The Rabbi Writes – The Palestinian Uprising

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1988, Vol. XXV, Number 10

The state of Israel is 40 years old. 

Normally an anniversary like this would be a time of great rejoicing. But the Palestinian uprising has cast a shadow over the celebration. It is difficult to be euphoric during a Civil War.  

The Palestinian Rebellion is no trivial matter. The future of the state of Israel is at stake. 

At stake are the democratic institutions of Israel. On 40% of your population do not want to be part of your state and are under military occupation, democracy is endangered. 

At stake is the moral image of the Jewish state. Using guns against civilians armed with rocks is not calculated to win word opinion or to reinforce the sense of ethical superiority which has been so much a part of Israeli self-awareness. Suppressing a movement of self-determination seems sadly ironic for an old historic people that demanded its own. 

At stake is the survival of Israel. If no boundary adjustments are made, within a few decades Arabs will constitute a majority of the Israeli population and the Jewishness of the Jewish state will begin to vanish. Time and status quo politics will make Israel another Arab state. 

Israeli Jewish opinion is deeply divided on how to respond to the uprising. Despite the smallness of the Jewish population there is no national consensus. Confrontation politics are as intense as those between the orthodox and secular. 

One segment of the population (maybe a majority) is opposed to any Palestinian State and to giving up any territory. They include both orthodox Jews and secular nationalists. The orthodox maintain that the West Bank and Gaza have been given by God to the Jewish people and that it would be both immoral and sinful to surrender them. The secular nationalists assert that the pre-1967 borders of Israel provide no adequate security for the Jewish state and that the Jordan River boundary is the minimal safety requirement for Israeli survival. 

The other segment of the population is either ambivalently or enthusiastically in favor of giving up land for peace. But they are gravely divided over the issue of how much to give up. Some will return the West Bank to Jordan, but they will not accept a Palestinian state. Some will accept a Palestinian state, provided that is not fully independent and is federated to Jordan. Others will accept an independent demilitarized Palestine so long as there are appropriate boundary adjustments. Still others would be willing to give all the occupied territories to a legitimate Palestinian government for the sake of a guaranteed peace.  

But the arguments of the “peaceniks” do not end there. In the process of negotiating the surrender of territory do you not talk to the PLO? Do you or do you not consent to an International conference to initiate the talks and to guarantee the outcome, especially if that conference includes the Soviet Union?  

The “land of peace” people have not been overwhelmingly successful in recruiting domestic support for their policy.  

Their disagreements hardly inspire confidence. They do not know how to deal with the post-Holocaust mentality that insists that Jews are always victims, never oppressors. They generally avoid the issue of what to do about Jewish settlements in the West Bank or Gaza. 

Above all they receive little help from Palestinian and Arab leaders. The PLO covenant, never repudiated, still calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. No PLO spokesperson has ever publicly recognized the right of the state of Israel to exist. No PLO acceptance of UN Resolution 242 which guarantees safe and secure boundaries to Israel as a basis for negotiations, has been given. No Arab movement, of any kind, has emerged in any of the 22 Arab states, to offer encouragement to the Israeli moderates. Terrorism, directed at unarmed civilians, still continues. Extremist propaganda calling for the expulsion of the Jews still flourishes and receives no denunciation from Palestinian moderates. No conciliatory statement recognizing the almost unanimous Israeli desire to retain a united Jerusalem has been made. 

However, the Jews calling for no territorial concessions are having their troubles too, even though defending the status quo is the easiest position to maintain emotionally.  

The uprising continues and will not go away. Only severe military repression will keep the Palestinians in line, but that repression creates severe emotional strains and economic disruptions. The spirit of rebellion has spread to Israel proper and to the Israeli Arabs who support the Palestinian brothers. So intense is the hatred that is developing between Jews and Arabs that in a few years, any form of negotiations will be impossible 

Moreover, the disturbances are frightening away badly needed tourists and immigrants. They are also souring the relationship between Israel and its chief benefactor America. The American government is losing patience with Israeli intransigence. And the public is losing respect for the morality and wisdom of Israeli leaders. Short of expulsion, which is morally and pragmatically impossible, how does one suppress a native population with military force over an indefinite period of time and in the full view of the world public opinion and still retain some shred of approval from the allies you need? 

As you can see both alternatives prevent their risks. But there is no doubt that the status quo no concessions approach presents the greater risk. 

An enlightened Israeli policy should include the following steps. 

1. An early election should be held. Israeli public needs to replace the present coalition government, with all its paralyzing infighting between Shamir and Perez, with a government that has a consistent policy. Land for peace cannot proceed if it does not receive the support of the  Israeli electorate. If the no concessions people win, then the Israeli public will have voted for its own self-destruction. But if the “compromisers” win, then the road to conciliation and survival may be possible. 

2. The new Israeli government should openly declare its willingness to give land for peace. Even if neither the PLO nor other Arab states respond to that offer the mere declaration of this policy will place the moral onus of rejection on the Palestinian leadership. 

3. The Israelis should postpone the resolution of the recognition issue. The Israelis would be foolish to offer acceptance to a Palestinian state at the outset, without knowing what form this state would take. And the PLO will never offer recognition of the Jewish state until the Israelis, in the spirit of mutuality, extend this recognition to the Palestinians. Mutual acceptance will have to emerge from the negotiations. It cannot precede them. Otherwise they will never start. 

4. It is to the Israelis (sic) advantage to use a moderate state like Jordan as much as possible. Since Israeli public will not endorse direct talks with the PLO without prior recognition (and the PLO is the only credible Palestinian leadership around), the PLO needs to be attached to a Jordanian negotiating team. If enough pressure is applied from moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, Arafat might consent to such an arrangement, despite what he presently says. 

5. The Israeli government should work in cooperation with the United States, its chief ally  to formulate a context for negotiations. It should consent to an International conference if this conference is the only way to bring Jordan (and ultimately the PLO) to the conference table. One of the advantages of such a conference is that it may provide an opportunity to secure Soviet guarantees for the outcome of the negotiations. And Russia is the key to securing restraint from Syria.  

6. The fanatic ultra-orthodox need to be restrained. Armed West Bank Jewish settlers seeking provocations to force the expulsion of their Arab neighbors, are responsible for the Beita incident, where an Israeli girl was killed. 

Jewish children have no business wandering through rebellious Palestinian areas on nature hikes, with gun-happy armed escorts.If hiking is the true agenda, countless opportunities exist in safe areas. Ultra – orthodox fanatics who are civilians should not be armed. They will only create the incidents which will make negotiations impossible. They are as dangerous as Arab extremists. 

Of course, the burden of responsibility for peace is shared by both Israelis and Arabs. Even moderate Israelis can do nothing if they receive no encouragement from the Palestinian side. Without the courage of Palestinian moderates who are willing to defy their own extremists and the courage of Hussein of Jordan who is willing to risk his own life, nothing is possible.  

Time is of the essence. If the intransigents (sic) maintain the status quo, the prospects for Israel at the time of the 50th anniversary will be worse than now. A continuing Palestinian rebellion will radicalize resistance forces in modern states in Egypt and Jordan and will lead to the overthrow of modern Arab governments. Without them no peace will be possible. 

The future of Israel is up to the Israeli public. The government they will elect in the next election will determine their future.  

The Future of Israel

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 27, No 3, Summer 1999

Netanyahu is out. Barak is in. What does it all mean? 

The Jewish state is fifty-one years old. For the first thirty years of its history it was governed by the socialism Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state. Members of this establishment dominated the government, the media, the army, the state industries, the labor unions, and the arts. They defined what it meant to be Israeli. The 1967 war brought them to the height of their power.  

In 1977 renegade Ashkenazim, led by Menahem Begin, came to power. They emerged from the same secular Eastern Europe background, but they repudiated socialism and embraced an expansionist nationalism. Their victory was made possible by cultivating the outsiders who hated the establishment: Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews, who were growing in number, and Sephardim, who by then constituted one-half of the Israeli population. The irony of the new government was that it was essentially a Sephardic protest movement led by secular Ashkenazim. 

The “protest” government stayed in power by cultivating every new group that hated or resented the old establishment. Almost one million resentful Russian immigrants were available for the picking. But the intifada, the Arab rebellion, undermined the credibility of the Likud, the party of Begin. The Labor establishment returned to power by promising peace. When the assassination of Rabin made the colorless Peres prime minister, the establishment lost again. The “protesters” returned under a new charismatic upstart leader, Bibi Netanyahu. 

The Netanyahu government was united by one compelling bond: hatred of the Labor establishment. This establishment had long since abandoned socialism and had become the heart of the wealthy bourgeois and professional class. Netanyahu cultivated this hatred, bringing together in one cabinet many parties with incompatible agendas and mutual hostilities. Secular Russians and the Sephardic Orthodoxy both hated Labor, but they also disliked each other. Netanyahu remained the Ashkenazic kingpin of a largely non-Ashkenazic constituency. 

In the end Netanyahu’s arrogance, sleaziness, and inept opportunism brought down his government. Abandoned by the Russians and die-hard Ashkenazi nationalists, he lost to Barak. The Labor establishment has returned to power, again with the promise of peace. But the Israel it will be governing is vastly different from the Israel it created. 

There is a prevailing misconception that the ascension of Barak to power will tame the Orthodox and will secure peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. But the Barak government of necessity includes both Orthodox and nationalist leaders who are wary of the peace process. The stunning victory of Barak in the race for prime minister was not matched by an equally significant victory in the Knesset. The Labor party, like the Likud, lost votes. Many new, small parties have emerged. The establishment could have governed without the Orthodox and the nationalists only by accepting the support of the Arab parties. But the Jewish public would not make concessions to the Palestinians if there were Palestinians in the government. 

Barak’s problem is that Israel today is divided into six rival communities, none of which has a clear majority. There is the old Labor establishment filled with liberals, peaceniks, and civil rights advocates. Most of the well-known writers and intellectuals belong to this constituency. There is the rival Ashkenazic community of renegade nationalists who established the Likud party. There is the militant union of Ashkenazic Orthodox Israelis who represent the fanatic settlers of the West Bank. There is the Sephardic or Oriental community, now represented increasingly by the Sephardic Orthodox party called Shas, which received wide support in the recent election. There is the Russian community, which has developed its own political parties to defend its own interests. There is the Arab community, twenty percent of the Israeli population, which has created Arab parties to give it representation. The old system of two major parties is gone. Each constituency has its own little party to give voice to its demands and grievances. 

Barak needed to paste together enough constituencies to make his government viable. If he is going to make peace with the Arab world, he needs the support of a large majority. A narrow majority of secularists and Arabs would only trigger violent resistance. As long as the peace issue is the dominant one, the conflict between the religious and the secularists will have to wait for resolution. The secular establishment is no longer large enough to have its way. 

Peace will not be easy to achieve. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are now in favor of territorial concessions, most of them do not want to concede very much. The current Palestinian entity in the West Bank consists of eight urban “doughut holes” surrounded by the Israeli army and militant settlers. Giving the whole West Bank to the emerging Palestinian state is unacceptable to most of the Israeli electorate. Giving any part of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority is even more unacceptable. Making a deal with Syria is now popular. But abandoning the Lebanon enclave is less popular, and giving up the Golan Heights even less so. Without the surrender of the Golan Heights no peace with Syria is possible. The maximum concessions the Israelis are willing to make do not even touch the minimum demands of the Palestinians and other Arabs. 

There is no doubt that the recent election mobilized secular Jews with a greater passion than ever before. The hatred of Orthodox intrusion and coercion, aggravated by the continuous provocations, is very intense. While the Meretz party, the old secular voice, grew stronger, a new, more militant secular party called Shinui burst on the scene with six Knesset seats. Shinui, led by a famous and controversial antireligious television personality, is a sign that the formerly passive secular constituency is now prepared to resist. But a combined sixteen votes in the Knesset is less than what the Sephardic Orthodox have. Barak is confronted by a country that is on the whole ambivalent on the religious issue. Most Israelis hate the greedy fundamentalists, but they are not comfortable with secular militancy either. Even the Reform and Conservative movements, which are ironically viewed as secular in Israel, have not won wide support among the Israeli public. They tend to be seen as North American imports. 

The setting for all these controversies is the Israeli economic recovery. Market capitalism is triumphant. State enterprises are being privatized. The welfare state is shrinking. The American-style consumer culture has replaced socialist asceticism. The old textile industries are closing in the face of world competition. The new high-tech industries are thriving, laying a good foundation for Israel’s economic future. Israeli aggressiveness is enhanced by the new competitive environment and the rise in personal expectations. Israel has been normalized as a successful first-world country with an American edge. While poverty and unemployment linger among the Sephardim, the Ashkenazic establishment has enough money to plant trees in America. 

The future of Israel is considerably different from the vision of the secular kibbutzim. It has an ambiguous character. Israel is a Hebrew state with a large Arab minority. It is a Western nation with a large Eastern population. It is a secularized people with strong nostalgia for tradition. It is a consumer culture filled with fundamentalist protestors, symbolized by Planet Hollywood on the one hand and yeshivot on the other. Barak has to manage this ambiguity, not some theoretical body of liberal democrats. 

Humanistic Jews should be heartened by the Barak victory. The peace initiative will be resumed. The Orthodox will be restrained. Secularism is taking on a life of its own. But our expectations should be tempered by reality. There is no simple Israeli agenda. There are six of them, all of them mutually incompatible. 

Palestine and Jordan

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995 Palest Jordan

This summer I fulfilled a dream. I crossed over from Eilat to Aqaba and journeyed to Petra and Amman. Visiting Jordan is hardly new. But crossing over from Israel is the dramatic sign that peace is beginning to work in the Middle East. 

Two Arab states — one real and one emerging — lie to the east of Israel. Both are theoretically at peace with the Jewish state. Arafat’s Palestine is a reluctant neighbor. Hussein’s Jordan is more enthusiastic. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan were, at one time, all part of British Palestine. Like Gaul, Palestine has been divided into three parts. 

Jordan used to be Transjordan. It is an artificial state with artificial boundaries, a bureaucratic creation of British imperialism. The East Bank was separated from Palestine in 1992 as a gift to an Arab ally whom England had betrayed. It was a substitute for Syria, which Britain had promised both to Hussein ibn-Ali, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, and to the French. Hussein’s son Faisal was given Iraq. His second son, Abdullah, was given Transjordan, then an unredeemed desert with a sprinkling of Bedouin and an isolated railroad to Mecca. Amman, the capital, was a sleepy village. 

Transjordan was transformed by the British and by the Zionist threat. Out of the remnants of Hussein’s Arab army the British fashioned the Arab Legion, the best-trained and best-disciplined Arab army in the Arab world. Most of the soldiers were Bedouin who despised and were despised by urban Arabs. In the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, this army alone prevailed against the Israelis.Their reward was the annexation of what today we call the West Bank, including Nablus, Hevron, Bethlehem, and East Jerusalem. Transjordan became Jordan. And hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Palestinian refugees became Jordanians. 

The annexation was followed by more dramatic change. King Abdullah was assassinated in 1951 because he wanted to make peace with Israel. His grandson Hussein ibn Talal, who became king in 1952, was a young and inexperienced teenager. The Cold War between America and Russia was becoming hot. Gamal Abdel Nasser took over in Egypt and proclaimed his desire to unite the Arab world under his leadership. Radical military regimes, imitating Nasser, seized power in Syria and Iraq. Jordan faced overwhelming internal and external Arab enemies. In 1967 the West Bank was lost to Israel in the Six Day War. Thousands of new Palestinian refugees poured into the remaining East Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established and chose Jordan as its base of operations. By 19970 PLO leader Yasser Arafat threatened to take over Jordan and to turn it into Palestine. 

What saved Hussein and Jordan was the intervention of the Arab Legion. It is this army and this army alone that prevents Jordan from being taken over either by the internal enemy, the Palestinians, or by the external enemy, the Syrians. Ironically, Israel has always been a friendly power, preferring a moderate Hussein to the radical alternatives. But Hussein could not make peace so long as the Palestianian issue was unresolved. 

Along the way Hussein made an almost fatal mistake. Driven by internal public opinion and by the powerful economic ties of Jordan to Iraq, he chose to support Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, in the Gulf War. His reward for this act of stupidity was the alienation of moderate Arabs, the loss of American alliance, and the sudden return of thousands of disgruntled Palestianians fleeing Kuwait. In the midst of all this trouble the fundamentalists threw down the gauntlet and threatened to win control of Parliament. 

The man who rescued Husseim was, ironically, his enemy, Arafat. By making peace with Israel in 1993, Arafat made it possible for Hussein to offer peace in 1994. The American alliance was restored. The Israelis, for their part, were eager to take what they had been waiting for since 1948. Peace with Jordan, unlike peace with Palestine, was overwhelmingly popular with all Israelis, since no territory had been surrendered. 

Husseins’s Jordan has many problems. It is an artificial country with no fundamental national identity. It is filled with militant Palestinians who hate Hussein and who would prefer to unite the West Bank and the East Bank into a large Palestinian state. It suffers from a rising Muslim fundamentalist movement with connections to fundamentalist movements outside of Jordan. It is experiencing inflation and unemployment, triggered by all the consequences of choosing the wrong side in the Gulf War. 

But good things are happening also. The visitor can see them. Impressive economic development is taking place. Amman has replaced troubled Beirut as the banking center of the Arab world. The Palestinians have developed a prosperous middle class. Now Jewish tourism is stimulating the emergence of striking facilities including kosher hotels for Israeli travelers. The chemical riches of the Dead Sea are being jointly developed by Israel and Jordan. 

What is most striking about Jordan is the emergence of an expanding bourgeoisie committed to business and trade rather than war and reinforced by an educated professional class that is generally wary of religious and political extremism. Some of the best medical facilities in the Arab world are now to be found in once-sleepy Amman. The middle class is Westernized. Women appear bolder in urban Jordan than they do in most other Mulim countries. All of this development supports Hussein and moderation. 

Jordan’s new role as a tourist mecca will accelerate the Westernization process. The land is extraordinarily beautiful, with high mountains and unusual archeological sites such as Petra and Jerash. The ancient trade route that passed through Jordan from Yemen to Damascus was coveted by many conquerors. Canaanites, Greeks, Romans and Nabatean Arabs have left their marks. 

As I crossed back to Israel via the Allenby Bridge, I saw both Israel and Palestinian flags shimmering in the heat of the West Bank. In a few years, travelers will pass through Palestine on their way to Israel. In the interim the Likud opposition to the Rabin government will huff and puff, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank will conduct a thousand violent demonstrations, the terrorists will provide their exploded martyrs, and the Israeli public will express its deep ambivalence. But the withdrawal from the West Bank will continue. An irreversible reality is being created. Between Israel and Jordan, little Palestine is emerging. Neither Israel nor Hussein really wants it. But they will have to learn to live with it and with Arafat. 

Great changes are taking place in the political landscape of the Middle East. Even touristy Bethlehem flies its Palestinian flag, a few miles from Jerusalem. Three years ago peace seemed an illusory hope, and Jordan seemed as far away from Israel as the moon. Today, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan have become neighbors. Their destinies are tied together. Sharing peace will mean sharing water and economic development. Some Israelis will turn to Europe to import foreign, non-Arab workers. But others will see that, in the end, there is no alternative to intimate cooperation. 

The Jordan venture was more than sightseeing. It was an invitation to hope.