A TIME FOR ATONEMENT:
Will this Yom Kippur Bring Justice for the Palestinians?
by Gil Maguire
On September 29 American and Israeli Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah. The ten days following Rosh Hashanah are days of reflection and repentance for Jews culminating October 8 in Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement, the most important and solemn of Jewish holy days. This year, American and Israeli Jews alike should reflect on the plight of over 8 million Palestinians who, some 63 years after Israel’s formation, remain estranged from their homeland, deprived of self determination and freedom and imprisoned in a limbo-like oppressive existence that reflects terribly on Jews. It is an existence that American and Israeli Jews are jointly responsible for and for which they have a moral duty to change. This season of Yom Kippur is the time to reflect and a time to commit to that change.
The scope of the harm American and Israeli Jews have created is immense. Stephen Robert, a Jewish-American investment banker, and long-time Israel supporter, who is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former chancellor of Brown University, described the situation in the West Bank as “apartheid on steroids” after his most recent fact-finding visit to Israel and the West Bank this past summer. In a long and detailed article in The Nation, he concluded,
“How can Jews, who have been persecuted for centuries, tolerate this inhumanity? Where is their moral compass? How can this situation be acceptable to Judaism’s spiritual and political leaders? I don’t have that answer; except to say that Israel’s biggest enemy has become itself.”
There are about 4.5 million Palestinians living and confined in the West Bank and Gaza occupied and controlled by Israel since 1967. There are another 4 million or so living as unwanted refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Over 1.5 million Palestinians still live in the squalor of refugee camps, all some 63 years after they or their forebears fled or were ethnically cleansed from Israel in 1948.
Every day that goes by is another day of squalor and oppression for 8.5 million Palestinians which will compound to over 3 billion individual days of additional squalor and oppression in the coming year alone. During the coming year, more and more Palestinians will be illegally evicted from their lands and homes which will be confiscated to allow thousands more Israeli Jews to move to illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas set aside by the United Nations in 1947 for the planned but long-delayed Arab State of Palestine.
This is not to say that the Palestinian leadership and extremists are blameless. Palestinian tactical and strategic errors and violence against Israeli civilians over several decades are inexcusable and have contributed to the continuing pain and isolation of 8.5 million of their fellow citizens. But, the major culprit in the continuing oppression of millions of Palestinians is Israel and its ongoing occupation and settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. From 1967 on, Israel has always had the ability to turn over the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians to allow them to create the Arab State of Palestine promised them by the United Nations in 1947. It never did so, despite internal recommendations that this would be in Israel’s long-term best interest, and that the settlement of the West Bank with Israeli Jewish citizens would violate the terms of the 4th Geneva Convention. It never did so because of greed and a religion-based desire to create a Greater Israel including the entirety of the West Bank. The responsibility for that immoral policy and its horrific results is ultimately on the shoulders of American and Israeli Jews who support and condone it.
Unfortunately, Israel’s 44 year occupation and settlement of the West Bank is on the verge of destroying the possibility of a two state solution because Israeli settlements now control so much of the West Bank that a separate Palestinian state may no longer be viable and acceptable to the Palestinians. When that happens, Israel’s occupation of the entirety of the West Bank (and by default, Gaza) will become a de facto illegal annexation of the entirety of original Palestine into a Greater Israel (the dream and goal of many American and Israeli religious Zionist Jews). That reality will leave Israel with three stark and unacceptable choices:
It can create a democratic state of Greater Israel in which Palestinians and Jews alike have equal rights, including voting rights. This choice would not be acceptable to Zionist Jews because these demographic changes would deprive Israel of its status as a homeland for the world’s Jews and as a predominantly Jewish state. While initially, the Jewish and Palestinian populations of this Greater Israel would be about equal, there would be intense international pressure to allow the remaining 3-4 million Palestinians still living as unwelcome guests and refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to return to their homeland in this Greater Israel. Since Israel would refuse to allow their return, it would never have peace and it would remain a pariah state in the eyes of the world.
The two remaining choices are even less palatable: apartheid or ethnic cleansing. Israel could refuse to give the Palestinians in Greater Israel equal voting and other civil rights possessed by its Jewish citizens, but that will make Israel truly an apartheid state rather than one having apartheid-like qualities as it is now. Or, Israel could attempt to remove all or a major portion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to insure a dominant Jewish majority. But, to do so would be ethnic cleansing. Either choice would be an unacceptable major violation of international law and norms and would subject Israel to international sanctions and a status equivalent to that of South Africa during it apartheid period.
The only acceptable choice, if Israel is to remain a democratic Jewish state and have peace with its Arab neighbors, is for Israel to accept the 1967 borders as its eastern boundary and give up its illegal settlements and annexation of all of Jerusalem, including Arab East Jerusalem. Ten years ago, in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, 22 Arab states offered Israel peace under those terms. Israel has yet to respond even though Palestinian negotiators have shown a willingness to accept only a modest return of refugees to Israel proper and accede to reasonable Israeli security concerns.
The issue of security is vital to Israelis as the distance between the West Bank and the heart of Israel is less than the commute to work for most Americans. But, the highest threat to Israel is no longer tank warfare. Instead, it is the threat of missiles from well beyond Israel’s borders, which in large numbers can overwhelm any missile defense system. The current Israeli government stresses the importance of “defensible borders” and claims a return to the pre-1967 borders would put Israel at risk. Yet, those very borders withstood the test of time, two decades, and two major wars.
What are the legitimate security concerns of Israel, and what would be acceptable defensible borders? Many high-level US and Israeli military and security experts feel Israel’s 1967 borders are defensible. Martin van Crevald, Israel’s preeminent military historian and theorist, recently analyzed this issue in the Jewish Daily Forward on December 15, 2010 in an article entitled: “Israel Doesn’t Need the West Bank to be Secure”. He concluded that an invasion of Israel from Jordan through the West Bank would be suicidal for the attacker,
“…since the West Bank itself is surrounded by Israel on three sides, anybody who tries to enter it from the east is sticking his head into a noose. To make things worse for a prospective invader, the ascent from the Jordan Valley into the heights of Judea and Samaria is topographically one of the most difficult on earth. Just four roads lead from east to west, all of which are easily blocked by air strikes or by means of precision-guided missiles. To put the icing on the cake, Israeli forces stationed in Jerusalem could quickly cut off the only road connecting the southern portion of the West Bank with its northern section in the event of an armed conflict.”
As his article demonstrates, Mr. van Crevald is not in any sense a hand wringing liberal Israeli Jew with unrealistic views of Israel’s security concerns. For instance, he approves of Israel’s security wall as well as the extreme violence of its invasions of both Lebanon and Gaza as effective means of deterrence. Nonetheless, van Crevald views the Israeli settlement movement as the major threat to Israel’s security and feels Israel needs to withdraw totally from the West Bank as it is fast becoming an apartheid state. His conclusion is both powerful and persuasive:
“… it is crystal-clear that Israel can easily afford to give up the West Bank. Strategically speaking, the risk of doing so is negligible. What is not negligible is the demographic, social, cultural and political challenge that ruling over 2.5 million — nobody knows exactly how many — occupied Palestinians in the West Bank poses. Should Israeli rule over them continue, then the country will definitely turn into what it is already fast becoming: namely, an apartheid state that can only maintain its control by means of repressive secret police actions. To save itself from such a fate, Israel should rid itself of the West Bank, most of Arab Jerusalem specifically included.”
Unfortunately, accepting the 1967 borders is no longer a politically viable choice for Israelis because of the strength of its right-wing religious parties who believe Israel has an ancient right of ownership in the West Bank. Nor is the US government able to influence or force Israel to accept that solution, even though it would be in both countries’ best interest. The influence of Israel’s US lobby has become too powerful. To paraphrase the recent words of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a moderate and influential American and Jew, the U.S. government has become a hostage to Israel because its powerful US lobby is capable of forcing the US to defend Israeli policies that are neither in American interests nor in Israel’s.
It is a lobby that quite apparently controls Congress, and even the executive branch, on all matters involving Israel and US foreign policy in the Middle East. It is not a Jewish lobby but more the lobby of Israel’s right-wing Likud and religious parties who seek their dream of a restored historic Greater Israel including all of ancient Palestine. Noted commentator Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast has accurately described it as the pro-Greater Israel lobby. Ironically, this powerful lobby doesn’t speak for either the majority of Israeli or American Jews who generally support a two-state solution and see Israel’s settlements as a major obstacle to that goal.
As we have recently seen, no US president dares diverge from pro-Israel policies, even when those policies are doing great harm to US standing and influence, for to do so would be a political death sentence. This is a situation that is dangerous to Israel and to the US. It is a situation for which American Jews are directly to blame for allowing Israel to pursue policies that were both immoral and self defeating to Israel, and for failing to support their own president and country when Israel and its US lobby’s conduct were doing grave harm to American interests. More ominously, it is a situation that will not change until some major tragedy occurs that will open the eyes of the American public to the harm done to American interests by Israel, its US lobby, and by American Jewish citizens who either supported Israeli misconduct, or stood silently by and did nothing when faced with that evidence.
The situation in the West Bank and Gaza is as much apartheid as was the treatment of black Americans in the South, or blacks in South Africa. It is a practice that must be ended for it reflects badly on American Jews. As the remaining short days and hours before Yom Kippur tick by, American Jews should reflect on what it would be like to be a Palestinian for each of those days, each of those hours. Each must answer the question posed by Stephen Robert: “How can Jews, who have been persecuted for centuries, tolerate this inhumanity? Where is their moral compass?” I hope the answer for the vast majority of American Jews will be that continued Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is not tolerable, and that they can and will no longer remain silent.
Thousands of courageous American Jews standing up and insisting that both the West Bank settlement folly and oppression of the Palestinians be ended would represent atonement in the highest spirit of Yom Kippur and the noble Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, working to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, many Jews will reflexively dismiss these comments as the blatherings of a likely anti-Semite, and will seek refuge in the old tired narratives in which Israel can do no wrong, the and for which the Greater Israel is their historic birthright. Neither choice will be accurate or help Israel.
Sometimes, to paraphrase the ending in today’s article by New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, “Is Israel its own Worst Enemy?“, the best criticism comes from concerned friends. As Israel has few friends left in the world, it might be wise for its Jewish citizens and American Jewish supporters to heed these warnings and begin to question the validity and morality of its assumptions and actions.
Hopefully, this Yom Kippur will cause the vast majority of American and even Israeli Jews to reflect, repent and move forward in the spirit of atonement. This may well be the last Yom Kippur season they will have the opportunity to do so before the door for a two-state solution slams shut and Israel hurdles further into the abyss. We can pray that won’t happen.
Shana Tova, and, for Saturday, G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
Gil Maguire practices law in Ventura, California
and blogs on the Israel-Palestine issue at