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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.