We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
A speech delivered at Harvard Hillel, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 14, 2002.
I’ve been a Zionist for about seventy years. When I was eight years old I was already reading a book about Yemenite Jews who had settled in Palestine. I grew up in a traditional home, and the prayers that I recited daily have at least thirty references to Zion. Living in anti-Semitic Poland, I knew that we were in exile and I was longing for Zion.
When I came out of the concentration camps I discovered that I was the sole survivor of my family. Faced with the choice of going to Israel or America, I accepted the opportunity of a safe life in America against my preference for Israel. In many ways I still feel more at home in Israel.
In November of 1947, when the fate of Israel was discussed at the United Nations, I was in Cincinnati at the national meeting of young Zionists. When the news reached us that they had voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian state we went out and danced in the street for joy.
In 1948 I volunteered to fight in Israel, but I was rejected. I had no experience in handling weapons, and they were looking for young war veterans.
I spent the year of 1955–1956 in Israel. That spring, Israel was preparing to respond to the repeated attacks of Fedayeen who came from Egypt and terrorized the border kibbutzim. I went on bitzurim, building fortification trenches.
In short, throughout my conscious life I have been, as I now am, devoted to Israel. But my devotion, which began with unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government and the actions of Israeli society, became increasingly critical beginning with the building of settlements in the West Bank and especially during the Lebanon War in 1982. I felt that the settlers were taking advantage of twice-defeated and helpless refugees. I wondered, where is the compassion and generosity that is traditionally attributed to Jews? As a religious Jew I was also offended by the use of Biblical texts to justify the outrage. I was convinced that the accumulated hatred from the persistent injury and insult eventually would fuel the fires of revolt and vengeance. Our rabbis taught “Aveira goreret aveira”—“One sin leads to another;” the wish to keep the West Bank led to the war in Lebanon. Ever since then, my devotion to Israel has been informed by what I learned from reading literature about the conflict, including the Israeli press, and from personal experience during my frequent visits to Israel.
Now to the subject of my talk. Today I want to discuss several questions: What is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about? Can it be resolved with power alone? And what is the role of American Jews in this conflict?
As to the first question, the conflict is about Palestinian self-determination. When the West Bank came under Israeli occupation in 1967, it was populated by Palestinians—most of them refugees from the 1948 war. The Oslo agreements kindled their hope for a sovereign state in Gaza and the West Bank, covering 22 percent of the original area of Palestine. The building of Israeli settlements in parts of the West Bank has frustrated their hopes. At this point, three generations of Palestinians have lived for thirty-five years under Israeli occupation, and the persistent building of settlements on their land has led to a violent conflict.
The current Intifada erupted after Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a comprehensive settlement failed. The precipitating event was Ariel Sharon’s visit in September 2000 to the Al Aksa Mosque accompanied by a thousand people, among them members of the Likud party and countless policemen. Sharon’s visit was calculated to emphasize Israeli sovereignty over the area of the Muslim shrine. Israeli security warned that the visit would spark an explosion. Yasser Arafat even asked Prime Minister Ehud Barak not to authorize the visit. The following day, Palestinians in Jerusalem and in the territories protested the visit. The police responded with fire, killing several Palestinians and wounding a large number of them. Historians will debate whether that visit started the revolt; as far as I am concerned these events were not coincidental.
When Sharon was elected Prime Minister, his commitment to keep the settlements precluded the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the conflict. To fulfill his promise to bring peace and security to Israel, Sharon reverted to his objective in the Lebanon War in 1982: “to crush the PLO and drive its remnants out of Lebanon.” In this instance, his purpose was to crush the PLO, destroy the Palestinian Authority, and exile Arafat.
To gain perspective on the conduct of the present conflict it is important to review the war in Lebanon in 1982, in which the main actors, objectives, and methods were the same as in the present conflict. Sharon had been authorized by the Begin government to go forty kilometers into Lebanon to silence the PLO forces that were attacking Israel. Instead, he went all the way to Beirut. Convinced that a radical solution was in order, he disregarded his promise to the cabinet and turned a limited operation that was to last twenty-four hours into a full-scale war that took the Israeli army all the way to Beirut to confront Arafat and the PLO.
There were officers who were uncomfortable with the extended campaign. Professor Benny Morris, in his monumental book Righteous Victims, describes the meeting of brigade commanders at the planning of the assault on Beirut:
General Drori presented the draft plan at a meeting of brigade commanders. A number of them raised objections . . . Col. Eli Geva, a highly esteemed officer, voiced objections of principle: What was the point of the proposed assault? Was it worth the Israeli and Arab lives? A few days later, Geva’s opposition crystallized. . . . He informed his superiors that he wished to be relieved of command of his brigade if it was ordered to advance on Beirut, and offered to continue to fight . . . as a private. The offer was rejected, and after [Gen. Rafael] Eitan, Sharon, and Begin failed to persuade him to back down, he was cashiered.
When the war in Lebanon ended, Israel had suffered 650 dead and close to 3,000 wounded. The PLO lost about 1,000. There were also many Palestinians and Lebanese who died in the bombardment of Beirut. Ze’ev Shiff, Israel’s leading military analyst, and Ehud Ya’ari, the foremost foreign affairs commentator, described the invasion: “Born of the ambition of one willful, reckless man [Sharon], Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was anchored in delusion, propelled by deceit, and bound to end in calamity.”
An early example of Sharon’s tendency to resort to drastic measures is his treatment of the people in the border village of Qibya. On the night of October 12, 1953, a grenade was thrown into a house in the settlement of Yehud, killing a woman and two children. The retaliation was carried out by an army unit under the command of Major Sharon. They went into the border village of Qibya and killed sixty of its inhabitants. Several days later Foreign Minister [Moshe] Sharett noted in his diary, “A reprisal of this magnitude . . . had never been carried out before. I paced back and forth in my room perplexed and completely depressed, feeling helpless.”
In addition to the moral outrage, one has to ask what were the aftereffects of that butchery? The sixty people had relatives and these relatives were bound by Islamic rules of blood redemption. The policy of massive retaliation has done more to build the PLO than to deter it.
To return to the present conflict: The repeated suicide bombing attacks that murdered countless civilians in the cities and towns of Israel turned the Intifada into ubiquitous terror. Israelis became prisoners in their own homes. The shattering experience of almost daily seeing men, women, and children blown up beyond recognition has had a traumatizing affect upon the people of Israel. In addition to causing pain and sorrow, suicide bombers are emotionally unsettling. Turning oneself into a projectile is an eerie notion. Suicide bombing also prevents punishment of the perpetrator and deflects it onto others. It is therefore not surprising that, faced with this surreal and frightening situation, Israelis gave Sharon their support in the hope that he would free them from it.
Israel had to respond to the suicide bombings. The question was one of extent. Sharon again chose radical measures aimed at the destruction of the Palestinian Authority, which from his point of view was conceived in the sin of the Oslo accords. At this point in the conflict, the idea that one can destroy the cadres of Palestinian fighters is tragically naive. No amount of mental gymnastics can change the fact that young Palestinians become suicide bombers because they have reached a point of despair, of having nothing to lose. The only way to eliminate the suicide bombings is to eliminate the conditions that give rise to them.
Sharon’s war against the Palestinians is burdened, as it was in Lebanon, by his obsessive hatred for Arafat. Sharon’s public regret that he did not kill Arafat in Lebanon, and his repeated expressions of contempt for him, give the impression of a man engaged in a personal vendetta, out of control. No statesman would have allowed himself such huffing and puffing in public.
One might ask, did Sharon have a peaceful alternative? His expressed goal of routing the PLO and its leader would preclude such a possibility. But in fact, peaceful solutions were offered twice and were rejected by him. On January 2, 2002, Hanna Kim of Ha’aretz reported about the hudna, an armistice agreement from Muslim culture proposed by Eyal Ehrlich, a businessman who in the process of his business dealings witnessed a peaceful resolution of a bloody dispute between two clans in Amman, Jordan. There he learned that to arrive at a reconciliation, a delegation of notables must be sent to express regret for the spilling of blood and to propose a cease-fire for a limited period called a hudna. During the hudna the parties negotiate an end to the dispute.
Mr. Ehrlich consulted with his friend and business partner, the former Palestinian Knesset member Abdulwahab Darawshe, and the two of them met with Professor Joseph Ginat, an expert in the area of intra-Islamic conflicts. The three of them then wrote a letter to Mr. Sharon to propose the idea of the hudna, but they received no answer. President Moshe Katzav of Israel and Mr. Arafat were both prepared to participate in the hudna, but Sharon did not even bother to answer the letter. When the diplomatic correspondent for Voice of Israel revealed the plan, the Prime Minister’s office issued a response calling the plan “stupid” and “a trap for fools.”
At about the same time, transportation minister Ephraim Sneh proposed a year of quiet in the Intifada in return for a yearlong freeze on Jewish settlements. Sneh presented his initiative after he had checked it out with Arafat and his people. This proposal was also rejected by Sharon. To me that can only mean that Sharon did not want peace. What did he want? And why?
Sharon’s commitment to keep the settlements, which he had encouraged and helped to build, left him with no peaceful solution. His radical solution to eliminate the Palestinians as a threat to Israel had also failed. The first Intifada resulted in a death ratio of 1 Israeli to 10 Palestinians. The ratio of this Intifada is 1 to 3. In recent skirmishes Palestinian retaliations have equaled their losses. Without a peaceful solution, the present phase of the Intifada already bodes ill for Israel. Sharon’s excessive use of power not only did not solve the problem, it stimulated the Palestinians to fight with greater determination and resourcefulness.
Is Arafat responsible for the terrorism? The answer is yes. I also believe that his objective has been the destruction of Israel. Should Israel negotiate with Arafat? He is the elected leader of the Palestinians. But he lies! And yet all leaders in a military conflict lie. Can he be trusted to live up to his promises? Only if the Palestinians have something to lose and Israel is powerful militarily. What about the suicide bombers? They have to be recognized for what they are. They are an indication of the degree of Palestinian hopelessness and desperation. These young people are faced with a bleak future. They are deeply aggrieved, and many of them are willing to die to hurt the Israel that has hurt them for many years. Without any gain, Arafat dares not demean their sacrifice. At this point it is hard to tell who controls whom.
As to the puzzling question of why Arafat did not accept Prime Minister Barak’s generous offer at the Camp David negotiations: Having read books by two of the Israeli negotiators—former minister of justice Yosi Bailin and Gilad Sher, a personal aide to Barak—I have come to the conclusion that his rejection may have been justified. Regrettably, these books are not yet available in English. Both of them point to the negative aspect of the initial meetings between Barak and Arafat. Despite his repeated emphasis on a partnership with Arafat, Barak arrived with a plan for negotiations which he imposed on the Palestinians, ignoring their expectations. The Palestinians expected that Barak would first fulfill the Wye River Plantation agreements made with Benjamin Netanyahu that called for ceding land to the Palestinians, but Barak decided to put this off until the final agreement. They expected a halt to the building of new settlements during the negotiations, and they expected that Barak would complete the release of prisoners begun by Netanyahu. But Barak’s conception of “working together” was that they accept his prescriptions and deadlines. The Palestinian leadership that had been treated with condescension for so many years did not take kindly to the doubletalk of partnership and dictate. The resultant loss of trust may have led to the Intifada.
It is clear that Israel could not have prevailed without the use of force. It is equally clear that Israel must continue to be militarily powerful. And I hope that it will also become clear to the Israeli government and society that the conflict cannot be solved by power alone. By what then? By removing the basis for the conflict.
The settlements on the West Bank have been a grave and costly mistake that has done much harm to Israel. Can Israel allow a failed adventure to determine its fate? Most Israelis favor the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Will Sharon rise above ideology and accept this mandate of his people? Meanwhile, it seems that a solution may come from an unexpected source.
Palestinians’ willingness to die for their cause seems to have had an influence on the restive youth in neighboring Arab nations, a development that threatens to destabilize the governments of these countries. To avoid such a possibility the Saudi leadership has proposed an international conference to find a comprehensive solution to the conflict. It is possible that the greater good of the whole Middle East and the Western world may, for once, put an end to the conflict and save both the Palestinians and the Israelis from destruction. Such a conference would also have to deal with the extensive demonization of Jews in the media and press of Arab nations. In the twentieth century, we saw how accumulated hatred leads to uncontrolled violence.
It is important to note that the Saudi proposal and its acceptance by other Arab nations is a reversal of their defiant position after the Six Day War. At the summit of Arab nations in Khartoum that followed Israel’s victory, they declared that the Arab world would unite to “wipe out the consequences of the aggression” and “assure the withdrawal of Israel’s aggressive forces from the Arab lands.” The Arab states committed themselves to “no peace with Israel,” “no recognition of Israel,” and “no agreement to negotiations with Israel.” Their defiance fed on the myth that the very existence of a Jewish state in the Arab Middle East is an aggression. The present position of the Arab nations is a reversal of the Khartoum stance. This welcome change is the result of geopolitical necessity. It is a change that should help Israel to overcome several dangerous myths: that the Arabs cannot change, that they understand only power, and that time is on Israel’s side.
Now to the question of what the role of American Jews should be in this conflict. There is no elected body that is authorized to speak on behalf of American Jews. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, with a right-of-center orientation, has presumed to fill that vacuum, and they have consistently supported the policies of right-wing Israeli governments in the name of American Jews. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) exists for the purpose of lobbying Congress to support Israeli governmental policies and actions. These oligarchies have persistently reduced Israel to their ideological preference by ignoring its critical opposition. Most American Jews have accepted their view and are zealously opposed to criticism, ostensibly because it would bring down the roof of American support of Israel.
One might have hoped that religious Jews who pray several times daily for peace and who affirm the traditional teachings about the supreme worth of human life would rise up against the subjugation and humiliation of the Palestinians. Most regrettably, the opposite has been the case.
There is hardly any orthodox or conservative rabbi who has raised his voice against the moral travesty of the settlements or the persistent occupation of the Palestinians. In their sermons, these rabbis persistently justify the policies of the Sharon government, just as they have in the past supported the policies of Netanyahu. It seems as if the ideology of the settlers with regard to the Palestinians and the ideology of narrow tribalism have infected their supporters in Israel and abroad, particularly the religious communities. One has the feeling that the Jewish people have been mortgaged to the welfare of the settlements.
The question of criticism came to a head in 1988, in the second year of the first Intifada. In his Rosh Hashanah message of that year, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir warned American Jews that “we cannot afford the luxury of public disagreement, or public criticism that plays right into the hands of our enemies.” To this day I fail to understand how a prime minister of a democratic nation with an active political opposition would attempt to silence Jewish criticism abroad. Israel has been in the news more than any other nation its size. The American press and media have persistently covered Israeli politics and action. The English edition of Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, is sold in Harvard Square. So wherein the danger of American Jewish criticism? Is it the criticism that is harmful, or the policies and actions that are criticized? But Shamir’s warning found a powerful following among American Jews. These people have failed to see that having become apologists for the actions of the Israeli government, they have also become culpable for its misdeeds.
In our time, the intolerance of criticism has reached the hysterical proportion of calling for a boycott of leading American newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and theWashington Post, as well as other media outlets. On May 23, 2002, theNew York Times reported organized punishment of media for what was viewed as pro-Palestinian coverage of the conflict. The criticism was led by Rabbis Haskel Lookstein and Avi Weiss, both of New York. These critics seem to be saying, “Don’t tell us that thousands of houses were destroyed,” “Don’t tell us that civilians were killed,” “Don’t tell us that delays at checkpoints have resulted in the deaths of sick people,” “Tell us the news as we like it.” How pathetic! Expressions of sympathy for the suffering of Palestinians have become a major issue. An example of this intolerance was the booing of Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense who spoke on behalf of President Bush at the large pro-Israel rally, when he acknowledged that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well.”
It is painful to see how much effort and money is being spent on an attempt to impose upon the media and the American people an ideological spin on the conflict. It may well be that the prolonged immersion in the Holocaust and its misuse for political purposes has come back to haunt us with a vengeance. For a long time the identity of American Jews was deeply influenced by Israel and by the Holocaust. Israel represents the Jews who fought and won a state and have the power and will to defend it. But the Holocaust has bred an insecurity that dwarfs even that power. When Israel is challenged, that insecurity surfaces to overwhelm the Jewish people in Israel and in America. Only this hypothesis explains how an otherwise generous and sensitive people have acted against their proclivities, their moral beliefs, and their long tradition of welfare.
The minority whose love for Israel prompts them to provide a critical perspective have a difficult but important function to perform. The critical opposition in Israel is alive and active. A recent demonstration at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv brought together more than 50,000 people. The combatants’ letter opposed to serving in the territories, signed by 463 officers of the Israeli Army, is a deeply moving expression of conscience and courage that should serve as an inspiration to us. Our role is to support the forces in Israel that want to make sure that, in its battle for security, Israel retains its sanity and soul. In this task we have to organize the disparate groups throughout this country into a vocal force against the “see no evil, hear no evil” majority of American Jews.
American Jews, who are the largest Diaspora community, have to discover their own focus, independent from Israel. We are not the Galutniks that Zionism in its earlier phase belittled as people who prefer the fleshpots of Egypt to a courageous and independent life in Palestine. This is an ideological distortion of Jewish history. We are the proud heirs of the Diaspora communities that have been a normal part of Jewish life for 2,724 years, ever since the kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its people exiled. The Jews of the Babylonian and later of the Persian Diaspora collected and edited the Torah that the priest and scribe Ezra brought to Jerusalem, on which the people covenanted to live. That was when the Jewish people became the people of the Book whose continuity no longer depended on territory or Temple.
The Diaspora has been a creative form of independent communal life in every part of the world. The Diaspora produced the Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law that structured and governed our communal and personal life. The Diaspora gave us Jewish philosophy, poetry, ethical literature, and mysticism. The eastern European Diaspora created Hasidism, the Hebrew Haskalah, and Zionism. It was the Jews of the Diaspora who settled in Palestine and created the Jewish state. Throughout its history, the Diaspora recognized that it was but a part of Jewish life and accorded Zion a place of honor, and prayed for its restoration and welfare. We have to reject the notion that we are failed Zionists or that our role is to support, submissively and uncritically, the policies of the Israeli government.
American Jews have to link up with that proud history of the Diaspora. They have to rediscover their cultural, religious, and political gravity. Only then will the Diaspora be ready to enter into a mutually creative relationship with Israel. At present, most American Jews who do not read Hebrew have no idea of the many-faceted literature on every aspect of life that is being created in Israel. News coverage acquaints us mainly with Israel’s problems. Hopefully, the impressive network of Jewish learning at American universities will produce an informed intelligentsia that will assume leadership in Jewish life.
But these are hopes for the future. At present, the task of Jews who are committed to the welfare of Israel is to hold up the critical mirror for Americans and Israelis. This is a thankless but important task. We have to admit that not all of the people who criticize the way Israel has dealt with the Palestinians are anti-Semites. There are enough anti-Semites in the world without them. We also have to admit that not all those who side with the Palestinians in their conflict against Israel do so because they dislike Jews.
A nation as powerful as Israel has to accept responsibility for its policies and for its actions. It is not American Jewish criticism that has created sympathy for the Palestinians. It is the suppression of millions of Palestinians over thirty-five years that has done it. It is a pity that the Israeli government has never expressed regret for the harm it has done to the Palestinians during the occupation. An ounce of compassion would go a long way.
Those of us who criticize Israel do so because Israel is an important part of our identity, because criticism is an integral part of our traditional culture. While it is true that American Jews do not provide the main critical perspective for Israel—that is done very well by liberal Israelis and by Ha’aretz and Yediot Ahronot, two important Israeli newspapers—ours is the critical perspective of American Jews. That, too, is important, for us as well as for Israel. We offer it as an expression of respect and love for the people of Israel.
I want to conclude with the words of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” By all means, humbly.
Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold is director emeritus of Harvard Hillel. His essay is drawn from his memior The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust (2007) by permission of the University of Nebraska Press.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Companies are unreliable allies in the fight for queer rights and social justice. We must rebuild a working people’s movement.
Decades of biological research haven’t improved diagnosis or treatment. We should look to society, not to the brain.
Though a means of escaping and undermining racial injustice, the practice comes with own set of costs and sacrifices.