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October 25, 2007

An Orthodox rabbi’s plea: consider a divided Jerusalem

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/an_orthodox_rabbis_plea_consider_a_divided_jerusalem_20071026

The question of whether we could bear a redivision of Jerusalem is a searing and painful one. The Orthodox Union, National Council of Young Israel and a variety of other organizations, including Christian Evangelical ones, are calling upon their constituencies to join them in urging the Israeli government to refrain from any negotiation concerning the status of Jerusalem at all, when and if the Annapolis conference occurs. And last week, as I read one e-mail dispatch after another from these organizations, I became more and more convinced that I could not join their call.

It's not that I would want to see Jerusalem divided. It's rather that the time has come for honesty. Their call to handcuff the government of Israel in this way, their call to deprive it of this negotiating option, reveals that these organizations are not being honest about the situation that we are in, and how it came about. And I cannot support them in this.

These are extremely difficult thoughts for me to share, both because they concern an issue that is emotionally charged, and because people whose friendship I treasure will disagree strongly with me. And also because I am breaking a taboo within my community, the Orthodox Zionist community. "Jerusalem: Israel's Eternally Undivided Capital" is a 40-year old slogan that my community treats with biblical reverence. It is an article of faith, a corollary of the belief in the coming of the Messiah. It is not questioned. But this final reason why it is difficult for me to share these thoughts is also the very reason that I have decided to do so. This is a conversation that desperately needs to begin.

No peace conference between Israel and the Palestinians will ever produce anything positive until both sides have decided to read the story of the last 40 years honestly. On our side, this means being honest about the story of how Israel came to settle civilians in the territories it conquered in 1967, and about the outcomes that this story has generated.

An honest reading of this story reveals that there were voices in the inner circle of the Israeli government in 1967-1968 who warned that settling civilians in conquered territories was probably illegal under international law. But for very understandable reasons -- among them security needs, Zionist ideologies of both the both secular and religious varieties, memories that were 20 years old, and memories that were 3,000 years old -- these voices were overruled. We can identify with many of the ideas that carried the settlement project forward. But the fact remains that it is simply not honest on our part to pretend that the government of Israel didn't know that there was likely a legal problem, or that the government was confident that international conventions did not apply to this situation. That just wouldn't be an honest telling.

An honest reading of the story reveals that the heroes of Israel's wars who became the ministers in its government, who were most responsible for the initial decision to settle, were quite aware that by doing so they were risking conflict with the Arab population that was living there. They were aware that these Arabs would never be invited to become citizens of Israel, and would never have the rights of citizens. Nonetheless, they decided to go forward. Some believed that the economic benefit that would accrue to these Arabs as a result of their interactions with Israelis and Israel would be so great that they wouldn't mind our military and civilian presence among them. Others projected that some sort of diplomatic arrangement would soon be reached with Jordan that would soften the face of what would otherwise be full-blown military occupation. These may have been reasonable projections at the time. But as it turned out, both of them were wrong. And it's not honest to tell the story without acknowledging that we made these mistakes.

The Religious Zionist leadership (similar to today's Evangelical supporters of Israel) made a different judgment, namely that settling the Biblical heartland would further hasten the unfolding of the messianic age. Thus, the Arab population already there was not our problem. God would deal with it. This belief too -- reasonable though it may have seemed at the time -- has also turned out to be wrong. To tell the story honestly, this mistake too must be acknowledged.

And the difference that honest storytelling makes is enormous. When we tell our story honestly, our position at the negotiating table is one that is informed not only by our own needs and desires, but also by our obligations and responsibilities. The latter include the responsibility to -- in some way, in some measure -- fix that which we have done. Also included is the need to recognize that we have some kind of obligation toward the people who have been harmed by our decisions. Honesty in our telling of the story reveals the stark and candid reality that we also need to speak the language of compromise and conciliation. Not only the language of entitlement and demands.

To be sure, I would be horrified and sick if the worst-case division-of-Jerusalem scenario were to materialize. The possibility that the Kotel, the Jewish Quarter or the Temple Mount would return to their former states of Arab sovereignty is unfathomable to me, and I suspect to nearly everyone inside the Israeli government. At the same time though, to insist that the government not talk about Jerusalem at all (including the possibility, for example, of Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods) is to insist that Israel come to the negotiating table telling a dishonest story -- a story in which our side has made no mistakes and no miscalculations, a story in which there is no moral ambiguity in the way we have chosen to rule the people we conquered, a story in which we don't owe anything to anyone. Cries of protest, in particular from organizations that oppose Israel's relinquishing anything at all between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and which have never offered any alternative solutions to the ones they are protesting against, are rooted in the refusal to read history honestly. And I -- for one -- cannot lend my support to that.

Without a doubt, the Palestinians aren't telling an honest story either. They are not being honest about their record of violence against Jews in the pre-State era, or about the obscene immorality with which they attacked Israeli civilians during the second intifada. They are not being honest about the ways in which their fellow Arabs are responsible for so much of the misery that they -- the Palestinians -- have endured, and they certainly are not being honest about the deep and real historical connection that the Jewish people has to this land and to this holy city. And there will not be peace (and perhaps there should be no peace conference) until they tell an honest story as well. But for us to take the approach that in order to defend and protect ourselves from their dishonest story, we must continue telling our own dishonest story, is to travel a road of unending and unendable conflict. Peace will come only when and if everyone at the table has the courage, the strength, and enough fear of God to tell the story as it really is.

For many decades we have sighed and asked, "When will peace come?" The answer is starkly simple. There will be peace the day after there is truth.

Yosef Kanfesky is rabbi of B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.

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