Magazine article The Christian Century

Jews vs. Jews

Magazine article The Christian Century

Jews vs. Jews

Article excerpt

THE VIOLENCE between Israelis and Palestinians is once again in the forefront of the news. Those who support Israel see themselves defending it against the prophesied destruction of the nation and the Jewish people. Palestinian supporters witness for a people who have been denied the basic human need for dignity and statehood. The dualism is stark. To be for one side is to be against the other, and from the perspective of Israel's defenders, to speak on behalf of Palestinians is to desire the annihilation of the state of Israel.

American Jewish leaders have called for unity on behalf of Israel, effectively announcing open season on Jews who are critical of Israeli policy. The New York Times has been filled with full-page advertisements calling for Jewish unity. Pro-Israel marches have been held in New York City and elsewhere. Rabbinic e-mail lists buzz with words about Jewish "troublemakers" like Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun. Lerner opposes the militarization of the Jewish tradition and is extremely critical of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. This criticism has increased in recent months. The possibility that Lerner actually represents a sizable minority of Jews is unthinkable to many Jewish leaders, especially in localities where Jews are small in number and an isolationism pervades thought and discourse.

Some Jews are concerned about the loss of an ethical compass in Jewish life. The sight of Israeli helicopter gunships firing missiles into Palestinian cities is so great a contradiction in Jewish ethics and history that thoughts are bound to be diverse and to seek public expression. Some Jews hear in Lerner's words an echo of their own heart: "The present situation leaves us saddened. We are saddened by the anger and loss of support we face for our willingness to speak the truth as we see it. We are saddened by the pathetic state of the Israeli left and by its lack of coherent vision or strategy. But most of all we are saddened by the endless suffering imposed on the Palestinian people in the name of the Jewish people, sometimes with the active cooperation of those who claim to speak in the name of God. From our standpoint, this is the ultimate chillul hashem, desecration of God's name."

Of course, if the liberal but pro-Zionist Lerner is a problem, the difficulty runs much deeper. Those Jews associated with movements of Jewish renewal, which seek to rescue the stale status quo of contemporary institutional expression and look to a future Judaism of alternative worship, discussion and social justice, are equally vilified. One wonders where the problem ends or whether it even can end. Belligerent defense of Israeli policies may only succeed in bringing outright war closer to Israel and heightening the verbal war inside the American Jewish world. It can hardly help guide Israel to a more rational and critical view of its own history and its paltry offerings of symbolism and limited autonomy to Palestinians.

The current debates within American Judaism constitute an unexpected revisitation of territory already traversed. The intifada years of 1987-1991, when the Jewish world divided over the meaning and legitimacy of the Palestinian uprising, were thought long gone, buried by the 1993 Oslo Accords and the road to peace. Many commentators seemed to have missed the point that the accords, without being significantly expanded through negotiation and trust-building, were insufficient for even the most basic development of Palestinian life. Such development requires enough contiguous territory to build a viable state, and a capital in Jerusalem which allows cultural, religious and intellectual centers of Palestinian life to coalesce and flourish. Even Lerner and the Jewish renewal movement initially missed this crucial point as they argued heatedly for unequivocal support for the Oslo process.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Baruch Goldstein's mass murder of Palestinians in Hebron, Benjamin Netanyahu's years as prime minister and now the equivocation of Ehud Barak and his threatened formation of a national unity government with Ariel Sharon--all this would seem to have sealed the fate of the Oslo process. …

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