THIS IS A WORK-IN-PROGRESS THAT I’M GOING TO BE EDITING AND CHANGING, POSSIBLY A LOT. I’M NOT SURE I AGREE WITH EVERYTHING IN THE ESSAY AS IT IS. I STARTED IT IN 2012 AND THOUGHT IT WOULD BE A SUBSTANTIVE LECTURE, AND I’VE RETURNED TO IT A FEW TIMES. THERE’S LOTS THAT HAS HAPPENED, ESPECIALLY SINCE THE TRUMPOCALYPSE BEGAN, THAT HAS IMPACTED MY THINKING ON THESE ISSUES. SO IF YOU’RE READING THIS, PLEASE KEEP THIS CAVEAT IN MIND. -MAURICE
Few nations evoke such strong feelings, either positive or negative, as the State of Israel. I come to my relationship with Israel as a Jewish-American rabbi from a liberal denomination of Judaism and as part of a large family of Moroccan Jews who live in Tel Aviv. I spent much of my childhood in Israel, my Hebrew is good, and I love being there. I love the language, the way the light looks, the history, and the mix of Jews from many lands who come in different skin colors and have different accents. Israel is in my heart and there’s no un-doing that. I disagree with many of the Israeli government’s actions, but I love Israel unconditionally. My love for the U.S. is similar.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been aware that the success of Zionism as a national liberation movement has come at a huge cost to the Palestinians. I’ve studied the conflict and traveled to Gaza and the West Bank to see things for myself. My Jewish values have led me to advocate for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland in peace and security, and simultaneously to advocate for an end to the Israeli occupation, for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, for the sharing of Jerusalem, and for the resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue through a compromise that will preserve Israel as a Jewish homeland. My position is pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. I’m tired of the propaganda grenades that both sides tend to lob, demonizing and discrediting each other’s reasonable arguments. I’m tired of being called a “self-hating Jew” for standing up for Palestinian human rights, and I’m tired of being called a “Zionist fascist” because I believe that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish homeland.
I’m starting off today by naming where I come from as I engage this topic for a reason. I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to Israel/Palestine, it’s impossible to be objective. I once heard a journalism professor who was being interviewed on the radio, and the interviewer asked her if she felt that journalism students were still being taught the importance of being objective. She responded by saying that her teachers had never taught her to be objective, because being totally objective is impossible. What she had been taught, and what she continues to teach her students, is that a journalist’s duty is to always try to be fair, not objective. I can’t be objective about this conflict. What I try to do is be fair. So I name myself for you. I have a stake in Israel. I’m a Zionist. A Zionist is someone who believes that there should be a sovereign State of Israel in at least some part of the ancient Jewish homeland, and that that state should function as a homeland for the Jewish people.
Today, in the Jewish community, there are plenty of people to my left as well as to my right. To my left are groups like the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and the San Francisco based group, Jewish Voices for Peace. These are examples of Jewish groups who are either not sure whether the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should include a Jewish state – that’s Jewish Voices for Peace’s position – or are actually against the idea of a Jewish state. To my right are organizations like the Zionist Organization of America and the Israel Emergency Committee – groups that oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories. My politics are pretty close to J Street’s, and are to the left of AIPAC’s, though I value hearing what AIPAC has to say and I respect people who are more aligned with their perspective. This is who I am, and it affects what questions I ask when I study the conflict. Having named where I come from, let me offer my take on some of the key aspects of the conflict from a progressive Zionist perspective.
For a country with no oil, little initial wealth, a small population, and constant political conflict with its neighbors, what Israelis have achieved in 64 years is astonishing. Israel has managed to provide a safe haven for Jews in a world that, in the middle of the last century, was either exterminating them or denying them entry as refugees. It has absorbed millions of Jewish immigrants from countries where anti-Semitism was the norm, including the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, as well as many Arab and Islamic countries where Jews became vulnerable or openly persecuted after Israel was established. (Personal example: my mother’s family had to flee their native Morocco in the middle of the night in 1956.)
Israelis have revived Hebrew as a living language, advanced biblical and archaeological study, invented key agricultural technologies and shared them with many poor countries, and rekindled Jewish pride after the Holocaust. Israel has established the freest press in the Middle East and a stable, parliamentary democracy that includes Jewish, Christian, Druze, Muslim, Communist, feminist, anti-feminist, pro-Russian-immigrant, and other representatives who debate vigorously and openly. The Jewish state protects the holy sites of minority religions and has a bustling high-tech economy. In a region where the death penalty is common, Israel has only executed one convict – Adolph Eichmann. This is the Israel that I wish people knew more about – a country that is multi-cultural, full of life, and that has made much out of little. But of course, the conflict with the Arabs remains a central reality of its day-to-day life.
Discussing Israel’s Birth Honestly
The raging political and religious debate over Israel focuses mainly on whether or not it came into being in a just way. There are more propaganda distortions on both sides about what happened in the creation of the state and during the war of 1948 and 49 than any other aspect of the conflict. So what did happen?
The Jewish myth of 1948 is that the Jews didn’t deliberately or forcibly expel Palestinians from their homes during the War of Independence – rather, many of us went to Hebrew school and were taught that the Palestinians left of their own choosing in an effort to assist the Arab armies that had invaded the Jewish state. I was told that there were radio broadcasts in Arabic urging them to leave and make way for the Arab armies. For decades, Israelis and Jews around the world have been taught that Israel’s hands were clean in its founding. The story tends to go like this: Israel accepted the UN’s proposal of partitioning Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, but the Arabs rejected it and unreasonably attacked the fledging state. Heroically, the few overcame the many, and Israel won its independence at great cost – one percent of the entire population died during the war. After the war was over, Israel reached out for peace time and time again, only to be rejected, and so it has been ever since.
The Palestinian myth of 1948 is that Zionists had agreed well before the war on a plan to deport all the Palestinians, and that they were victims of full-scale ethnic cleansing. They argue that the UN’s partition plan of 1947 was unfair because it awarded Jews far more land than was proportionate to their percentage of the population. According to their narrative, beginning with Theodore Herzl himself, indigenous Arabs were described as backward and inconvenient people who would have to be moved off their land to make room for Israel. Such was the intention from the beginning, and, during the course of the war, a series of coordinated massacres of Arab villages and forced expulsion campaigns led by the Israelis led to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The conflict can’t be resolved in a just way until everyone who lost their home is given the opportunity to claim it back. Israel was born in original sin, and until that sin is remedied there can be no peace.
Neither of these myths gives a full and accurate account of what happened, though propagandists on either side often stack up cherry-picked facts and quotes to try to create a black-and-white picture supporting their version of the story.
So what did happen? I’m not entirely sure. Many of the basic facts are in dispute. The historians I’m most familiar with are a group of contemporary Israeli professors who are often known as the “New Historians,” because they began challenging the Israeli national myth of 1948 once they gained access to Israeli military and government documents that had been sealed until the mid-1980s, when the government began releasing them to the public. The New Historians rely heavily on these tens of thousands of documents to paint a different picture than the Israeli myth had portrayed. However, even though all of the New Historians dispute the simple Israeli mythic narrative of 1948, they passionately disagree with each other about many crucial questions and they don’t present a unified account of what happened. How typically Jewish…
Let me tell you how one of these New Historians, probably the most famous one, Benny Morris, describes what happened. During the course of the war, Palestinians left their homes and villages for several different reasons. In the months running up to the fighting, as war became very likely, many of the wealthier and more educated among these Arabs decided to leave temporarily, because these were people who often had second homes in other parts of the Arab world, or else they had the money to sit out the war in hotels outside the country. Once the fighting began, in many cases, like vulnerable civilians in every war, Palestinian Arabs fled because of the panic and fear of open battle. In many cases – and Morris and other Israelis have meticulously documented this from the Israeli documents alone – Arab civilians fled because they were forcibly expelled by Jewish soldiers, rounded up at gunpoint and sent packing. The most notorious of these expulsions may have occurred in the town of Lydda, known as Lod in Hebrew. In the case of the Lydda expulsion, men, women, and children were sent off on a deadly march toward the Arab lines, and several hundred died of heat exhaustion and illness along the road. There were also a few instances of high profile massacres of Palestinians (just as there were Arab massacres of Jews). The most famous of these massacres took place at a town called Der Yassin. Morris writes that there was also what were known as “whispering campaigns” in which the Israeli forces deliberately spread rumors of horrors that would befall Palestinian Arabs who stayed behind in the hopes that that would be enough to scare them away.
Morris argues that the context for these actions was that it was war and a war of survival for the Israelis. The Israelis were certain that they would suffer similar fates if the Arabs won the war, and they were determined to survive the multi-front attack. As the war unfolded, opportunity presented itself to depopulate parts of the territory of Arabs, and a number of Israeli commanders seized the opportunity to try to produce an end result to the war that would include establishing a viable Jewish-majority state. Morris argues that there wasn’t a full-blown ethnic cleansing of Palestinians ordered by Ben Gurion, and that part of the proof is that a sizable minority Arab population stayed put during 1948. But, he writes that in certain particular areas of the territory, like the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and various territories near Tel Aviv, there were coordinated efforts at ethnic cleansing carried out by Israeli forces. Some of this was done because Israeli forces would become too thin if they had to leave behind a garrison of troops to stabilize and monitor every Arab village they overtook, so expediency and the existential nature of the war led commanders to expel the civilians. In some cases, Arab or Israeli commanders warned Arab civilians that there was going to be fighting in their streets and that they should get away for their own safety. One of the things Morris states emphatically is that there is no evidence whatsoever that there were Arab radio broadcasts urging Palestinians to leave so that Arab armies could sweep in and drive the Jews into the sea. Morris’ verdict is that there was partial ethnic cleansing as a result of the war, and that as Jews we have to own up to this truth.
Morris doesn’t really make moral judgments about this – in fact, he has become known more and more for controversial comments he has made in recent years defending what he perceives as the necessity of this ethnic cleaning for Israel’s survival as a Jewish homeland. These opinions have led a number of people on the left to discredit all of his work, claiming that Morris hates the Palestinians and that even his morally tarnished portrait of Israeli actions during the ’48 war are too soft on Israel. I find some of Morris’ beliefs disturbing in the extreme, but I don’t agree that this renders all of his research and historical reporting meaningless. Morris is someone who is now hated on the right and the left – hated on the right for being a “self-hating Israeli Jew,” and hated on the left for defending the expulsion of Palestinians as a necessary evil.
As a progressive Zionist, my take away from the work of the New Historians is that we bear moral responsibility for the intentional displacement of part of the Palestinian population in 1948, and for the unwillingness of the new Israeli state to honor the UN’s 1949 declaration that the refugees of the war be allowed to return to their homes. After the war ended, in 1949 the UN passed two important resolutions that are crucial to Israel’s international legitimacy as a state. Resolution 194 stated that all Palestinian refugees willing to live at peace with their neighbors had a right to return to their homes and should be given the opportunity to do so as soon as it was feasible. The new state of Israel agreed to this resolution. Resolution 273 admitted Israel to the United Nations as a member state, on the condition that Israel fulfill its commitments under resolution 194. Israel argues that it is in compliance with 194 because it’s not clear that the refugees would be willing to live peacefully with their Jewish neighbors and because the resolution states that this opportunity be made available to them as soon as it is feasible, and that that time hasn’t arrived yet. Pro-Palestinian pundits tend to argue that because Israel hasn’t allowed Palestinian refugees to return and claim their properties, it hasn’t met the requirements of 194, and therefore its legitimacy as a member state of the UN is in question. I think what we’ve seen over the 6 and a half decades of Israel’s existence is that these two perspectives are in constant tension in the UN. On the one hand, the UN has de facto treated Israel as a full member state throughout. On the other hand, the UN passes an absurdly disproportionate number of anti-Israel resolutions every year and, for a time, had passed a “Zionism is racism” resolution before finally rescinding it.
There’s another painful truth for Jews to deal with in light of the aftermath of the War of Independence. That is that many of the abandoned Palestinian villages either became Jewish villages, or they were razed and, in some cases, became the sites of the many forests the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is so proud to have planted. This wasn’t accidental. Whether or not Ben Gurion ever ordered mass expulsions, there’s plenty of documentation that he appeared happy with the outcome, because a smaller Arab minority population within Israel’s borders meant that Israel could devote less stress and energy to dealing with a potentially hostile minority group. After the war ended, Israel made a few attempts to see if the Arab states would bargain over the disposition of the new Palestinian refugees. They offered to repatriate 100,000 of them, and they indicated that negotiation was possible if the Arab states would recognize Israel and agree to peace terms. The Arab response was that international law, including the UN Charter that Israel had agreed to uphold, stated that civilian refugees from war have an inalienable right to return to their homes, and that they can’t be used as negotiating chips. The Israeli argument in response was that the UN also had stated as a matter of international law that there was to be a partition of the land and that one state was to be Jewish, and that that principle of international law had been violated by the Arabs when they attacked in May of ’48. Given their uncertainty of their survival in the face of these Arab military hostilities, the Israelis felt that they were justified in keeping the refugees out, at least until they received their existential security guarantees from the Arab world. And so the stalemate has continued ever since.
Most Israelis I know have made peace with Israel’s morally mixed birth. They still believe – as I do – that the world’s Jews need and deserve a Jewish homeland, and they still believe – as I do – that it is very important that that homeland be the one place on earth where the Jewish people was born and lived for centuries. They no longer believe that we as Jews need to pretend that there was no nakba (Catastrophe) amidst our atz-ma-ut (Independence). It’s unhelpful to getting where we need to go in order to achieve peace.
The Palestinian mythic narrative also misses the mark in several ways. It’s a narrative of 100% victimhood, in which Israel is 100% the aggressor, and that’s the end of the story. First of all, the Palestinian myth takes no responsibility for the fact that the Jews living in Palestine at that time had good reason to fear their Arab neighbors. Palestinians often say that they were simply living on their land, as they had done for centuries, when these foreign Jews showed up and wanted to build a Jewish state on top of them. But the picture was much more complicated than that in British Mandate Palestine and in the Middle East as a whole.
Like Arabs, Jews had also been living, in large numbers, as minority members of Middle Eastern countries for centuries. In Israel today these Jews are known as Mizrahi Jews. The standard Muslim line is that the Mizrahi Jews were well-treated and their rights were perfectly respected for centuries under Arab and Muslim rule. The truth is that, under Muslim authority, these Jews faced periodic pogroms and other frequent forms of religious humiliation and persecution. In many of these countries they lived as dhimmis, second class citizens under Islamic law. Mizrahi Jews, like my Moroccan-Jewish ancestors, were indigenous to the Middle East for centuries, but – a bit analogous to the Kurds spread out in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq and oppressed by virtue of never being the ethnic majority in any of their countries – Mizrahi Jews never had the security of self-determination through sovereignty.
While European Jewry was being slaughtered during the Second World War, Mizrahi Jewry was living with uncertainty and insecurity. For example, when the Nazis conquered Morocco, they established remote concentration camps and deported several thousand Jews. Meanwhile, the Mufti of Jerusalem, a key Palestinian leader, publicly sided with Hitler and spoke approvingly of the German Final Solution for the Jews living in Palestine. Most Jews trying to flee Hitler’s grasp found nowhere to go in the world – no country would take more than a few of them.
In 1938, a group of nations concerned about the growing crisis of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany met in France in what became known as the Evian conference. The purpose of the conference was to find out which countries would be willing to provide refuge to the growing number of Jewish refugees. Out of 32 nations that met, including the United States and Great Britain, only the Dominican Republic offered to take in more Jewish refugees. The German government gloated over the result, publicly arguing that the international criticism they were receiving for their desire to rid themselves of Jews was hypocritical, since so many other governments had made it clear that they too didn’t want more Jews. The only port in the world that didn’t require an entry permit at that time was Shanghai, and while a few thousand Jews managed to get there, it was almost impossible for most Jews to get either the money or the visas needed to make that trip.
The mythic Palestinian narrative tends to say, “The Holocaust was horrible, but we didn’t perpetrate it, and European Jews didn’t have the right to solve their problem with European anti-Semitism by stealing our land.” But this is a bit of a moral dodge. Palestinians often protest that the Holocaust has nothing to do with them, but it does. It does because of the Mufti’s actions, and because Jews truly are connected to this land and the effort to genocide the Jews is therefore connected to that land and society. “The Holocaust: not our problem” is not only cold, it’s not fair. This dodge denies the very real ties of religion, culture, and history that Jews who were immigrating to Palestine had.
The Palestinian mythic narrative also makes the argument that Jews shouldn’t have been allowed to immigrate to Palestine during the 30s and 40s because most Palestinian Arabs didn’t want them to. But does that argument stand up morally? Who decides the morality of who should or shouldn’t be allowed to move somewhere? Don’t we have robust moral debates in this country over who should or shouldn’t be allowed to live here? One of the great injustices of Jewish history has been that Jews have not been allowed to control their own movement or their own choices regarding immigration. It’d be one thing if Jews had no connection to the Holy Land, and they had picked it out of the blue as a place to attempt to live collectively. But we Jews were born as a people in that land and our ancestors were thrown out of it by force of violence. Jews had, and have, a profound and enduring connection. To pretend we don’t is as mean as saying, “Well, those Navajo or Hopi people don’t really have a connection to those sacred burial grounds anymore because, you know, it’s been a few hundred years since they were exiled off those lands, and, you know, other people live there now and they don’t want them back.” Is there a statute of limitations on the cultural, spiritual, and historical claims to sacred lands of small, vulnerable, disempowered peoples in the world? Who says so?
A more honest portrayal of what was going on in British-run Palestine is that in the years following the end of World War I, the Allies who had won the war were engaged in a process of seeking to define the nation states and peoples that would have a stake in re-defining the entire political map of the Middle East. The Jews had a right to argue that they should be a part of that discussion, that they were a stakeholder in questions about the final disposition of the Holy Land. Too often the Palestinian narrative pretends that Jews are utter outsiders to the Holy Land, and it ignores that in the first half of the 20th century there was a robust international set of negotiations going on regarding this highly unusual and special bit of land. It’s fair for Palestinians to complain that the average Arabs living in the area were given too little voice in those international negotiations, but it’s not fair for them to characterize Jews as utter outsiders without a stake.
One of the core values I try to apply to this conflict is empathy. As you can tell from my earlier discussion of the Palestinian experience during 1948, I have tried to extend empathy towards Palestinians for their profound losses and the injustices they suffered at our people’s hands. Empathy also demands that people who want to judge the Jews who came to Palestine harshly stop and try to put themselves in their shoes. In the years immediately following the Holocaust, how many choices for survival were there for Jews other than to seek out a small island of Jewish sovereignty and fight for it? The world at that time looked like a vice grip closing in on the entire Jewish people. The wealthy democracies of the world said no to taking in millions of persecuted Jews. The British shut down Palestine as a possible refuge for Jews during the Holocaust. If they hadn’t done that, hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of Jews could have been saved from murder. And contrary to the argument that Jews are a European people who’ve wrongly laid claim to a piece of the Middle East, the truth is that the Jews were a spread out people, living for centuries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, and finding themselves profoundly vulnerable and politically disempowered in all those places in the 1930s and 40s. The Holocaust magnified that situation by producing millions of European Jewish refugees, but there were also plenty of Jews of Middle Eastern lands who had an argument to make for some part of the region being designated as a zone of Jewish sovereignty.
And as many of you know once Israel was established, life for Middle Eastern and North African Jews worsened sharply, and most of these Jews fled. 800,000 or more Jews became refugees, most resettling in Israel, but some in France, Canada, and the US. These refugees are rarely mentioned in the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
In the Middle East, much of the first half of the 20th Century revolved around the question of how the European colonial powers would leave and how the indigenous peoples of the region would establish independence. In the Arab world, Arab nationalism was a powerful political movement. But Arabs weren’t the only ethnic group indigenous to the region, and during a period of time when the main question was how the new maps would be drawn up, it was fair game for all the different Middle Eastern ethnic groups that had lived under European rule to advocate for sovereignty, for a piece of the pie. The colonial powers wanted to create Middle Eastern states that would be friendly to their interests, and that was the dominant force behind the creation of the states that now make up the Middle East. Many ethnic groups and prominent clans, like the Hashemites and the Saudis, were rewarded with states in which they were given power. Jews were one of the players in a region whose post-war boundaries were yet-to-be determined, and in advocating for a Jewish homeland they were no worse – and certainly no more racist – than any of the other identity groups seeking self-rule.
The Palestinian myth reduces the entire conflict to one very black-and-white claim. “I lived here. You showed up uninvited. You kicked me out and won’t let me come back. You’re racist, illegitimate, and the only just solution is for you to give up any claim to self-determination here.” In this myth there is no taking of moral responsibility for the precarious situation Jews faced in both Muslim and Christian lands prior to Israel’s existence, and no consideration that maybe the Jews do have a natural place in the Middle East, and that condemning them to always be minorities in other peoples’ countries is unjust. There’s no compassion for the limited choices facing the Jews of that time.
Along these lines, I sometimes encounter people who ask questions like, “After the Holocaust, why couldn’t the Jewish refugees have asked the UN to settle some other, less contentious place on earth if they needed a homeland? Why insist on Palestine and create a conflict with the Arabs who lived there?” It’s an innocent question at first glance. Why not some uninhabited chunk of Western Canada or East Texas? In a world of theoretical politics, perhaps an alternative homeland could have been agreed upon and set up by the world’s powers. But the actual world that Jewish refugees experienced in 1945 was one in which two-thirds of Europe’s Jews had been murdered in only four years. Hundreds of thousands of survivors were living in squalor in Displaced Persons camps, and no country wanted them, including the US. They weren’t in a position to advocate for some other piece of territory, and in point of fact, what territory was there that the community of nations could have agreed upon that wasn’t already somebody else’s home? These weren’t people who were in a position to wait for some improbable scenario to play out in which a world that didn’t seem to want them was somehow going to find a blank spot on the world map for them. These were desperate, broken people who had lost their entire families, and who were often murdered or intimidated by locals when they tried to return to their homes in Europe. Palestine was the one place where Jews had a deep and abiding connection, and, most importantly, an organized movement to try to establish a refuge for them. It was a real option for desperate people with few choices. Might there have been an easier or less morally ambiguous solution to the humanitarian catastrophe and vulnerability that had settled upon the world’s Jews? Maybe. But to judge them self-righteously for choosing to survive by emigrating to Palestine lacks a decent measure of basic human compassion.
I also have another problem with those who would readily grant the Jews a homeland, but not in Palestine. This point of view treats the Jews as though they are wholly foreign to the Middle East, and presumes that a Palestine free of Jews would be a more just Palestine. But, as I’ve noted already, Jews have lived in the Middle East, among Arabs and Muslims, for centuries, including within Palestine. The events of world history catalyzed them to advocate for a piece of the territory within the large expanse of the Middle East where they could stop living under the conditions of always being a tolerated minority. They wanted, as a people born in and indigenous to the Middle East, some small measure of security, self-expression, and self-determination. Jews and Arabs have lived together and should live together, and on some level it’s vital for Arabs to consider whether they’d want to trade places with Jews and live under Islamic regimes as minority citizens. It’s vital for Arabs to ask themselves whether, if they were Jews, they wouldn’t also want some bit of their ancient homeland to raise their own flag and be masters of their own fate. If they find themselves realizing they would want this, perhaps that can form the beginning of compassion for the Jewish commitment to the survival of Israel as a homeland for Jews. Similarly, Jews need to ask themselves whether they would tolerate living under occupation, with the daily humiliations, collective punishments, curfews, road blocks, and check points. Would they not resort to violence at some point to resist the daily outrages? Jews need to ask themselves if they would easily forget the loss of their own homes and lands, or if they would probably be prepared to remember their sufferings for hundreds of years, since that is, in fact, what Jews have done with their own history?
The truth about Israel’s birth is messy. It includes examples of heroism, idealism, cruelty, and barbarism on both sides. Confronting it honestly is a must if we are ever to get anywhere.
Two Tragedies: The Israeli Occupation and Islamic Anti-Semitism
After the 1967 war, Israel had an opportunity to do one of several constructive things with the West Bank and Gaza territory that it had taken over from Jordan and Egypt, respectively. Instead, its successive governments have chosen a disastrous and self-defeating policy of maintaining an indefinite military occupation and building hundreds of settlements. Instead of this course of action, Israel could have quickly announced no interest in ruling these lands and offered full withdrawal in exchange for peace treaties including full diplomatic recognition from every one of its neighbors. Alternatively, Israel could have annexed the new territories and given full citizenship to its inhabitants. This would have created a furor in the Arab world and a demographic problem for Israel, but it would have avoided putting Israel in the position of maintaining a military occupation over people who aren’t considered citizens of its state. In this scenario, Israel could have continued to use the territories as a bargaining chip in negotiating for peace. Meanwhile, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza would have begun to experience life in Israel’s parliamentary democracy, including its free press and its relative separation of religion and state. They would also have gained the freedom to travel throughout the land all the way to the Mediterranean. There may never have been much home-grown support for Palestinian nationalism if the residents of the new territories had gotten the chance to be full citizens of Israel, and Israel’s only challenge would have been how to keep a Jewish majority within the country.
What Israel did instead is, from a progressive Zionist perspective, just about the worst of all courses of action. For four and a half decades now, Israel has maintained an ongoing military occupation. Israel’s policy has been not to decide one way or the other about the status of the West Bank and Gaza, but instead to suggest the possibility of withdrawal from the territories in exchange for peace while simultaneously supporting a religious-nationalist settler movement that keeps building new Jewish settlements and makes it ever more difficult for Israel to contemplate actual withdrawal. Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, when Israel signed off on the idea of a two-state solution and was supposed to begin preparing its society for a two-state future, it has doubled the population of the settlers in the West Bank.
The settlements have poisoned Israeli society. It has taken much of the honor out of Israel’s citizen army, which is a real loss to Israeli society. To guard the settlements, Israel engages in practices that openly discriminate against Arab residents, building Jewish-only by-pass roads that result in major confiscation of Arab-owned lands, and extending the security wall well into the West Bank in order to loop it around settlements. Many of the young men and women who do army duty in the territories come away from the experience with their psyches damaged – either indoctrinated into demonizing Arabs, or disgusted by the immorality of what they’ve seen and done. In a society in which every Jew is supposed to serve in the army, today a full 25% of Israeli Jews are avoiding military service. The occupation is eroding this foundational element of Israel’s social contract.
The other disaster that the settlements have produced is ever-growing support for a new, zealous interpretation of Judaism that, from this rabbi’s perspective, makes an idol out of the land and disregards Judaism’s long standing tradition of compassion for the Other in favor of a messianic fantasy that can only be achieved once inconvenient Palestinians are pushed aside to make room for full Jewish resettlement of the Judean and Samarian hills. It’s this movement that trained and nurtured the young man who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin.
Perhaps the worst product of the settlements for Israel is the way in which they’ve eroded Israel’s democracy. Israel’s government has led a double-life for 45 years. On its side of the Green Line, it runs a vibrant, multi-party democracy with a strong foundation in the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Arab residents, though facing the issues of prejudice common to minorities in other democracies, have full citizenship and hold seats in Parliament and the Supreme Court. Unlike the surrounding Arab states, which until the Arab Spring have tended to have one-man rule for life, Israel has had 6 different prime ministers in the last 10 years alone.
But on the other side of the Green Line, in the occupied territories, Israel runs a military occupation government. Arab residents, who make up the great majority of the West Bank’s population, need permits to do things like travel or build, and they are not citizens of any state. They have poor options for legal recourse. They are subject to sudden search and seizure and collective punishment whenever Israel is hit by a terrorist. Meanwhile, the Jewish settlers, an ethnic minority in the territories, are treated as full citizens of Israel. They vote for their legal representatives while their Palestinian neighbors do not. They have a different court system and are subject to different laws. Because Israel has a true democracy within its proper borders and is still administering the West Bank as a temporary military occupation pending a permanent peace agreement, I don’t agree with those who say that Israel is an apartheid state. But the situation in the occupied territories is heading in that direction, and Israel’s previous Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has now said as much several times. 45 years of occupation is straining the credibility of Israel’s claim that the dual-track legal system privileging minority Jews over majority Arabs in the West Bank is not an apartheid-like situation, because that claim rests entirely on the idea that the military occupation is only a transitional state of affairs.
Progressive Zionist organizations, like Shalom Achshav, or Peace Now, in Israel, are very hard on the settlements, and rightly see them as a major obstacle to peace. However, progressive Zionism doesn’t believe that Israel is solely responsible for the failure of the peace process to produce a viable two-state solution. If Israel has damaged the prospects for peace through the occupation and the settlements, Arab and Islamic leaders have probably done their worst damage through their systematic teaching of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel to children and adults on a massive scale. I’m not saying that it’s anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, or even for Arabs to continue to disagree with the 1947 UN decision that authorized a Jewish state in the region. I don’t expect people with a vastly different experience of this conflict to become Zionists like me, though I do expect them to attempt to be fair. What goes on in the school books, newspapers, mosques, and television broadcasts of much of the Islamic world goes way, way beyond fair criticism of Israel and Zionism. There has been, for decades now, a full-blown indoctrination of tens of millions of people in cartoonish imagery depicting Jews as hook-nosed money-grubbers scheming to take over the world, depicting Jews as a poisonous people to be loathed. Groups like Hamas have included elements from the anti-Semitic diatribe, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in their charter, and materials caricaturing Jews – not Zionists, but Jews – as agents of evil have been circulated widely at newsstands and bookstores. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to publish The Protocols.
Furthermore, countless imams have chosen to highlight the more anti-Jewish verses that can be cherry-picked from the Qu’ran as dehumanizing tirades against Jews. This is especially sad, because the Qu’ran overall presents an ethic of honoring the stranger and respecting the legitimacy of Judaism, Christianity, and other monotheistic traditions. Like the New Testament, the Qu’ran contains passages that negatively characterize Jews, but also like the New Testament, these passages do not form the totality of the book’s attitude towards Jews. Just as many Christian denominations have developed a culture of rejecting anti-Semitism and emphasizing their tradition’s positive connections to Judaism, the same constructive and healthy attitude towards Jews has existed in the Islamic past and can certainly be part of its future. Sadly, the use of the Qu’ran to bolster anti-Jewish hatred has become normative in the Middle East, despite the valiant protests of a small number of notable Islamic clerics and teachers who have called for an end to this kind of interpretation of the faith.
Despite the vigorous protests of prominent Palestinian activists like the late Edward Said, Holocaust denial has also become an all-too-common staple of the rise of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, promoted most publicly of late by Iran’s president. Some Islamic and Arab leaders have condemned these statements publicly, though they rarely get the press coverage they deserve, and they don’t impact the regimes who continue to peddle hateful lies as part of their effort to rally their people against Israel and Jews worldwide, perhaps in order to distract from domestic political problems.
Many millions of Arabs and Muslims, including the current generation of children, have been fed such a steady diet of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli contempt and disgust, including by the Palestinian Authority and its media outlets. This atmosphere of constant incitement and dehumanizing of Israelis and Jews creates a political reality in which any political concession that Arab leaders might choose to make in peace negotiations with Israel faces widespread opposition among the population. Education is powerful. If you educate people to hate, it’s very hard to convince them later on to make peace and be neighborly. If you teach people that Jews are sly tricksters who can never be trusted, agents of betrayal going back to the days of the Prophet, then they won’t trust that any peace agreement isn’t a clever swindle.
I’m not suggesting that Arab and Islamic nations should be teaching a Zionist curriculum. It’s natural for people who share religious and ethnic ties with the Palestinians to sympathize with their brethren and emphasize Palestinian experiences in curricula and media. But there’s a difference between teaching people to see the world through good-versus-evil, dehumanizing lenses and teaching people to see a morally complex situation in need of more justice and peaceful resolution. If Arab and Islamic schools taught kids to oppose unjust Israeli policies and support Palestinian rights, but did so without racism, hate and vitriol, teaching them to see the humanity and the very real fears of Jews, as well as the long history of Jewish connection to the land, then a generation prepared to advocate for Palestinians and ultimately make peace with Israel would be present. Unfortunately, many Israelis wonder how they can reach an agreement with a generation of Arabs and Muslims schooled in deep contempt for Jews and Israelis alike, and this worry makes them understandably risk averse. Both Israel and the Arab and Muslim countries need to improve on how they educate about the Other, but the degree of the problem in the Arab and Islamic world is shocking.
Peace with Justice
So far I’ve talked about a progressive Zionist perspective on some of the history of the conflict and I’ve given you a sense of how this perspective views the two challenges of settlements and anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. Now I’d like to talk about what Progressive Zionism thinks should happen. As tired as it has gotten, and as cynical as many have become about it, a two-state agreement remains the best option for ending the conflict and creating long-term peace and stability in the region. An end to the conflict needs to give expression to two sets of human rights and needs: the rights of the individual and the collective rights of small and vulnerable peoples.
Many of the proposals that people who advocate only for Israel or for Palestine make involve trying to honor some, but not all, of the human rights that are at stake in the conflict. The self-righteous tone of these arguments comes from the certainty people feel when they are advocating for a human right. The problem is that these advocates either ignore or are unaware of the human rights they are leaving out of the picture when they make their cases. The solutions they advocate often trample some rights while upholding others.
The pro-Israel version of this error focuses on a world that abandoned Jews during World War II, on Jewish historical and religious ties to the Holy Land, and on the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands. All these injustices are piled together to form an argument for the Jews’ human right to self-determination in their historic homeland. This is an example of advocating for the collective right of a small and vulnerable people. It can be likened to the desire of the Kurds to have a sovereign state rather than remain a minority split up among several states. It’s why Kosovo’s Muslims needed to have the safety and dignity a sovereign state rather than remain a minority group in a democratic Serbia. It even bears relation to the right of Native American nations to reclaim certain sacred or historical lands that the US government moved them away from, even if over the course of hundreds of years other immigrants have settled in those places. The problem with arguing only for the collective human rights of Jews is that these rights need to be balanced with the rights of Arabs.
The pro-Palestinian version of this error focuses on the Nakba experience of 1948, in which hundreds of thousands of Arabs lost their homes and lands in part due to expulsion by Israeli forces, and it tends to advocate for a “one-state solution” and an unlimited Palestinian right of return. Emphasizing individual human rights such as the right of refugees in wartime to return to their home and property, this line of reasoning argues that Palestine should become a secular democracy in which ethnicity and religion don’t matter. It stresses that anyone who loses their home in a war has a right to return and be a full citizen of whatever state assumes power. Partitioning the land into a Jewish and Arab state, as the UN authorized in 1947, simply took land and power away from the majority of the land’s citizens in order to create an “ethnocracy” for the minority of its citizens. When you look at this conflict only through the lens of individual rights, you see nothing but injustice in the creation of Israel. This point of view argues that the discussions that the major international powers were having with the early Zionist leaders, including some Arab leaders, about carving out a territory for a Jewish homeland were immoral and invalid discussions, because the only people whose rights mattered were the people living in the territory at the time, and they weren’t properly consulted in those discussions. From this point of view, any concession by Arabs that preserves a Jewish homeland in the equation seems to be a concession to a form of government that is contrary to the best Enlightenment values of democracy, private property, and the separation of church and state.
The problem with this line of argument is that it ignores the collective rights of small and vulnerable peoples. Jews were forcibly expelled from the Holy Land by the Roman Empire, but continued to maintain small communities continuously in their ancient homeland over the past two millennia. In addition to living in Europe and North America, they’ve lived in large numbers in Arab lands, throughout the Persian Gulf, and in North Africa, but always as disempowered minorities in majority Muslim societies. The advocates of a single Palestinian state that would be a mutli-religious secular democracy ignore the demographic fact that this is a formula for a tyranny of the majority, condemning Jews to always be a minority group wherever they live, and denying them the right of small and vulnerable peoples to self-determination and sovereignty. It’s also worth noting that the kind of multi-religious secular democracy that these people want to see replace Israel is a type of state that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the entire Middle East. Why aren’t they clamoring for a redrawing of many different state boundaries in Arabia and the Persian Gulf, and a secular democracy in those places? Arab and Muslim states have ethnic and religious minority groups, like Buddhists, Druze, Copts, and Baha’is, yet they aren’t being pressured to democratize and secularize, or to disenfranchise Islam as the state religion. Maybe the Arab Spring will produce new governments that are more respectful of the rights of the many minority groups living in the Middle East, but so far the trend appears to be one in which Islam is going to be more, not less, established as the state religion in each of these countries.
It’s interesting that the very Western, secular, democratic single state these people advocate for Palestine is so inspired by American and European Enlightenment ideals. While the US presents the world with a remarkable example of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic democracy, the reality is that very few countries in the world are organized purely along that model. Even in Europe, where separation of church and state and democracy are common, state boundaries reflect ethnic and religious majorities who wish to have self-determination. Immigration laws in democracies like Germany and Japan allow people with ethnic ties living elsewhere in the world to emigrate and claim their citizenship in their homeland. These and many other countries limit foreign immigration so that their ethnic and religious majorities are not jeopardized. Pakistan opted for partition rather than risk living as a minority religious community in a Hindu-dominated democracy. Majorities can create tyrannies, and most religious and ethnic groups don’t want to be relegated to live forever as disempowered minorities.
This is why a just solution will have to be one that balances both sets of human rights – the individual rights of everyone living in the land and the collective rights of small and vulnerable peoples. Balancing those rights is best realized through two states within the following parameters:
- Two states more or less along the pre-1967 war borders, including mutually acceptable land-swaps.
- Sharing Jerusalem as the capital of two states.
- Refugees and right of return: craft an agreement that acknowledges that both peoples have deep connections to homes, historical sites and holy places in many parts of the land, and that both peoples have indigenous roots in the Middle East. Balancing the principles of individual rights and collective rights, establish a full right of return for Palestinians to the new Palestinian state, and a demographically limited Palestinian right of return to Israel, along with a financial compensation package to all Palestinians who lost their homes and land. Israel should take responsibility for its role in creating the refugee crisis, publicly mark the sites of Arab communities that disappeared, offer a state apology, and pay for most of the compensation package. (It will cost less than maintaining the occupation another 45 years.) The agreement should also call upon Middle Eastern countries that expelled or persecuted Jewish refugees to apologize and offer a choice of return or financial compensation. Achieving this restitution should be part of a permanent Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
- Building a foundation for real peace: The two states should establish a truth and reconciliation commission to examine and publicly air findings on the Nakba, the Occupation, on human rights violations by both sides over the years, on Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism throughout the region, and on Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries. The purpose of this exercise should be to end the culture of propaganda war and start on a new footing of being unafraid of the truth and educating both peoples towards reconciliation. The two states should also set up an Israel/Palestine youth education commission made up of citizens of both states whose goal will be to develop a K – 12 curriculum that affirms this model of co-existence, rejects all forms of racial or religious bigotry, and teaches the Holocaust, the Nakba, the story of Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern lands, and the factual findings of the truth and reconciliation commission. Finally, both states should issue a declaration affirming the religious significance of the entire land to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They should set up a joint commission that will devise policy to allow a limited number of Jews to live near and care for sites of historical and religious importance to Jews within the state of Palestine, and that will do the same for parallel sites of importance to Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other religious groups within the state of Israel. The number of Jews or Palestinians allowed to reside in the other state for this purpose would be limited in order to preserve appropriate demographic majorities in each state. Persons electing to live in the other state will be subject to that state’s laws and jurisdiction.
There is no political solution that will provide for the maximum fulfillment of either individual human rights or the collective rights of small and vulnerable peoples. The solution I’ve outlined above, and others that follow the thrust of the Geneva Accords, try to balance these two sets of rights. This solution won’t undo the devastation of the Nakba for many Palestinians. It also won’t undo the experience that Jews faced between in the 30s and 40s when no place in the world wanted Jewish refugees and the one place on earth they had a historical and religious connection to was closed to them by the British empire. It doesn’t provide perfect justice, but it provides the best approximation of justice that a compassionate and holistic assessment of the conflict can provide.