Opposed Outlooks, Shared Fears

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published July 22, 2009, issue of July 31, 2009.
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In recent months I’ve heard more and more reports of rabbis who say they no longer know how to talk with their congregants about Israel. They feel — correctly, as far as I can tell — that our community is deeply divided, and that the divisions extend to the communities within the whole: to wit, the congregations.

How does one address an audience, a portion of which regards “Beware, it is 1938 again!” as an applause line, while the other portion is outraged by what it sees as Israel’s persistent provocations? Or perhaps it is into three parts that we are divided — the “Who are we to criticize Israel?” crowd, the “How can we refrain from rebuke when rebuke is warranted?” crowd and a growing number who want the whole matter of Israel to be pushed off-stage, who find it too confounding or too painful to tangle with.

Two parts or three, not necessarily of equal size or equal volume, their public intensity marked and disturbing not only to the rabbis but also to all who call themselves friends of Israel. Who are these others, those who boo while I cheer, those who cheer while I boo? They cannot be the enemy, but they are too blind to be counted as allies, or even as friends.

Relax. There really is a way, after all, to talk to all (or almost all) of us, and that means there is a way for all of us to listen, to comprehend that we are family. That way begins with acknowledgment of the fears we share. It accepts that the vehemence of our public views may well coexist with private pricks of doubt we cannot overcome.

Here’s an example, quite personal: I have written and spoken for many years now, since long before the idea had become a mantra for so many, in favor of a two-state solution. In my view, any other conceivable solution spells death to the Jewish state.

But though that is as deep a conviction as I have, I do not think that a two-state solution, even if achieved, will be a picnic. It is riddled with hazards, both in conception and in execution: Where shall the borders of those states be? Shall Jerusalem be divided by an international boundary, or shall anyone who enters it from the new Palestine be able to exit it into Israel? How, if at all, will Palestine’s eastern border, its long border with Jordan, be controlled? And how shall the limited water supply be shared between Israel and Palestine? Above all, how shall both the Jewish state and the Palestinian state deal with their own extremists, those who claim that their nation’s leaders have stabbed them in the back and those who persist in denying the other’s legitimacy?

One can go on, and on, and those whose task it will one day be to negotiate the terms of a solution to the conflict will have to go on, and on, detail by cumbersome and contentious detail. And their agreed-upon responses to those “details” will leave many on both sides dissatisfied, suspicious.

It grieves me to say all that; I wish it were not so. But it is so, and because it is, I cannot scorn those who feel trapped by the details and who therefore conclude that a two-state solution is folly. I am as outraged as they by Palestinian extremism and incitement (though I wish they were as outraged as I by Israeli extremism and incitement), and I share their doubts that a comprehensive peace treaty will put an end to the excesses.

Yet I continue, not out of stubbornness but out of Zionist fidelity, to believe that a Jewish state is ours by right. (That does not make the Palestinians wrong. One definition of tragedy: when two rights collide.) And the only way to preserve and defend that Jewish state is to embrace the independence of a new and viable neighbor: Palestine.

Some say the two-state idea is simply not realistic. But if I am right in my claim that only with two states can there be a Jewish state, those who say that the two-state idea is not realistic are defeatists. Some say the two-state idea is too problematic. Theirs is a three-letter error; scratch the word “too,” and they are not wrong.

And then, in any case, there is work to be done now, for the house is truly burning. The escalating conflict between state and religion in Israel is a gathering menace to both. The continuing discrimination against Israel’s own Palestinians citizens is an unacceptable affront to Israel’s stated ideals and commitments. Can we speak of such things? Or is the Israel we love and cherish all milk, honey, falafel and high-tech entrepreneurs?

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