by Rabbi David J. Cooper
Sometime during 2014, probably in the Fall, the Middle East Peace Committee is going to propose that Kehilla take an enunciated position in regard to the Israeli control of Palestinian lands captured during the Six-Day War in 1967. For over 25 years, Kehilla’s positions about the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean have operated under an expressed concern for the aspirations and interests of the Palestinian people, as well as those of Jewish/Israeli people. Among synagogues, this has made us fairly unique.
I believe any Kehilla resolution in regard to the occupation needs to be made only after people in Kehilla have had several opportunities to speak out their thoughts and have listened to each other with compassion. One of these is currently scheduled for June 1 (but this is subject to change). I also think we will need to acknowledge that there are differing opinions and strategies within our shul, and that we embrace each other, even if in our disagreement. And we need to act specifically as a spiritual community.
During this last year, our Middle East Peace Committee has put on various films and programs about what is happening in Israel/Palestine and especially in regard to the occupation. This is important because we often deal with the occupation in the abstract and it is important for us to confront it as it affects real people.
Greatest ethical challenge
I have said before, and I continue to believe, that this issue of the occupation of another people is the single greatest ethical challenge facing the Jewish people. It is also an unprecedented challenge since our predecessors had no opportunity to exercise power over another people during the 2000 years of rabbinic Judaism. Moreover, our tradition provides contradictory guidelines, stretching from a belief that we have a mandate to possess the entire Holy Land, to a belief that we must never do unto another that which is abhorred if it were unto ourselves.
Here are my random reflections at this moment.
Early on in Kehilla, we affirmed a position that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization—at that time regarded by Israel as a terrorist and criminal entity. Several years later at Oslo, Israel did negotiate with the PLO. In Kehilla, we were ecstatic, expecting that we would soon see a withdrawal of Israeli presence from the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian Authority took more control to culminate in the establishment of a sovereign state.
Settlements, their message and effect
While both sides’ leadership and followers have done things contrary to the aims of Oslo, I believe that the single greatest obstacle to achieving the ends of the two-state solution has been the persistence by consecutive Israeli governments in continuing to build settlements in the occupied territory and in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem in which a Palestinian capital could be established.
The number of settlers in the occupied area has tripled since the time of Oslo. This settlement activity sends a message—whether accurate or not—to the Palestinian people as well as to the world that Israel intends to permanently remain in the territories and to occupy all of Jerusalem.
Despair over these developments has caused Palestinian resistance, including the intifadas, the second of which was marked by violent attacks targeted against Israeli civilians. The cycle—settlements, despair, violence against Israelis, fear of violence, countermeasures of walls and fences, checkpoints, violence against Palestinians and their supporters—has made life under the occupation far more severe for the Palestinians than it was before Oslo. (And I am skipping over all the issues in regard to Gaza here.)
Meanwhile, there is a third quasi-intifada to oppose the occupation. It is the nonviolent BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) which began among the Palestinian people and has become supported by many people around the world. That the Palestinians have found a nonviolent tactic is commendable. That said, I perceive that the global BDS movement in support of the Palestinians is not clear whether it specifically targets the end of the occupation or whether it targets Israel as a whole.
My feeling is that if I am to participate in a boycott movement as part of an effort to raise consciousness in Congress and in the Jewish community about the severity of the occupation and the necessity to end it, that such a boycott would be ineffective in doing so if it were aimed at Israel’s existence above and beyond its occupation.
Nevertheless, I personally cannot consciously invest in any product or enterprise that supports the continuation of the occupation. I personally would prefer it if my shul did the same and also did not support any activities which furthered violence by the Palestinians either.
Acknowledging the spectrum
In my discussions with congregants about this, I perceive a wider spectrum of relationships to Israel today than was true in our early years. Then, a two-state solution was novel, especially calling for Palestinian sovereignty over its own territory. In the mid-80’s, this position had near-unanimous support in Kehilla. But what was ahead of the wave back then is now a mainstream position, even if it is only given lip service from some quarters. I still advocate it, and many others in the shul do as well. But many sincere Kehilla people question or oppose a two-state solution, or disagree with the concept of Israel retaining a specifically Jewish identity. Others are quite clear that they fear for Israel’s safety and are skeptical of professed Palestinian willingness to relinquish their intention to control all of the land. I hear and respect all these positions, whether I agree with each or not.
I do believe that we need to act and to take a position about where the congregation stands in regard to the ethical issues raised by the occupation. And we need to consider what we can do as a congregation that perceives itself to be under the prophetic mandate to act on our ethical responsibility. I also believe we need to frame whatever we do in full recognition of the variety of feelings we have about Israel and Palestine. And of extreme importance is that whatever we resolve, that it not simply be a political statement, but be the heartfelt expression of a spiritual community in its struggle to understand what is required of it from a God’s-eye-view, as best as we can determine it.