[Editor’s Note: Tikkun frequently prints articles at variance with our own positions. In this case, we disagree with both sides. From our perspective, once it turned to oppress Palestinians, it could no longer call itself a Jewish state, because it ignored the most frequent command in Torah: variants of “When you come into your land, do not oppress the stranger/other. Remember that you were the ‘other” in the land of Egypt.” So it is a state with a lot of Jews, but not a Jewish state. We support the call to give Palestinians equal rights inside Israel including votes in the Knesset, but we do so not because we think a single state is viable, but because as that demand becomes more and more popular inside what most will call “Israeli apartheid” after it annexes West Bank Palestinians without giving them full equality the Israeli ultra-nationalists and religious extremists will want to create a Palestinian state rather than allow for the possibility that at some future point Israel would have a majority of Arabs. But till then, the call for full equality is absolutely necessary and ethically desirable. –Rabbi Michael Lerner firstname.lastname@example.org]
DEAR PETER BEINART
Peter, you and I are fellow left-wing Zionists. That means wounded and disappointed left-wing Zionists. It has become increasingly clear, already for decades, that the Israel of today is far from being that of our youthful idealistic dreams. I know that disappointment, but it continues to hurt.
I am a few years older than you are, and I had already defined myself as belonging to the Zionist left flank before the Six Day War. The Israeli victory in that struggle only confirmed my sense of belonging there. Of course, I shared in the pride and great relief felt by Jews everywhere. The period leading up to that war had been truly terrifying. Echoes of the Holocaust seemed very real at that point; they were not being forced upon us by a relentless government-based opinion-molding campaign, as they are now. We American Zionists who had also been participants in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements had been deeply affected by those events. We could not avoid looking at Israel, too, through the moral lens created by such experiences. We were well aware – and upset – that Arabs within Israel were being treated as second class citizens, that little effort had been made to meet them in their full humanity (even to learn their language) and to integrate them into Israeli society.
In greeting the victory of ’67, we understood that we would not be able to compartmentalize our feelings about human rights and political justice when it came to the Israel/Palestine question. Already in the early weeks after the victory, when the Israeli army was called in to destroy the impoverished Mugrabi quarter near the Western Wall, in order to create the vast plaza we now see there, the pattern of how the victors would treat the vanquished was already becoming clear. We asked (mostly among ourselves) what was happening to the people who lived in those houses, but were too unnerved to wait for real answers.
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Just think, we were told, what would have happened if things had gone the other way. How much more vicious would Arab victors have been toward Jews! We believed that response (I don’t think we were wrong) and it sufficed to silence us. A couple of years later, as the messianic Gush Emunim movement spearheaded the settlement process, we felt it was all wrong, but we were silent again. We believed firmly that the territories conquered in that war needed to be maintained in trust, to be returned to Arab rule (whether Jordanian or Palestinian) in exchange for real recognition of Israel and an offer of peace.
I danced around the edges of Breira and New Jewish Agenda for a while, but could never quite find my home there. Those groups were too much in bed with Jewish Old Left types (indeed, the old-time Jewish Currents crowd), who had never been comfortable with Israel. Critical as I was of many things, I loved Israel and did not belong with them.
We watched as new maps of Israel were produced for use in all our educational institutions, with the Green Line suddenly erased. We cringed when we heard the new movement of settlers insist on referring to the West Bank territories by the biblical names Judea and Samaria. We should have known that this was the beginning of the end, that they would never agree to give them up. But we remained silent.
In the years and decades following 1977, we came to understand that our closest allies in Israel were destined to become a permanent voting minority in the Jewish State. Having so badly messed up their relationship with the Mizrahim, being demographically overwhelmed by the ḥaredim, the liberal voices of those who had founded the state were being loudly shouted down on the streets. As the old Socialist ideology was collapsing, the newly-proud voice of religious nationalism, tinged with messianic fervor, was growing ever louder. We then watched the Russians we had worked so hard to help bring to Israel become another bloc of right-wing voters, out of completely understandable anti-Communist hysteria. We began asking ourselves questions about the future of Israeli democracy. Still, we remained quiet. “We are not voters,” after all.
Along came the two intifadas, the second one especially serving to crush the Israeli left. I remember hearing one of my most reliably far-left Israeli friends saying to me: “As a parent, I’m glad they’re putting up that fence.” How could I argue with him? We evermore passively accepted the line that said “Your lives are not on the line. You have no right to speak out.” And we listened. Like good, well-trained, passive American Jews, we behaved.
I want to say quite unflinchingly that our current situation is partly the result of my generation’s failure of leadership, and to accept my part of that responsibility. I was a small fish, to be sure, in the American Jewish power structure, and I was already dismissed by many as being too predictably on the left. But I should have been out there, louder and more courageous. Most of the non-Orthodox rabbinate, many academics in the fields of both Jewish and Middle Eastern Studies, and quite a few donors – all of us lovers of Israel and frequent visitors there – have been pretty horrified for a long time. We stood by as AIPAC took the place of UJA/Federation as the most important Jewish organization, and as cheering-section loyalty to Israeli government policy came to replace Torah and Sinai as the ultimate sign of Jewish commitment.
By the time East Jerusalem was annexed, we were utterly numb. But listening to calls for the “Judaization” (yihud has become a shockingly ugly word!) of neighborhoods, the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, the refusal to allow them building permits, followed by destroying the homes they build “illegally,” left us sick. We watched the settlements get ever larger, ever thicker. We may have avoided visiting them, but that was not much of a contribution. We continued to visit the Israel we love (I am just back from a wonderful half-year in Jerusalem), continued to support her, perhaps assuaging our consciences with a little bigger gift to the New Israel Fund or signing yet another statement by J-Street.
Over the past several years, the newest generation has put us on the line. Responding to some (though not all) of the best Jewish values we have taught them, they have reached the far end of patience and passivity. Good for them! We need to be pushed! Now, the remarkable events across our country under the banner of Black Lives Matter have brought challenges around equality of all sorts to a front and center position from which we will be unable to step away. The Netanyahu government’s utter dismissal of all this, and its total identification with the Trump administration and its evangelical Christian base, has made this situation infinitely worse. If Israeli policymakers had actively set out with a goal of undermining support by young American Jews, they couldn’t have done a better job.
Into this moment steps Peter Beinart: a good man, a committed Jew, and a very important adult voice of that younger generation. Indeed, you were the first one who made us aware of it., and for that alone you deserve great credit. The orchestration of what seems to be a major campaign around the laying out of your views may seem a bit overdone, but the pain of encountering what you claim and suggest cannot be ignored. All of us who have held on to the Two-State Solution have been asking the questions you raise, ever more fearful that we are grasping at an illusion. The recent talk of annexation (and I have been reading the shrill cries for it in Makor Rishon), whether it actually happens or not, raises the stakes significantly.
Had I been around before 1936, I surely would have supported Brit Shalom, the movement of enlightened bi-nationalism among Jewish intellectuals and a few Arabs. Growing up in the post-Holocaust and early statehood years, however, it was, and remains, completely clear to me that Jewish statehood is vital to the three tasks for which Israel was created: providing a refuge for persecuted Jews, protecting the Jewish community in Erets Yisra’el, and offering support for the emergence of a new and revitalized Jewish/Hebrew culture. I would not entrust your rosily depicted bi-national state with any of these goals. Let me briefly unpack each of these.
- I do not think that Israel needs to keep encouraging ‘aliyah as a central value for all Jews. There is no room in the land, especially once shared, for all of us. But the sense that it stands as a refuge for future Jewish communities in trouble is essential to the reason we – yes, even you and I with our little JNF boxes – created it. While no Jewish community is being threatened right now, we need to recognize that as a historically unusual circumstance, not as a new norm. Anti-Semitism, as we know, has not disappeared from our world, not even from our own country. I do not believe that a bi-national state, shared with Arabs still wounded by the real suffering of their own refugees, could be counted on to be there when Jews need it.
- Defense is a real need in the Middle East. The picture of what ISIS tried to do to the Yazidis is recent enough that we need to remember it. I am definitely not trying to paint all Palestinians that way, not at all. But let us remember in what region of the world Israel exists. Israel has created one of the world’s most powerful military forces for a reason. I fully agree with the critique of the Israeli army’s conduct toward civilians in the West Bank, and I am sympathetic to some of the claims about excesses in Gaza. I am appalled by the government’s ongoing whitewash of obvious violations of human rights by members of the Israeli army. But I am not ready to give up on the country’s vital need and right to defend itself.
- The third point, the culture of Israel, is personally just as vital to me. What has been created, thanks to the Jewish state – including its financial support – in the realms of Hebrew literature, Jewish scholarship, fine arts, and lots more, has enriched and transformed Jewish life in myriad ways. This cultural aspect of Zionism, to which we are both committed, has been an incredible success. It has not been shared enough with American Jews, partly out of their ongoing assimilation and disinterest. That is the failure of our educational leadership, not the Israelis. True, it has sometimes taken on a triumphalist tone and has sometimes given in to ultra-Orthodox demands. Fortunately, Israel’s greatest writers, in an era when there are no prophets, have stepped forward to represent the best of Jewish values. The ongoing support for this broad cultural undertaking cannot be compromised. I simply do not believe that a Palestinian Minister of Culture in this single state you propose would have the same commitment to it.
However democratic it may sound, I simply cannot trust a single state solution. More significantly – neither can any of the liberal and left-wing Israelis I know.
Yet you are right about so many things! Israel does see its situation too much through the prism of the Holocaust. (Avrum Burg said this more than a decade ago, and was widely ignored.) There is a disrespect for the lives and human dignity of the Arab population, especially in the conquered territories, but within the Green Line as well. The occasional killing of Arab prisoners and the generally easy hand on the trigger toward Arabs, by army units as well as by the overly aggressive border patrol, has been attested over and over again, most recently against Eyad Hallaq, a disabled young man, in Jerusalem. The blind eye the government and army have turned toward terrible deeds – blatant theft of lands, destruction of crops, and more – by settlers, is utterly appalling. On these matters we are probably in complete agreement.
Before turning toward what I think needs to happen, I have to offer a word to the settlers. This includes the firebrands of Gush Emunim, the many hapless Israelis who were attracted to the territories by cheaper housing and government-sponsored temptations, and my dear friends the “good” settlers in places like Tekoa, who want to live in peace amid their Arab neighbors. Yes, you have won. The settlements, at least in their larger blocs, are irreversible, “facts on the ground,” as you like to say. But what have you really done? You have created a terrible threat to the future existence of Israel. In the old days, when you were denouncing supporters of the Oslo Peace Process as traitors, you liked to quote the prophet Isaiah (49:17, taken totally out of context) against them: “Your destroyers and ruiners will emerge from among you.” I believe this verse is precisely true of you. What you have ruined, to be specific, is any possibility of what most Israelis long for: separation from the Palestinian population, along with its problems and its threat. That might have been possible before your great “success.” Now there is no such thing. Jews and Arabs live cheek-by-jowl throughout the territories. Our fate is fully wedded to theirs. Congratulations.
What is to be done? I think there is no possibility other than confederation, some version of the “One Homeland, Two States” notion that is beginning to emerge in some progressive circles within Israel. You mention this in passing, but go on to support a single state, which I believe is a mistake, for the reasons stated. There will have to be much very tough negotiation to get to such a confederation, but that is where things must go. Because Israel is so much stronger, a degree of equalizing between the two entities will have to be imposed by an outside force, maybe something like the Quartet, with the lead taken by (God willing!) a new American administration. Yes, I am talking about a partially imposed resolution. Both the Israeli and Palestinian political systems are too weak, dysfunctional, and unwilling to get there on their own.
Residents will get to choose citizenship in either state, but will be able to live throughout the two confederated entities. Lines between the areas governed by those entities will have to be drawn (equivalent, though not identical, to the old Green Line), police and other services provided respectively by the entity that dominates on either side. Freedom of movement, employment, and residence for all, without discrimination, within the confederation will be a must. Fierce enforcement will be required to assure that Arabs can buy homes in Ra’ananah, if Jews are going to stay in Ariel. Those who cannot live with the lines that are drawn will have to uproot and move. They should be helped if they choose to do so. One army, initially Israeli-dominated, will need to provide external defense security, but ways will have to be created, over a defined period of time, to move that toward becoming a shared force.
Jerusalem will have to be the capital of both states. Schools on both sides of the line will need to extensively teach the others’ language and culture, and actively work toward ending hate. Regular meetings of schoolchildren from the two sides need to become a part of daily life. A universally shared year of service program, following high school, will need to be instituted, involving the entire population. This should help in breaking down stereotypes and hostilities. Immigration, a particularly painful issue, will have to be worked out, allowing the Palestinian state to make its own choices about absorbing refugees, and allowing Israel to remain a refuge for Jews who need to flee danger or persecution. There will need to be something like a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” but one that also deals with compensation. The past, including injustices done to both Jews and Arabs in the years after 1948, will be considered, but the emphasis should be on the future that that needs so urgently to be built.
Such a vision will require tremendous political will. If imposed from without, as I believe it must in part be, it will need to come with significant “carrots,” along with that stick. I pray that it will come about without the need for some terrible calamity to force it to happen. It will also require tremendous capital investment, much of it dedicated toward building a Palestinian economy and infrastructure strong enough to stand as a partner alongside the very powerful and dominating State of Israel. The United States, Europe, the Arab states, and all of the world Jewry will need to be active participants in this great act of rebuilding. For us Jews, it is our only choice. Our collective future depends upon it.