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Jewish Journal

Two states for two peoples is a Jewish value

by Yehuda Kurtzer

December 13, 2012 | 1:46 pm

From left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Photos by Reuters

The two-state solution is the object of a lot of discussion right now, mostly theoretical and mostly negative, and — at least on the Jewish and Israeli side — not showing a lot of action. Most opinion polls will tell you that Israelis still overwhelmingly support the idea of the two-state solution, even if a similar number express significant doubt about whether it will actually be implementable. In the wake of the recent war between Israel and Hamas and the unilateral action in the United Nations by Hamas’ rival Fatah that immediately followed, many Israelis legitimately believe that there exists a basic chasm between what they know to be the prudent endgame and the process that would get them there. 

As a result, the two-state solution is just a theoretical political possibility, and all sorts of other national priorities take precedence. This past summer, rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute summer study program visited the Knesset and heard from a mainstream political leader that the situation with the Palestinians ranked “fifth or sixth” in the priority list of urgent challenges facing the State of Israel.

What’s more, Israelis hate more than anything the risk of becoming friers — getting the raw end of a deal, being sucker-punched or embarrassed. To me, this seems at the core of the increasingly brazen Israeli governmental attitude — toward the American administration and toward the international community. The message is that we are prepared to deal only from the place of a clearly defined upper hand. Anything else would make us look vulnerable and small.

The problem with this argument is that as much as Israel may have historical legitimacy on its side in its ongoing contest with the Palestinians, and as much as Israel may have both the military superiority and geographic advantages in a long-term conflict that do not force it to negotiate except from a position of strength, Israel is on uneven moral ground about the existential claims it seeks to make for itself in its intransigence on this issue.

After all, the core claim of the Book of Genesis, which we are reading right now in the synagogue cycle, is that in spite of our setbacks and dispersions across the world, Jews are part of not only a religion but also a nation. “Two nations are in your womb,” God tells Rebecca, a radical idea for the nomadic Israelites to claim in the ancient world. Like the Edomites with their historical claim to a native homeland, the Israelites — despite their experience as sojourners elsewhere — lay stake to a place. Modern Zionism relies heavily on the moral claim that Judaism — in spite of its diasporic qualities for 2,000 years, in spite of its absence of a landed identity — never lost its national qualities, and in the emergence of the epoch of the nation-state, the Jewish nation, too, had a moral right to self-determination.

It is simple and straightforward: As Jews, our right to self-determination matters so much to us in the new narrative we are writing of our own history and destiny. We are surfacing a key moral claim about ourselves as a people and reawakening a Jewish moral vocabulary related to all sorts of issues we never had to deal with as the outsiders in the societies in which we lived.

But that same right should also be compelling us, as moral actors in a time in which we can act with greater moral agency than ever before in our history, to believe not just in the idea of the two-state solution as a woebegone and far-off political outcome, but as a moral claim inherent in how we see ourselves in the world. Palestinian self-determination should neither be mocked with old snarky Golda Meir quotes about the absence of a “Palestinian nation” nor left as the outcome of a political process that we as Jews see little incentive or responsibility in cultivating. 

Like everyone else, as a political realist and avowed Zionist, I know it is not so easy; I know that even with great intentions it is difficult to overcome obstructionism, state-sponsored terrorism and the absence of a political will to achieve a final status agreement with the Palestinians. But moral claims are fundamentally different than political considerations. When you feel a profound sense of ethical responsibility toward a major challenge, you do not shrug it off out of fatigue or failure; you remember that your identity is wrapped up in its pursuit.

Jewish power, in Israel and North America, is perhaps at its historical apex. We have greater ability now than ever before to shape our destiny and dictate our future, and our awesome ethical tradition impels us to do so with considerations that are different from those of every other nation-state. The basic standards of morality are what entitle us to a state of our own; the same claim should make us advocates for nation-states for others. Can the Jewish people, in this moment, face up to the core moral challenge of our time?


Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. This column begins a series of monthly columns on Jewish ethics and contemporary life by leaders of the Shalom Hartman Institute in the Jewish Journal.

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A blog by rabbis and scholars of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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