Jeremy Burton

Despair misdirected and the danger to Israel therein

Reading New York Times pundit Tom Friedman this week I found myself sharing his despair, disagreeing with his take-away, and seeing a grave danger for Israel.

In addressing the challenges facing our next President, who must deal with a changing Middle East, Friedman declared a two-state resolution for Israelis and Palestinians to be dead. “Let the one-state era begin.”

Though he wrongly concludes this state of affairs, Friedman rightly points the finger of despair in many directions. He’s right that Palestinian President Abbas has shown an utter inability to fight corruption and to support those who would build a Palestinian civil society (he ought to also note the incitement to violence that comes from Abbas and other Palestinian Authority leadership). He’s right to talk of Netanyahu’s “lack of imagination to find a secure way to separate from the Palestinians” and of Hamas’ investment in terrorism and violence that makes “a laughingstock of Israeli peace advocates,” though he does a disservice by not underscoring how profoundly different those failings are.

Nonetheless there’s plenty of blame to go around. It has been my sense from the Israelis and Palestinians that I talk with, that both peoples suffer from a lack of visionary leadership. Both peoples are challenged by having men in official leadership today who are merely managing the moment, while lacking the willingness to take bold steps needed for a better future.

But I do not accept Friedman’s conclusion that we should give up on a two-state solution. The future of the Israelis and Palestinians cannot rest solely in the hands of their current leaders. The future rests with people in both societies; those we meet and hear from every time we are there – working, despite the region’s turmoil, for a better future.  Friedman doesn’t see the fierce commitment of Israelis and Palestinians trying to find a way forward: The educators building co-existence schools; the families, both Israeli and Palestinian, who – despite having lost loved ones to violence and terror- engage in dialogue and relationship across the divides.  He doesn’t tell you about the Palestinian businessmen building new towns and factories despite the obstacles, or about the young Christian, Muslim, and Jewish mothers, learning parenting skills together while caring for their children and for each other.

One can legitimately despair about the current Israeli Prime Minister or Palestinian President, but we cannot afford to give up hope for two peoples.

But hope is not enough.

Which brings us to the danger evident in Friedman’s thinking.

The greatest threat facing Israel is growing isolation – from Western democracies, from mainstream liberal audiences in the U.S., and from growing pockets of the Jewish community around the world.  I worry about that moment when these people stop believing that the right of the Jewish people to a state of our own in our homeland is compatible with the right of the Palestinian people to their own national self-determination, including their right to establish a state of their own.

These two national rights, even if not easily achieved or even plausible in the near-term given the current conditions, must remain compatible. If we and, more importantly, others who are influential in the U.S. stop believing this to be true; if we and they begin to believe that Jewish and Palestinian rights are irreconcilable and incompatible, then Israel will sink deeper into  crisis as increasing challenges to her legitimacy take root here.

Friedman’s column is a reminder and a call to action— we need to do a lot more to prevent that perception from becoming a reality.  That doesn’t mean we or anyone else should impose an agreement that won’t lead to a lasting resolution. But we can and must do far more to nurture possibility and maintain the potential for a two-state solution. We need to show people how to invest – both with business capital and NGO funding – in those who are building a brighter future. We’ll need to speak with greater clarity and specificity about preventing additional obstacles that make separation harder. And we must help the world see this potential for progress and not just the inertia that perpetuates an untenable status quo.

Like much of the mainstream American Jewish community and a significant majority of Israelis, we at Boston JCRC have long supported and hoped for a two-state resolution. But hope alone won’t get it done. It is on us to prevent misplaced despair from turning into a more intractable threat to the future.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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