A time to atone

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My son served in the Israeli Army in the West Bank, so for me the barbarous  killings of two soldiers by a lynch mob in Ramallah made me feel the same  anger that must have led Israeli Prime Minister Barak to bomb Palestinian  leader Arafat’s compound in retaliation and to escalate the war against the  Palestinians.  Yet I can also understand that to those Palestinians these two  boys killed were just members of the occupying army, the army that had been  brutally killing over 80 Palestinians and wounding more than 2000 civilians in the past week and might have seemed indistinguishable from the Jewish mobs that attacked random Arab Israelis in Nazareth a few days ago, beating and burning.

For every outrage on one side there is a story of outrage on the other. And yet, in my synagogue on Yom Kippur we atoned for our side of the story for Jewish violence. Our atonement was not an attempt to claim that  Israel holds all the responsibility. I believe that Palestinians ought to adopt a nonviolent pose and reject any leader that advocates violence both because I believe that violence is always wrong no matter how noble the purpose and because in the context of the current struggle it had the predicted effect of destroying rather than enhancing the chances for peace – an outcome sought by extremists on both sides. 

Palestinian violence is both immoral and irrational. Yet the preponderance of responsibility lies with Israel and with an international media that continue to obscure the basic realities facing the Palestinian people, and continue to treat the death of Israeli soldiers enforcing a brutal occupation as somehow more outrageous and barbarous than the killing of (many times as many) Palestinian teenagers who were resisting the occupation.  To me, Israeli deaths are a personal tragedy. But have we not yet learned that in God’s eyes every human being is equally treasured? 

The way we talk that discounts the huge amount of Palestinians killed and  wounded, reinforces the desperation that led to the current tragic moment. But, you might ask, didn’t Arafat irrationally reject a wonderful peace  accord being offered him by Barak? Isn’t this current outbreak just more of  the same irrational hatred that always leads Palestinians to reject a  generous peace being offered by Israel?

The reality is quite different. Since taking office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has expanded existing settlements, built new roads  into the West Bank and made it clear at Camp David that he would insist on keeping the vast majority of settlers in place. The state Palestinians would then be offered would have within it a group of Israeli nationalistic fanatics, many of whom moved to the West Bank precisely to ensure that there would never be a Palestinian state.

The resulting scenario is obvious: The settlers would continue their long  history of violent attacks against Palestinians, and when the Palestinian state tried to impose law and order, the settlers would demand protection  from the Israeli army, which would use the new roads to send in tanks and heavy artillery just as it has done in the past week.

The Israeli roads and settlements turn the claim of offering the Palestinians 90% of the land into a cruel hoax. With the Israeli military patrolling those roads that crisscross the Palestinian state, Palestinians would face humiliating searches and would not be able to move freely. Imagine  someone offering you a house in which you were going to have large rooms (90% of  the space) but they were in charge of the hallways between the rooms. You would quickly realize that your freedom to be ”at home” was remarkably  compromised. For a people who have endured 33 years of military  occupation, complete with a long history of documented torture, house demolitions and  harassment, this doesn’t sound like such a great deal.

Nor are Palestinian demands for control over the Temple Mount and the  adjacent sections of East Jerusalem irrational. Muslims from the occupied territories have frequently been prevented from coming to the Temple  Mount when Israel proclaims ”security closings” of the border. Israelis, who were rightly outraged at being denied access to the Western Wall when  Jerusalem was under Jordanian (not Palestinian) rule from 1948 to 1967,  have effectively imposed similar conditions on the 1 million Muslims in Gaza.

At the same time, many religious authorities ban Jews from walking on the  Temple Mount until the messiah comes. So ceding sovereignty there would  not have been a religious hardship. Barak could have conceded interim  sovereignty to the Palestinians on the condition that those arrangements  would be reopened when the messiah arrived (by Biblical criteria: nations beating their swords into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb).

Nor has Israel ever acknowledged responsibility for the hundreds of  thousands of Palestinians who were driven out of Israel in 1948, many of  whose descendants today live in refugee camps.

None of this had been resolved at Camp David, and so most Palestinians  realized that the peace process was just another mechanism to prolong the status quo of an oppressive occupation.

I was honored to attend the signing of the Oslo accords at the White House in 1993, and in the pages of TIKKUN magazine I have severely criticized those Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said who did not believe that  Palestinian self-determination would be granted in the five years that Oslo promised. Now, seven years later, I can understand why Palestinians would feel cheated and outraged over the endless occupation. Add to that the racist attitudes that led Barak to seek Israeli Arab votes in the last election, his subsequent refusal to allow Arab parties into his government for fear that their presence would make the government appear ”illegitimate,” and the long history of discrimination against Israeli Arabs in housing and employment, and you get the volatile ingredients that led to the explosions last week and the subsequent massive violence against Arabs both inside Israel and in the  occupied territories. For example, as police looked on, Jewish mobs reenacted a classic Russian pogrom on Palestinian civilians in Nazareth this week.

None of this justifies Palestinian violence or the far more massive counter-violence of the occupying Israeli army. But I see no hope that the disgusting cycle of violence on both sides will stop until Israel is willing to end the occupation and end its internal racism against Arab Israelis. And as a religious Jew, I know that God and the Torah are served best when we insist that every human being, including our enemies, be seen as equally valuable to God and equally created as embodiments of the divine. Given my own outrage at the killing of Israeli soldiers, this is a moment when it seems easier to just forget my faith and stay in my anger. But I also know that when the Jewish people can only see our own (very real and legitimate) pain, its time to atone.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun: a Bimonthly Jewish Critique of  Politics, Culture and Society and author of Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul (Walsch Books, 2000).

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