Growing Contradiction Between Jewish Values and the Use of Israeli Power

by Allan C. Brownfeld

Washington Report - On Middle East Affairs, May 2002


The escalation of violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza is making increasingly clear to more and more American Jews and Israelis the growing contradiction between Jewish values and the manner in which Israeli power is being used.

The major American Jewish organizations have embraced the policies of Ariel Sharon's government, as they have usually embraced whatever policy an Israeli government pursues. In a full page advertisement in The New York Times of March 21, 2002, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations-together with United Jewish Communities, the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council-express support for the Israeli government's response to recent developments.

The ad declares: "We stand with the people and the state of Israel at this critical time. We share their pain and outrage at the terrible loss of life and limbs as a result of the Palestinian campaign of terror and violence launched against Israel 18 months ago...We stand with Israel in demanding that the Palestinian Authority end the violence and terror, arrest and prosecute the perpetrators, dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, and the incitement against Israel and Jews and live up to its previous commitments."

For whom the Jewish "establishment" speaks is less than clear, and many other, dissenting voices are being heard.

In another full-page New York Times ad the following day, the Tikkun community, headed by Rabbi Michael Lerner and including Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, Steven Jacobs, Irwin Kula, Mordecai Liebling, Jeremy Milgrom, and Douglas Sagal, sharply criticizes Israeli policy.

The Tikkun ad declares: "No, Mr. Sharon: Many Americans do not support your policies in the West Bank and Gaza, which are immoral and have decreased Israeli security. As a step toward ending the cycle of violence, we urge our fellow citizens to support the Israeli Army Reservists who say 'No' to the Occupation. Over 370 courageous Israeli Army Reserve Officers have risked their careers and some have already been sent to jail because they publicly refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. These soldiers have witnessed their own army violate human rights, practice torture, destroy homes, and perpetuate violence against civilians, acts that have become 'necessary' to maintain an oppressive Occupation. They won't be silent partners to the Occupation any longer. Nor will tens of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets in demonstration against the Occupation. Neither will we."

What Tikkun advocates is a two-state solution that provides security for Israel "by creating social justice and respect for Palestinians as well as reconciliation and repentance on both sides for the many ways that they have both unnecessarily hurt each other. We call upon Palestinians to end all acts of terror against Israel and for Israel to end the Occupation with its systematic violence against Palestinians. 'Negotiations' are not enough-it's time for Israel to get out of the West Bank and Gaza. If Jewish 'political correctness' brigades keep those of us who love Israel from voicing legitimate criticisms, anti-Semitic forces will take up the cause themselves, and misuse legitimate criticism of Israel's policies to fan the flames of hatred against Jews. We must protect Israel's right to exist not by unconditionally supporting all of its policies, but by insisting that its values uphold the highest values of the Jewish people-justice, generosity, love of the stranger."

Another group, Jewish Voices Against the Occupation (PO. Box 11606, Berkeley, CA 94712), issued a statement declaring: "The occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem is killing Israelis and Palestinians alike and destroying Israel from within. There can be no peace or security for either until Israel completely evacuates its settlements in the Palestinian territories, ends its military occupation, and returns to its pre-1967 borders. As Jews, we call upon Israel to agree to the immediate establishment of an international peacekeeping force in the occupied territories to protect civilians from violence by the Israeli military and settlers and to cease building or expanding settlements as a first step toward their complete evacuation...Israel's security policies...make Israel less secure, not more."

Discussing the Reservists who challenge Israeli West Bank policies, columnist Leonard Fein, writing in The Forward of March 1, 2002, notes that "the current response of the Israeli government to all that has happened these last 16 months is sheer idiocy. It has accomplished nothing save death. It has not enhanced security, not advanced peace, and it has crippled the Israeli economy. And the waning of support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as registered in public opinion polls, indicates that this dissatisfaction is not limited to a few thousand veterans of Israel's protest movements."

Fein points out that, "Refusal to serve in the army wherever one has been ordered to serve is a very serious action. In the Israeli context, it is also a courageous action. One need not endorse the action to respect it. And one need not endorse it to welcome its lifting of the veil on what the occupation signifies. For years, the journalists who cover events in the territories, along with Peace Now's Settlement Watch and the human rights group B'Tselem, have known that the incidents of inhumanity, the continuing humiliation of the Palestinians, and more recently, the thoughtlessness of the Israeli army's actions in the territories, are not incidental by-products of the occupation. They are inevitable consequences. However despicable the Palestinian response, one cannot expect servile acquiescence from a subjugated population."

Putative Tough Guys

Jeffrey V. Mallow, national president of the Labor Zionist Alliance, writes that, "It has been one year since Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister on a platform of peace with security, the same platform on which Binyamin Netanyahu rose to power in 1996. Both platforms emerged from similar circumstances: a frustrated Israeli electorate, confronted with daily terror, turned to a putative tough guy for salvation. Mr. Sharon's platform has had the same degree of success as Mr. Netanyahu's: no peace, no security... There is a solution. Its approximate parameters were proposed in 2000 by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. His proposal is the elephant in the living room, no matter how much the Palestinians, their Arab and European supporters and even some in the Zionist peace camp wish to ignore it...One day, if all goes well, there will be peace. Sadly, it will most likely be a peace we could have had almost two miserable bloody years ago."


Rabbi John D. Rayner, Emeritus Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London and Honorary Life President of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, declares that Jews have an obligation to seek justice and peace in the Middle East, not simply echo the views of the Israeli government. He states:

"Truth, justice and peace, said Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, are the three pillars that sustain the world (Avot 1:18). From this perspective, anyone who aspires to be a religious Jew should view all things, not least in the Jewish-Arab conflict over Palestine...We may not simply go along with the version of truth that emanates from Israeli government agencies and from Diaspora Zionist and communal organizations....For a generation and more after Israel's War of Independence these sources told us that the 'Arab Refugee Problem,' which resulted from it, was not our fault. The responsibility for it rested on the Arab nations, who rejected the U.N. partition plan, sent in their armies to forestall a Jewish state, called on Palestinians Arabs to flee, and kept them in squalid refugee camps for propaganda purposes, whereas the Jews begged them to stay. But from Israeli archives and objective historical studies we know now that the facts are significantly different. Although the mayor of Haifa urged his city's Arabs to stay, that was an exception. In general, the Jewish leadership, though it disowned the Deir Yassin massacre, encouraged or welcomed the mass exodus which it precipitated. Nor is there any evidence that the commanders of the invading armies broadcast appeals to the Palestinian Arabs to leave."

In addition, he points out, "For many years we were assured that the creation of more and more settlements on the West Bank was necessary for Israel's security and had nothing to do with any expansionist designs of the 'Greater Israel' kind. Then that pretense was abandoned."

Jews are called upon to pursue justice, as stated in the Book of Deuteronomy (16:20): "Justice, justice shall you follow." In Rabbi Rayner's view, "Clearly we have a duty to consider the implications of the justice principles for the Palestinians as well as for Israel...What is needed is nothing less than a heroic act of reconciliation going far beyond the normal parameters of the Realpolitik-driven international behavior. Israelis and Palestinians need to meet in humility and declare: 'We have done much wrong to one another, and it has brought nothing but disaster to both our peoples. Now let us confess our past mistakes and make a fresh start. Let us devise a compromise which will give neither of us all that we would like but which is the best solution realistically attainable. And let us therefore agree upon such a compromise, not grudgingly but magnanimously, for the benefit of both our peoples, and of the

Middle East as a whole, and as an example to humanity...The responsibility of Jews who are sensitive to their religious heritage is not to bolster partisanship...but to raise the debate to a higher level. Politics is indeed the art of the possible. But the boundaries of the possible can be extended. And the task of religion is, by its moral influence, to do just that."

In Israel itself there are many who argue that the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories and the collective punishment-such as the demolition of Palestinians' houses-is threatening not only its security but its moral values and standing in the world.

David Becomes Goliath

Professor Van Creveld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, author of The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force, writes that, "David has become Goliath. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, a country which at that time was little more than a collection of militias, none of which had a single modern tank. Since then the mighty Israeli army has fought nothing but enemies far weaker than itself. That has sapped the national spirit and led to sharp internal division...The story of modern Israel is unique. Having been humiliated and mistreated like no other people in history, the Jews rose and returned to their ancient homeland after 2,000 years. This is a tale of almost unprecedented heroism and self-sacrifice. And not so long ago, that heroism was capable not only of leading to very great military feats, but also of commanding the admiration of people the world over. Now, unless it does what has to be done, Israel stands in grave danger of losing not just the struggle, but its soul."

In his book, Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, Hebrew University Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues that Judaism is a religion dedicated to God, not to any particular geographical area, and that those who have confused Judaism and the policies of the State of Israel are guilty of a kind of idolatry.

"As for the 'religious' arguments for the annexation of the territories-these are only an expression, subconsciously or perhaps even overtly hypocritical, of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism," he writes. "Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state- which is only an instrument serving human needs-supreme value from a religious standpoint...The idea that a specific country or location have an intrinsic 'holiness' is an indubitably idolatrous idea...Nationalism and patriotism as such are not religious values. The prophets of Israel in the period of the first commonwealth and the Jewish sages in the period of the second commonwealth were, for the most part, 'traitors' from the perspective of secular nationalism and patriotism. The rabbis who argue today that we should keep the territories for 'religious reasons' are not carrying on the tradition of Elijah and the prophets of God but rather of the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah 'who ate at the table of Jezebel."'

From the beginning many Jews who supported one form or another of a Jewish "homeland" were concerned about the rights of the present inhabitants of Palestine. Ahad Ha'am, the Russian Jewish writer and philosopher, in 1913 protested against a Jewish boycott of Arab labor. He wrote: "I can't put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to humans of another people, and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: If this is so now, what will our relations to the other be like if, at the end of time, we really achieve power in Eretz Yisrael? And if this be the Messiah, I do not wish to see this coming."

In 1922, young Jewish zealots killed an Arab boy. This brought a cry of rage from Ahad Ha'am: "Jews and blood-are there two greater opposites than these? Is this the goal for which our ancestors longed and for which they suffered all those tribulations? Is this the dream of the return to Zion which our people dreamt of for thousands of years; that we should come to Zion to pollute its soil with the spilling of innocent blood?"

Eighty years after those words were written, the contradiction between Jewish values and the uses of Israeli power is becoming a reality recognized by more and more Jews who seek to restore the humane religious tradition of their faith and separate it from the nationalism which, all too often, has corrupted it.


Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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