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.
Still, many Jews and non-Jews have been intimidated by the intense campaign being waged by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and by other Jewish organizations. These groups label those critical of Israel “self-hating” if they are Jewish or anti-Semitic if they are not and mobilize large amounts of money to defeat candidates deemed insufficiently pro-Israel. Ethically sensitive non-Jews are vulnerable to the manipulation of guilt about the long and bloody history of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe and Islamic north Africa, plus the US refusal of entry to Jews seeking asylum from the Nazis in the 1940s. There is ample reason for the non-Jewish world to atone for its past oppression of Jews. But non-Jews are doing no favors to the Jewish people when by their silence they help the most destructive elements of the Jewish world pursue immoral policies that almost certainly will generate more hatred of Jews.
It is time for the United States to sponsor a multinational force to physically separate and protect Israel and Palestine from each other, and then to convene an international conference to impose a final settlement. This would include an end to the occupation, evacuation of the settlements, reparations for Palestinian refugees (and also for Jews who fled Arab lands), recognition of Israel by surrounding Arab states and cessation of all acts of terror and violence. Imposing that kind of a settlement, by force if necessary, would provide real security to both sides and open up psychic space for the healing that must happen. What is called for is a new spirit of generosity, open-heartedness, repentance and reconciliation between two peoples who share equally the blame for the current mess and who both have legitimate grievances that must now be left behind for the sake of lasting peace….
This is a goal of thousands of American Jews and our non-Jewish allies who have recently formed the Tikkun Community, a progressive, pro-Israel alternative to AIPAC. Israel/Palestine peace is not only a Jewish issue; our non-Jewish allies will be essential to our campaign to educate the media, opinion shapers and elected officials. The nonviolent civil disobedience sponsored by the Tikkun Community at the State Department in April, at which Cornel West and I were arrested, is only one part of a campaign that will include lobbying, teach-ins, fasting, sending volunteers to be part of an international presence on the West Bank, collecting funds to rebuild Palestinian cities (and Israeli sites destroyed by Palestinian terror attacks) and demands on Jewish and Arab institutions to adopt a path of nonviolence. We are also creating a national student conference in October. Many students face an impossible choice between pro-Israel groups that support Sharon’s current policies in lockstep or pro-Palestinian groups that claim the Palestinians are facing Nazi-like genocide at the hands of the Jewish people (an exaggeration that allows right-wing Jews to yell “anti-Semitism” because there is no attempt to systematically murder Palestinians, thereby letting Israel off the hook).
Our goal, both on campuses and in the larger society, is to forge a middle path of “tough love” for Israel–recognizing that the best way to protect Israel and the Jewish people is to use the power of the international community to impose a settlement and end the occupation. That’s the path for true self-affirming Jews and non-Jews who care enough about their Jewish brothers and sisters to get involved.