Mideast Turmoil produces calls for Israel to move toward Peace with the Palestinians

The current turmoil in the Middle East has produced calls for Israel to move toward peace with the Palestinians and withdraw from the occupied West Bank, and for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. These calls have come from many long-time friends and supporters of Israel.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal March 1, Andre Aciman, who teaches comparative literature at the City University of New York and is the author ofOut of Egypt: A Memoir, noted that, "Israel…cannot afford to wait and see which way the wind blows as rebellion sweeps through the Middle East. Rather, it should seize the moment and show that it can bring about changes as momentous as those witnessed elsewhere in the region today. That means striking an honorable deal with the Palestinians, vacating areas whose occupation is unjustifiable and allowing the Palestinians to have a country with a capital Israel learns to share. Israel must show its Arab neighbors that it can up the ante on their revolution and produce the long-awaited miracle of peace in the Middle East."

At J Street’s February conference in Washington, DC, Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy emphasized that "The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity. This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions."

Even before the recent and historic Arab uprisings, however, criticism of Israel’s role in the West Bank and Gaza had been growing on the part of many thoughtful Jewish observers.

Toward the end of 2010, a small book by a 93-year-old man unexpectedly reached the top of the best seller list in France. Indignez-vous ("Time for Outrage!") by Stéphane Hessel sold more than 600,000 copies between October and the end of December.

Hessel has lived an extraordinary life. His father, Franz Hessel, was a German Jewish writer who emigrated to France with his family in 1924. The younger Hessel served in the French army during the Battle of France and became a prisoner of war. Following his escape from a POW camp, he joined Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French resistance. He parachuted into occupied France in advance of the Allied invasion of 1944 to organize Resistance networks. The Gestapo captured and tortured him. He was transported to Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps–”then, while being transferred to Bergen-Belsen, escaped.

After the war, Hessel became a diplomat and was involved, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He received the 2008 UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of Culture and Human Rights. His book is a testament to his belief in the universality of rights, as his defense of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and of illegal immigrants in France attests.

Regarding current violations of human rights, Hessel writes: "Today, my strongest feelings of indignation is over Palestine, both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The starting point of my outrage was the appeal launched by courageous Israelis to the Diaspora: you, our older siblings, come and see where our leaders are taking this country and how they are forgetting the fundamental human values of Judaism. I went to Gaza and the West Bank in 2002, then five more times until 2009. It is absolutely imperative to read Richard Goldstone’s report of September 2009 on Gaza, in which the South African judge, himself Jewish, in fact a self-proclaimed Zionist, accuses the Israeli army of having committed ‘actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity’ during its three-week ‘Operation Cast Lead.’ I went to Gaza in 2009 in order to see with my own eyes what this report described."

Hessel and his wife also visited the Palestinian refugee camps established after 1948 by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, where more than three million Palestinians live–”the descendants over the past 40 years of the 750,000 driven from their homes, first in l948-9, then in l967. "As for Gaza," he writes, "it is an open-air prison for a million and a half Palestinians. In this prison they must organize to survive. Even then the physical destruction from Operation Cast Lead, such as the destroyed Red Cross hospital, it is the behavior of the Gazans–”their patriotism, their love of the ocean and the beach, their constant preoccupation with the well-being of their countless laughing children–”that haunts our memories…I share the South African judge’s conclusions. For Jews themselves to perpetuate war crimes is intolerable. Unfortunately, history gives few examples of people who learn the lessons of their own history."

Sadly, many in France did not want to hear Hessel’s views. Students at the Ecole Normale invited him to address them in Paris in January, but the authorities stepped in. Monique Canto-Sperber, the school’s director, withdrew the invitation and refused to allow Hessel to give an address. She objected to his insistence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applied as much to Palestinians as to the French. An ultra-Zionist French Web site, Des Infos, praised Canto-Sperber’s decision: "There are men and women in this country of intellectual courage. Mme. Monique-Canto-Sperber…is an example. She has on the afternoon of 12 January 2011 canceled a scandalous conference-debate."

According to Charles Glass, author of Americans In Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation, "This may be the first time, in an ostensibly free country, that praise has been applied to the ‘courage’ of canceling a debate. Such courage was not confined to the censorious director of the school. The Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France [Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France] lauded those who favored suppressing Hessel’s right to speak. They included Minister of Higher Education Valérie Pécresse, self-styled philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Claude Cohen-Tanoudji and Arielle Schwab. The administrations at other colleges succumbed to the pressure and refused to allow Hessel to speak on their campuses."

To charges that he is either anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, Hessel replies: "I feel that I am completely in solidarity with Jews in the world, because I know what it is to be a Jew. I’ve seen what it is, I am myself of Jewish origin, and therefore I can only be fully in support of the idea that Jews, after all they’ve suffered, need a country where they are at home. I shouted my joy when Israel was founded. I said, ‘At last.’"

To his critics, he states: "My love for Israel is stronger than yours. But I want it to be an honest country."

New Yorker’s Remnick on Haaretz

New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote an article in the magazine’s Feb. 28 issue titled "The Dissenters," about the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and its publisher and owner, Amos Schocken.

"As a newspaper proprietor," wrote Remnick, "Schocken faces all the familiar challenges of his peers around the world…His ideological focus, however, is distinct and unyielding. He is thoroughly committed to ending Israel’s 44-year occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. He is also a singular force in Israeli journalism on issues such as free speech, equal rights for Israeli Arabs, the independence of the Supreme Court, and the exposure of military abuse. On the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence, Schocken published an article saying that ‘Hatikvah,’ the national anthem, should be changed, as its lyrics are about only Jewish aspirations."

In that editorial, Shocken wrote: "Hasn’t the time come to recognize that the establishment of Israel is not just the story of the Jewish people, of Zionism, of the heroism of the Israel Defense Forces and of bereavement? That it is also the story of the reflection of Zionism and the heroism of IDF soldiers in the lives of the Arabs: the Nakba–”the Palestinian ‘Catastrophe,’ as the Arabs call the events of 1948–”the loss, the families that were split up, the disruption of lives, the property that was taken away, the life under military government and other elements of the history shared by Jews and Arabs, which are presented on Independence Day, and now only on that day, in an entirely one-sided way."

In mid-June 1967, little more than a week after the end of the Six-Day War, while nearly all of Israeli journalism joined the country in what became a prolonged period of postwar exultation, Amos Elon, then a young Haaretz reporter, traveled to Aqbat Jabar, a refugee camp near the West Bank City of Jericho. He wrote: "Whatever the fate of the occupied territories in our hands at the moment may be–”we can already do something with respect to the problem of the refugees who have remained in the areas under the control of the state of Israel. We have a moral obligation to do this. For on the backs of these people Israel’s independence was plowed and they paid with their bodies, their property and their future for the pogroms in Ukraine and the Nazi gas chambers. We owe a huge debt to these forlorn people…They are victims of our independence."

Unlike many in Israel, Haaretz has welcomed the movement toward democracy in Egypt. "Israeli leaders have always preferred to do business with Mubarak, and his ilk," it editorialized, "on the assumption that they would ‘preserve stability’ and forcibly repress the radical forces seeking change in the region. This view led Israel to disregard the citizens of neighboring countries, viewing them as devoid of political influence in the best case and as hostile Israel-haters in the worst case. Israel viewed itself as a Western outpost and displayed no interest in the language, culture, and public opinion of its immediate surroundings. Integration into the Middle East seemed like a trivial, if not downright harmful, fantasy."

While establishment Jewish groups in the U.S. remain passive about the growth of democracy in the Middle East, critics argue that they should stand firmly with the Arab dissidents in spite of their fears about what the future may hold.

"Egyptians are as entitled to human rights as we are," said Andrew Apostolou, senior program manager at Freedom House and also a board member of the Jewish Community of Greater Washington. "We cannot call for Egyptians to live under despotism because we deem it strategically convenient. It is embarrassing to make a song and dance about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East and then oppose the emergence of other prospective democracies."

"There was quite a bit of hypocrisy on this issue," noted Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now. "It [Jewish groups’ rhetoric] was a means to divert attention from the peace process and the occupation…it was undemocratic regimes that for years maintained a stable status quo that serviced Israel’s interests. If undemocratic regimes serve stability, why rock the boat?"

This line of thought is flawed, argued Nir. Jewish groups would best serve Israel’s interests by using this opportunity to push for a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. Moves such as this, he declared, would foster trust in the region.

Those Jewish groups who urge Israel to move toward peace with the Palestinians, reported the March 3 Washington Jewish Week, "say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking."

If ever Israel needed a proper incentive to move toward genuine peace, the current upheaval in the region surely provides it.