Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Settlements "a Grave and Dangerous Mistake" Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold

Today is Day 14,263 of the Maintenance of the Immoral (and Illegal) West Bank Settlements and almost the 40th anniversary of the start of the immoral (and illegal) occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

"Jews who are committed to the welfare of Israel .... have to admit that not all of the people who criticize the way Israel has dealt with the Palestinians are anti-Semites.....We have to recognize that not all who side with the Palestinians in their conflict against Israel do so because they dislike Jews.... 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. 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." "The Israeli-Palestine Conflict And The Role Of American Jews" a talk given by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, Director Emeritus, Harvard Hillel, at Harvard Hillel, April 14, 2002.

In this talk Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold looked at: the history of the occupation of the West Bank; the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, quoting two experts “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; the second intifata which resulted in another war against the Palestinians waged by Sharon "even though peaceful solutions were offered twice and were rejected by him"; and the settlements about which he says "The Jewish settlements on the West Bank are a grave and dangerous mistake that have done much harm to Israel."

He concludes by saying that we should not consider all those who side with Palestinians as doing so because they dislike Jews. "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."

Now read this impressive speech in full.

"The Israeli-Palestine Conflict And The Role Of American Jews"
Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, Director Emeritus, Harvard Hillel.
A Talk given at Harvard Hillel on April 14, ‘02

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. 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 ‘55-‘56 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.

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 ’67 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.

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 present phase of the conflict began with the Intifada that erupted after Israeli- Palestinian negotiations on a comprehensive settlement failed. The precipitating event was Mr. Sharon’s visit 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. Arafat even asked Prime Minister 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 the preservation of 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 '82, "to crush the PLO and drive its remnants out of Lebanon." (Morris p. 519.") In this instance it was to crush the PLO, destroy the Palestinian entity, and exile Arafat.

To gain perspective on the conduct of the present conflict it is important to review the war in Lebanon in '82, 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 40 kilometers into Lebanon to silence the PLO forces that were attacking Israel. Instead, he went all the way to Beirut. Silencing the border was apparently seen by Sharon as a half measure. Convinced that a radical solution was in order, he disregarded his promise to the cabinet and turned the limited operation that was to last 24 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 Eitan, Sharon, and Begin failed to persuade him to back down, he was cashiered.” (Morris p.535.)

When the war in Lebanon ended Israel, had suffered 650 dead and close to 3000 wounded. The PLO lost about 1000. 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 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.” (Morris p. 278.)

In addition to the moral outrage, one has to ask what were the after effects 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. Traumatized by these recurrent attacks Israel gave Sharon support in his campaign against the Palestinians.

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 that, 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 unfortunately 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 was also burdened, as it was in Lebanon, by an obsessive hatred for Arafat. Regretting publicly that he did not kill Arafat in Lebanon and his repeated expressions of contempt for him, give the impression of a man who is 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 of this year an article appeared in Ha’aretz written by Hanna Kim, a well known Israeli journalist. Ms. Kim reports about the Hudna, an armistice agreement in Muslim culture that was proposed by Eyal Ehrlich, a businessman, who in the process of his business dealings in Jordan witnessed a peaceful resolution of a bloody dispute between two clans in Amman. 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 they would negotiate an end to the dispute.

After the Al-Aaqsa intifada broke out Mr. Ehrlich thought that it might be possible to use the Hudna mechanism to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He consulted with his friend and business partner the former Palestinian Knesset member Abdulwahab Darawshe and the two of them went to see Professor Josef Ginat, an expert in the area of intra-Islamic conflicts.

Ginat was enthusiastic about the plan and on March 25, 2001 the three of them wrote a letter to Mr. Sharon in which they presented the idea of the Hudna to him. They proposed that Sharon, or an emissary of his, would meet with President Mubarak of Egypt and invite him to serve as a mediator between Sharon and Arafat to propose a Hudna with the aim of achieving a cease fire within a short time, without any concessions on Israel’s part.

They received no answer. They subsequently met with Egyptian and Jordanian officials and were encouraged. Both President Katzav of Israel and Mr. Arafat were prepared to participate in the Hudna. When the diplomatic correspondent for the Voice of Israel revealed the plan, the Prime Minister’s office issued a response calling the plan “stupid” and “a trap for fools.”

At the same time, Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh proposed a year of quiet in the Intifada in return for a year of a freeze on the 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 encouraged and helped to build, left him with no peaceful solution, but his radical solution to eliminate the Palestinians as a threat to Israel failed. It ended in a standoff. The first Intifada resulted in a death ratio of 1 Israeli to 10 Palestinians. The ratio of this Intifada is 1 to 3. Without a peaceful solution the next phase of the Intifada could bode ill for Israel. His 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 was the destruction of Israel. Should Israel negotiate with Arafat? At this point he is the elected leader of the Palestinians. But he lies! 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. Suicide bombers 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 Israel that has hurt them for many years.

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 can not be solved by power alone. Then by what? By removing the basis for the conflict. The Jewish settlements on the West Bank are a grave and dangerous mistake that have done much harm to Israel. Most Israelis favor the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. For the sake of Israel and the Palestinians I hope that Sharon will rise above ideology and accept also 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 the neighboring Arab nations, a development that threatens to destabilize the government 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 will 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 meeting 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 was 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: the myth that the Arabs cannot change, that they only understand power, and the myth that time is on our side.

As to the puzzling question, why did Arafat not accept the generous offer of Prime Minister Barak at the Camp David negotiations? Having read the books written by two of the Israeli negotiators, Yossi Bailin, the former Minister of Justice, and Gilad Sher, 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 results 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 Netanyahu that called for ceding land to the Palestinians but Barak decided to put it off to the final agreement. They expected that during the negotiations there would be a halt in building new settlements, they expected that Barak would complete the release of prisoners begun by Netanyahu, but Barak’s conception of working together was their accepting his prescriptions and deadlines.

A recent interview with Bailin in Seven Days, the weekly supplement of Yediyot, suggests some of the problems with the negotiations. He describes Arafat as “not one hundred percent terrorist nor a one hundred percent peacenik….

I was upset when Barak spoke of tearing off [Arafat’s] mask…The moment Barak came and said ‘at Camp David I gave everything and received a slap in the face’ he broke the Left…He also deceived the public when he said that at Camp David he turned every stone and got an Intifada… At Camp David he did not yet speak about a territory on the basis of the ’67 [borders] with an exchange of land. He agreed to cede 91% of the territories and not 96% as in the Clinton plan… The whole Camp David negotiations were conducted without [due] care…The negotiations at the ministerial level should have taken place before Camp David … [in order] to arrive at camp David knowing the gaps in every issue, whereas the opposite happened.”

Now I come to the question of what our role 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 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 oligarchical organizations reduce Israel to their ideological preference by ignoring its critical opposition. Most American Jews have accepted the view of these oligarchies and are zealously opposed to criticism. ostensibly because it would bring down the roof of American support of Israel. I have not forgotten how viciously these bodies criticized the policies of the late prime minister Rabin.

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 Shamir warned American Jews “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. Then, wherein is the danger of American Jewish criticism? I wondered, 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 boycotting the leading papers of America, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, as well as some of the media.

They are all accused of favoring the Palestinians. These people are 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 death 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 Mr. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who spoke on behalf of the President at the large pro-Israel rally, when he acknowledged that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well.”

I find it painful to see how much effort and money is spent on an attempt to impose on the media and on 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 overwhelms 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 the 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 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 the country into a vocal force over against the ‘see no evil and hear no evil’ majority of American Jews.

American Jews, who are the largest Diaspora community, have to discover their 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 2724 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 Ezra the priest and scribe brought to Jerusalem by 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, prayed for its restoration and its 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 discover the center of 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 a Jewishly informed intelligentsia that will assume leadership in Jewish life. Hopefully they will develop publications rich in Jewish content that will sustain their interests and the curiosity of other intelligent Jews and non-Jews.

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 have to recognize that not all 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. 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, Israel’s leading newspapers-- ours is the critical perspective of American Jews. That, too, is important; it is important for us as well as for Israel. And we offer it in all candor 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.

Deutoronomy 16:20 – “Justice, justice shall you pursue that you may live and inherit the land which God gave you” and the footnote in the 1980 Hertz Edition “(T)here is international justice, which demands respect for the personality of every national group, and proclaims that no people can of right be robbed of its national life or territory, its language or spiritual heritage.

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