Here we are on the week-long “Israel Symposium” of Partners for Progressive Israel in late October, with Shani Chabansky — then still a Tikkun intern — who blogged on our trip here. Symposium participants were an impressive bunch, including: five university academics (two historians, one philosopher, a journalist, and an astronomer), an internationally celebrated singer & actor (our board chair, Theodore Bikel), a retired school principal, and a very impressive graduate student in international relations.
We were primarily guests of the Meretz party in Israel, but for one day, we were hosted by the Palestinian Authority and the PLO in Ramallah. It was there that the veteran PLO official and Geneva Accord peace activist Yasser Abed Rabbo confirmed Bernard Avishai’s account of how close the Abbas-Olmert negotiations came to peace in 2008-’09 (see Avishai’s article in the December 2011 issue of Harper’s, and his earlier piece in the New York Times Magazine, February 11th, 2011). Along with the legal difficulties that forced Ehud Olmert’s resignation, the war in Gaza cut short a promising effort, as Olmert’s government chose not to attend what was meant to be a concluding round of talks scheduled by George W. Bush and Secretary of State Rice during the closing weeks of his presidency. Rabbo indicated that the P.A. planned to send negotiators to Washington, D.C. for a meeting set to begin Jan. 6, 2009, even in the midst of what we now need to regard as the first Gaza war.
We also met with Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American businessman who is fond of making contacts with American Jews and has an M.B.A. from the University of Tel Aviv. But he is also profoundly embittered by the unequal relationship of his people with Israel, including the latter’s “colonialist” domination over the West Bank. (You can read my article at the Open Zion blog of The Daily Beast, for more on this man’s story.)
I was one of a majority of our group taken aback by Dr. Hanan Ashrawi’s misunderstanding of what we (and most Israelis and Jews) mean by a “Jewish state.” A progressive Zionist doesn’t support a “Jewish state” that is either theocratic or exclusively Jewish, but rather a country that is always open to Jews seeking refuge from persecution, discrimination or oppression, and that may (at a maximum) also work to preserve & cultivate Jewish cultural expression & heritage (whether in religious or secular form), while not impinging upon the individual civil rights of its non-Jewish citizens.
It doesn’t help the Palestinian cause, especially in the wake of the bloody second Intifada and the Hamas takeover in Gaza, if most Israelis see this as added evidence that Israel is not really accepted as a sovereign reality. I am NOT saying that peace hinges on the Palestinians fully accepting a Zionist understanding of Jewish identity, but it would take away a right-wing arguing point if the Palestinian leadership clearly recognizes the national rights of the Jewish people (beyond seeing Jews as a mere religious group).
Our frank but polite discussion with Dr. Ashrawi caused us to be somewhat late in our visit with the Palestinian prime minister, Dr. Salam Fayyad. But Prime Minister Fayyad so enjoyed our visit that he was late to leave for his next appointment, causing his aides fits as they tried to usher him to the ceremonial opening of a new earthquake-monitoring station. His achievements in combating corruption and in building institutions in preparation for statehood have won widespread international support and respect.
Among the 30 or more Israeli and Palestinian officials, activists, journalists and analysts we met was Shahar Ilan, a researcher and commentator on issues of religious freedom in Israel, who spoke mostly on the problem of the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) minority, whose community is heavily subsidized by the government, despite the fact that 60% of its males are not employed in the economy and virtually none serve in the army. Part of the problem here, according to Shahar, is that the government funds separate schools for the Haredi communities without requiring a core curriculum that would minimally equip their students with the capacity to earn a living. Their women are actually better prepared for the world of work than their men, with a majority of Haredi women working outside of the home, even as they have the primary responsibility to raise their (many) children and maintain the household.
The problem of Haredim not serving in the military came to a head with the expiration in 2012 of the law that exempted them from military conscription. To date, no solution has been found to what most Israelis see as a problem of equity or fairness, which plays into their deep-rooted fear of being a frier (a sucker). I see much of Israel’s political ordeal, including its inability to make a deal with the Palestinians, reflected through this concept of being a frier: when outraged by Palestinian actions — whether violence on the one hand or combative public pronouncements from relative moderates on the other — they fear becoming friers if they make the kind of territorial or other concessions required to forge peace.
Among the most memorable of so many accomplished people we met was Michael Sfard. He is an Israeli attorney who is tireless in his work on behalf of West Bank Palestinians fighting peacefully for their property and civil rights. (Sfard was the attorney pictured in the film, “Five Broken Cameras,”working with the embattled villagers of Bi’lin.) He describes a defacto condition of lawlessness in the West Bank where a “Judea and Samaria” police force will not investigate crimes committed by settlers outside of settlements, without army escort (something the IDF leaves as a very low priority). He echoes Michael Lerner in stating that Israeli Jews suffer from “post-traumatic stress,” but he sees Israel as strong enough that it doesn’t have to safeguard itself by trampling the rights of others, especially people who are relatively defenseless.
I was impressed by Sfard and the other Israeli human rights activists we met for their dedication in defending Palestinian rights, without denigrating Israel’s rights to security and sovereignty. There’s so much more that can be said here but would not be appropriate for a single blog post. The following are posts made by other participants:
- ‘A Partner for Peace’ by Alan Feldman
- Historian Reflects on ‘Israel Symposium’
- What I Saw & Heard in Israel and Palestine