Immediately after the General Assembly voted to accord the Palestinian Authority observer status as a state within the 1967 borders, the rabbis and lay-leadership of congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a popular synagogue in Manhattan praised the U.N. and described its vote as “a great moment for us as citizens of the world.” When they made this statement, did the rabbis realize that, according to the vote, the Western Wall (the holiest site in Judaism) is being illegally occupied by the Israeli government? Did they realize that the decision of the government to set aside the area for Jewish prayer could now be deemed a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court? Do the rabbis intend to pray at the Kotel next time they visit Israel? Or are they prepared to advise their congregants not to set foot on this Palestinian land now illegally occupied by Israel?
Do the rabbis realize that under the General Assembly vote the access route to Hebrew University on Mount Scopus is now on illegally occupied Palestinian land and that the Israeli government’s decision to reopen the Mount Scopus campus following the 1967 War may now also be considered a war crime? Do the rabbis intend to advise their congregants not to attend Hebrew University or to boycott the scholars who now illegally traverse Palestinian land to get to their offices and research facilities?
Do the rabbis understand that according to the General Assembly vote, the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, where Jews lived for more than 2,000 years until they were ousted by Jordan in 1948, is illegally occupied Palestinian territory, and that Israel’s decision to rebuild the synagogues destroyed by the Jordanians can now be deemed a war crime? Do these rabbis intend to stay away from the Jewish Quarter when they next visit Israel and advise their congregants to do the same?
I doubt very much whether these well-intentioned but extraordinarily naïve rabbis and lay-leaders understand the implications of the vote they so heartily approve. For them the vote was a symbolic gesture in favor of the two-state solution.
But do they know that a large percentage of the governments voting for Palestinian statehood do not recognize Israel’s right to exist and would clearly vote against Israeli statehood if given the opportunity? Indeed, a majority of those countries voted in 1975 to declare Zionism a form of racism. Even though the General Assembly was eventually pressured into rescinding that vote, its spirit hovered over the General Assembly as it does over many of the constituent organizations within the United Nations.
Naïveté and ignorance are not an excuse for supporting immoral actions, especially when this support comes from rabbis and congregational leaders who ought to do their homework before spouting out support for resolutions whose implications they do not understand.
Already the Palestinian Authority has threatened to use this resolution to bring charges against Israel for war crimes. Do the rabbis support the bringing of such charges? If they are brought, will the rabbis send out an email declaring the bringing of charges to be “a great moment”?
I too support the two-state solution, but I support it based on a negotiated resolution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government’s official position is to welcome negotiations with no preconditions. The Palestinian Authority insists on preconditions, including a prior total settlement freeze.
When Israel imposed a freeze, the Palestinian Authority refused to come to the bargaining table until just before the freeze expired, and then demanded an extension of the freeze. I have proposed that the Palestinian Authority agree to enter into negotiations first, and that the Israeli government then agree to a freeze.
I have been joined in that proposal by Peter Beinart and others who favor a negotiated two-state solution. The unilateral demand for statehood, approved by the General Assembly, makes it less likely that the Palestinian Authority will agree to begin negotiations, since they now believe they can get what they want without having to give up anything at the bargaining table.
I am sure that those of us who occasionally attend services at B’nai Jeshurun, as I do, and those who are members and frequent attendees, are deeply divided about these issues. It required incredible chutzpah and insensitivity to the intelligence of congregants for the rabbis and lay-leaders to issue their announcement without first allowing both sides of this issue to be heard and debated.
I hereby challenge the rabbis to debate this issue in front of their entire congregation. I am confident that if the congregation hears both sides of this issue they will have grave doubts about whether the unilateral General Assembly action represents “a great moment,” rather than a step backward in the quest for peace. I am also confident that after hearing both sides of the controversy, many congregants will be appalled at the decision of their rabbis to speak in their names without giving them an opportunity to be heard. Even congregations require a modicum of due process and freedom of dissent, both of which were denied the congregants of B’nai Jeshurun.
Alan Dershowitz is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author, most recently, of “The Trials of Zion” (Grand Central Publishing, 2010).