Jewish Affirmation of a Palestinian State

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Posted by andreas from ( on Friday, October 04, 2002 at 4:16PM :

In Reply to: on the right of acknowledgement posted by Lilly from ? ( on Friday, October 04, 2002 at 3:57PM :


A Jewish Affirmation of a Palestinian State

by Rabbi Michael Lerner

Jews did not return to their ancient homeland to oppress another people. Oppressed in Arab lands and murdered and degraded in Europe, Jews perceived themselves as jumping from a burning building. Unfortunately, they landed on the backs of Palestinians, unintentionally hurting them in the process. There were, of course, right-wing nationalists who experienced the oppression of Jews as legitimation to ignore the pain of others. But most Jews who arrived in Israel were so traumatized by their own pain that they ignored the pain they were inadvertently causing to the domestic population of Arabs who were slowly developing their own identity as a Palestinian people. Particularly in light of the Holocaust, Israeli Jews felt it so self-evident that what had been inflicted on the Jewish people was worse than anything that had ever happened in human history that they found it virtually impossible to notice that their own arrival in Palestine was being accomplished only by displacing the people who were living there. Moreover, Palestinian leadership often took a hostile stance, encouraging armed resistance, pressuring the British to use their power to keep Jewish refugees from arriving, and eventually leading armed struggle against the fledgling Jewish settlements. No wonder that it became so easy for Jews to shut their eyes to the plight of the Palestinian people as hundreds of thousands fled between 1947-49, eventually ending up in the West Bank or in various refugee camps in the Arab world. All the more so could Jewish Israelis ignore the pain they had caused when hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands flowed into Israel in the 1950s, seeming to provide a simple "population transfer" like those that were happening in other places in the decade after World War II.

Had Palestinians been welcomed and resettled in neighboring Arab lands, the problem might have disappeared from public view. But other Arab countries determined to use the Palestinian people as part of their own ongoing struggle to eliminate Israel, sometimes motivated by imperial fantasies, sometimes by a desire to resist Western influences in an Islamic world increasingly undermined by the growing culture of globalizing capital. Palestinian issues were manipulated to serve the state interests of Arab regimes, and the Palestinian people became increasingly aware of itself as a people, developing a literature and a national identity that has now become a powerful reality in the consciousness of millions of refugees and people living in the West Bank and Gaza.

After the 1967 war, Israel might have changed the dynamics by fostering a friendly and nonauthoritarian relationship with the Palestinian people. Had it sought to build friendship, to recognize and acknowledge the pain it had caused, and to begin to make provisions to allow some portion of the refugees to return to their homes, a very different kind of relationship might have ensued. Instead, the old guard Labor leadership of Israel was wildly insensitive, refused to recognize the existence of a Palestinian people, and until Rabin's turn around after the Intifada, still imagined that the Palestinians would eventually become citizens of Jordan. In response, Palestinian nationalism developed ever deeper roots, and is now a central reality in the lives of those living in the West Bank and Gaza.

In these circumstances, the only way Israel will ever be able to live in peace is to recognize and help in the creation of a Palestinian state. Israelis must be guided by the following question at every stage: "What would we have settled for in 1948 that would have made us satisfied with what we were achieving in our struggle for national self-determination?" The moment Israelis can seriously ask that question, they come to understand why all the arrangemetns being offered by Netanyahu will never work. Nothing short of real territory, control of all aspects of their own lives, and symbols of international legitimacy like a flag, a capital, and full membership int he United Nations could possibly satisfy the needs of the Palestinian people. The psychological need for recognition and treatment with dignity takes this form of national self-determination at this historical moment, and providing anything less will lead to a continuation of the struggle.

The Palestinian state should occupy the West Bank and Gaza, with slight modifications of the border. Israeli settlers should be given the right to remain as citizens of a Palestinian state if they demonstrate a willingness to live in peace as a minority within the Palestinian people. Just as Israel imposed marital law for more than a decade after the 1948 war on its Arab population until it could be assured that they would live in peace with the Israeli majority, so a Palestinian state should take reasonable steps to ensure that those Israelis who remain in Palestine are in fact willing to live in peace. Settlements committed to armed struggle, such as those in Hebron and Kiryat Arba, should be shut down and residents returned to Israel as part of the original agreement creating a Palestinian state. If Israel will allow it to have free speech, that state should be democratic (which means that it will have within it the expression of anti-Israel sentiment as vocal as the anti-Arab sentiments that have been part of public discourse in Israel for the past fifty years, but also a growing expression of sentiments for reconciliation that are already manifest in significant parts of the Palestinian population).

National self-determination is a critical first step in the process of building reconciliation with the Palestinian people. Yet the spirit in which a Palestinian state is created makes a great deal of difference to the kind of relationship that is likely to emerge. One of the tragic flaws of the Oslo process was that it focussed exclusively on political arrangements while imagining that transformed feelings and perceptions would flow from new facts on the ground. Instead, Israel needs to be engaged in a process of fostering reconciliation.

A first step in this process would be national atonement for the distorted way that Israel has treated the Palestinian people. The new wave of Israeli historians that have begun to look more honestly at the way Israel expelled Palestinians in 1947-49 and subsequently rebuffed many opportunities for peace. A second step will require a confrontation with racist ideas and assumptions (both toward Arabs and toward Jews from Arab countries) that have been ingredient in some versions of Zionism for many decades. A third step will be to take some kinds of affirmative action to ensure equal treatment of Israeli Arabs. Finally, Israel will eventually have to provide some process of reparations. This may take many decades (think of how long it has taken for the U.S. to deal with what it did to Japanese-Americans during World War II and how we still resist taking responsibiity for the continuing impact of slavery and segregation on the lives of African Americans). But in the lifetime of many who are reading this article (perhaps in twenty years, perhaps in fifty) we will see a wave of regret and atonement sweeping Israel as a new generation asks itself how the Jewish people could have engaged in policies that were at such variance with its own ideals and self-perceptions.

Yet atonement will be insufficient unless it is accompanied by eocnomic and political arrangements that provide real support for a Palesitnian state. Unfortunately, the economic realities of the region, including the forced underdevelopment of the West Bank and Gaza for many decades (both by Jordan and Egypt and then by Israel) esnures that a "free market relationship" will actually be one of economic imperialism in which the Palestinian population will provide cheap labor and markets for Israeli economic expansion. Given the history of oppression in the past, economic tensions will take the form of nationalist or Islamicist struggle. The poorest elements in Palesitnian society will be drawn, for example, to Islamic forces who are committed to overthrowing a secular democratic state and replacing it with an Islamic regime that promises opposition to Western imperial penetration by continuing to advocate for the elimination of the State of Israel. To the extent that Israel turns its backs on the economic plight of the Palestinian people, it will guarantee that these Islamic forces have a continuing relevancy to a sector of the Palestinian people. It would be far wiser for Israel to begin a massive Marshall plan, aided by the U.S., to build a self-sufficient economic base in Palestine so that the Palestinian people could enter into essentially equal relations with Israel and could then begin to discuss serious joint econmic strategies to make Israel/Palestine into an economic powerhouse in the Middle East.

The direction I am outlining makes sense from a purely long-term-rational-self-interest perspective on the part of Israel. Yet there is a far deeper reason for Israel to move in this direction: the reclaiming of Israel's Jewish soul.

Today, Judaism in Israel has been hijacked by ultra-nationalist expansionists, on the one hand, and on the other hand by an Orthodox establishment happy to use the instruments of state to impose its version of Judaism on the rest of the population. As I discuss in detail in my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (Harper/Collins, 1995), there is a fierce struggle going on for the heart of Judaism. On the one hand there is a "settler Judaism" represented by most modern Orthodox (with the exception of the small religous peace movement around Meymad and Netivot Shalom) and an increasing number of Habad/Lubavitch and Sephardic religious parties. Settler Judaism focuses on the pain inflicted on us by others as legitimation for our right to be insensitive, self-centered, and ignore the pain that this may cause to the Palestinian people in particular and to everyone else in general. On the other hand, a growing renewal movement within Judaism (and within other religious communities around the world) develops the strands within Torah and the Jewish tradition that build upon the insight that human beings were created in the image of God, that every siingle person on the planet is equally valuable to God, and that our task is to foster sensitivity, caring, respect and love for others, to see God in every other human being, and to create economic and political institutions that would embody this principle. Renewal Judaism also emphasizes the need to rebuild a spiritual center to our Jewish lives, incorporating but moving beyond a narrow focus on rituals and Jewish law, to recapture the joyful, pleasure-affirming, ecologically-senstive and holiness-drenched aspects of Jewish consciousness that have been drowned out by centuries of oppression and decades justifying the new Jewish role as oppressors and willful participants as junior partners in the globalization of capital.

Progressive forces in Israel have been unable to recognize Judaism as anything more than its fundamentalist and settler manifestations, and hence have embodied in their movements open hostility to spiritual and religious concerns. The coterie around Peres, and to some extent around the Meretz party as well, see Israel's salvation as part of the emerging globalization of capital. Yet many Israeli Jews (particualrly those from Sephardic and recent-Russian backgrounds) believe that they will be left behind by the internatinal market. So they look for meaning and purpose to their life not in the promise of the market but in some kind of spiritual or religious system (and for the same reasons, many Palestinians will look to Islam for compensation while their more successful brothers will preach salvation through market-share). The failure of the Israeli Left (much like the failure of the American Left) to understand this hunger for meaning and purpose, and to actively support the development of a Jewish Renewal movement that is unequivocally rooted in the spiritual and religious aspirations and tradtions of the Jewish people, will ensure that in the short run the Netanyahus will retain their hold on power.
The proposals for the West Bank, whether from Barak or Sharon, have sought to retain control of much of the West Bank, and hence as a consolidation of Israeli power (with the active particiaption of a dictatorial Arafat only too willing to suppress the civil liberties of his own population, now justified in terms of cooperating with Israel to stop terrorism). Our task as Americans is to publicly declare our willingness to recognize a Palestinian state when it is declared, to urge Israel to bring that state into existence in a way that will facilitate reconciliation rather than further confrontation, and to encourage the development of "Renewal" consciousness and a new spiritually-oriented approach to the world that allows us to recognize our mutual interdependence and our need for a world drenched with love and solidarity. Unfortunately, Israel's actual behavior, even its grudging concessions to Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state, are being done in ways that actually give the opposite message: of a Jewis comes all the more important for those of us who know Judaism to be a path of love, compassion, justice and peace to make it clear that the current policies of the State of Israel have nothing to do with fundamental Jewish values and are in fact at sharp variance with the highest insights of our tradition. Yet we must do so in ways that show compassion for the many Israelis who are trapped in fear and unable to transcend the limited vision that living within the context of struggle, responding to (in my view morally unacceptable) acts of terrorism from Palestinians, and never hearing a vision of Judaism that is based on love and justice. Yet, in the final analysis, we have to conclude that if this is all that is possible for Jews living in the Middle East, if meanness, vindictiveness, pettiness, harshness and an inability to identify with the pain of the Other is the actual product of living in that region, then perhaps it would be better for many of those Jews to relocate to the United States or at least to stop calling what they are building in Israel "a Jewish state" when it goes so far away from Jewish values.h people being forced into concessions rather than open-heartedly recognizing the Palestinian people as our sisters and brothers and seeking to strengthen elements of trust and solidarity.

One of the tragic impacts of all this is that many American Jews, particularly those under the age of fifty, feel increasingly alienated not only from Israel, but from their Jewishness itself. "If this is what it is to be Jewish," they reason, "then I don't really want to be identified with it." Thus, it be

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society ( a nationally distributed magazine published in San Francisco) and author of The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism (Addison/Wesley, 1997) and Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America (with Harvard professor Cornel West--Plume/Penguin, 1996).

-- andreas
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