Israel, Palestine and Us: A Response to Toba Spitzer

In this response to Toba Spitzer’s essay “Israel and Us: Creating a New Narrative,” Rabbi Brant Rosen argues that the “justice narrative” outlined by Rabbi Spitzer is more than a narrative; it’s a reality that should be placed at the forefront

Read Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s initial essay here.

There was much I appreciated about Toba’s essay, “Israel and US: Creating a New Narrative,” and much I could personally relate to. Like Toba, Israel was also an important part of my Jewish upbringing and identity. I have relatives in Israel and first visited at a young age. I spent two years there as an undergraduate, studying, living on kibbutzim and leading youth tours. The history and values of Labor Zionism in were compelling to me—and at one point, I even flirted with the prospect of joining a garin, a group organizing to form a kibbutz. Though I eventually opted for rabbinical school over picking tomatoes, I have many friends who did make aliyah and who live there to this day.

For most of my adult life, I have strongly identified as a liberal Zionist. Like Toba, I remember all too well when support for negotiations with the PLO and advocacy for a two-state solution were considered radical positions in the Jewish community. I consistently professed them however, out of deep Zionist conviction. For me, the demographic question was always paramount. It went without question that Israel should remain Jewish and democratic.

After I became a rabbi, these views did indeed become more mainstream. The Oslo process began shortly after my ordination. Our older son, Gabriel, was born on Sept. 13, 1993—the day that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. Hallie and I watched the ceremony from our hospital room; we gave Gabe the middle name Shalom in honor of this remarkable moment. I’ll never forget the magical optimism of those days.

Even so, for many years I harbored nagging doubts about the liberal Zionist narrative that had become so central to my Jewish identity. Although I openly professed the importance of a two- state solution, it was less out of concern for Palestinian rights than for my concern over the so-called “demographic time bomb.” But what did it mean that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state was entirely dependent upon maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in the land? I would never dare to use terms such as “demographic time bomb” to describe a minority in the United States. Why did I believe it was OK to base a national identity exclusively upon one ethnic group in Israel, when such a thing would be viewed as incorrigibly racist here in the United States?

Another powerful challenge occurred with the publication of books by the so-called New Historians, who dramatically demonstrated for me the inherent injustice at the heart of Israel’s birth. Up until that point, it was common for liberal Zionists to respond to the events of 1948-49 as “complicated,” with enough blame to go around on both sides. Now we had Israeli historians using declassified archival materials to show that the Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians from their homes was part of a systematic policy that came from the highest levels of the pre-state Yishuv.

Most of all however, I became increasingly unable to deny that the injustice Israel committed in 1948-49 actually continues to this day: that Israel wields disproportionate power over Palestinians in an increasingly oppressive—and morally indefensible—occupation, and is systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes in the parts of the land it claims as its own.

And here we come to the crux of my disagreement with Toba’s analysis. I unabashedly ascribe to her “justice narrative,” but categorically disagree with her suggestion that it is by itself “simplistic, limited and limiting.” Toba herself admits that everyday injustice is the lived experience of the Palestinian people. If this is truly so, how can we possibly reduce their experience to the academic category of a “narrative”? The injustices Israel perpetrates against Palestinians are very real. And if real injustices are being perpetrated against a people, the proper response, it would seem to me, would be to advocate unreservedly for real justice.

Toba suggests that we must appreciate the truth of the victim narrative as well, and I agree.

We just disagree on what that appreciation should look like. I appreciate that violence has often been perpetrated by nations or communities that were themselves victimized. But appreciation of the truth of their victimization should not come at the expense of justice for those they are oppressing.

When I think of the mentality of American Southerners or white South Africans, for instance, I can certainly appreciate that their actions were compelled in no small way by their own experience of historic victimization. But in both cases, justice and equality was the first order of business before there could be “understanding for the truth of both sides.”

In this regard, I would also respectfully disagree with Toba’s description of this situation as a conflict between “two peoples claiming historical rights to the same land.” Such an analysis suggests an equity of power between two peoples. In such an instance, the appropriate response would naturally be to negotiate a political compromise between the two parties, mediated by an honest broker.

But that is not the situation with which we are faced. The truth is that the scale is overwhelmingly tilted in Israel’s favor in almost every respect: militarily, diplomatically, politically and economically. Israel maintains almost total and complete control over the Palestinian people, and is by far the most militarily powerful nation in the Middle East. While I understand that Israel’s actions are motivated in no small way by fear of an existential threat, the reality is that Israel is a nuclear-armed nation, enjoying the unconditional support of the world’s only superpower.

How should we respond to our Jewish existential fears? One important question to ask is whether or not the establishment of the State of Israel has made Jewish existence safer or not. I would argue that while the creation of Israel was compelled by concerns for Jewish communal safety, it has only succeeded in creating a new Jewish existential insecurity. On the eve of Israel’s founding, Hannah Arendt wrote presciently that a Jewish nation-state would become “secluded into ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.” We’d be hard pressed to deny that such a reality has indeed come to pass.

In other words, the “victim narrative,” while understandable, has led Israel to a tragic and desperate place. But while we may appreciate the reality of the historic anti-Semitism that has led to it, I don’t think it is at all fruitful to weigh it against the injustices Israel has perpetrated—and continues to perpetrate—against Palestinians. Toba claims that the justice narrative can play into anti-Semitic images, but while this may be so, it hardly mitigates the need for justice for Palestinians. If there are anti-Semites supporting justice for Palestinians, they must be called out at all costs. But it is certainly not anti-Semitic to suggest that Israel is the more overwhelmingly powerful party in this conflict, and that it often wields its power in unjust and oppressive ways.

So where does this leave us in the American Jewish community? Is it possible, as Toba suggests, for us “to wrestle together with the questions that arise when we seriously engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” For many years, this question was at the forefront of my work as a rabbi. But while I respect those who do attempt to bridge this gulf inside the Jewish community, I personally believe there is more important work to be done. When a people is being oppressed—particularly when that oppression is being perpetrated in my name as a Jew—I believe that the most important question to ask is, quite simply: “What must I do to end this oppression?”

That is why I’ve broken from Zionism (as its come to be embodied by the contemporary State of Israel) and now participate, as a proud Jew, in the Palestinian solidarity movement. If I had to pick one point when this break occurred, it would be December 2008: Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza. This was the moment when I was unwilling to accept any more that this was simply a conflict between two national entities vying for the same piece of land. In fact, Palestinians in Gaza had been violently resisting Israel’s occupation long before Hamas’s election. Few in the Jewish community were willing to face the history of Israel’s oppressive policies in Gaza or the fact that Gazans have been living under an intolerable occupation for decades.

And even fewer know that the majority of the 1.8 million who live in Gaza belong to families that originally came from outside of Gaza—from towns and villages like Ashkelon and Beersheva—and were expelled from their homes by the Israeli military in 1948. Indeed, when I think of Gazan anger towards Israel in 2008, I can’t help but think of these chilling words by Moshe Dayan from back in 1956:

“Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? (They) sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled.”

I find it striking that since the appearance of the New Historians, prominent liberal Zionists now admit that Israel’s systematic expulsion of Palestinians from their homes did indeed occur, rationalizing it away by claiming that this is simply how nation-states have always been created.[fn]In his 2004 Ha’aretz interview with Avi Shavit for instance, Israeli New Historian Benny Morris said: “Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.” Similarly, Avi Shavit himself described the Haganah’s expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda in unsparing detail in his 2013 book, “My Promised Land,” adding: “It’s not only the settlements that are an obstacle to peace but the Palestinians’ yearning to return, one way or another, to Lydda and to dozens of other towns and villages that vanished during one cataclysmic year. But the Jewish State cannot let them return.”[/fn] Yes, for the Jewish state to exist, the Palestinians had to be uprooted from their homes and their return prohibited. But I can no longer accept this injustice as somehow necessary, particularly when it is still present and ongoing. While this situation certainly contains “complexities” that “encompass multiple truths,” I believe the most important truth before us is that Israel is inexorably dispossessing Palestinians from their homes in order to make way for a Jewish majority state once and for all. I choose to face this particular complexity by standing in solidarity with Palestinians because I believe my spiritual tradition commands me to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed.

Given my new path, I’m familiar with the challenge Toba presents—that such an approach “will provoke anger, an anger which can become deeply alienating and divisive, and as counter-productive as fear to finding any real solution.” But while tension is necessarily divisive, it can be expressed by means other than anger, and I strongly disagree that division is necessarily counter-productive to a just solution.

Indeed, the nonviolent struggle of the civil-rights movement embodied this model of creative tension in a powerful way. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered this very issue in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addresses a group of white liberal clergy who counseled him that his nonviolent campaign against segregation would likewise provoke anger, alienation and division:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.[fn]My public support of the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel is part of this time-honored tradition of this “nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” This is, of course, a subject for another essay.[/fn]

I understand full well that many will think the scenario I’m proposing: one state of all its citizens, with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, is the height of naiveté. I also have no doubt that there will be those who will respond to me by saying that it’s all well and good for me to preach justice to Israelis from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, when it is the Israelis who will have to live with the consequences. To this challenge I’d like to cite yet another line from MLK’s letter: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In the end, isn’t it more naïve to suggest that Israelis will somehow see fit to offer freedom to Palestinians on their own, without the application of external pressure?

I know there are those, inside and outside Israel, who cannot imagine this scenario that doesn’t involve Palestinians wreaking vengeance on Jews. When I hear Jewish fears of Palestinian revenge, I can’t help but think of white Southern fears after the abolition of slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow. I also can’t help but think of white South African fears after the fall of apartheid. And while every historical example is different, I think they are nonetheless instructive. At the very least, these examples should serve to widen our conversation about Jewish safety and security.

It is worth asking: What does it mean that the prospect of equal rights for all is tantamount to “the destruction of the Jewish state?” What will truly ensure the long-term safety of both peoples? Is it the continuance of an oppressive status quo? Or might we envision a process of authentic reparation and repatriation, as well as mutually agreed upon guarantees of security for Israelis and Palestinians?

I appreciate that Toba is committed to an open, intra-Jewish communal dialogue on this issue. As for me, I’d be satisfied if the Jewish communal world could see fit to simply accept Jews who stand in solidarity with Palestinians, and not demonize or ostracize them from the community. I’ve personally paid a professional price for my public advocacy, as have several of my colleagues. Others have had to keep their own views closeted out of fear for losing their jobs, and there are growing numbers of rabbinical students who rightly wonder if there will be a place for them in the Jewish community when they graduate. Short of full-fledged dialogue, it seems to me that good plain tolerance might be a more realistic first step.

Still, while my new path has certainly alienated me from many quarters of the organized Jewish community, I’ve been heartened to find a growing community of Jews who share these views and are bringing their Jewish values to bear in service of the “justice narrative.” Not a narrative in the theoretical, academic sense of the word, but as a living, breathing, human reality.

I cannot help but believe that a genuine justice narrative has the ability to incorporate other real-life narratives within it—namely, a future of dignity, safety and security for Palestinians, Israelis and all who live in the land.

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