When it comes to addressing the Israeli/Palestinian relationship, it is time for the American Jewish community to take Hillel’s injunction, a pragmatic progenitor of The Golden Rule, more seriously. By challenging ourselves to examine our words and actions from the perspective of “the Other” we might be better equipped to act with the compassion God demands of us.
The Jewish Week’s recent coverage of a Manhattan Friends High School trip to Israel and the West Bank offers a case in point. Despite the trip by a class of students studying Arabic being a “cultural”-not political-one and the group concluding their stay by meeting with the acting director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office, Jewish parents still took the school to task, questioning whether the trip, in which the students experienced home hospitality with Palestinian families in Ramallah, constituted a “valid educational experience.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman also weighed in, implying that the trip was somehow a form of anti-Semitic expression. To me the trip sounds like a mirror image of a Birthright or typical Jewish Day High School trip to Israel. Why do we criticize the Friends trip, while lavishing scarce community resources to encourage the others?
Or our reaction to violence and terror, to which all civilized people should recoil in disgust. Why does the American Jewish community remain silent when Israel turns a blind-eye to “price-tag” violence perpetrated by settlers against Palestinians?
The Torah commands us to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. How do we reconcile Israel’s demolition of illegally constructed Palestinian homes with the Netanyahu government’s unwillingness to dismantle illegal outposts and its refusal to enforce Supreme Court ordered evacuation of buildings illegally occupied by settlers?
Perhaps most important of all is the lack of reciprocity with which we view each side’s preconditions to entering negotiations to resolve the conflict. Distilled to its essence, a viable deal between the parties must provide Israel with peace and security and the Palestinians with a homeland of their own. We recently marked the tenth anniversary of the Passover bombing, a horrific terrorist strike that upstaged and essentially rendered moot the Saudi/Arab League peace initiative. In the face of that attack there could be no possibility of Israel entering into negotiations with the Palestinians. And the same would hold true today-no one would expect Israel to negotiate in the face of terror. What credibility could the Palestinians have if they were unwilling to offer Israelis a modicum of peace before the parties sit down to negotiate?
However, when we flip the situation on its head, the leadership of the American Jewish community criticizes President Obama for urging a cessation of settlement building, claiming that settlements are not an impediment to negotiations and such a halt should not be a precondition for Palestinians coming to the bargaining table. How do we justify the glaring inconsistency? The Palestinians want a viable, contiguous state in the West Bank and their fear is that Israeli settlement expansion will leave them with little more than Apartheid-style Bantustans. Based upon past negotiations, the Palestinians have already seen how “facts on the ground” have predetermined that a final status agreement will result in the large Israeli settlements in the West Bank being incorporated into Israel. Palestinians understandably view continued settlement building as calling into question Israel’s commitment to a deal that will satisfy both parties. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that a halt to settlement building is as important a precondition to negotiations for Palestinians as a halt to terror is for Israelis.
Why is it that the leadership of the American Jewish community is unwilling to take Hillel’s teaching, what for him was Torah’s absolute core, more seriously? And what better time to confront this question than Passover? After all, it is the experience of Egyptian slavery that teaches us compassion for the Other and it is the power that comes with freedom that demands that we be compassionate. Because we once stood in their shoes; because we once were the oppressed we are commanded to remember what it is like to be powerless and thus have compassion for the Other. So why do we refuse to step back and look at the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians through the eyes of the Palestinians-not to the exclusion of our concern for the safety and security of Israelis, but in addition to it? We need to look at them and treat them as God commanded us to look upon and treat the Other.
Moses, who brought the Israelites out of bondage and led them through the desert, was the Jewish leader par excellance. And yet a leadership transition was still necessary before the people could enter the land to begin the next stage of the Jewish experience. Similarly, the time for change has come for the leadership of the organized American Jewish community. The mindset of our leadership is rooted in a time when Anti-Semitism in America was a palpable and understandable fear; when Israel’s very existence was at risk and its victories were seen as miraculous in nature; when Israel was the David who triumphed over Goliaths and in which Jews, still uncertain of their place in the United States, took comfort. The positions and actions taken by the community’s leadership were appropriate for that previous time and served well the needs of both the American Jewish community and Israel. However, that time has now passed. We need a leadership that was not raised in fear; whose formative experiences were not the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Instead we need a leadership that feels at home in the halls of power here in America; that does not draw “lines in the sand” and marginalize those with different perspectives but instead understands that our tradition has always prized debate and discussion; and finally which can help Israel to see itself as the regional power it is. Such leadership, with a sense of history to comprehend what it is like to be the Other, yet with the self-confidence that comes with power will lead us to act with the compassion God expects of us.
Jeffrey Schwarz is a local businessman active in Jewish life.