Rabbi’s Essays

The More Things Change …
Abiding Ideas on Israel/Palestine

” … To Go Somewhere, You Need to Run Twice as Fast!”

In 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, signed a declaration on behalf of the British Government, which stated in part:

His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non Jewish communi¬ties in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

A few years later, Great Britain had taken control of Palestine and Trans-Jordan as a League of Nations mandate, and thus could effect the sentiments of the Balfour Declaration. The influential Zionist thinker, Ahad Haam responded in a 1920 essay: “The national home of the Jewish people must be built out of the free material which can still be found in the country itself, and of that which the Jews will bring in from outside or will create by their work, without overthrowing the national home of the other inhabitants.”

Now in the next century, Ahad Haam’s assertion continues to be at the heart of debates, arguments and violence regarding the borders of the “national home for the Jewish people.” Slightly less than three decades after Ahad Haam wrote this essay, the Jewish homeland became a State. About two decades later, the size of the State grew five-fold as a result of the lightning victory of the Six-Day War. And in the subsequent decades, boundaries have continued to change. Israel has been able to establish direct relations with two of its bordering nations, and with a Palestine Authority. Yet, Ahad Haam’s concern remains. For every step forward-treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the Oslo Accords-there are steps back-Hamas and radical Islamism, proposals for disinvestment by mainline Protestant churches. Circumstances are regularly changing in the Middle East, and somehow they are also remaining disturbingly the same.

For this reason, I want to call your attention to two essays that I consider seminal commentaries on Israel and its relations with its Arab neighbors. One outstanding feature of both articles is that they are old. They were written in the years between the 6-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. Israel was refusing contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and yet it could negotiate with its immediate neighbors (Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria) only either secretly or through third parties. On the other hand, the Six-Day War had established Israel’s uncontested military superiority. The increase in territory had given it significant bargaining power. The essays therefore respond to the reality of Israel’s political, military and diplomatic circumstances at that time, and yet also dig much deeper in order to reveal some fundamental truths. They were timely in the years in which they were written, and they are timely today.

I. A Letter to All Good People

The older of the two, A Letter to All Good People, was written in August 1968, for the Hebrew newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, it was translated and published in the periodical, Midstream, in October of that year. The author was Amos Kenan, a journalist and writer who had participated in militant (some would say terrorist) activities against the British Mandate. Given this background, the polemic he wrote in 1968, a little more than a year after Israel’s size and population had grown dramatically following the Six-Day War, might seem surprising.

In 1968, the Labor Coalition was firmly entrenched as the dominant party of Israel. (Golda Meir was Prime Minister.) The kibbutz was still a prominent and influential symbol of a society that was definitively socialist. “All Good People” in the title of Kenan’s essay, therefore, refers to the prominent socialist thinkers and leaders of the time. The article is subtitled, “To Fidel Castro, Sartre, [Bertrand] Russell and All the Rest.”

One would think that Israel would have enjoyed a level of sympathy and political solidarity with the socialist block of nations and their chief supporters. The opposite was the case. The Soviet Union and its allies sided with the Arab nations even before the June 1967 war broke out. The opposition to Israel was fundamentally and disturbingly profound. Kenan relates this incident: an Israeli submarine in the Mediterranean sent out a distress call. British, Greek and Turkish ships participated in a search for the sub and its crew. A nearby Russian fleet not only did not participate, but the Arab language broadcasts of Soviet radio denounced the fleets that did. During World War II, even Nazi U-boats would provide material assistance to survivors of ships sunk in military encounters. As Kenan wrote, “but the glorious days of Nazi humanism are apparently over.”

Kenan did not connect this egregious state of affairs with anti-Semitism. “I have never believed that the Soviets are guided …by such powerful and sincere emotions …” He thought it was a rather simple cynical and pragmatic calculation: the Arab world with its population, oil and strategic value vs. a small, materially poor state whose political support was mostly from Europe and the West. (Perhaps we ought to add as well that Arab dictatorships and autocracies made for far cleaner lines of connection than the messy democracy of the Jewish State.)

In order to sustain such cynicism, Kenan noted, otherwise good people had to create powerful self-deceiving myths; myths that simplified the conflict to cardboard stereotypes. Israelis were, to a person, foreign imperialist invaders. The Jewish experience in Europe and the development of Zionism had to be studiously ignored. Religious and secular, Eastern European, North African and Middle Eastern Jews had to be lumped together. Israeli Jews as individual human beings had to disappear altogether.

Kenan wrote with vigor and emotion. He was angry and frustrated, but-and this is why the essay resonates to this day-he did not despair. He knew that good people (they need not all be socialists, but this was the ironic condition of 1968) cannot sustain madness forever. He therefore concluded his ‘Letter’ with a powerful statement that combined both hope and challenge:

I want peace peace peace peace, peace peace peace. I am ready to give everything back in exchange for peace. And I shall give nothing back without peace. I am ready to solve the refugee problem. I am ready to accept an independent Palestinian state. I am ready to sit and talk. About everything, all at the same time …. But peace. Until you agree to have peace, I shall give back nothing. And if you force me to become a conqueror, I shall become a conqueror. And if you force me to become an oppressor, I shall become an oppressor. And if you force me into the same camp with all the forces of darkness in the world, there I shall be.

In this fashion, Kenan sharply distinguished between that which Israel can and cannot do. It cannot change the minds and attitudes of its detractors by engaging in any form of modified behavior. The other side-Arabs, Palestinians and their supporters-have constructed an image of Israel and its inhabitants that is completely separated from any set of facts. Until “our good friends” are prepared to deal honestly and forthrightly with Israelis as members of civilized society, until they take the responsibility upon themselves to shatter their own self-deceptions, Israel gains absolutely nothing in modifying a hard-line stance. At very worst, they are acting just as their enemies expect. And acting any other way is treated either as deception or capitulation.

Israelis can-indeed, must-on the other hand, realize that this madness will not endure. At some point in the future, the folly of making believe that a certain group of human beings are really not human will subside; if for no other reason than it has achieved nothing. At that moment, negotiations will commence, and at the moment, it becomes critical that Israel realize that the aim is genuine peace for the Jewish State, and not the shape of its borders.

The Dynamics of Power

Before drawing any more lesson’s from Kenan’s letter, we will turn to the second essay. This one was written in 1972, by Meir Pa’il. Pa’il was a member of Israel’s Knesset at the time. He achieved a doctorate in history and military studies from Tel Aviv University, but had spent most of his career in Israel’s army. (Unlike Kenan, Pa’il was a member of the conventional defense group, the Palmakh, in the years leading up to Independence.)

The essay he wrote, called The Dynamics of Power, was offered as a part of a summer symposium organized by the Institute for Judaism and Contemporary Thought, which in turn had been organized by Bar Ilan (modern Orthodox) University in Israel. Papers and responses were published in a book, Modern Jewish Ethics, edited by the late Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis, Marvin Fox.

Pa’il’s essay includes extended passages written by Israeli soldiers relating certain encounters they had had while policing the territories since the end of the war. Each one of them, in Pa’il’s estimation, represented not only an example of military and security decision-making, but also of confronting an ethical quandary. What, for instance, do soldiers do when pursuing armed Palestinian militants in the Samarian hills. The militants appear to enter a cave, but as the soldiers approach, there is an unarmed Arab woman standing in front of the cave. The woman is clearly acting as a human shield. The soldiers can either shoot her down, or risk death themselves by pushing her out of the way.

How the soldiers respond to this situation is critical. Since the creation of Israel’s Defense Force in 1948, the army has had an extraordinary doctrine, taharat neshek [purity of arms]. The doctrine makes each individual soldier responsibility for his or her own actions. Unlike the German soldiers of World War II, they cannot resort to claiming they were merely following orders, if they knew those orders to be illegal or unethical. The doctrine also clearly prohibits the killing of unarmed opponents, and even of shooting at enemy unless one was clearly at risk.

Purity of arms had been conceived and designed by Israel’s military leadership with respect to conventional warfare. How, one could legitimately ask, can the doctrine be preserved in the context of the guerilla war conditions in which Israeli soldiers now found themselves? One answer, obviously, is to scrap the doctrine altogether. Pa’il wanted to argue that such an option should be vigorously opposed. To the contrary, he wanted the doctrine to be preserved as much as possible, even in the changed and clearly more dangerous circumstances that had been created since the acquisition of the territories.

For Pa’il, purity of arms represented two decisive and important considerations for the Jewish State. The first relates to the specific Jewishness of the State. Israel is not just a political entity, and therefore how it conducts business with its citizens, friends and enemies cannot be just like every other nation. Curiously, Pa’il did not consider whether purity of arms was not just a Jewishly informed ethical doctrine, but also a pragmatic element in Israel’s military success. In 1948 and 67 (also, we may add, in 1973), the outcome of Israel’s battle with an array of invading armies was hardly assured in Israel’s favor. The Arabs had more personnel and equipment. Their war machinery was at least as sophisticated and as powerful as Israel’s own. In 1948, the Arabs were beaten back, and in the subsequent two wars fairly routed. Purity of arms as a doctrine certainly did not impede the Jewish State’s success. It probably did not even debilitate it, and might well have enhanced it. Pa’il recognized that the success of the doctrine-and perhaps its value-cannot be assured in the same way when the war is unconventional. Thus, purity of arms could not be simply a pragmatic choice, it was a measure of the values that the Jewish State set for itself, even in the face of the dangers that the doctrine posed.

For me, however, the second consideration is more poignant. Pa’il noted that Israel’s standing army is relatively small. A career in the military is rare. The Israel Defense Force is rather a citizen army, in which virtually everyone between the ages of 18 and 55 are drafted, and could be called upon at any time in order to serve. Almost all 18-year-old Israelis enter the Defense Force full-time for two or three years. They then are on reserve duty, periodically giving up three-to-four weeks of the year to active service. At the time of national emergency, any or all of them could be called up, and expected to join the troop or department to which they are assigned.

How, Pa’il pondered, does a society in which almost every adult is part of the Armed Forces, avoid becoming militaristic in the very fiber of its culture? The answer, he suggested, is in the doctrine of purity of arms. The ethical challenges of the doctrine, trying and dangerous as they might be in the midst of an opposing culture that has a very different idea regarding life and property (Pa’il provided an illuminating anecdote on this matter), are central-critical-to maintaining a necessary sense of humanity in a beleaguered society.

Dual Responsibilities

The two essays are dissimilar. Kenan addressed his message outward to non-Jews, non-Israelis; Pa’il spoke specifically to Israelis and Jews. Precisely for this reason, I think the two articles combine to produce a powerful and enduring message. Kenan notes that we are not the problem. Israelis are hardly blameless, but their actions and policies do not operate in a vacuum.

When initially writing this paper (March, 2004), the news reported that Israel had successfully assassinated Hamas founder and leader, Sheik Abdul Yassin. The reaction has been predictable. Palestinians vowed revenge, and suggested darkly that now things are really going to get bad. The rest of the world was merely condemnatory. Of course, at the very same time, a massive operation was taking place on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border designed to kill an ‘Al-Qeida leader, and the European Union had just convened to discuss more aggressive ways in order to combat the sort of terrorism that had just rained on Madrid. Killing avowed and unrepentant terrorists (Sheik Yassin made no secret of his avid pursuit of suicide bombing operations in Israel) is permissible, unless it is done by Israel.

Like Kenan, I refuse to connect this apparent double-standard to anti-Semitism. The real contempt is not being directed at Israel, but rather at the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. The West (Europe) expects a certain civilized behavior from Israel. They want Israelis to act as they themselves hope to act: with humanity, care and restraint. They have no expectation of the same from the Arabs. If there is going to be a peaceful solution, it is going to require Israeli action. They are after all democrats who have a record of respecting the rule of law and protecting human rights. Thus, when Israelis respond to violence with violence, to anger with anger, it is disappointing. Such bloody actions on the part of Arabs is neither surprising nor disappointing. Nobody expects anything else from them. (More on this below.)

Kenan discerned a form of madness operating in the world when it came to Israel, an assertive, almost maniacal air of unreality. Palestinians and their supporters refuse to deal directly with the crushing oppression and corruption that corrodes their society, and rather place all the blame on the Jewish State. (Again, Israel is hardly blameless, but is it completely blameworthy?) As long as the madness persists-the refusal to take personal and corporate responsibility is trumpeted as a virtue-there is really nothing much that Israel can do, except-and this is a critical ‘except’-be prepared for real and enduring compromise when the madness finally clears.

It is frustrating, almost crushingly so, to watch a people seem to prefer continued impoverishment, violence and humiliation. It is doubly frustrating, because whatever our good intentions, there is probably not much we can do about it. Palestinians are going to have to find their own way. Yet, in spite of all, it is critical to expect that the madness will pass, maybe not in the next few years or even a generation, but it must and will pass. Then, the plan that was on the table at Camp David in 2000, will have to be resubmitted and renegotiated.

But, what does Israel do while waiting for the madness to pass? This is the message of Pa’il’s essay. Since its founding, and for the foreseeable future, Israel has had to be a militant society, a State in which almost every able adult is formally inducted in the Armed Forces. It is a nation of citizen warriors. The fundamental issue, as Pa’il sees it, is how to keep a militant society from becoming a militant culture.

The concern here is not merely one of preference. Jews survived for nearly two thousand years, and most Jews continue to survive today, without living in a land and sovereignty they can call their own. A Jewish State is a radical departure from Jewish existence, even as it was a radical return to early Israelite history. The nation cannot be justified merely as a refuge for a particular people. It must be more than a State of Jews, but also be in some fundamental, if elusive, way a Jewish State.

Through centuries that were punctuated by oppression, persecution and exile, Jews had been able to maintain and promote certain values regarding justice and compassion. Jewish communities had refused to allow the enmity of the surrounding Gentile societies to define or manipulate those values. It was always a struggle, and certainly some Jews and communities did not handle the pressure well. The State of Israel is also a Jewish community enduring the pressures of the enmity of the surrounding Gentile societies. It is central to its very identity as Jews that they continue to affirm their historic values.

Meir Pa’il added one other distinctive consideration: the Jewish community of Israel, rather than being nearly helpless in the face of its neighbors, as had been the fundamental reality for the previous two millennia, is quite powerful. Pa’il made this observation in 1972. Israel is, if anything, considerably more powerful with respect to its neighbors today. Not only are the values, embodied in doctrines such as ‘purity of arms,’ critical to the spiritual health and welfare of the nation, they are probably easier to maintain than had been the experience of previous Jewish communities.

The madness that Amos Kenan described over thirty-five years ago, still infects the souls of too many people. I would surmise that Kenan himself would be quite surprised that the stalemate has lasted so long. As long as the madness endures, there is only so much that an Israeli government-liberal or conservative-can do. Peace cannot be imposed on a people who refuse to live in peace. Security and retaliation-actions that can be heavy-handed and bloody-remain the order of the day. We can hope for peace, plan for peace, imagine what it would be like when there is peace, but until the other side is also prepared to live in peace as well, the iron glove must be used. Ariel Sharon might not be my cup of tea, and perhaps he is not yours either. The Sharon Government, however, has been hard-edged, assertive, and yet carefully measured in its response to suicide bombings and other attacks. Their military actions cannot be seriously faulted.

The challenge, and the failure, for the Government is not in its endeavor to keep its populace safe. As long as the other side refuses to come to its senses, Israel must employ its military response, but not be limited to it. Every effort must be spent to maintain a moral and humane balance. “Purity of arms,” I understand, has become a doctrine in name only, invoked in army induction ceremonies, and then ignored. Perhaps, it needs revision in order to be relevant to the guerilla-style conflict that Israel has had to fight since 1967. Regardless of its precise relevance, it definitely needs to be reinvigorated. Further, Israel must balance its severity in the territories with a much more consistent program of affirmative action and material assistance to its own indigenous Arab citizenry.

Finally, we must take note of both Pa’il and Kenan’s confidence. Pa’il recognized that Israel is truly powerful; powerful enough to risk being humane even with its relentless enemies. Kenan was certain that the frustrating and extraordinarily self-destructive mad irresponsibility of the Palestinians and their supporters will indeed come to an end. Israel and its supporters must always be prepared for that certain eventuality (if it is not certain, why continue to

live in a ghetto behind a high barrier?), with acts of loving-kindness and peace.

A Sidebar

“Are the Jews congenitally unsociable and rude, or are they this way as a result of having been segregated into ghettos?”

This quote is by the historian Leon Poliakov, and cited in a book by Thomas Cuddihy, called The Ordeal of Civility. The reference is to the European attitude toward Jews as they moved into general European society in the early nineteenth century. Today, virtually the same question is raised about Arabs: are they congenitally violent, or are they this way as a result of their social conditioning?

Both the left and right wing of Israeli politics, and their international supporters, want essentially the same thing for Israel: a Jewish State substantially free of Arabs. The right wing dreams of holding onto the territories and of pushing the resident Palestinians out. The left wing wants to drop the territories altogether so that the Palestinians are effectively in some other country. Neither side can contemplate a single confederated state comprising all territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

The reason for this is not merely a wish to maintain Jewish hegemony over the ancient land of Israel. It is also a profound lack of trust in the Arabs. Consider that Jews live comfortably in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe (one of the fast growing Jewish communities is in Germany, of all places). Like all human beings, Jews prefer to live where they feel they can have modicum of security and opportunity without having to suppress or deny their Jewish identity. These nations, along with Israel, provide such assurances. The Arab world manifestly does not.

Neither liberal nor conservative Israelis (nor you and me, I would guess) hold the Palestinian or any other Arab society in high enough regard that we would expect them to be respectful of Jewish cultural and societal concerns. The problem is not to be found in history, when Jews found religious and communal freedom in Muslims societies. Nonetheless, the overriding issue today, raised overtly or implied in every Jewish conversation, all across the political spectrum, regarding Israel in the Middle East, is whether the Arabs are organically or merely socially incapable of creating a civil society.

From the early nineteenth century through the years of the Nazi Third Reich, Europe was beset by the “Jewish problem.” Today, we are beset with the “Arab problem.” The Jewish problem was not wholly out of Jewish hands to be solved. Throughout that century-and-a-half, Jews worked hard, individually and corporately, to establish themselves as productive members of the larger society. In the same fashion, the solution to the Arab problem lies in good part in Arab hands. We cannot give up on the notion of Arabs creating a democratic liberal (that is, tolerant and respectful society). Neither can we extend all trust and good will to them until they actually produce such a society.

Israel-Palestine, Now and for the Foreseeable Future

The primary thrust of this essay is that certain very fundamental aspects of the conflict between the Jewish State and the region’s Arab population have not changed. We must be aware, I believe, of these basic issues; concerns that both define the current status of the impasse, and the outlines of a future settlement. The underlying concepts have not changed. Indeed, they have really not changed since the rise of Zionism and a competing Arab nationalism. Other very important elements regarding the conflict, on the other hand, have indeed changed.

Prior to 1973, as already noted, the two parties to the conflict did not talk to each other. More to the point, they did not recognize each other’s existence! No Arab country would use the word “Israel” in either print or speech, preferring “the Zionist entity,” implying its transitory nature. The State of Israel not only considered communication with the Palestine Liberation Organization inappropriate, they made any formal or informal contact illegal. Egypt and Israel have had direct formal contact since 1975; Israel and the Palestinians publicly since 1993. The sides both talk to and fundamentally recognize the existence of the other.

Make no mistake: there is a small, vocal and not insignificant minority among Palestinians and Jews, who have not made peace with the reality of the other side. They are the tail that wags the dog. The persistence of their activities in word and deed continues to affect the perception of sincerity on the part of the respective sides. Palestinians who have come to accept the fact of a Jewish State on some piece of territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, remain suspicious of Israel’s acceptance of an independent Arab state on the rest of that territory. And Israelis who are quite willing to support the abandonment of settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza, are nonetheless unsure whether the Palestinians will accept a withdrawal as the end of the conflict, or just the first step in the overall elimination of the State.

The bigger mistake we can make, however, is to ignore the fact that it is a tail wagging a dog. Surveys have consistently revealed that a substantial majority of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians agree on the basic outline of a two-state settlement, and this position is not just tactical, but also a sincere recognition of the reality of two peoples and two nations. This state of affairs, that has been the case since 1993, and has persisted even in the violence and breakdown of relations that occurred in the first part of this decade, represents a sea-change in opinion from the past. Kenan and Pa’il were essentially voices in the wilderness, and the turn in Palestinian opinion is even more recent.

The prospects for an enduring settlement are admittedly less good than they were in the late 1990s, but considerably better than any time before 1993. The door is wide-open for leadership from the Palestine Authority and Israel to walk through. I think that we supporters of Israel who envision a just settlement, must nonetheless concede that, at this point in history, we need to have the Palestinians walk through that door first.

Peace will not happen until a Palestinian leadership actually responds to the needs and desires of its people, and prepares in good faith to make the compromises necessary for a settlement. There is nothing that Israel can do for the sake of a final peace-and this includes abandoning or even reducing settlements-before the Palestinians show they are ready. (The question of what to do with settlements and settlers prior to the resumption of genuine negotiations is a different sort of issue. It is not, however, a productive gesture of good faith, particularly if there is no evidence of any faith on the other side.) What Israel can and must do, is be ready. Peace will come, and Israel must work to be the sort of humane, democratic society as embodied in its own Declaration of Independence, that is worthy of receiving that peace.