Good News for the Monkey in the Middle

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On a summer night in 2001, I stopped along Hebron Street to take in the view. To the east was the densely populated hillside of Silwan, where Jewish settlers were pressuring Palestinian residents to vacate, as part of an ongoing campaign of harassment. To my west rose another cluster of hillside residences in West Jerusalem, where Holocaust survivors built a new life in a Jewish homeland, protected from the terrors they had escaped in Europe.
To the east, a people trying to carve a life for themselves amidst the ongoing persecution and injustice of the Occupation. To the west, a people trying to carve a life for themselves after surviving the Third Reich now live in fear of the next suicide bomb.
Between them, I stood alone on Hebron Street: a visitor, an outsider, a monkey in the middle.
As the decades of Occupation dragged along, bringing misery to Palestinians and terror to Israelis, I was home on the other side of the globe, powerless to change the status quo and shouted down by both sides. I was the monkey in the middle. There are two narratives of suffering at the hands of the other. Neither contains the whole truth, but each holds countless stories of murdered loved ones, being the target of violent hatred, misunderstood and abandoned by the rest of the world. Both carry a long list of injustices by the other, thwarted attempts to seek peace, and irrefutable justifications for retribution or self-defense.

Neither has ever welcomed my “outsider’s” perspective: I don’t live there, it’s none of my business, I couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like here. When I spoke up for Israel, the peace camp called me a racist imperialist. When I spoke up for the Palestinians, fellow Jews labeled me a “traitor” and “self-hating Jew.”
While I remain in the middle, the gulf between two sides is widening and expanding with no end in sight. Gaza has become a breeding ground for al-Qaeda. Israeli leaders resort to more extreme rhetoric and more drastic ways to crush Palestinian resolve. Palestinian youth have resorted to random stabbings of innocent Israelis. American Jews have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the West Bank. Netanyahu has interfered in the American political process and attempted to block an agreement with Iran, increasing the likelihood for nuclear war. Both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been on the rise. And in Israel’s backyard, the struggle in Syria has created the greatest refugee crisis in recent history, as the U.S. and Russia have tried to contain (while actually inciting) a conflict that pits the brutality of the Assad regime against the nightmare ideology of ISIS.
If we refuse to vilify one side or the other, are we powerless to work for peace? One thing that Israelis, Palestinians, and their American supporters sometimes seem to agree on is that we monkeys in the middle should keep our mouths shut. Because this really isn’t our problem.
But are we really powerless? If you are a monkey in the middle (or MITM), I have good news for you: we’re not alone. There’s a whole tribe of monkeys out there. As the conflict persists, as violence and hatred spiral beyond control, the unsensational, un-newsworthy story is that an evenhanded approach to human rights and human dignity, to justice and peace, to the better interest of people on both sides is catching on. Little troops of monkeys have been there all along, working quietly to defuse the conflict; now we’re starting to notice one another, band together, and exert a noticeable impact.
To give two familiar examples, Tikkun has been a balanced voice for peace and human rights for over 30 years, while J Street has sat in the limelight for years, gained a substantial following, and become a game changer. The combined efforts of J Street, Tikkun/NSP, and other progressive groups deserve much of credit in the legislative campaign to approve the 2015 Iran agreement. They were David taking on Goliath, standing proud against the combined clout of several major Jewish organizations on the Iran agreement. This victory has inspired Jewish progressives to be more forthcoming in our support for the peace and well-being of Israelis, Palestinians, and all humanity.
Granted, MITMs are a unique breed of progressives. How can we share the fundamental goal of ending the Occupation with other progressives, yet part company on the issue of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions? For me, it’s a matter of recalling the panorama from Hebron Street and seeing that there are two peoples in whose shoes I need to walk. The suffering on the Arab side breaks my heart, and I can sympathize with the impatience and the impulse to take strong action to end the Occupation. But for the survivors on the Jewish side, whose dreams are still haunted by memories of the Holocaust, BDS is yet another reminder that the world is unsafe, that they still face enemies who wish their destruction, that the only hope for Jews is to stand up and defend themselves. And the more the international community pressures Israel, the more Israelis will feel isolated from the world community, and all the more resolved to take strong measures against the Palestinians. As in Aesop’s fable of the north wind and the sun, force leads only to counterforce; behavior is more likely changed through gentle persuasion.
At the same time, we MITMs like nuance. We are all about what is appropriate in a given situation, rather than about sweeping generalities. An example of a nuanced argument for a very limited application of boycotting appears in a Tikkun editorial, recognizing the difference between a blanket boycott of all things Israeli and a targeted boycott withholding funds for West Bank settlements.[1]
This editorial should come as no surprise to long-time readers of Tikkun. Michael Lerner has been something of a pioneer among MITMs (and has probably taken more heat than any of us for holding this middle ground). His 2003 book Healing Israel/Palestine[2] (renamed Embracing Israel/Palestine in later editions) offered a radical proposal for resolving the conflict by addressing the geopolitical needs of both Israelis and Palestinians, while honoring their deeper emotional and spiritual needs: “I am both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, and this book will show you how that can be possible.”[3]

Lerner’s writings talk about how meaningful change often comes in a flash when suddenly a tipping point is reached and what had previously seemed “unrealistic” comes to be. Take the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, impacted by public opinion, which only a year before had overwhelmingly condemned the practice. Michael Sfard in a recent Haaretz editorial predicts that this is how the Occupation is likely to end, thanks to persistent efforts of Israeli MITM organizations:

The strength of both the organizations that are working to end the occupation and of their supporters is greater than we think. The defeatist sarcasm we often hear among members of the anti-occupation camp is unjustified. The tremendous baleful and violent force that is being unleashed against us shows something good about us….[W]hat is the source of this fear and, concomitantly, what is the secret of our strength?

The answer is simple. The world is driven by diverse forces. We vividly see and feel the political, economic and military forces daily. But there are also less visible forces, whose mode of operation is less overt. One of them is actually an idea: that all human beings are equal and that all deserve rights because they are human beings. That idea is responsible for the greatest and most important revolutions in history. It’s an idea that operates like dark matter in the universe – in silence. And it, together with those who oppose the occupation, is pushing us to end the occupation and to bring about a substantive change in the way Israeli society functions. It vests these ostensibly small and weak organizations with inexplicable might. And it will bring about the end of the occupation.[4]

I believe that Sfard’s prediction will come about a lot sooner when we MITMs stop huddling in the corner and take leadership to build a broader coalition. It will take finesse and our best efforts at diplomacy to get all sides to let go of fixed positions and recognize the humanity and the legitimacy of their adversaries. The left’s failure to attract a wider constituency and exercise at least some transformative influence is largely due to the arrogance of left-wing supporters in the conviction of the correctness of their views and the lack of understanding (sometimes to the point of mockery and stereotyping) of the very human concerns of their adversaries on the right. Ultimately it will require a spiritual progressive agenda – one that embraces the legitimate needs for security, respect, and community of right-wing supporters as well as the priorities of economic, social, and environmental justice upheld by the left – to create a coalition strong and passionate enough to redirect political and economic priorities to fully address the most pressing human and global concerns.[5]
This political wisdom is at the heart of Yakir Englander’s +972 blog post from February 8, 2016. Englander is a progressive peace activist who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community. In his teens he was active in the Haredi settlers’ movement, and expresses deep respect for the courage and commitment of the religious settlers. He challenges the Israeli left to let go of its self-righteousness and to sincerely understand the pain and trauma of fellow Israelis on all sides of the spectrum:

[T]he leaders of the Left act similar to religious preachers who claim to know the Truth, even when it is ideological rather than divine. Their grasp of the Truth makes it hard for them to listen to others [and] enter into a genuine dialogue … I cannot relate to the leaders of the Left because of their language, which falls far short of expressing the complex emotions of fear and pain that I hear every day on the streets of Jerusalem.[6]

Clearly we MITMs have our work cut out for us. And for the first time, there’s a handy resource available to help us connect for effective action. A week before the start of Chanukah, The Forward ran a piece[7] that announced, and included a link to, the perfect Chanukah present for us MITMs: a twenty page guide to organizations and initiatives dedicated to ending the Occupation, supporting human rights, and promoting peace and reconciliation.[8] It gives access to many exciting initiatives that had been operating in obscurity, and lists a couple of umbrella organizations that all MITMs should be aware of. First, there’s the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), a coalition of over 80 organizations dedicated to peacemaking, people-to-people encounters, and the building up of civil society.
Then there is Ameinu, a progressive Zionist organization committed to peace, economic justice, and human rights. It may surprise Israel’s critics that a self-described Zionist organization, an AIPAC affiliate with roots in the Labor Zionist movement, is taking a leadership role in the struggle to end the occupation, dismantle settlements, protect minority rights, and advocate for negotiations and a two-state solution. But we MITMs recognize that this conflict and its international repercussions will not be resolved until both sides let go of their prejudices, acknowledge each other’s shared humanity, and support the compassionate voices found among the most threatening foes and the most strident allies.
Ameinu named its core initiative on Israel/Palestine “The Third Narrative.” The term refers to a position that recognizes the legitimacy of both the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives of suffering at the hands of the other, but rejects the aspect of each narrative that sees oneself as blameless and the other as 100% in the wrong in order to justify extreme acts of retaliation and aggression. The Third Narrative wants the best for everyone involved: peace and security for Israelis; human rights, social justice, economic opportunity, and political autonomy for Palestinians.
Though the Third Narrative has been criticized by both the left and the right,[9] let’s hope that at least some of our critics take to heart these words from the Third Narrative’s statement of purpose:

We feel a deep connection to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. We are also committed to social justice and human rights for everyone. Some say those commitments are contradictory, that particularist attachments to a state or a people can’t be reconciled with universal values. Our response is that belonging to a people, a community larger than ourselves, is a basic human need – indeed, it is our right. And balancing our communal attachments with a commitment to humanity as a whole is our responsibility.

In fact, our ties to Israel might make us even more disturbed by its current direction than those that have no ties to it.[10]

This extraordinary flowering of thoughtful MITM journalism fills me with hope. As Israelis and Palestinians continue tragically to slug it out, the time has finally come for the quiet voices, open hearts, and peaceful practices of MITMs to receive much needed and much deserved attention.
As a member of the Network for Spiritual Progressives, I recognize that the United States and other affluent nations would do much better adopting a Global Marshall Plan, sending economic assistance, rather than heavy artillery, to those who need it. And more fundamentally, to spread the ethos of a “New Bottom Line” in the hope that both Israelis and Palestinians can start to beat their swords into plowshares, seek reconciliation in place of retribution, recognize each other’s aspirations and pain. and build communities based upon caring, respect, peace, and honoring of all parties’ traditions and practices.
It’s likely that every diplomat, politician, activist, and thinker who has tried in vain to reach a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict must feel powerless to some degree, and certainly those of us who have been condemned by both sides as dreamers and traitors feel this especially acutely. But this is not the time to surrender hope. When peace comes, millions of Jews and Arabs will join us in the middle to play with the monkeys, since it will be our message of mutual respect and mutual responsibility that will carry the day. And the more we MITMs speak out, organize, and not surrender to our sense of surplus powerlessness, the sooner that glorious day will come.

[2] Michael Lerner, Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation. (Tikkun Books, 2003).
[3] Lerner, Healing Israel/Palestine, p. xvii.
[4] Michael Sfard, “The Israeli Occupation Will End Suddenly,” Haaretz, January 23, 2016. (retrieved February 14, 2016).
[5] See Michael Lerner, “Why the Right Keeps Winning and the Left Keeps Losing; Reclaiming America from the Right: A Strategy” ( (retrieved March 25, 2016).
[6] Yakir Englander (tr. by Henry Carse, “When will the Left start talking about Israeli trauma?” 972+, February 8, 2016. (retrieved February 14, 2016).
[7] Mira Sucharov, “Want To End Israeli Occupation—Without BDS? This New Guide Tells You How,” THe Forward, November 30, 2015. (retrieved February 11, 2016).
[8] The Third Narrative, Activist Guide: Progressive Action for Human Rights, Peace & Reconciliation in Israel and Palestine. Ameinu, 2015. (retrieved February 11, 2016).
[9] Ron Radosh, “‘The Third Narrative,’ and Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin, Join the Fight Against Israel,” PJ Media, December 13, 2014. (retrieved January 11, 2016).
[10] “About the Third Narrative.” (retrieved January 11, 2016)

Michael Zimmerman is the Rabbi of Congregation Kehillat Israel (Reconstructionist) in Lansing, Michigan. He is a member ofTikkun magazine’sEditorial Advisory Board, and recently joined the Executive Committee for the Lansing Area Mayor’s City of Kindness Initiative.