoice over the deaths of three teenagers? How can any political organization, even a Hamas, just see three teens as pawns in a political game? We wonder how human life, even the life of your “opponent,” can be dismissed so casually? So we are lost in a swirl of emotions and look for a way to react.

He is also gone. Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old from East Jerusalem has been kidnapped and murdered. Some initially thought this might be an honor killing, an act between rival Arab clans. But Israeli police are becoming convinced that his murder is a revenge killing by Jewish extremists: revenge for the murder of the three Israeli teens. If this is indeed a revenge killing, one has to wonder if the extremists will see the score as evened, or will they look to commit further acts of revenge? After all, the Torah does tell us “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” (Exodus 21:24), right?

Is this the place we must stand? Is the road of alternating killings the path we must travel? I will express dismay that so much of the Israeli response has been a call for reprisal, not the extremist act of murdering Palestinian teens, but Netanyahu’s promise of action against Hamas. Please do not misunderstand me. If there were a military action that would neutralize Hamas, I would support it without hesitation. If striking Hamas outposts in Gaza was really something more than violent chest thumping, I could understand it. But no military action will eliminate Hamas. Hamas has become much more than a terrorist organization bent on Israel’s destruction. It is a political party that dispenses services and favors to the Palestinian population. Israeli strikes against Hamas has the same effect as cutting a branch off of a tree but ignoring the roots. The tree will simply grow a new branch.

So I must ask, what does continuing this cycle of violence achieve? What is its strategic purpose other than showing a population in mourning that the government is doing something? Is there another response? This is the crossroads at which we stand. I say “we” because all Jews, whether they acknowledge it or not, are connected. What happens in Israel affects all of us – profoundly.

I was moved by the reaction of one of the great Jewish sages of our time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Two of the murdered teens attended his Mekor Chaim high school. His former student, Pinchas Allouche, was in the car with Rabbi Steinsaltz when news of the murders spread and broke it to him. He wrote about the rabbi’s response. “People will light memorial candles, recite prayers, and attend vigils. Our boys were killed al Kiddush Hashem, (a sanctification of God’s name), because they were Jews. Therefore, to best honor their memories – indeed, to confront evil – we must act always as proud Jews, in our deeds and through our lives.” Allouche elaborates that while we cannot erase evil, we can create good. By living and acting as Jews through Torah and mitzvoth, we can create good.

That is the other path we can choose. Torah interprets “an eye for an eye” not as a dictum for revenge, but as a formula to provide just compensation to the victims, to provide as much healing as possible, even if the healing cannot be complete. Torah eschews revenge. Our tradition is one of law, justice, and healing. So interpretations of Torah, such as using the law of din rodef as justification for killing Palestinians, is a twisting of the intent of Torah. Any use of Torah to do anything other than create good, to create wholeness, is a misuse of the Divine message. Torah’s purpose is to effect tikkun (repair) to try to achieve sheleimut (wholeness).

I recognize that this Israeli government is not ready for the big gestures like halting expansion of settlements on the West Bank. I also recognize there is a pathological illness running through the Palestinian population, preventing acceptance of the Jewish state. My question is this; can we Jews recognize that we bear a part of the responsibility for this illness? Can we, as a first step towards bringing healing, do some honest teshuvah about the history of Israel that allows for some shared responsibility for the status quo? Or do we insist on a narrative that only casts Jews/Israelis as the good guys and Arabs/Palestinians as the bad guys?

However we answer that question, I do believe there is a small, tangible step that would demonstrate what Rabbi Steinsaltz means by being Jews who live by our Torah – a Torah that promotes healing. The family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir wants a statement by the Israeli government acknowledging his murder as a revenge killing. Grant them this. Even more, make a gesture of sorrow towards his family, an offer of something to promote healing. Provide appropriate compensation. This should be done without any expectation of a return gesture by any Palestinian towards the families of the murdered Israeli teens. It should be done as a simple human gesture, to demonstrate that as Jews, we understand senseless human loss. It will do more to heal the Palestinian illness than any reprisal.

I remember well the attack by a Jordanian soldier on March 13, 1997, on a group of Israeli school girls, killing seven. King Hussein of Jordan came to Israel to apologize personally to the victims’ families. He stated then, “Your daughter is like my daughter, your loss is my loss.” The power and sincerity of his gesture affected all Israel, indeed all Jews. King Hussein’s example is the one we need to follow.

Yes, we are angry at the murder of our innocent teens. Yes we are angry at the sick celebrations by segments of the Palestinian population. Yes, we are deep in grief over the perpetuation of conflict. But let us affirm the teaching of Rabbi Steinsaltz, live proudly as Jews and try to create goodness. Zichronam livracha, my the memories of three innocent Jews and one innocent Palestinian one day bring blessing. Amen.

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