Jewish Ethics and the Palestinian-Israeli Problem

Article excerpt

"God told Moses to make war on Sihon (Deut. 2:24), but Israel did not make war; they sent messengers of peace (Deut 2:26). God said,'I ordered you to make war, but you made overtures of peace.' `There is no peace,' says the Lord, `for the wicked.' (Isa. 48:22). How great, then, must be the words of peace, if Israel disobeyed God for peace's sake, and yet God was not wrath with them." (Tanhuma B., Debarim, 3b)

"Great is peace, as the whole Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world, as is written: `Her ways are the ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace."' Maimonides, Mishneh Torah. Under the leadership of Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Government of Israel relinquished most of Hebron to Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority, agreeing to withdraw from other portions of the West Bank in stages by mid-1998, and to embark on the Oslo Accord's plan for negotiations over a final resolution to borders, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. No sooner had Netanyahu taken a first step towards pragmatism-dealing a death blow to messianic Greater Israel ideology-than did he paint the dismal tableau of a final settlement: pre-empting, prior to negotiating, all Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem with the Har Homa fait accompli, serving up so meager a West Bank withdrawal that Palestinian aspirations for statehood seemed all but emasculated. Re-opening in Pandora's Box a reprise of the intifada, thus did the apostle of "peace with security" bring Israel neither peace nor security. Yet the Netanyahu Government's reluctant embrace of the Oslo process has evoked vociferous criticism from the Israeli and American Jewish Right. Is the political Right morally right? What does an ethically defensible Jewish position require of us?

The Palestinian-Israeli problem poses a profound challenge to our moral sensibilities as Jews, Zionists and human beings. Should Israel retain military control over most or all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its two million Palestinian Arabs, in the name of security or theology, as the Right insists? Or should Israel promote Palestinian autonomy, even statehood in some form, as the Israeli and American Jewish "peace camp"-and a clear majority of the Knesset and Israeli public-maintains? Ought the Jewish marriage to Jerusalem-historical, religious, emotional, political-accommodate Palestinian human realities, symbols and hopes? Are we, as Jews, obliged to pursue reconciliation and peaceful co-existence based on mutual recognition of rights to national self-determination? Must we betray our Judaism-as some conservative critics contend-in order to embrace Western Enlightenment values of liberal democracy and respect for human rights? Jewish ethics must guide us in deciding among these competing claims and commitments.

Outline for a Jewish Ethics

The concept of equality owes its origin, in large measure, to the very genesis of Western moral thinking in the Hebrew Bible, in the doctrine known in Hebrew as "b'tselem elokim": Human beings are created in the image or likeness of God (Genesis 5:1). Coupled with this is another principle, which the rabbis of the Talmud held could be derived from that of humanity's Divine creation: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). For if all human beings are created by God, then we are commanded to love all men and women no differently than ourselves. The idea of the kinship of humanity expresses this dual truth. Rabbi Hillel summed up the Torah in this supreme commandment: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor: that is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it." (Tractate Shabbat 31a) The Love of Neighbor Principle has become known as "the Golden Rule." Some critics allege that this principle in the Torah strictly refers only to one's own countrymen, so that a Jew's neighbors in a Jewish state would be his fellow Jews. The text itself gives the lie to this thesis, a scant fifteen verses later: (Lev. …