Jews around the world sat down to their Passover seders this past weekend, commemorating their ancestors' exodus from slavery to freedom. Yet right now the person who is doing more than anyone else to free the Jews is a devout Baptist, Jimmy Carter. The former president is meeting with leaders throughout the Middle East -- including, most controversially, the top political leadership of the Hamas party. This has predictably angered the U.S. and Israeli governments and the U.S. mainstream press.
But they, like so many Jews, are still in slavery. The "Egypt" that enslaves them is a set of self-defeating beliefs in their own minds. They are enslaved to the notion that Hamas must be treated as pariah "terrorists," and one must never talk with "terrorists." That convenient tale prevents the Israeli government from entering peace negotiations. It keeps Israeli Jews trapped in the continuing risks and tensions of a state-of-siege mentality that prevents the exodus they need so badly now: moving from insecurity to genuine peace and security.
In a larger sense, the view of Hamas as a party so evil that no one may even talk with it keeps many Jews in a state of spiritual slavery. It reinforces their long-standing habit of defining Jewish identity primarily in terms of radical vulnerability, as if the only meaningful way to be Jewish were to stand firm against an enemy and always be ready to shoot at that enemy.
This slavery is especially tragic because it is self-imposed. It arises not from objective perception of facts imposed from outside, but from choices that Jews themselves make, choices that Jimmy Carter calls them to reconsider. So this Baptist leader, more than anyone else, can now claim the title of a modern-day Moses, willing to lead the Jews from slavery to freedom. Carter stands as a fine example of what the ancient rabbis called "a righteous gentile."
A growing number of Jews, in Israel and the U.S., publicly agree with Carter that Israel must reach a peace agreement with a Palestinian government representing all Palestinian people. That government must include a significant element from Hamas, the party that the Palestinians democratically elected to lead them, if Israel is every to have real peace and security. The sooner Israel negotiates with Hamas, the more lives can be saved.
As a recent editorial in the prestigious Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz said, Israel's continuing attacks in Gaza are "only out of revenge." They lead to "retaliation with numerous casualties, which leads to another attack, and so on and so forth, as if it were an endless gang war. ... The only way to ensure the safety of the people living near the Gaza border is through a political effort to reach a cease-fire agreement."
The editorial concluded with the crucial point: A negotiated truce "may create a different atmosphere in which Hamas, too, would have something to lose. Israel has not done everything it can to reach such an agreement." That's quite an understatement. In fact, Israel has done everything it can to rebuff or ignore Hamas' leaders repeated calls for a long-term truce that would open the way to peace talks.
The Israeli resistance to Carter and negotiations has to be understood on several levels. Deepest of all is the level of symbolism. Too many Jews have staked their sense of cultural identity primarily on resisting "the anti-semites." They would be hard pressed to know what it means to be a Jews if there were no enemy to fight. Fortunately their numbers are shrinking, especially here in the U.S. But the process of change is agonizingly slow.
That deep issue of identity leads to a complicated sets of maneuvers on the practical political level. Many nations and factions see their own interests served by excluding Hamas.
Because so many Jews feel the need to have an enemy, political leaders in Israel must at least appear to be standing fast against some enemy if they want to get elected. Therefore, they have to treat negotiations with Palestinians as a battle against an enemy, and they must come out with something that looks like victory. Whatever Palestinian state they agree to has to be demonstrably weaker than Israel and militarily, at least, under Israeli control. The Israelis hold out a serious hope that Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, who control the West Bank, might agree to such a one-side peace.
Any negotiation with Hamas would complicate matters for Israel. It would signal that Hamas is a legitimate political party and a significant political player deserving a place at the table. But Hamas would insist on more stringent and equal terms for a final-status agreement than Fatah. So the Israeli government is determined to exclude Hamas from any negotiations. The best way to do that is to deny Hamas any hint of political legitimacy by labeling them a mere "terrorist" group.
Fatah is more than happy to play along with Israel in hopes of destroying its rival Hamas, which would leave Fatah in total control of Palestinian political life. Egypt supports Fatah, fearing that a democratically elected Islamist government right next door would give a major boost to the powerful Islamist parties in Egypt, which the government there has been suppressing violently for years.
The Bush administration is just as afraid of legitimizing any Islamist government. So it casts Hamas as part of the world-wide enemy, "Islamic extremism," signaling that the U.S. will mobilize its immense power even against democratically elected Islamist governments. And the U.S. leads a global campaign of economic isolation that is bringing starvation and misery to over a million innocent victims in Gaza.
Bush and all the candidates bidding to succeed him agree in principle on this inhumane policy. Even Obama, who claims to be the candidate of "change," criticized Carter and recited yet again the mandatory mantra of mainstream U.S. politics: "We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel's destruction."
In fact, there are surely behind-the-scenes negotiations with Hamas going on now (just as the Israelis secretly negotiated with Yassir Arafat's officially tabooed PLO at Oslo in the early 1990s). Carter recently said that he knows some Israeli government officials are quite willing to meet with Hamas leaders. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Eli Yishai, openly sent word through Carter that he wants to meet with Hamas leaders.
According to Ha'aretz, Yishai's Shas party would like to see a cease-fire (just what Hamas leaders have offered for years now) in order to "lessen pressure to reach a final-status agreement, which could lead to a coalition crisis with Shas."
However Yishai could also aid a larger Israeli agenda of working out a secretly-arranged truce deal. Without it, Israel's has only two options: either continue attacks in Gaza, which are disastrous politically and diplomatically while achieving no real military gain, or cease those attacks and appear "weak," which would be disastrous politically for an Israeli government always under attack from the political right.
The Bush administration knows that the Israelis have to reach some truce agreement with Hamas, and the sooner the better. Again, the pressing need is to do it secretly, so that Hamas can be denied legitimacy. Perhaps that's why, according to Carter, no U.S. officials objected to his plans until they became public knowledge. It's OK as long as it remains secret.
In public, governments in Washington and Jerusalem are committed to keeping their people, and themselves, enslaved to an ideology of "fighting the evildoers." With every other consideration -- even peace and security -- subordinated to that mythic vision of heroic battle, there is no exodus from the endless round of killing and counter-killing.
Hamas foreign minister Mahmoud al-Zahar suggested a way out this week in a Washington Post op-ed. "A 'peace process' with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently."
The Post printed these words so that it could run an adjacent editorial denouncing their author as a "terrorist" who is clearly not interested in peace. To make their case, the Post's editors treated al-Zahar's words as preconditions for negotiation. Anyone really interested in peace would recognize that they are just a diplomat's opening gambit and a suggested blueprint for a final-status agreement -- the endgame of the negotiations, not the starting point.
Since al-Zahar's words say nothing about Palestinians taking control inside Israel's 1967 border, they are yet another in a long line of indirect signals from Hamas that, while it may never officially endorse Israel's "right" to exist, it is quite ready to accept the fact that Israel does exist. In fact, his words generally match the final-status arrangement that most unbiased observers see as reasonable and inevitable.
This Passover, Carter's meeting with the Hamas leaders offers a way for Israel to start down the path from the slavery of its own self-defeating ideology to the freedom of truly meaningful peace talks with Hamas as well as Fatah. As the Passover story tells us, the Israelites of old spent forty years wandering in the wilderness before they reached the promised land. Modern day Israel has already spent 41 years in the moral wilderness, as the military occupiers of another people's land. Thousands have died, most of them Palestinians but far too many Israelis as well. Jimmy Carter is right. It's time to end the wandering and begin to cross over to the promised land.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. firstname.lastname@example.org