They call us “self-hating” Jews when we raise criticisms of Israeli policies. Yet most of those Jews who risk this calumny as the cost of getting involved actually feel a special resonance with the history and culture of the Jews–because this is a people who have proclaimed a message of love, justice and peace; they feel a special pride in being part of a people who have insisted on the possibility of tikkun, a Hebrew word expressing a belief that the world can be fundamentally healed and transformed. A Los Angeles Times poll in 1988 found that some 50 percent of Jews polled identified “a commitment to social equality” as the characteristic most important to their Jewish identity. Only 17 percent cited a commitment to Israel. No wonder, then, that social-justice-oriented American Jews today feel betrayed by Israeli policies that seem transparently immoral and self-destructive.
Social justice Jews are not apologists for Palestinian violence. We are outraged by the immoral acts of Palestinian terrorists who blow up Israelis at Seder tables, or while they shop, or sit in cafes, or ride in buses. We know that these acts of murder cannot be excused. But many of us also understand that Israeli treatment of Palestinians has been immoral and outrageous. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in 1948, and recent research by Israeli historians has shown most fled not because they were responding to the appeal of Arab leaders but because they feared acts of violence by right-wing Israeli terrorists or were forced from their homes by the Israeli army. Palestinian refugees and their families now number more than 3 million, and many live in horrifying conditions in refugee camps under Israeli military rule.
Despite its oral promises at Oslo to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories by 1998, Israel actually increased the number of West Bank settlers from about 120,000 in 1993 to 200,000 by the time Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Yasir Arafat at Camp David. And although the Israeli and US media bought the myth that what was offered to Palestinians there was “the best they could ever expect,” and that their rejection of the offer was proof that they wanted nothing less than the full destruction of Israel, the facts show quite a different story. Not only did Barak offer Arafat less than had been promised in 1993 but he refused to provide anything in the way of reparations or compensation for the refugees. Instead, he insisted that Arafat sign a statement saying that the terms being offered by Barak would end all claims by the Palestinian people against Israel and would represent a resolution of all outstanding issues. No Palestinian leader could have signed that agreement and abandoned the needs of those refugees.
Though it is popularly thought that negotiations broke off there, they continued at Taba until Ariel Sharon’s election ended the process, which, according to then-Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, was very close to arriving at a full agreement between the two peoples. Sharon did not want that agreement because he has always opposed any deal that would involve abandoning the West Bank settlements, which he had helped expand in the 1980s–precisely to insure that Israel would never give up the occupied territories. Using the excuse of responding to acts of terror by some Palestinians, Sharon recently set out to destroy the institutions of Palestinian society and has done so with murderous brutality, with little regard for human rights and with great harm to many civilians.
No wonder, then, that social-justice-oriented Jews are upset by Israeli policies. They see that the policies are leading to a frightening upsurge in anti-Semitism. And far from providing security for Israel, they are creating new generations of terrorists and convincing the world that Israel has lost its moral compass.