Confronting Difficult Choices: American Jews Face Israel

Editor’s Note: This essay is presented as a three-way discussion with Rabbi Carl Choper and Rabbis Jessica Rosenberg and Rebecca Alpert.

Born two years after the State of Israel was founded, I grew up as the young state struggled to grow. Making the desert bloom, gradually becoming an economic and technological juggernaut, receiving refugees and helping with the rebirth of the Jewish people and its language, Israel had a mythic place in the American Jewish world. Only very gradually did I come to see past the enormous successes of the state to also recognize its seamy underbelly.

Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jessica Rosenberg have accurately portrayed the intentions and dangers of the current Israeli administration, which is in the process of annexing the West Bank and acting in immoral ways to encourage Palestinians to flee their land. The right wing in Israel talks openly about “transfer,” an ugly euphemism for driving Palestinians out of their homeland. In order to complete the annexation without giving Palestinians the right to vote, the government must end the possibility of interference by the Israeli Supreme Court, which is why the legislation aiming to eliminate the power of the court is so important.

The Netanyahu administration is working as fast as it can to make a two-state solution impossible by placing settlements in locations that prevent a contiguous Palestinian state from existing. In allowing both settlers and the Israeli army to use force, it is inflicting untold harm on innocent Palestinians with the result that more Palestinians are arming themselves, providing an excuse that the administration can use for further violence in a spiral that bodes worse destruction.

The settling of Israelis on the West Bank began almost immediately after the Six-Day War in June 1967, when Israel occupied it. It is also the case that Israelis displaced many Palestinians as the State of Israel was launched in 1948.

Meanwhile, most of the Jews now living in Israel were born after 1948. At this point, they have as much claim to the land as anyone. They have a right to live in safety in their land as long as a way of ensuring fair treatment and safety for Palestinians can be found. This will only occur if the U.S. government and the European Union join together to force a fair solution. A first step in that direction is following the same policy of restricting how U.S. military aid to Israel is used as is followed for every other nation that receives such aid. That will happen only with broad-based support from the American Jewish community.

The Rosenberg-Alpert essay urges endorsement of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). That call is problematic for many reasons. Let me name only a few:

  1. An essential part of it is the demand for a one-state solution. That would be a majority Palestinian state. There is no example of a stable, democratic Arab state. It is not plausible that Jewish Israelis would gamble their future on the unlikely possibility that Israel-Palestine would be the first. That is particularly so considering the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, neither of which has the support of the Palestinian people at this point; they rule without calling elections. And both Israeli and Palestinian extremists would do all in their power to undermine such a state even if it could be brought into existence.
  2. The BDS approach involves a boycott of academics and academic institutions. The international links of professors and universities are sources for mutual influence and have a moderating force. It is counterproductive to eliminate such contacts as the pursuit of fresh approaches moves forward.
  3. Cutting off funding of progressive Israeli organizations—of which there are many—would result in the only Israeli organizations with enough operating money being those funded by Jewish extremists, which would fuel Jewish triumphalism and xenophobia, curtail civil rights and move Israel closer to fascism.

The status quo is ethically unacceptable, but a two-state solution is out of reach, and one fully democratic state would end the existence of a Jewish state and with it Israel’s role as a refuge for Jews. A different kind of solution is needed. Several different groups of Israelis and Palestinians have been working together to develop models of confederation. The way that confederation would work is that Palestinians would vote for a Palestinian government in charge of the West Bank (and perhaps the Gaza Strip), and Israelis would vote for an Israeli government. The Jews living in the West Bank would vote in Israeli elections, and Palestinians living in Israel would vote in Palestinian elections. Arab citizens of Israel would be able to make a one-time choice about which citizenship they would maintain. The details of the various confederation plans differ, but an agreement might include the following provisions.

The borders between the two states would be completely open, and a free trade zone would exist between them. All the existing checkpoints that restrict movement would be removed. It is possible that Jordan and Egypt would join in the free trade zone as well, with the militaries of Israel, Jordan and Egypt guaranteeing the security of Palestine, which would have a police force but not a military of its own. Much like the free trade zone of the European Union, Israelis and Palestinians would be free to choose where they live and work. There would be no constraints on business partnerships or intermarriage. It is possible to imagine Israelis driving into the West Bank for dinner at a Palestinian restaurant and Palestinians from Ramallah spending a day in Jerusalem or on the beach in Tel Aviv or Caesarea.

Funding to revive the Palestinian economy (in a way similar to how the Marshall Plan worked in Germany following World War II) would be provided by the United States, the European Union and the Arab oil states. As the case of Germany illustrates, stabilization requires economic success; the counterexamples of Germany after World War I and of Gaza demonstrate what can happen if a withdrawal is not accompanied by external efforts to build prosperity and proper governance. Palestinians would be able to work in Israel; the Palestinian population is relatively well-educated, and there is considerable infrastructure in place in the West Bank, so the amount of money needed for reviving the Palestinian economy is not overwhelming compared to the cost of most large-scale international projects. The financial plan would include compensation for Palestinians who lost their land in 1948 or had their land confiscated after that.

One of the issues to be solved is dealing with extremists on both sides. Since both the Palestinian and Israeli governments will have a strong interest in maintaining stability and enforcing the law, there is every reason to expect close cooperation between the two governments’ police forces. Neither side would benefit from violence or destabilizing threats. Perhaps more important, most Palestinians want freedom, dignity and economic betterment. Support for the radical disrupters will decrease rapidly as progress towards those ends is made.

Of course, the big question is how to get from here to there. Even if a more moderate Israeli government were to replace the present one, current conditions in Israel make it highly unlikely that the government would move to confederation on its own. The current democracy demonstrations generally fail to make the connection between the repression of Palestinians and movement towards annexation of the West Bank on the one hand, and the effort to circumvent Israeli civil liberties defended by the courts on the other.

The broad-based Israeli denial of what is happening on the West Bank and of the discrimination against Israeli Arab citizens can be broken down only by a well-funded publicity campaign. And changes in government policy will only occur when enormous outside pressure is brought to bear. American and European Jews and their like-minded partners of other religions have a vital role to play in bringing that about.

American Jews, for the most part, have been supporters not only of the State of Israel but of Israeli government policy. In my opinion, that was appropriate when Israel was a fragile new state and Americans were not aware of Israel’s intentional displacement of Palestinians, but today, it is a major moral failure. American Jews ought to have been campaigning against Jewish settlement of the West Bank starting in 1967. The current upheaval in Israel and the overt actions in the West Bank today can act as a wake-up call for American and European Jews, who ought to rally their governments to intervene to bring about confederation.

Silence on the part of world Jewry makes it complicit in Israeli wrongdoing. We all have an obligation to speak up. Jewish tradition recognizes that silence is consent. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh—“we are all responsible for each other.” We need to speak truth to power in addressing American Jewish organizations that claim to speak on our behalf. And we need to lobby our government as well. One excellent way to organize is through congregations that in turn ally with such groups as J Street and One Land for All that can help to restore justice in the Land of Israel. Justice delayed is justice denied, so now is the time to act.

11 Responses

  1. Interesting thoughts, David.
    How long has this confederation idea been around and why hasn’t it been discussed (at least to my meager knowledge)?

    1. Always good to read you Rabbi David.
      I’m still a Two Stater, although the mountains to climb to do it are much more than overwhelming. I believe that’s true as well in different ways for Confederation. But moving beyond BDS is a good start. I look forward with your help…
      Larry Snider

  2. For whom would Palestinians vote? Are there moderate leaders who could win an election and have the support to govern the “political entity?”

    If BDS were modified to meet your objections, would you support it? Would it be a step in the right direction?

  3. You support reparations for Arabs but not for Jews from Arab lands, who are also refugees. Since they are the majority of Jews in Israel, this position must change. You also imply all of the damage done to finding g a peaceful solution is due to Jewish actions and beliefs, again without recognizing the failures of the Arabs in their attitudes and actions for over 100 years. Blaming obesity and insisting that they must change won’t work. Finally, you say nothing about the behavior of outside actors, like the Iranians, who now are the key funders of Hamas and Hezbollah. Glad to see you reject the bds movement, but this needs much more sophistication to work.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. You’ve said it all —
    I thought of the strength of the right hand and the left interlocking their fingers.
    I also thought — though it might open a distraction or digression if it were added — of the many Arabs and Muslims in America (and elsewhere) who would support a Confederation, in my experience. But whether or not that’s true, as you describe so fully, joint custody is essential to any resolution/workable divorce.

  5. This analysis is deeply problematic for a number of reasons:

    1. Teutsch writes that “an essential part of (the BDS call) is the demand for a one-state solution. This is inaccurate. I encourage Teutsch and Evolve readers to actually read the text of the Palestinian civil society call for BDS – and in particular, its specific demands:

    – To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall;

    – To recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;

    – To respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

    The BDS call is rooted in international law and human rights – it does not advocate any specific political solution. Nor should it – that is for a final negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

    2. Teutsch misrepresents the academic boycott, referring it as a “boycott of academics and academic institutions..” I would recommend Teutsch and readers to read the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals.

    It is worth noting that Israeli academic institutions are not, as Teutsch claims “a moderating force” in Israeli society. Every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems. And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.

    3. Teutsch frets about the cutting off of funding to progressive Israeli organizations. In reality, the real threat to progressive Israeli organizations comes from the Israeli government itself. In 2014, for instance, the Israeli government banned national service with the human rights group B’Tselem. In 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu Netanyahu accused the New Israel Fund of being a “foreign” organization that receives funds from foreign governments and organizations hostile to Israel. And in 2021, Israel designated six Palestinian human rights organizations doing essenial work —Addameer, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees—as terrorist organizations.

    I was also troubled that Teutsch took it upon himself to endorse a specific political solution of a “confederation.” This is a relatively minor initiative that describes itself as “a group of volunteers who joined together to educate the public through symposiums, debates, dialogue and cultural exchanges about a possible mechanism for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” This specific project has gained almost no popular traction among Israelis or Palestinians – and for good reason. Real political leverage does not come from political non-profits – it comes from popular movements (such as the American civil rights movement, the South African anti-apartheid movement, and yes, the Palestinian call for BDS ) which hold power to account and seek to transform oppressive systems.

    This is not to say that a confederation is out of the question – only that it is deeply problematic to propose political solutions while Israel continues to oppress Palestinians and violate international law with no one holding them to account. At any rate, for a confederation to actually work the Palestinians would first need their independence, for otherwise, given the huge power imbalances, it would be either an Israeli hegemonic state masquerading as a confederation.

    I agree with Teutsch that “justice delayed is justice denied.” This quote, in fact, comes from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which MLK criticized the very attitude that Teutsch displays in this article – ie a paternalistic liberal attitude from liberals that we know what is best for oppressed people. The real way to justice, as ever, is to follow the lead of the oppressed themselves – and the Palestinian call for BDS is precisely that.

    I fervently hope the American Jewish community will find the courage to respond to their call for justice?

  6. A confederation would be a step in the good direction, but it
    still would be a Two State Solution, a breakable agreement between two sovereign states.

    Even now, under Israeli occupation, Islamists succeeded to produce and fire missiles from Jenin. Israel won’t let Palestinians have a sovereign state.

    The other possibility is a federation – like the US – which is one state uniting federated sub-states. This will be a much better model for Israel – Palestine.
    We need a supranational federation, and non-territorial sub-states.
    You are invited to read the details here:

  7. Thanks, David. Interesting. Is there substantiation for this statement: American Jews, for the most part, have been supporters not only of the State of Israel but of Israeli government policy.

  8. Confederation has been around as an idea for many years. Shortly after 67 it was discussed as a next step after the implementation of two states. The Yossi Beilin version, which is a couple of years old, still describes it that way. But since in the early plans two states always came first, it was always subsumed to discussion of two states. DAT

  9. Palestinians would vote for a government that includes all of the West Bank and Gaza. Settlers who choose to live there would have to obey Palestinian law, which would be enforced by Palestinian police.

    I have long supported a boycott of products produced on the West Bank. I believe such a boycott would be an effective political tool.

    Of course Arab states have played a major role in creating the current mess. And Palestinians would have done far better to engage in nonviolent protest actions. Any plan like the one I outlined would require moderate governments on both sides, which is the most difficult part of the proposal. There are plenty of moderates on both sides. As everyone knows, they don’t control either government.

    As to reparations, if the Arab countries put up a great deal of the money for Palestinian reparations, that should be enough to let go of Israeli claims. The key countries Jews fled from–like Yemen and Iraq–are not in a position to pay reparations,

  10. Hi, As an Israeli, I don’t agree that most of us are in “denial of what is happening on the West Bank”. What are you basing this claim on? The majority here knows & many disagree with this government & its horrible attempts to derail democracy and worse.

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