It was the last day of Hanukkah when Temple Emanuel and nine other Great Neck synagogues hosted a fascinating debate about "Israel & the Crisis of Zionism". The debate centered on by Israel's actions related to Gaza and the West Bank, but was as much about the identity of American Jews and their relationship to Israel. The issue is complicated by the fact that many American Jews also identify with progressive politics, which has somehow cast Israel as a brutal Occupier, so that when it comes to Israel, many American Jews align with Conservatives (Republican) who have no moral compunction against using force to achieve political ends (a broad statement, I know).
In this debate, Peter Beinart who is senior political writer for The Daily Beast and editor-in-chief of Open Zion, a blog about Israel, and author of The Icarus Syndrome and The Good Fight, clearly represented an American progressive point of view that has equated Israel's West Bank policies with South African apartheid. Here in Great Neck - only the second time he and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin appeared to debate the issue together - Beinart took a decidedly softer stance than his writings would suggest - making clear that he supported Israel (he is Jewish), and in the opening round, neglected to mention he has called for a global boycott of goods and products from Jewish settlements on the West Bank, though not from Israel "proper".
Beinart began by calling Israel's creation and continued existence "a blessing" and "a miracle" but believes that Israel's policy in the West Bank will result in its own destruction as a democratic Jewish state. So, to save Israel as a democratic Jewish state, Israel should suspend settlements in the West Bank.
"We now have what we didn’t have in the 1940s, when our people were being led to slaughter: a country whose mission is protection of Jewish life. Some Jews may take that for granted, I don’t.
"Israel is a blessing. Thanks to the Zionist movement, Israel is the cultural center for Jews around the world – based on Hebrew as a living language. How much harder it would be on the Jews of the Diaspora if we did not have Israel and modern Hebrew to anchor us.
"But these inspiring, even miraculous accomplishments are put at risk by settlements in the West Bank which are a threat to Israel as democratic Jewish state.
"Israel is not, should not be a secular democracy like the United States; it should have a special obligation to the Jewish people.
"But if democracy is not the entire [essence] of the Zionist dream, it is necessary to the Zionist dream. Theodor Herzl understood this. His novel is about an election in an imaginary Jewish state where one candidate is a Jewish Arab and another wants to restrict that right solely to Jews…
"'I say to you, therefore, that you must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion!'," Herzl wrote.
"Israel’s founders understood this – in 1948, three years after the Holocaust, with the stench of Jewish death still hanging over Europe, with Israel at war for its very survival, a ragtag army with numbers tattooed on arms, Israel’s founders wrote a declaration of independence that promised complete equality, irrespective of race, religion or sect.
"That vision is crucial to the miracle, the return to sovereignty… and why the Israeli flag hangs in my 6 and 4 year old children's rooms.
"That miracle is imperiled by Israel’s control of West Bank – in flagrant violation of Israel’s declaration, Jews carry identity cards with blue covers- citizenship, vote, due process, and are waved through check points. West Bank Palestinians carry green or orange covers that deny them citizenship in any state, deny them the right to vote, severely restrict travel.
"Those cards place them under the jurisdiction of military courts where evidence is largely secret, people are held months or years without trial, and where according to investigation by Haaretz, more than 99% tried in 2010 were convicted. Between 2005-2010, according to a Israeli human rights group, 835 Palestinian miners were brought before military court for stone throwing, only one was found innocent.
"The problem is not the character of the Jews in West Bank – the place where tradition says all the matriarchs and patriarchs are laid to rest- I believe Jews should be able to live there as equal citizens of West Bank…
"The problem is that the West Bank is a place where citizenship is ethnically based, where Jews and Palestinians live under different law – Israel’s continued settlement imperils a viable Palestinian state and therefore imperils Israel’s future as democratic Jewish state."
This, he says, is because Israel is making it harder to make borders, keeping the settlements, and producing a Palestinian state that is contiguous, and Israel does not have enough "high quality land" to trade.
Here is where he loses me. Israel did not just take this land. Israel won this land after repeated wars, in which if the Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians or Lebanese would have won, they would have slaughtered the Jews and would not have had a second thought about taking over the land. They would not have the city of Jerusalem, holy to three major world religions, open to all people. Even today, the Palestinians do not allow Jews to visit the Holy Mount, where Abraham is said to have nearly sacrificed Isaac, the singular act which established the Jews' covenant with God.
But Beinart believes that the settlements make a two-state solution harder to accomplish, and a "one-state" solution is out of the question, "because the effort to maintain itself as a nondemocratic Jewish state would make it an economic pariah."
Again, apparently acknowledging his audience, Beinart added, "I believe Palestinians do bear significant blame for the failure to achieve a two-state solution that would allow Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state. The Palestinians have badly undermined their cause through the terrorism that is grotesque and unforgivable.
"There is a growing tendency to deny the connection of Jews and the land of Israel, and a real question whether Palestinian leaders will make the necessary compromise, especially on Refugee Return necessary to make the two-state solution pass."
But he chastises the Netanyahu government for giving Israeli's financial incentives to forge new settlements in the West Bank. What is more, he accuses Netanyahu of refusing to talk with Abbas.
Such actions, he says, "make [the Palestinians] look like fools and make Hamas and Hezbollah stronger.
"I don’t know if Palestinians will ultimately make concessions, especially on Refugee Return, that are necessary for a two-state solution, but I am darn sure they won’t make those concessions if won’t get a viable, contiguous Palestinian state in return.
"Even if you don’t believe that a Palestinian state is possible tomorrow, you have an obligation to try to stop the settlement subsidies that will soon foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state forever."
Anticipating Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's response, he argued, "He will talk about Israeli security, but subsidizing settlements does not enhance security, it endangers security. That’s what every head of Mossad and Shein Beit have said. And even if you believe Israel needs to maintain control, that doesn’t justify paying Israeli civilians to move – if Arab countries were – God forbid- to invade Israel again, having remote civilian settlements scattered through the West Bank would be a nightmare for Israeli Defense Forces to protect."
He cited Sharon's adviser, who said that continuing to build settlements in the West Bank places Israel's destiny as a Jewish homeland in the hands of the Palestinians "because when you destroy the two-state solution, you give Israel’s enemies the possibility to do politically what have been unable to do militarily."
"This is about giving Israel control over its destiny. Settlement takes destiny out of Israel’s hands.
"If the American Jewish community does not end its silence and help Israel regain control of its destiny as a democratic Jewish state, we will be betraying our obligation to keep Israel alive for children and grandchildren."
Riskin: History Supports Israel's West Bank Policies
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and founding chief rabbi of the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, challenged Beinart's on the facts he uses to make his case.
"Fundamentally his argument is that after the Six Day War [in 1967], Israel occupied much of the West Bank, subjugated the 2.5 million Arabs without giving them the vote, without making them Israeli citizens, and by so doing, we’ve lost the ethos of democracy, by so doing we are preventing the existence of a two-state solution.
"Peter believes that for our own moral good – Peter didn’t say it [today] but writes – we should be boycotting the products of the West Bank. In saying this, he joins the voices of Israel’s strongest enemies, because boycotting is de-legitimizing, not just critiquing.
But Riskin counters, "We never occupied the West Bank – we are not occupiers of the West Bank, we never took over the West Bank. And never took over the Arabs in the West Bank.
"Jews have lived in Israel for 4000 years – an unbroken chain, especially in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tsfat, Tiberias. We were exiled, always dreamed of coming back – every Passover seder, every wedding ceremony renews the call to return.
"The last vestige of Islam's power was the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century – they lost World War I in 1918. Islam historically has believed in conquest by sword, and the Koran says specifically that any country that was once under Islam's control can never be out of Islam's control.
"At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, the Balfour Declaration called for the establishment within the Middle East of 18 Arab states, given to the indigenous people (not Ottoman empire) and one Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. This was strengthened in 1922 (November 24) by the League of Nations that gave the right of Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank, without any kind of limitations.
"On November 29, 1947, with the pin pricks of conscience after the Holocaust, the United Nations decided to take the West Bank, which was still open and divided – 80% for Palestinians and 20% for Jews – and we accepted. The Palestinians and Arab world did not, and that was our war of independence.
"Arabs fight for keeps. When we lost the city of Jerusalem, it meant that no Jew could pray at the Western Wall, every single synagogue and Yeshiva was turned into latrine or donkey stall, and every synagogue desecrated.
"We were willing to live under 1947 lines that – I must tell you – would be impossible for Israel to exist without the settlement blocks. That’s clearly been understood by leader after leader.
"In an important letter from President Clinton, it was not even expected we return to those lines that Abba Eban called the Auschwitz lines. The settlement blocks were extremely important.
"We were ready to live within the area after the war of independence, 1948 – but the Arabs weren’t happy because they don’t want us here at all – and they started the Six Day War to push us into the sea. We won miraculously, truly miraculously. United Nations Resolution 242 declared that Israel would administrate the lands. Why? Because the land was promised to us…
"The Arabs wanted to destroy us completely. By international law we should get more of the lands. However, Palestinians were living there. We didn’t want them but we were to administrate them until we could agree with the Palestinians on safe and secure borders for Israel. It could not be without some part of West Bank, and that was the manner in which the difficulties between us hopefully will be able to be settled by negotiation.
"We were always ready to negotiate.
"In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a good deal: 94% of the West Bank will be Palestine. We’ll have the 6% of settlement blocks, Efrat is part.
"They met with other leaders and Kissinger in Essex House. They thought we would be giving up too much, but once it was agreed to by Barak, they should go along.
"[Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir] Arafat said no – and in Arabic explained they don’t want to go back to pre-1967 borders, they want to go to pre-1948 lines, before Israel was a state. If you read Arabic, you realize that for the Palestinians, an illegal settlement is Tel Aviv as well as Efrat, because they don’t want us there are all.
"Sharon tried hard. He unilaterally left Gaza in 2005. We went there not in order to make a two-state solution impossible. We went there to protect ourselves from Egypt – and that’s what all the settlement blocks are – the 6% is to build a ring around Jerusalem and protect Jerusalem, because when there was no such ring in 1948, Jerusalem fell – That’s why we’re there."
There was not a sound in the audience that filled the sanctuary into the social room at Temple Emanuel, as Rabbi Riskin recited the history.
He described how Israel left a settlement where they had built magnificent hot houses from which the settlers exported vegetables and flowers all over the world, and where 10,000 people were gainfully employed.
But once the Israelis left, "the Palestinians burnt them to the ground and from that point on, Hamas took over. They launched 8000 rockets into Ashdod and southern Israel - where 42.8% of the population are children…. That was the result of leaving the settlements and not having the buffer that was so important, and we are still suffering from that because of all the artillery that came against us.
"We have always begged for a two-state solution... Netanyahu said in front of United Nations he favors a two-state solution and is willing to sit down with Abbas but Abbas never acknowledged that Israel is a Jewish state.
What Abbas says in Arabic about a two-state solution is that there will be a Palestinian state and a Jewish state that will have a majority of Palestinians after the right of return. That’s why there’s no two-state solution, not because of the settlements, especially since all we ask for is the 6% of the settlement blocks."
Riskin notes that there had been no building in Efrat for 10 years, and still Abbas didn't negotiate, because he will never be able to accept any compromise whatsoever. What they want – why there’s no two-state solution – is the whole of Israel out."
Next, Riskin disputed the notion that Israel is undemocratic, that it functions as if it were an apartheid state.
"There are Arabs who speak out against Israel in Knesset, Palestinians have more rights in Israel than they have in Islamic countries, certainly their wives do.
"We have not occupied the Arabs – they are running everything – all we are doing is protecting ourselves in terms of security.
"There were Palestinians who live near Efrat who wanted to join Israel, who we were willing to accept as full Israeli citizens with the vote and Arafat told them they would all be killed. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want them to have the vote in Israel – does not want them to become part of Israel.
"When people refer to 'occupied territories,' they think of Nazis who occupied Poland, France, who confiscated the bank accounts and took all the belongs. That’s not what’s happening. We don’t want to control them. The Palestinian Authority won’t allow them to become citizens of Israel with voting rights. It is not us who denied to them.
"We’re only trying to protect ourselves as best we can.
"We will meet with Abbas at any time. Just don’t tell me no settlements, because without the settlements, the only thing to negotiate is the Right of Return and we’re not about to commit suicide."
Riskin also points to a culture of hatred against Israel perpetuated by the Palestinians.
"Mahmoud Abbas controls the media. Two months ago, I watched the 6 pm program on Palestinian TV, when a 10 year old girl read the following poem: "The occupiers stole my land and my grandfather’s land. Where is your sword? Where is your courage? Where is my weapon? I found a stone, I threw it at my enemies of destiny, our enemy Zion…"
A terrorist who murdered 120 Israeli civilians was released by Israel and lionized in a big ceremony by Abbas.
"Abbas who controls the media allows the hatred to go on, and we are preventing a two-state solution because we have settlement blocks to protect tour lives?
"Peter I believe you are sincere – if you want to put sanctions on anyone put sanctions on Palestinians who refuse to sit with us, who still spew their horrific hatred in the media every single day. Punish them, don’t punish us.
"We never target civilians; they only target civilians – 8000 rockets, mostly headed for kindergartens and those kinds of schools. Don’t punish us and join our enemies.
"I love the morals you preach, that Zionism means a Jewish state which is based on compassionate righteousness and moral judgments. Israel has made mistakes. War stinks and filled with mistakes. People are mistakenly killed, and sometimes people in detention shouldn’t be. But you are dealing with a nation that professes to kill us now, today. Don’t blame us for protecting ourselves, don’t call us undemocratic because we’re only trying to protect ourselves, with UN permission in this case – Resolution 242 gave us that job.
"We do have power. I think we are using it with tremendous restraint – that was clear in the last war.
"May God continue to give strength to his people, strength military and strength of moral judgments. We’re the only democracy in the Middle East."
Riskin noted that 16 people from Efrat were murdered by suicide.
"Why blame us and not blame them... Why punish us for wanting to protect ourselves and whitewash our enemies that they will never give one inch and want to destroy us," he said, to the only applause of the afternoon.
In the end, both have taken overly broad positions:
Beinart does not advocate for Israel unilaterally abandoning the West Bank settlements, just not aggressively expanding further.
Riskin argues that the existing West Bank settlements are necessary to create a security barrier as well as a bargaining chip so that Right of Return is not the only bargaining chip available.
They are both right.
But they are both wrong, too: Beinart is wrong to apply a moral standard to Israel that is simply unrealistic; Riskin is wrong to justify further aggressive expansion of settlements because instead of creating an incentive for negotiations, is poisoning the atmosphere for negotiations, as well as relations with the international community, including American progressives.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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