Recently Secretary of State John Kerry created an uproar when he spoke about the dangers of Israel’s continued rule over the West Bank and the potential of it becoming an apartheid state. While I bristled at his words, I recall the words of then Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who said in 2010. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” Or perhaps the Torah is more compelling: “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” (Exodus 12:49) The word apartheid is of course charged and the Secretary of State should be far more diplomatic in his choice of laden words, yet the dangers facing Israel are real and the worries are great.
Israel was founded as both a democratic and Jewish state. In order to continue to affirm both of these principles it must, for its own sake, end its rule over Palestinians living in the West Bank. That it has tried countless times, and as even President Bill Clinton revealed, offered Palestinians control over the precious Temple Mount, is beside the point. I recognize that Palestinian and Arab leaders bear more responsibility than Israeli leaders for pushing away the hand of peace. Still Israel will be unable to hold on to its two founding principles the longer this situation continues.
It would have been better if it was an Israeli leader who reminded us of this truth, or perhaps a Jewish leader, but here again the debate narrows. Only yesterday the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted to reject J Street’s membership bid. J Street argues that it is fitting for American Jews to lobby their elected leaders in order to pressure the Israeli government to hurriedly make a peace deal, withdraw from the West Bank and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. While I continue to believe that Israel’s rule over the West Bank represents a threat to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish and democratic state, I disagree that my address for bringing about such a change is the United States government. I therefore continue to support organizations within Israel that seek such changes while recognizing that Israelis, and Israelis alone, retain the final say in what is in their best interest.
Still the debate about what is in Israel’s interests should be open and unfettered. With such pressing, and existential, issues and worries, the narrowing of the conversation represents a danger. How are we going to solve such problems if we only talk to those with whom we agree? If organizations that believe that the West Bank should never again be relinquished are welcome at the table, then others who believe the opposite should be part of the conversation. If the views of J Street’s leaders are to be found among Israeli leaders, and even Knesset members, then why must American Jews be limited in their views, or at least the representation of these views? When issues are so important and pressing the debate must be widened rather than narrowed. Let’s argue about it. Let’s debate it.
Part of what I love about Israel is the vibrancy of its debates. You can’t jump into a taxi or even buy something at the local market without engaging in such arguments. The remarkable thing is that against all odds, and despite continuing struggles, Israel remains vibrant and alive. Its vibrancy is palpable as you walk its streets and sip coffee in its cafes.
Come Tuesday Jews throughout the world, and especially those living in the State of Israel, will celebrate 66 years of independence. On May 14, 1948, on the sixth of Iyar, David ben Gurion proclaimed: “After being forcibly exiled from their land, the Jewish people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”
Sovereignty is indeed restored. The Jewish people have returned to the land. Not all problems have been solved, certainly not all enemies have been quelled, and yet we continue to write history, we thrive. Few generations of Jews have been privileged to witness the realization of this dream. It is there for our eyes to behold.
And that should be enough to celebrate. Chag Haatzmaut Samayach!