The Friend Israel Needs Most
Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17)
To be a nation free in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem (Hatikvah)
These two principles are core tenets of my Jewish being. All legitimate paths of Torah are those of peace, and anything lower ought to be excised from our communal behavior and thought. And, the Jewish people have our collective home in our holy land, the land of Zion, the State of Israel, with its capital, the holy city of Jerusalem. Because I am a congregational rabbi and the president of a rabbinical association and an interfaith clergy association, many people have asked me what I think of the Trump administration’s statements recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel, and of its plans to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.
For the record, I appreciate that the Trump administration is making clear something that the Jewish people has known for millennia. Jerusalem is the geographic center of our people. It is our religious and ethnic home. We were exiled nearly 2000 years ago, we have directed our hearts and souls back to it in prayer ever since, willing a return, and finally, in 1967, we won Jerusalem back and came home. Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s government and judiciary. It is only since ’67 that all major religions with a home in Jerusalem —Jewish, Christian, and Muslim — have had access to and full control of their holy sites. I appreciate and applaud President Trump, Vice President Pence, and their administrations for stating that which has been obvious to us for so long. I appreciate and applaud the United States’ continued intense commitment to and alliance with the State of Israel, with its economic, scientific, and military partnerships, and with the tens of billions of dollars in aid it sends over every year.
I do not take issue with the content of these statements of recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. I take issue with the timing, with the lack of sensitivity to the greater situation Israel faces, and with the short-sightedness making such a statement right now. President Trump, in making this statement, is stating that the United States is Israel’s best friend, and will do whatever it takes to support Israel. And this is the friend that Israel needs some of the time. There is another kind of friend, however, that Israel has had in the past, and dearly needs once again right now. This is the friend who knows us for who we really are, who can constructively call us on our inappropriate behaviors, and who tells us what we need to hear instead of what we want to hear. We need the friend who won’t join in the brawl but will stand in the center and try to stop the fighting.
Right now, what Israel needs is a United States that will push it toward a solution with the Palestinians. It needs a United States that can effectively negotiate peace. The problem with President Trump’s enthusiastic statement is that he lost all credibility with the Palestinians in one fell swoop, and consequently he lost America’s ability to build a viable peace plan. And let’s face it, there’s no one else in this world in a position to negotiate as well as the United States could have. The Arab states have no real interest in the Palestinians, and the United Nations has only demonstrated that the wellbeing of Israelis is the last of their concerns. The United States, as the world’s greatest superpower and most influential liberal democracy, was the most likely to be able to help pull Israel out of its quagmire.
I know that many believe the peace process to be dead. Palestinian leadership has turned down offers for land again and again, and incited violence to the point where Israel is being unable to trust them with its security. For the safety of the Jewish people, Israel must do all that it can to secure its border. I believe, however, that it is a grave mistake to declare the peace process dead.
While we cannot control Palestinian behavior, we can control our own. The fate of our collective soul rests entirely in our hands. The status quo of military occupation for the sake of Israeli security may make sense for today, for this week, even for this month, but it is unsustainable and detrimental to our long-term wellbeing. This status quo is hardening the hearts of young Israelis serving in the military as they encounter more and more violence from increasingly desperate Palestinians. It is hardening the hearts of the Israeli left as they slowly lose hope for peace. It is firming up the resolve of those on the right, who see the increasing Palestinian violence as a reason to raise their levels of security, thus continuing the vicious cycle. And it is eroding Israel’s support, not just among the nations of the world, who are turning in droves toward BDS (which I do not support), but among young, educated American Jews who are becoming exhausted with having to defend Israel over and over again for actions that do not actually reflect their values. Younger generations of Jews in America are exhausted, and in some cases they are ready simply to turn their attentions to their Diaspora Jewish life. I, a rabbi and an intense Zionist, am fed up.
For Israel’s sake on so many fronts, a solution to the Palestinian problem must be reached.
Some have suggested a one-state solution to be the new two-state solution. Let the Palestinians who are willing to accept Israeli sovereignty join under the Israeli flag. Let Israel finally annex the territories, making Israel one unified state. I do not see how this solution possibly could end well.
I see only five possibilities for a one-state solution:
- Israel, remaining a democratic state, overwhelmed by its Palestinian population and its high birthrates, ceases to be a Jewish state.
- Israel, remaining a Jewish state, realizes that it must move to theocratic/autocratic rule, as democracy will no longer work given the new demographics.
- To remain both democratic and Jewish, Israel must strip some citizens of their right to vote, thus turning Palestinians living under Israeli rule into second-class citizens. Israel is not now an apartheid state. Under this option, it would become one.
- To remain both democratic and Jewish, Israel can exile all Palestinians. No more Palestinian problem.
- To remain both democratic and Jewish, Israel can turn to genocide. No more Palestinian problem.
These are increasingly terrible solutions, and I pray that no one considers them seriously. I offer them only to make clear that a one-state solution simply will never work.Thus, we come back to the pipe dream of two states for two people. Let us pull out of the West Bank. Let’s give the moderates among Fatah a chance to show themselves worthy of self-governance and trust. Given them a chance to prove themselves different from Hamas in Gaza. Best case scenario? We achieve peace. Worst case scenario? They attack us from their sovereign territory, as Hamas did, and Israel bombs them to smithereens, one sovereign state defending itself against another. At least, then we’ll know that Israel has done everything it can to follow Torah, to pursue peace, to give others the chance to pursue their own destiny.
Not all relationships are meant to be. Sometimes divorce, even a messy one, is the best option. Sometimes we need years of separation to finally come to an amicable relationship. Look at where Israel stands now, decades after war and hostility, with Jordan, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia. It is time for Israel to play the long game for its own sake and unilaterally pursue a bilateral peace. And it is time for Israel’s best friend, America, to stop cheering on its drunken friend at the pub, and instead push him, while having his back, to quit his self-destructive behavior and make amends with those around him.
This is the friend that we need desperately.