Plotting the Middle Path to Israeli-Palestinian Peace
The Role of American Jews

By Diane Balser

This chapter appears in Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice, Edited by Rabbi Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser and Margie Klein, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2008.
Excerpted with Permission.

In the groundbreaking new book, Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice, leading rabbis, intellectuals, and activists explore the relationship between Judaism and social justice.  Significantly, the book contains an entire section dedicated to exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a chapter (excerpted below) by Brit Tzedek's Interim Executive Director and former National Advocacy Chair, Diane Balser.

For many years, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been left out of the conversation on Jewish social justice. This anthology is a declaration that Israeli-Palestinian peace activism deserves a place in the emerging social justice movement within our community.  Brit Tzedek is cosponsoring several book launch events and strongly recommends this landmark work.

Many American Jews have long been in the vanguard of progressive politics in the United States. The traditional Jewish impulse toward social justice –  rooted in our texts, manifested in our political and social history, and shaped by the great questions of the modern day – has compelled American Jews to the forefront of the contemporary world’s definitive struggles, a modern response to the imperative to work toward tikkun olam, repair of a broken world. The establishment of unions, the civil rights movement, the fight for women’s rights – each of these chapters in American history found Jews disproportionately leading the battle and persevering in the face of enormous difficulty.

For at least the first two decades of Israel’s existence, support for the Jewish State was considered part and parcel of the progressive Jewish agenda. Zionism was one of many national liberation movements to come to international attention in the wake of World War II, its ethical and egalitarian aspirations — to become, as its first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion described,  “a light unto nations" — enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

As we supported the rights of others to self-determination, many progressives within the American Jewish community were proud and happy to support the national liberation of our own people. 

Of course, there was a potentially perilous naiveté involved in this support, in that most American Jews, along with most of the Western world, failed to understand the level of suffering and sheer disenfranchisement that the establishment of Israel meant for the Palestinian people. The oft’ repeated Zionist adage “a land without a people for a people without a land” captured the imagination of so many of our parents and grandparents in their quest for sanctuary, but now resonates tinnily for we who have seen a very different reality borne out. While some recognized early on the serious implications for Israel’s future of the massive displacement of Palestinians following the 1948 war, for many this understanding dawned slowly, only in the post-Six Day War world, as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip increasingly took root. Without wishing to deny the right of the Jewish people to its own state, many of us came to comprehend the cost this state has entailed for another people. Particularly since the first Palestinian intifada began in December 1987, many American Jews have begun to try to bring their attachment to their own people’s national project in line with the understanding that Palestinian rights must not be denied.

The question of Israel’s place on a progressive agenda is further complicated by the complex nature of Israel’s relationship with the United States. Largely by virtue of its reliance on the United States for foreign aid and particularly military aid, as well as for diplomatic cover in an often hostile international environment, Israel has become, at least publicly, the standard bearer for the increasingly troubled and troubling American policies in the Middle East.

The effort to put pro-Israel activism back on the progressive agenda will require us to formulate, organize, and put forward a third political and cultural path for supporting Israel, independent of the right wing/neo-conservative US foreign policy agendas, and stepping clear of left wing denial that Jews need a homeland. It will comprise an understanding of the importance of a Jewish homeland to meet both the needs of Jewish survival and demands of broader justice, as well as an understanding of the urgent necessity of such a state to ally itself with a Palestinian state along its border, with which it lives at peace.  

In this chapter, I will argue that a progressive Jewish movement must reclaim and reframe the sometimes forgotten progressive ideals that were essential to the establishment of the State of Israel, both as the central path to ensuring Jewish survival, and as the core of our fight for international social justice – a struggle that reflects the most basic of Jewish ethics.

Our own struggle as progressive American Jews – to cultivate a collective agenda-driven identity that is at once independent and closely interconnected to and engaged in the world around it – would then fittingly mirror our aspirations for Israel as a peaceful and secure Jewish homeland that is both integrated in and integral in the Middle East and the international community as a whole.  Isolation from other peoples - particularly oppressed peoples - has historically been key to the vulnerability of Jews throughout the world and in Israel in particular.  The vision of an Israel of the future is one that lives in cooperation with its Arab neighbors, not a militarized, isolated ghetto in the middle of a hostile Arab world. By cultivating a strong Jewish presence in Israel and the United States that lives in a multi-cultural, multi-national world, we will create a political home for those in the progressive movement who would advance the principle of two states for two people, and help progressive Jews develop greater confidence in their Jewish identity, from which to reach out to potential allies among Muslims, Arabs, African Americans and all peoples of color.

To read the rest of Diane's chapter as well the many other excellent contributions to this anthology, you can purchase the book here.

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