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Address To JRF Israel Policies Task Force Meeting on June 9, 2003

To help give this 40 minute address coherence, I've divided it into 10 chapters, and as I proceed I'll announce the chapter headings. The first is:

I. Church/State - the balance wheel

You may think it strange, given the purpose of tonight's discussion that I begin with some comments about the history of the separation of government from religion in western society. Its relevance will soon be apparent. That history for the past fifty years has been my anchor, my balance wheel, shaping my point of view regarding America and Israel in an increasingly tumultuous world as well as my point of view regarding the role of American Jews in those two societies. Our community, as you know, has played a particularly aggressive role in litigating church/state separation issues here in the United States in matters such as religion in the public schools, and public funding for the teaching of religion in parochial schools and religious symbols on public property and I suspect you and your congregants know and approve of such activities. But those issues are truly peripheral to the history of separation. To borrow a phrase from a different context, they are our way of "building a fence around the law" but you and I know from that other context that excessive focus on the fence around the law may distract us rather than remind us of the core of the matter.

The core of the matter is that whenever and wherever there has been a marriage between religion and government, whenever and wherever religion has leaned on government to enforce its strictures, whenever and wherever government has depended on the power of religion, both religion and government have been deeply corrupted and the liberties of the people destroyed. That is a history that should be taught in our schools and in our congregations, whether one begins with Henry VIII and his break with the Church in order to marry the pregnant Ann Bolyn carrying within her the future Queen Elizabeth, or the terrible thirty years war on the European continent that ended in 1648 and brought about a new and different kind of toleration than the Catholic French and the Lutheran Germans had previously understood, or the writings of Roger Williams, or Moses Mendelssohn or Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance or Jefferson or Voltaire - all of them tell the story that the combination of religion and government is inevitably destructive. In that regard I refer you to a book that I believe is now out of print: Church, State and Freedom by the late Leo Pfeffer. As I said, the relevance of all this will soon be apparent.

II. "They say - we say"

The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as enduring and complex as it has been, does really not take that long to summarize because the details are so repetitive - so depressingly repetitive. The Palestinians say we have been on this land since time immemorial. The Jews say we had a state here 3,000 years ago that lasted until the Romans threw us out 2,000 years ago. The Palestinians laugh and ask whether the American Indians may now claim back the United States. We respond that whenever it was possible in the last 2,000 years, we too were on that land, and as a matter of fact have been a majority in Jerusalem ever since 1850, before Herzl was even born. And then of course came the holocaust. Before it reached its tragic ultimate dimensions, Vladimir Jabotinsky addressed the Peel Commission in 1937 and said this: "It is understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would prefer to be the fourth or fifth or sixth Arab state [that's how many there were then, not the 21 that exist now] - that much I quite understand; but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation. In order for this tribunal to do justice, you must take into consideration what should constitute the basic justification of all human demands - the decisive, terrible, balance of Need." Need! He must have screamed it out. My own metaphor has been to think of the world in the 1930's and 40's as a hotel in which all the rooms are already occupied. What happens then to an ancient, honorable, people when the clerk says to them, all the rooms are full and no one has volunteered to give you shelter, not even temporary shelter. The Peel Commission's answer was partition, and that has been the Jewish people's answer too for the past 65 years. It was not the Palestinians' answer, and we said that's too bad but we're moving in anyway.

The Palestinians argue that the holocaust was not their fault and they should not have to pay the price for it. We might or might not remind them that their leader in the early 1940's, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, chose to side with Hitler; but that is not really the point. We had this unspeakably enormous Need, we had to choose between disappearing from history or recreating our people in its ancient homeland, and we chose the latter.

III. The Hardest Issues - the Refugees' Right of Return

Let me move on to speak a little bit about the Palestinians' continuing insistence that they have a right of return to their 1948 homes - a return not to the territories but to the cities, villages and homes that they occupied in what is now Israel, places from which they fled or were ejected in the midst of that war. They, and their children and their grandchildren and their great grandchildren have languished in refugee camps in various places in the Middle East for the past 55 years. In the massive upheavals following the Second World War, there were over 40 million refugees. Twelve and one-half million Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia were expelled and allowed to take only the possessions they could carry, and they received no compensation. Eight million Hindus fled Pakistan and went to India and six million Muslims left India and went to Pakistan rather than becoming caught in the violence that engulfed those two nations. No special international relief organizations were established to aid them in resettlement. All told, there were forty million refugees in that period, including the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish refugees from Arab lands resulting from the birth pangs of the new state in 1947-48. Only Palestinians have languished in refugee camps from then until now. I hope you will pardon the personal reference, but it pleases me to recall that the first time I was arrested in a civil rights demonstration was in 1964, when I marched in a demonstration in front of the Jordanian Pavilion at the New York's World Fair, a pavilion that contained within it a massive portrait of a Palestinian mother in a refugee camp coddling her infant. The protest was over the use of the World Fair's grounds for purposes of political propaganda. We were arrested, jailed for a day after being body searched and several months later were tried and acquitted. What gives me great pleasure, and even some hope in the current terrible circumstances, is that I came to know King Hussein many years later, in the 80's and the early 90's, and immediately after Jordan and Israel made peace in 1994 I had the very great honor of introducing the late King and his wife, Queen Noor, to the leadership of the American Jewish community. Remember please that Jordan was the only Middle East nation in which large numbers of Palestinian refugees in refugee camps were permitted to assimilate and to become Jordanian citizens. King Hussein, and Anwar Sadat too, are symbols of hope because they demonstrated that change is possible.

We are coming to the heart of the matter when we talk about the Palestinian "right of return" because from the beginning of the recreation of the Jewish homeland, the main point was to have one place in the world where the majority was Jewish so that if Jews were persecuted anywhere else the decision that they could come home to Israel would be made by their fellow Jews. Some months before the first Intifada in 1987, the American Jewish Congress became the first and to this day the only major American Jewish organization to publicly call for a return of the territories to the Palestinians and to reject the concept of a Greater Israel, on the ground that otherwise within our lifetimes Jews would no longer be a majority in their own land and either the majority Palestinian population would then govern Israel or Israel would have to deny the majority population of very basic civil rights much as the Afrikaaners did to the native population in South Africa. Five years later, in 1992, Prime Minister Rabin decided that a two-state solution was absolutely essential and for those very same reasons, which he repeated time and again. Arafat knew and had always known that that was the heart of the entire Jewish enterprise. All of us, Palestinians and Jews alike, understood a two-state solution to mean one Jewish state and one Palestinian state. I met with Arafat many times after September 1993 and believed that perhaps like King Hussein and Anwar Sadat had changed, he had changed. But his non-negotiable demand in the summer of 2000 at Camp David II for a Palestinian right of return to Israel itself, not to mention his answer to President Clinton's effort to persuade him to compromise over Jerusalem's Temple Mount - which was, "What Temple? The Jews had no temples. It's a legend." - was nothing less than a return to square one, a refusal to accept Israel's existence, in essence a renewal of the 1948 War. Arafat demonstrated that perhaps one can change, but one could also change back again.


IV. The Hardest issues – Settlements


Needless to say, Israel has not been without fault, most especially in regard to the issue of settlements. In 1977 the Labor party was ousted and for the first time in the history of the new state Likud, led by Menachem Begin, came to power. Only months later, in November 1977, Anwar Sadat made his great peace overture, but notwithstanding the exciting negotiations that followed, Begin and his Agricultural Minister Ariel Sharon hastily began settlement encampments, trailers manned by Orthodox Jews and their families, on the hills surrounding major Arab population centers in the West Bank, now to be referred to by their biblical names Judea and Samaria. I was not yet chairman of the Conference of Presidents at that time, but I led a delegation of eight Jewish leaders - the Presidents and Executive Directors of the AJ Committee, AJ Congress, Anti-Defamation League and NJCRAC -- to meet with Prime Minister Begin in order to express our great concern over what was happening. It is interesting to think about it now, more than 25 years later, because we did not have the nerve to say to him what all of us felt - that those settlements would ruin the possibility of a two-state solution, and would lead to a Greater Israel in which the majority would no longer be Jewish thus defeating our dream of one state in which the majority was Jewish. Instead, we told him something else, something that was also true, but not nearly as essential: that to build settlements in the face of Sadat's great peace overture was losing him the support of the American public and the American government under Jimmy Carter. Our plea did not make a dent.

A lot happened in the several years immediately following that. Begin had his way, he got a peace treaty with Egypt but because he would not seriously discuss negotiations with the Palestinians it was a cold peace and Sadat was regarded as a pariah among other Middle East leaders and as you'll recall was assassinated two years later, Moshe Dayan resigned from the Israeli Cabinet in 1979 because in his view it had become an annexationist cabinet. As Chairman of the Conference I urged all Jewish organizations to consider within their respective organizations whether a "Greater Israel" was in the interest of the Jewish people, including of course those of us who lived in the Jewish Diaspora, and bring back to the next meeting of the Conference their conclusions, but a block of those organizations insisted that that matter be removed entirely from the agenda of the Conference of Presidents.

On my last day as Chairman of the Conference I spoke in Israel about the subject with which I began tonight's talk, about how the whole settlement movement was one more deadly result of the marriage of religion and government, about how a secular government which to stay in power and to actualize their very secular dreams of manifest destiny, of a Greater Israel, was using Orthodox families who believed that God wanted them to settle in Judea and Samaria; and about how the Orthodox parties that were helping to keep the Likud in power were using their new found governmental strength to discourage any other religious streams from arising in Israel; and mostly about how those settlements were turning a soluble national conflict into an insoluble religious war - and that is the very worst kind of war - involving two different views of what it is that God wants. From then, until now, the building of settlements has continued under every administration in Israel, including under Prime Minister Rabin and Prime Minister Barak even though polls consistently show that for the last 25 years a majority of Israeli and a majority of American Jews, understanding that settlements make a two-state solution impossible, have wanted them to be dismantled - at least they have felt that way until very recently, a modification I will return to in a moment.

I thought for a brief moment, after Dr. Baruch Goldstein murdered some 28 Palestinians in the act of praying at the tomb of our forefathers, which so enraged Rabin and virtually the entire Israeli population, that Rabin would at the very least dismantle the Jewish settlement at Hebron, without risking a potential civil war. But he did not. And today, sorry to say, there is a monument to Dr. Baruch Goldstein somewhere between Hebron and Kiryat Arba that matches or exceeds in size the monument for David Ben Gurion at S'de Boker.

So I have spoken now about two of the hardest issues - the Palestinian refugees' "right of return" and the Jewish settlers' rights to build settlements in the territories. In a sense they are two sides of the same coin. Both lead to the same terrible end-point, the extinction of a Jewish majority in any state - either the "greater Israel" that the settlers seek or the smaller Israel, the current Israel, overflowing however with the descendants of refugees returning to the places where they lived before 1948. The two-state solution, my next chapter heading, is the means by which most of us hope to avoid that terrible end-point.

V. The Two-State Solution

There are those in our community, needless to say, who oppose a two state solution. I have trouble comprehending that because as I see it the only alternative is never-ending war. I have yet to hear any other alternative from our ZOA leadership, and it isn't as though I never asked. I have asked Moshe Arens, a leader of the Likud party, a former minister of defense under Prime Minister Shamir, a former civil administrator of the occupied territories, a man I respect deeply and whose intellect is extraordinary and who respected the Palestinians' civil liberties and civil rights when he was in charge of administering the territories. He would say to me enigmatically that this is going to be a 75 year struggle, and that is as far as he would go, never explaining to me how he hoped that struggle would play out. This of course was before the suicide bombings that began in 2000. This of course was before 9/11 a year later when the 75 year national struggle he was talking about took a decisive turn toward becoming a religious war, Islam versus Israel and the west, this was before America, Israel's most important ally, took the lead in the fight against terror for reasons unrelated to Israel and made clear that in that fight it wanted to have as many Islamic nations on its side as possible. It was obviously a happy day when Israel realized that it would no longer be alone in the fight against terrorists, but that also meant that America's goals and purposes also had to be taken into account by Israel, and in fact would have to be decisive. America has no intention of spending the next 75 years in the struggle against terror if that struggle can be won in three or five years. I wonder what Moshe Arens thinks about a 75 year struggle today, in light of these changed circumstances.

Most of us here, probably all of us, favor a two state solution but here, I expect, we come to the discussion we must have if your goal is to develop a common view on these matters for the Reconstructionist movement. Yes, all of us here favor a two state solution, but our reasons may be very different, and in reaching out to your membership - or in reaching out to the broader Jewish community in order to achieve some common point of view on matters of such great import - the reasons became important. Let me explain.

Fifteen years ago Tom Smerling and I founded Project Nishma which in 1997 we merged into the Israel Policy Forum. New Jewish organizations should not be started to duplicate functions carried out by other organizations. Americans for Peace Now (APN) already existed; who needed a Project Nishma? But my sense of it then, and now, was that while Americans for Peace Now was fighting for a two state solution, which most Americans Jews wanted, American Jews would never unite in support of a program supporting the idea that justice requires that there be a Palestinian state, or the idea that Palestinians deserve a state of their own. Most American Jews don't believe that, I don't believe that, and the 150 community leaders from all over the country that we brought together under the banner of Project Nishma for the most part did not believe that justice requires the creation of a Palestinian state or indeed that Palestinians as a people deserve a state of their own; not given the history of the struggle I have so briefly described tonight, the history of a people who time and again and again and again rejected partition, refused to negotiate a compromise of competing claims to the same land and, to quote Abba Eban have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

The "justice for the Palestinians" rationale has become even more untenable in the last several years, when the Israeli-Palestinian struggle exploded into a war in which the suicide bomb has become the Palestinians' primary weapon. Think of it this way: The reinvasion of the West Bank after the Passover 2002 suicide bombing in Netanya did indeed increase the humanitarian plight of the Palestinians, but it also drastically reduced the Israeli deaths from suicide attacks. So what is the moral calculus in such a zero-sum game?

To return to the point I was making, in Project Nishma we created three co-chairs: to my left, Henry Rosofsky, Dean of Harvard's faculty, a leader of APN and a good friend; to my right Earl Raab, more conservative than I am on these issues. That way we could appeal to a broad swath of the Jewish community all of whom believed at least this: That a Palestinian state is essential simply because Israel will not endure if it continues indefinitely to rule over another people, especially an Islamic people, in a world of more than 1 billion Muslims, that if Israel finally gave up the notion of Greater Israel and negotiated out a resolution of the conflict which required only that the new Palestinian state be essentially demilitarized, then given the fact that Israel has the strongest and most modern and efficient military in that part of the world, the Jewish state would be far more secure than it is today.

The real alternatives may very well be either the terrible status quo or a very cold peace with the Palestinians. We hope, of course, for something much better, for a transformation of the entire region as the current administration in Washington claims it seeks to achieve. But even if the realistic choice is between the untenable status quo and having an unfriendly but demilitarized state next door, it is the latter choice that is by far the most secure choice. In a world of more than 1 billion Muslims, a two state solution is infinitely preferable to ongoing and perpetual war.

All of us see some merit in a reasonably united American Jewry, but there is no hope for that happening if on the one side there is a movement of Jews struggling to bring about a two state solution because justice for the Palestinians requires it and on the other side is a movement that simply believes in an ongoing struggle with no foreseeable end. On the other hand coming together in favor of a two state solution because that is really the only way that Israel will be secure and endure, holds out some hope of bringing together the disparate strands of opinions within our community, all but those on the extreme right fringe.

VI. Frenzy and Fantasy

I said earlier that I have always favored dismantling of all settlements in the territories, but for the first time have some doubt about whether it should happen right now. That is because I am deeply concerned about the effect on the Palestinians of a voluntary decision by the Israelis to withdraw from the settlements. I fear that the announcement of such a voluntary decision would be regarded as such a huge victory by the Palestinians that it would be counterproductive, by which I mean it would encourage them to continue the struggle, continue the suicide bombings. Only the dismantling of settlements that appears to have been imposed upon Israel by the United States will avoid that terrible possibility.

Perhaps any people that has felt trampled upon for so many hundreds of years as have the Arab people, would react the same way. I'm thinking of the frenzy of the Palestinians who burned down the tomb of Joseph in Nablus as a victory celebration when Prime Minister Barak and Shimon Peres pulled back the IDF a few kilometers as a good will gesture right after the second intifada began in October 2000; or the frenzy among masses of poor Egyptians in the weeks before the six day war when their leader closed the Straits of Tiran and ordered the United Nations to leave, or the frenzy of the local population in front of the police barracks in Ramala in October or November 2000, demanding that the bodies of the reservists who mistakenly took a wrong turn be thrown down to them so that they could tear them apart, or the fantasies of great victories that have been proclaimed by Egypt's Nasser as long ago as June 6, 1967 and by Iraq's Hussein as recently as March 2003.

VII. America and Israel connections in a world of terror

It is important that we focus for a few moments on the relationship between America and Israel and how it has changed since the mother of all suicide attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 - 19 suicides within half an hour. Of course that relationship has been very solid, quite extraordinary, over many decades now, with the United States Congress and Republican administrations focusing on strengthening Israel and Democratic administrations, while not ignoring Israel's military needs, focusing more on attempting to achieve peace. Jimmy Carter's personal role in bringing about peace between Israel and Egypt (which lost the Democrats a Jewish majority for probably the only time in a presidential election in the 20th century!) was an absolutely phenomenal achievement and has eliminated any nation against nation war involving Israel for the last 25 years. President Clinton's attempt to bring peace to the region is still fresh in our minds. Except for the 1994 peace between Jordan and Israel - and I don't want to minimize that - his inability to otherwise achieve peace was surely not for lack of trying or for lack of talent.

But there has been a major change in the American-Israel relationship since 9/11. The State Department in particular, throughout all those years and right up to 9:00 a.m. on September 11, 2001, was highly critical of how Israel carried out its war against terror, for example (and there are so many examples) critical of Golda Meir's determination to hunt down and assassinate every one of the killers of the Israeli Olympic athletes no matter where they were; critical of preventive attacks such as the 1981 destruction of the Iraqi nuclear facility; of a willingness to aggressively fight terror even if it meant "collateral" damage; of a broad definition of "just wars," i.e., small wars now to prevent bigger wars later; wars to set an example to those nations harboring terrorists or developing weapons of mass destruction. You may not like it, but the fact is that the United States, once terror was brought directly to our shores, reacted exactly as Israel did when terror was brought directly to their shores.

We could have an interesting discussion on the morality of Israel's, and now America's, methods of fighting terror. When Sam Lewis, one of my favorite human beings, was the ambassador of the United States to Israel, he and I would have those morality discussions, with Sam arguing the State Department's position that morality required that the reaction to terror must not be excessive but should be proportional and my insistence that, morality aside, no democratically elected prime minister or president could last in office unless first and foremost he dealt with the public's personal fears for their lives and the lives of their children and "proportional" reactions to terror attacks would never be regarded as adequate. The evidence of that is before our eyes today, here in America, with a president who seems to be doing just about everything wrong on the domestic scene but who nevertheless is supported by a high percentage of the American public because he appears to be doing everything possible to protect the American public, following the example almost to the letter of what Israeli leaders have done to protect their citizens from the horrors of terror.

VIII. The Second Coming

I understand how this support of a less than mediocre president has come about. You will recall William Butler Yeats' famous poem, "The Second Coming," in which he envisions how chaos and anarchy are loosed upon a world that has many falcons but no falconer. Deep in our guts, as individuals we fear anarchy and chaos more than almost anything and I think most Americans concluded a long time ago that the United Nations is no falconer, and if there is no other falconer the responsibility must fall upon us, the world's only remaining superpower. Whatever his other failings, and we could have a six hour discussion discussing them, from the moment on 9/11 when an aide whispered the awful news in his ear, his immediate willingness to play the role of falconer in the midst of an increasingly anarchic world calmed the fears of the American public - the fear that perhaps no one, absolutely no one, was in charge anymore.

IX. The fears of my time

I want to speak for a moment about the fears of my time. Some few of you were adults in the early 1950's when the very future of civilization - to personalize it more, the whole idea of having children and grandchildren - rested on the validity of the MAD theory, the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction, the theory that if the United States and the Soviet Union each had thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear war heads, neither would start a war because that would be an act of suicide. The theory was rational enough; it was rational to believe that the Russian people and the Soviet leaders wanted civilization, their families, to endure as much as we did. But of course the theory did not take into account that mistakes, errors, are made by everyone without exception, and with considerable frequency, and the fact that all of us knew that was so was a source of great anxiety. The remarkable fact that no fatal error was made for the next 50 years is considered by some as the ultimate argument for the belief in a benevolent God. Somehow we learned to live with those fears and anxieties, and finally the Soviet empire fell apart. Today the fear of terrorism is, or at least should be, even greater. If terrorists or terrorist states are able to acquire missiles and nuclear warheads, or biological or chemical weapons, the theory of mutually assured destruction will assuredly not apply, because unlike the Russian people and the Soviet leaders there are terrorists throughout the world for whom the fear of suicide is no deterrent. To the contrary, they welcome it. That is why the threat today is very different from what it was 50 years ago and much greater. Whether we like it or not, there must be a falconer and I doubt that anybody here would prefer that that role be played by someone other than the United States.

X. American Jewry's Role

Perhaps I have gone way beyond the assigned topic. But I wanted to end my remarks by talking about American Jewry's role in terms of the Middle East conflict, and I'm afraid that can't be done without considering America's role in protecting civilization in a time of international terror together with Israel's role in protecting itself, living as it does in a very nasty neighborhood, and its role in the protection of the Jewish people worldwide. Because we have a foot in both societies.

The traditional attitude of most American Jewish organizations and leadership was that matters which in any way relate to Israel's security are for Israelis alone to decide, not for folks like us living in safety 6,000 miles away. That was how Israel and American Jewish leadership would explain to the American Jewish public that our negative views on settlements in the territories, for example, should be kept entirely to ourselves and should not be made public because settlements are a security matter. Of course few retired Israel generals ever believed that; to the contrary they warned that in a war the IDF would have to protect the settlements and not the other way around and of course today it is perfectly evident that valuable military resources in Israel are being used to protect the security of the settlements.

We learn from Salo Baron, one of the great Jewish historians of our time, that in the terrible events that led up to our exile 2,000 years ago, diaspora Jewish community leadership would graciously welcome shlichim from Israel, but in no way participated in the decision to take on the mighty Roman Empire, the decision that had such a tragic and inevitable outcome with which we are all familiar. I would hope that the leadership of diaspora Jewry today will not repeat that tragic error and will speak out if they disagree with one or another policy of the State of Israel. I know that there is something to be said for preserving the impression, false though it may be, that American Jews feel as one regarding this or that issue in order to enhance the political clout of our community when we address our own administration here. But whatever merit there was to trying to hide from our own administration the fact that American Jewry opposed the creation of settlements in the territories, or favored a two state solution - and personally I believe such an approach never had any merit - no longer applies in the new circumstances. Today America and Israel are partners in the fight against terror and that is so because America too is vulnerable. Those who think, for example, that the proper approach for Israel is to fight for a one state solution, a greater Israel which includes all of the territories or even territory on both sides of the Jordan, must now realize that such a strategy affects not only the security of Israel but the security of the United States as well and interferes with the joint strategy of the partnership between American and Israel, to eradicate terrorism worldwide, a partnership in which America is inevitably the senior partner.

Type: Article

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