President Barack Obama at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Israel on March 21. Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters
On this Rosh Hashanah eve, we savor the hope that the New Year will bring the blessing of peace to Israel. We recall President Obama’s historic speech in Jerusalem, where he spoke to our hearts, as Jews and as Americans, about the necessity of achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. We remember Secretary Kerry’s determined efforts to re-launch peace efforts, ultimately bringing the parties back at the negotiating table. We hope and pray that the current talks will end in an agreement – and that greed for land will not deprive Israel of the peaceful, secure future its people long for and deserve.
Back in July, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to release Palestinian prisoners, ostensibly as a sign of seriousness about peace. But soon thereafter, 91 settlements were designated “priority development areas,” eligible for special benefits. At the time, Dov Weisglass, a former top advisor to Ariel Sharon, observed: “This is not how you make peace.”
In the days that followed, Netanyahu’s government advanced some 3000 new settlement units, and officials indicated that more settlement announcements were on the way. This, indeed, is not how you make peace. This is how you hand the future of Israel over to a small minority of Jews who value land over all else, including peace, security, and Israel’s survival as a democracy and a Jewish state.
In the book of Numbers (35:34), God warns: "Do not, therefore, defile the land which you will inhabit, wherein I dwell; for I, God, dwell among the Israelites." Yeshayahu Leibowitz (z"l), an Israeli Orthodox Jew widely viewed as one of the greatest modern scholars of Torah, suggests that this verse means that God doesn't dwell in the land, but among the Israelites – but only if their behavior meets with God’s approval. In short, actions are more important to God than the land.
In the haftarah of that same portion, the Prophet Jeremiah says, "You entered and defiled My land, and made My inheritance an abomination." Leibowitz notes that Jeremiah's rebuke makes sense only if “sacredness” is understood not as something inherent in the land, but as something embodied in the actions of the land’s inhabitants. Leibowitz says, "...that verse is directed at us as well. There is nothing more dangerous than cloaking defilement in the garb of holiness. The land itself does not have any inherent quality which sanctifies everything done in it, but only that which is done in it has the potential of imparting holiness to the land."
The West Bank is the land of our biblical forbearers. As Jews, we can respect the settlers’ reverence for this Jewish past, even as we reject their desire to recreate it. But more than that, we reject their readiness to sacrifice modern, democratic Israel in favor of re-establishing “Greater Israel,” and their willingness, in pursuit of this goal, to deprive Palestinians of their basic rights, including their land, freedom, dignity, and self-determination – or even to terrorize them in “price tag” attacks. About these settlers, and the occupation that supports them, the words of Jeremiah ring true: “You entered and defiled My land.”
The Jewish month of Elul, before the New Year and the Days of Awe, is a time to do cheshbon hanefesh – to take stock of oneself, in preparation for the days of repentance. Taking stock, we see that it is not enough to hope for peace in the New Year; we must act to make peace a reality. We must not bury our heads in the sand, rather than admit that Israel is careening down a self-destructive path. We must refuse to be silent as extremists, acting in our name as Jews, defile the land, and defile the miracle that is the modern state of Israel.
On the eve of this New Year, the choice is clear: a two-state solution, or Israel’s future handed over to fanatics, whose behavior in the name of what is “holy” is an abomination. An agreement will require painful compromises, including giving up the dream of “Greater Israel” – not to reward terror or appease critics, but to end Israel’s self-abasement before the false idol that is “land.” And in the process, to secure Israel for its citizens and its future.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is the Director of Strategic Communications at Americans for Peace Now.