Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2005

Ending the Occupation, Saving Israel/Palestine: Strategy and Morality

by Michael Lerner

I am firmly convinced that ending the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, if done by Israel in a spirit of generosity and open-heartedness, would be the necessary prerequisite for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.

A plan to achieve that—the Geneva Accord—has defined many of the contours of what that peace could look like. The Tikkun Community was the first national organization to embrace and promote that Accord, though always with the caveat that it is not enough to have a legal agreement unless each side embraces a spiritual consciousness that affirms the humanity of the other, recognizes its own sins in having treated the other side disrespectfully, and seeks genuine repentance and atonement.

There is no magic bullet that can achieve this outcome. All that we can do is to educate people in the United States and in the Jewish world to rethink their understanding of the history of the conflict, and to support Palestinians who are trying to do that on their side.

All the rest is political grandstanding and is unlikely to have much impact. The great danger of adopting a focus on divestment, or even the reinvestment that I endorse, is that it allows the conversation to switch from what a real solution is to what tactics we should use.

One reason why some wish to make that switch is that they are using the struggle against the Occupation as their wedge against the very existence of a state for the Jewish people. They hide behind the slogan, "End the Occupation," while what they really believe is that the Occupation began the moment Jews started to return to their ancient homeland in the 1880s and started building communities. Their goal is to end the state of Israel entirely.

I don't share that goal. I don't think Arabs had any right to restrict Jewish immigration when it was Jews who were the refugees and Palestinians the people who owned land and wielded power. I don't believe that Arabs were morally justified in using their power over oil to convince England to shut down immigration before and during World War II, when Jews were desperately seeking refuge from the slaughter of Europe.

So I see the establishment and preservation of the State of Israel as an act of international affirmative action and as reparations from a world that had allowed the Jewish people to face genocide after two thousand years of oppression in both Christian and Islamic lands. I won't accept strategies that are aimed at eliminating this special protection for Jews, not until anti-Semitism has been effectively wiped out from the historical experience of the Jewish people for at least fifty and maybe a hundred years.

But, unfortunately, the way that Israel was established led to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and their land, and the resulting anger, combined with the original passion to keep Palestine a land free of a significant Jewish presence, has led to a struggle that Arabs keep losing but keep fighting. And because of that struggle, a large section of the Israeli public (people who twelve years ago voted in a peace government and hoped to see an end to the Occupation) has become convinced that Israel needs ongoing protection from terror, and that holding on to sections of the West Bank will give it that protection.

I believe that these Israelis are deeply mistaken, and that the path they have followed has empowered a minority of Jews whose goal is not protection, but the expansion of the Israeli state to incorporate major parts of the West Bank. If that process cannot be stopped and Israel does succeed, under the blanket of U.S. power, in imposing on Palestinians a deal that is far less generous in substance and in spirit than the Geneva Accord, I suspect that this struggle will continue for at least another generation or two, to the detriment of the Jewish people, the Palestinian people, and the peace of the world.

But how to reverse this process? This is the central question facing us. I am convinced that any movement that seems to be about reversing the existence of the State of Israel, or which could plausibly be portrayed in that way, is objectively serving the interests of the Occupation, because it gives to the Israeli Right the ability to mobilize fear, and through that fear to build support for keeping much of the West Bank under Israeli control. Acts of violence from Palestinians have that same political impact. And I fear that a general divestment policy could have that same impact.

That's why I'm choosing to support the kind of targeted divestment proposed by the Presbyterian Church, the World Council of Churches, and other Protestant groups—a program that is not aimed against Israel, but only against corporations directly involved in supporting the Occupation of the West Bank. And to make it clear that this is not anti-Israel, I support calling it a strategy of reinvestment, so that funds taken from corporations that help support the Occupation will be reinvested in programs aimed at supporting the peace forces and the well-being of the least advantaged inside Israel. This is not the "creative engagement" suggested by former President Reagan with South Africa, in which U.S. multinationals were encouraged to invest in the apartheid state with the hypothesis that somehow doing so would have a moderating or liberalizing impact on the society. It is rather a strategy directly aimed at keeping high profile attention on the immorality of Israel's violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people.

Recently released poll data from distinguished pollster Steven M. Cohen at the Hebrew University shows a far more significant divestment is already taking place—a divestment of interest in and attachment to the State of Israel by American Jews. According to Cohen's study, American Jewish attachment to Israel has fallen dramatically over the past two years. Only 57 percent of those polled feel that "caring about Israel is an important part of [their] being Jewish." Cohen argues that the image of Israel promoted by Zionist organizations abroad—as perpetually under siege, always at war with its neighbors—may be good for fundraising, but is ultimately alienating to younger American Jews. As sobering as Cohen's research is, this should not be a surprise. For nineteen years this magazine has been warning Israel and Jewish leaders in this country that the systematic violation of Palestinian rights would eventually lead to a turning away from Israel, not only by the peoples of the world, but even by those Jews who remain rooted in the highest ethical traditions of the Jewish prophets.

I doubt very much that the "tough love" of divestment, targeted divestment, or even reinvestment strategies will work to wake up the Israeli people or to drive sense into the minds of the American Jewish establishment. I support the gesture of reinvestment because some exercise of power might draw some attention to the issue, but not much. What could work is a campaign to get American political leaders to endorse the Geneva Accord. If, instead of wasting energies in a divisive fight (read Hayyim Feldman's excellent account in this issue) about divestment, the anti-Occupation forces were to unite to try to put on the ballots of the cities and states of this nation propositions endorsing the Geneva Accord, the debate would focus in a way that could actually lead to a breakthrough, because of its central message: there is a concrete alternative to war and Occupation.

It is to that end that we will be bringing people to Congress, and it is toward that goal that we invite all those who want to see a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living in peace with each other to join with us in forming an AIPAC-style coalition that can create a more powerful voice in the circles of American policy and power. If that can be created, then our specific role as the Tikkun Community will be to try to move such a coalition into a discourse that emphasizes reconciliation, open-heartedness, and atonement—the requisite steps for building a serious and lasting peace.

We have invited several Palestinian, Israeli, and American activist colleagues deeply familiar with strategies used to achieve this reality to reflect on the best possible ways to secure a just end to the Arab/Israeli conflict. Responding to my article "Divestment and More" in the March/April edition of TIKKUN, and subsequent discussions of adding the tactic of reinvestment to the mix—as suggested to me by Tikkun Community National Advisory Board member Harvey Cox—we introduce Al Awda's Mazin Qumsiyeh, the Israel Committee Against Housing Demolition's Jeff Halper, Alternative Information Center founder Michel Warschawski, and the Tikkun Community's Hayyim Feldman.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of TIKKUN, co-founder of the Tikkun Community, and spiritual leader of Beyt Tikkun synagogue.

Source Citation

Lerner, Michael. 2005. Ending the occupation, saving Israel/Palestine: Strategy and morality. Tikkun 20(3):33.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from Amazon.com and in hard copy from tikkun.org/eip. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.
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