SAN FRANCISCO --
Every day, I receive anguished letters, e-mails and phone calls from members of my congregation and others who have been tagged with the label "self-hating Jews." Why? Solely because they've raised questions about Israel's policy toward Palestinians.
There is something deeply hurtful about that term and about the way the Jewish community is treating its dissenters, something reminiscent of the cultural repressiveness of 1950s McCarthyism and its labeling of dissidents as "anti-American." Jews in America are all Jews by choice. Those who wish to leave their religion and ethnicity behind can easily do so. Increasing numbers, when asked about their ethnicity or religion, answer, "my parents are Jewish," indicating that they no longer feel connected to that identity. But most Jews don't make that choice. They feel a special resonance with the history and culture of a people that has proclaimed a message of love, justice and peace while others pursued paths of cruelty and domination. They feel a special pride in being part of a people that has insisted on the possibility of "tikkun," a Hebrew word expressing a belief that the world can be fundamentally healed and transformed. They know that the Jews have paid dearly for that belief, and, though they are angry at the history of anti-Semitism and convinced that no one should ever have to endure again what we endured from Christian Europe, they are also proud that Jewish values kept us from becoming like our oppressors.
A Los Angeles Times poll in 1988 found that some 50% of Jews surveyed identified "a commitment to social equality" as the characteristic most important to their Jewish identity. Only 17% cited a commitment to Israel. Similar statistics have been reported many times in the subsequent 14 years by other pollsters. No wonder, then, that these social-justice oriented American Jews should feel betrayed by Israeli policies that seem transparently immoral and self-destructive.
All of us are outraged at the immoral acts of Palestinian terrorists who blow up Israelis as they sit at a Seder table, or shop in their stores, or sit in cafes or ride in buses. We know that these acts cannot be forgiven, no matter how they have been provoked.
But many of us also understand that Israeli treatment of Palestinians has been immoral and outrageous. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in 1948, and recent Israeli historical research has shown that most of them fled not because they were responding to the appeal of Arab leaders, but because they were terrified at the acts of violence by right-wing Israeli terrorists or because they were actually physically forced from their homes by the Israeli army. (The slaying of some 250 Palestinian civilians in a town that had indicated loyalty to Israel, Deir Yassin, was intentionally aimed at convincing Palestinians that they would not be safe in a new Israeli state, no matter how much they wished to live in peace.) Palestinian refugees and their families now number more than 3 million, and many live in horrifying conditions in refugee camps under Israeli military rule.
Despite Israel's promises in 1993 at Oslo to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories by May 4, 1999, the actual path Israel took was the opposite. After a right-wing Israeli murdered peace-oriented Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israel actually increased the number of West Bank settlers, from around 120,000 in 1993 to some 200,000 by the time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at Camp David. And though the Israeli and U.S. media bought the myth that what had been offered to Palestinians was "the best they could expect," and that hence their rejection of the offer was proof that they wanted nothing less than the full destruction of Israel, the actual details show a quite different story. Not only did Barak offer Arafat less than had been promised in 1993, but he refused to provide anything at all in the way of reparations or compensation for the refugees. Instead, he insisted that Arafat sign a statement saying that the terms being offered by Barak would end all claims by the Palestinian people against Israel and would represent a resolution of all outstanding issues. No Palestinian leader could have signed that agreement and abandoned the needs of those refugees.
Though it is popularly thought that negotiations ended there, in fact they continued at Taba until Ariel Sharon's election ended the process, one which, according to the then-Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin (writing recently in the New York Times), was very close to arriving at a full agreement between the two peoples.
Sharon did not want that agreement, because he had always opposed any deal that would involve abandoning the West Bank settlements, which he had helped establish in the 1980s--precisely to ensure that Israel would never abandon the occupied territories. Using the excuse of responding to the (totally immoral and unacceptable) acts of terror by some Palestinians, Sharon has recently set out to destroy the institutions of Palestinian society, and they have done so brutally, with great harm to many civilians.
No wonder, then, that many Jews would feel deeply upset by Israeli policies. On the one hand, they can see that the policies are leading to a frightening upsurge of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, they can see that the policies are not providing security for Israel, but instead creating new generations of future terrorists and convincing the world that Israel has lost its moral compass.
Still, many Jews and non-Jews have been intimidated by the intense campaign being waged on behalf of Israeli "political correctness." Organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and by other Jewish institutions, they label those critical of Israel "self-hating" if they are Jewish or anti-Semitic if not. They mobilize large amounts of money to defeat candidates deemed insufficiently pro-Israel. Many rabbis and professionals have told me recently that they fear for their jobs should they even begin to articulate their doubts about Israeli policy--much less give explicit support to calls for an end to the occupation.
Yet, far from being self-hating, Jews are affirming the highest values of their culture and religion when they conclude that being pro-Israel today requires pushing Israel to end the occupation and break the cycle of violence on both sides.
Many American Jews understand the need in today's world to abandon chauvinism and insistence on Jewish "specialness." We need instead to affirm those parts of Jewish tradition that lead us to be able to recognize the spirit of God in every human being on the planet, and to recognize that our security will come not from more armaments for Israel, but from more love and connection between the Jewish people and all other peoples. There is no special path to Jewish safety and security that does not also lead us to global safety and security for all peoples.
I have great compassion for Jews who can't imagine a world in which other people can be trusted. The horrors of the Holocaust continue to reverberate. But if we allow that fear to shape our current perceptions of possibility, we will self-fulfillingly recreate the very world of antagonism toward Jews that we feared--and that would give Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory. The best response to the hatred of the past is to pursue a path that affirms love, justice and peace, and rejects the "realists" who insist that our only security lies in military domination over the Palestinian people.
It is time for the U.S. to sponsor a multinational force to physically separate and protect Israel and Palestine from each other, and to then convene an international conference to impose a final settlement. The settlement would include an end to the occupation, evacuation of the settlements, reparations for Palestinian refugees (and also for Jews who fled Arab lands), recognition of Israel by surrounding Arab states and an end to all acts of terror and violence. This is the goal of thousands of American Jews and our non-Jewish allies--who have recently formed the Tikkun Community--a progressive pro-Israel organization. Unwilling to be considered traitors and no longer sure that Jewishness is worth preserving if it means the Jewishness of Sharon, we have joined together because we are not willing to allow our culture and religion to lose its prophetic message of generosity, compassion and open-heartedness. ("Thou shalt love the stranger.") No surprise that we have been greeted by some Jews with their favorite mantra: You are self-hating Jews.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and, with Cornel West and Susannah Heschel, co-chair of The Tikkun Community. He is author of "Spirit Matters."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times