Our hearts are heavy with sorrow for the loss of life in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. As we are enjoying a beautiful spring, with our gardens, forests and hillsides springing to life, our friends and relatives in Israel and the Palestinian territories are suffering a rain of death and terror. It didn’t have to be this way. Over and over studies show that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians are thirsting not for blood, but for peace and security.
I am moved to see Senator Jon Ossoff and other senators calling for an immediate cease fire. One would hope that this would be a universal response to violence that is killing scores of civilians. Sadly, Senator Mitch McConnell voiced disapproval of a call for cease-fire, preferring to let the adversaries inflict further damage on one another. This is another shocking example of the Trump administration’s heartless abdication of America’s role as peacemaker.
As a rabbi, I’m deeply dismayed to witness a nadir in Jewish moral history as Jewish mobs are allowed to march through the streets of East Jerusalem chanting “Death to the Arabs!”
As a Jew, I’m heartsick by the knowledge that Israelis -- Jewish, Palestinian and international -- are living in fear of the rare but deadly rocket that makes it way through Israel’s defense system.
As a taxpayer, I’m distraught to know that my tax dollars are funding missiles fired into densely populated areas, killing so many innocent children and civilian adults.
As a human, I’m aching to help alleviate the suffering that afflicts my extended human family.
In the aftermath of the 2014 Gaza War with its terrible carnage and alleged human rights abuses on both sides, I decided to turn our grief and outrage into something productive. I heard from my rabbininc colleagues that in order to prevent animosity among their members, synagogues were banning all discussion of Israel on the premises or in their programming. I took the opposite approach and started our Israel Study and Discussion Group, not to air our differences, but to come together for ongoing study of the underlying issues and history of the conflict. This ad hoc group has been very valuable for me personally, giving me a group of wise-hearted, thoughtful people with whom to explore challenging questions of identity, security and justice. By no means do we agree with one another. We have amongst us supporters of AIPAC, J Street, and Jewish Voice for Peace, three Jewish-American organizations with very distinctly different approaches to the conflict. We’ve had many guest speakers over the years, studied the evolution of the various streams of Zionism, and discussed current events, usually by reading together through opinion pieces in the American or Israeli press. I want to thank everyone who has participated in these courteous and congenial discussions, especially David Boyd, former chairperson of our K’lal Yisrael Committee.
In that same spirit of responding to crises with the energy to self-educate and encourage others to do the same, I want to share with you something of what I learned when I attended the J Street National Conference on Zoom last month. I am one of over 900 rabbis, cantors, rabbinic and cantorial students on J Street’s Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet. I was moved and inspired to hear insightful analysis from American and Israeli leaders in religion, politics and academia, and to hear from both Jewish and Palestinian young activists. It was generally acknowledged that under the Trump administration the prospects for peace had been set back substantially even as the need grew more urgent. I’ve culled some highlights from my conference notes, along with additional material by the excellent presenters. I had planned to do this whenever I got around to it, but I’m moved to do so now, hoping to bring some hope in this tremendously painful moment:
Distinguished journalists Meron Rapoport and Bernard Avishai opined that the two-state solution will not be achieved through the “failed separation model.” As there are two people living in one land from sea to rivers, they suggest that it is time to explore a confederation model, with shared urban infrastructure and business ecosystem. Avishai said, “Confederation is simply what the two-state solution always needed to be.”
American-Palestinian entrepeneur and activist Sam Bahour emphasized the interdependent nature of the two populations and stressed the many opportunities for cooperation, reminding us that a nation’s neighboring states are natural economic trading partners. (I was fortunate to meet Sam Bahour in person when he spoke to our Rabbis for Human Rights group in 2009.)
For a thought-provoking collaborative vision by Avishai and Bahour see
Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion researcher and political advisor, concurred that a hard separation is not achievable nor desirable: “Twenty years is enough of giving the first vision of the two-state solution a fair chance, and the time has come for new vision.”
For Professor Scheindlin’s searing analysis of the current crisis see
Yossi Beilin, business consultant, politician and an architect of the Oslo Accords, commented, “I believe deeply in a border between us and our neighbors, with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. [Would that be] in the context of cooperation or total separation? Total separation is impossible. [In saying,] ‘We are here and they are there,’ we contributed to the hatred. Confederation may contribute to another way of education and say, ‘We are equal.’”
Michael Sfard, a specialist in international human rights law and laws of war, gave us a detailed view into the “creeping de facto annexation” of the West Bank, with a concise and compelling overview of the legal issues. He warned that there is “a massive ship sailing toward annexation...the West Bank is being ingested into Israel...It involves us in an unending war. It tears us apart from within, [considering] all those moral laws that Judaism has brought [to the world,] that we now violate on a daily basis.”
To learn more about or support Advocate Sfard’s work:
Member of Knesset Tamar Zandberg, a champion of human rights and a leader in the Israeli environmental movement, concurred with Advocate Sfard on the perils of annexation: “This will sentence us to more years of never-ending conflict…[Annexation is the] biggest threat to the future of Israel.” A powerful and passionate speaker, MK Zandberg gave an optimistic rallying call: “If you share our values of democracy and peace, if you love Israel and want to see it as a beacon of justice, join J Street. Together we are a majority of Jews around the world, in Israel, and we will win. Believe it.”
More on MK Zandberg at
We also heard moving testimony from three Palestinian young women: Rawan Odeh, Executive Director, New Story Leadership; Mais Istaitiyeh, Advancement Associate, Zimam; and Rana Salman, Executive Director, Combatants for Peace. Ms Odeh spoke eloquently on the issues of borders, water and security, adding a personal note: “I don’t remember the last time I felt safe.”
Executive Director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, pointed out that the conference was taking place during the Counting of the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot. She reminded us that Shavuot was not the end of the story. After the Giving of Torah on Sinai, there were forty years of wandering, with thousands of naysayers, but also Joshua and Caleb, and young people born in the desert. That young generation urged the people onward. Rabbi Jacobs told us, “Giving up is an abdication of our moral and spiritual obligation, [the equivalent of] getting stuck in Mitzrayim.”
For more of Rabbi Jacob’s wisdom
In any discussion of the current crisis, it would be disingenuous to omit mention of the urgent political issues in both Israel and the Palestinian territories: Since March, Israelis have been unable to form a working coalition government after their fourth national election in two years, and this month Palestinians were facing their first election in twelve years, a process fraught with confusion and corruption, and now postponed indefinitely. Did these powerful political pressures play a role in Hamas’ eagerness to fire its stockpile of thousands of rockets, and Israel’s willingness to retaliate with overwhelming force? There is no political vacuum in the Mideast nor anywhere else. To understand conflicts, we must be willing to examine the political contexts.
The images of violence are overwhelming and especially depressing because they are not surprising. We’ve seen this film before, and we know how it ends -- in tragedy for hundreds of families and no substantive, longtime security improvements for anyone.
Despite the overwhelming difficulties ahead, leaders like Jon Ossoff and Tamar Zandberg give me hope. If we continue to elect and support well-educated, fair-minded, principled leaders, we will be giving peace a real chance.
B’shalom ~ In peace,
May 19, 2021
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