Some Thoughts on Israel’s 65th
by Rabbi David J. Cooper
I wanted to share with you some of my thinking as we enter the month that marks the 65th anniversary of the State of Israel. That moment in 1948 was experienced as a tragedy in the lives of the Palestinian Arabs many of whom were displaced and dispersed from their homes as a result of Israel’s founding. Nevertheless, that same moment was experienced as redemptive for Jews in the wake of the holocaust, a trauma that emphasized a need for national self-reliance in the face of being treated as an expendable and killable people.
Thus what redeemed one tragedy then brought about another. Peace cannot be achieved, I believe, so long as the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians are in play as a zero-sum game where one’s victory is always the other’s defeat. Actually in such a zero-sum game, there may be no victors at all.
In regards to Israel/Palestine, we are at a turning point in history. This turning point may take months or it may take several years, but historic pathways are now diverging. The potential for this divergence has been accumulating for years. There are pathways that lead to democracy and to self-determination. There are pathways that lead to domination and to apartheid.
I have troubled over what contribution, however humble, Kehilla could make to the effort to bring about a resolution that would enable greater freedom, democracy, national fulfillment, peace and security for the peoples between the river and the sea. Kehilla’s Middle East Peace Committee (“MEPC”) have been wrestling with this question as well. But first, a little history.
Our Kehilla History
In the mid-1980s, the Kehilla community, under the leadership of the MEPC, decided that we needed to take a position about developments in Israel/Palestine. Back then, while several peace organizations favored a two-state solution, no synagogue had ever taken a position about this. We felt it incumbent upon us to take a stand because the issue did not only involve political issues, it also involved spiritual, moral, and ethical concerns as well. As a synagogue founded in the spirit of the biblical prophets, we felt that we could not remain silent even if the position that we took would be unpopular in the mainstream Jewish community as it stood at that time.
We expressly advocated for a Palestinian state and we were very clear that Israel needed to negotiate with the PLO directly to bring this about. Our position was based on a respect for the national aspirations of both the Palestinian people as well as the Israeli people for a state of their own. We took this position before the first intifada and before the Oslo accords. That we acknowledged that the Palestinians had legitimate national aspirations at all was seen as a radical position to take for a Jewish synagogue community. We reaffirmed this position in the early 2000’s when we released our Brit Shalom resolution. (https://www.kehillasynagogue.org/about-kehilla/policies-resolutions/brit-shalom/)
Our hopes were raised when the Oslo Accords were reached and we saw the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. This appeared to be a first step in recognition of an eventual State of Palestine. But during the ensuing years, Israeli settlements on the lands that should be part of the Palestinian state have soared in population and have been built in a manner that bespeaks permanent settlement. This development has spurred two resistance surges among the Palestinians. The first Intifada was relatively peaceful, the second included violence targeted at Jewish civilians on the Israeli side of the Green Line hundreds of whom were killed by terrorist actions.
Israeli Security, Palestinian Reality
Israel understandably needed to respond to these terror attacks launched from the occupied territory. Many of us feel that the response has gone beyond what was necessary for Israel’s security. Israel’s building a wall of separation seems reasonable on its face, but its route is well beyond the Green Line and it often cuts villages from their agricultural land and this exceeds security concerns in the view of Rabbis for Human Rights. The restrictions on travel for Arabs in the West Bank across the Green Line and between areas within the West Bank have subjected Palestinians to daily humiliation as they negotiate passage through the many checkpoints that block their passage. On top of this, Israel has offered dubious security justifications for practices that have deprived West Bank villages of various resources including such things as access to their agricultural fields and water supplies. Adding to the humiliation experienced by West Bank Palestinians is that many of settlers, filled with a sense of self-righteous entitlement to the land, have shot and killed Palestinian farmers and villagers without provocation. All of these tensions and strife derive from the enforced maintenance and expansion of the occupation.
It distresses me how little of this is understood in the established Jewish community and how little or no effort is made to come to grips with these realities. For example the Jewish community trip to Israel in April had a great itinerary for experiencing Israel itself, but it was almost completely disengaged from exposing participants to the Palestinian reality. On Kehilla’s behalf, I decided that we would not participate in this trip as a synagogue. I have heard people ask to the effect: “Do we always have to include issues about the Palestinians whenever we discuss Israel? Can’t we just focus for a little bit on the good things about Israel?” I wish I could do that. I certainly have been able to so in the past, but given the turning point at which we have arrived, to keep ourselves insulated at all leads to complacency and to complicity with the status quo.
Toward an educated Kehilla consensus
There appears to be a consensus among Kehilla members that the occupation must end, but we haven’t subjected this issue to serious discussion among us. And even if we sense that the occupation must end, I believe that even in Kehilla there is a shortage of knowledge about the severity of it and of how its inhumanity is experienced daily by the Palestinians. We have not fully educated ourselves about how the Israeli government has pushed and promoted increased settlement activity and has failed to protect the Palestinians from settler violence and violations.
We certainly have not advanced toward determining a consensus about what we, as a synagogue community, uniquely can do at this juncture.
Kehilla has taken a specific two-state stance—I personally still favor that as the most realistic resolution of the conflict in this period (although some in Kehilla favor a secular one-state solution). When we took that position 26 years ago, we played a role in enabling people in the Jewish community to see that spiritually-oriented Jews were supporting and should advocate for a State of Palestine. I believe we contributed to some degree in raising consciousness at least in the local Jewish community and in the national Jewish Renewal movement.
Discerning what we should do
As strong a position we have taken for peaceful resolution of the conflict, we have not taken a clearly articulated and educated position against the perpetuation of the occupation. At this point I believe, that the maintenance and expansion of the occupation is the greatest impediment to any peaceful resolution and I believe Kehilla as a synagogue should articulate this.
What is it that Kehilla can do? I doubt that we have a consensus on this question. Some of us favor a targeted boycott of products whose sale benefits or legitimizes the continuation of the occupation. Some favor divestment from companies that profit from the continuation of the occupation. There is a feeling that such non-violent approaches to resisting the occupation are something that are morally mandated. Some of us have expressed a concern that any kind of boycott would cause more harm than good, that it would focus attention on the tactic and distract attention from the occupation itself. There is also a concern that selective boycott, divestment and sanctions (“SBDS”) of only occupation-related activities would be confused with the global BDS movement some elements of which have supported the boycott of all Israeli products, and some supporting a boycott of Israeli academics and culture.
Beyond Kehilla taking an informed position against the occupation, I do not yet hold a clear opinion what tactics Kehilla as a synagogue should advocate. I myself have not consciously bought products from settler industries for several years nor am I am aware of holding any investment in enterprises that benefit from the occupation. That is my personal choice. What should the shul do as a shul? I do know that whatever we do would be more effective if it is the product of serious congregation-wide education and moral and spiritual discernment.
I would also want us to embrace all of our members concerns and, if we do not have a full consensus, then to be open in acknowledging our differences. When mainstream Jewish organizational leaders announce that their way of relating to Israel and Palestine is THE Jewish consensus position, it behooves us to prove that a community can embrace its diversity and respect and report dissenting positions.