Israel and the Peace Process: The Urgent Need for Honesty, the Urgent Need for Progress


As the bloodshed in Israel continues, and as we sit heartbroken before the killing and the terror, this is an appropriate time for reexamining our most fundamental assumptions about the conflict in the Middle East.

In so doing, we must not be reticent to acknowledge our own errors of judgment. We must admit, first and foremost, that we have been wrong about the readiness of the Palestinians for peace.

We have believed, along with our allies in the peace camp, that if an Israeli Prime Minister would be brave enough to say that Israel must choose peace over territories, the Palestinian Authority would also be ready to choose peace. It would do so resentfully, reluctantly, and out of grudging self-interest rather than love, but nonetheless, it would choose peace. Then, last summer, Ehud Barak bravely offered a Palestinian state on 96% of the West Bank, with its capital in east Jerusalem. Had that offer been accepted, the Palestinians would live today in their own independent state, free of Israeli occupation, masters of their own destiny. Instead Yassir Arafat once again led the Palestinian people down the long, cruel path of violence, suffering, and death.

And we were wrong about something else as well. We did not pay nearly enough attention to the culture of hatred created and nourished by Palestinian leaders.

Like Jews throughout the world, we have been shocked and bewildered by events of recent months. Palestinian violence has reached a new level of viciousness. One outrage follows another. Attempts to justify and explain these actions are still made, often by diplomats and sometimes by well-meaning Jews. But to excuse the Palestinians from the normal standards of moral judgment is to patronize them and to separate them from humanity. The only explanation that makes sense is a deep and profound hatred, among some segments of their population, for Israelis and Jews.

Palestinian children, of course, are not born hating Jews. Hatred is a powerful sentiment that must be acquired - from parents, from education, from government authorities. The hatred of so many Palestinians for Jews results from a conscious process of demonizing the "Zionist enemy."

Our movement has not said enough about such things; we assumed that if a political settlement were reached, then conciliation would inevitably follow. But we, along with most of the Jewish world, now realize that conciliation, at least in some measure, must come first. The Palestinians must demonstrate, even before an agreement is reached, that they have a true desire for peace.

At the same time, Israel's hands are not totally clean. Occupation involves acts of degradation and cruelty, and Israel's occupation has been no different. And her response to terror has raised questions. But, still, Israel's leaders have always battled the agents of hatred and incitement in their midst. The citizens of Israel remain moderate and sensible.

But while we have learned some hard new lessons in the past six months, we have also seen that our overall approach to the conflict between Israel and her neighbors remains not only relevant, but right. The intifada has left us more cautious than we were, but it has not changed the history, the demography, or the economics of the Middle East, and it has given us no reason to revise our long-term view of what is necessary for peace.

Can an end to violence and a return to negotiations be achieved? Only with American involvement. Some fear American participation, but we are not among them. The alternative is intervention by a hostile United Nations. The current American administration is a conservative one that despises terror, treats Arafat with suspicion, and is respectful of Israel's military prerogatives. Its instincts in the region have been far more right than wrong.

Religious Freedom

And what of religious freedom and equal rights for Reform Jews in Israel? Not surprisingly, we have heard less about these matters in recent months. Security and survival receive absolute preference; victims of terror are dead, while victims of religious discrimination are not.

Still, we do not put aside our religious concerns. In a sense, they are more important now. Israelis face a prolonged period of political uncertainty. Systems of meaning are needed at such times, to provide comfort and revive hope. And liberal Judaism can offer what secularism and Israeli Orthodoxy have failed to provide. In the year 2001, can anyone doubt that Judaism is at its best when it has no power, only influence, no authority except that which it earns, no claim to people's attention other than the distinctiveness of its values?

Poll after poll indicates that a huge majority of Israelis want to be Jews in their own way, without imposing belief on others or having it imposed on them. The results of the upcoming World Zionist Organization election are critical and will have a direct impact on issues of religious freedom and other serious concerns facing Israel and the Jewish people. Further, as a worldwide Reform Movement, we must expand our support for our institutions in Israel.

Even now, at a time of terror and war, Israel's citizens are doing what Jews have always done: they are searching for credible values, Torah-based rituals, and a personal spiritual center. And for many Israelis, this search is leading them to the institutions of Reform Judaism. Israelis are voting with their feet. They want a version of Judaism that will not ram religion down their throats, but will frame their existence with meaning and redeem them from loneliness. And for more and more of them, Progressive Judaism - warm, egalitarian, compassionate - is the answer.

THEREFORE, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:

  1. Reaffirm the central principles of previous UAHC resolutions and statements on Israel and the Peace Process:
    • That the way to end the conflict is for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated agreement, based on mutual recognition that provides security for both sides;
    • That territorial compromise and the separation of Israelis and Palestinians are the essential elements of such an agreement;
    • That a Palestinian state is inevitable, and indeed is already in formation; and
    • That even now, when Palestinian extremism assaults our sensibilities, there is no moral or practical alternative to these principles.
  2. Acknowledge that during the past nine months, we have learned a great deal about the Palestinians' present unwillingness to make the hard choices necessary for peace. We have learned a great deal about the full complexity of the threat that Israel faces:
    • We misjudged Palestinian intentions; and
    • We failed to pay enough attention to the culture of hatred created and nourished by Palestinian leaders.
  3. Emphatically reject the poisonous argument of "moral equivalency" -- that those who battle terror are the same as those who inflict it and those who offer peace are the same as those who spurn it - and commit ourselves anew to playing a constructive role in moving beyond the deadly status quo by:
    • Urgently calling on the Palestinians to join Israel in implementing an immediate cease fire to break the cycle of violence, stop the killing, and return to the negotiating table;
    • Recognizing that the primary burden here falls on Mr. Arafat's shoulders. He says that he wants to talk, but he cannot expect to come to the table when he is covered in blood. He says that he wants peace, but this means that he must talk the language of peace to his own people.
    • Urging the government of Israel to freeze temporarily all settlement construction, not because of any external pressure but because it is politically wise and morally right; and
    • Calling for vigorous American leadership, both in bringing about a cessation of violence and in speaking forcefully to the Palestinians and others in the region about the dangers of demonization.
  4. Join together, Israel and the Jewish world, in the work of spiritual renewal. Even in the midst of the debate on life or death issues, our religious concerns demand attention. We will:
    • Strengthen our movement in Israel in every possible way;
    • Refuse to compromise our integrity, our independence, or our religious vision;
    • Work for an ARZA-World Union, North America victory in the World Zionist Organization elections;
    • Join the fundraising efforts of ARZA-World Union, North America; and
    • Look for new ways, as a united Reform movement, to provide much higher levels of financial support to our struggling schools, synagogues, and youth movements in Israel.