As an American Jew, I feel compelled to speak the unspeakable: It is in Jewish best interests, morally and pragmatically, to rethink the notion of Israel as a Jewish state.
Nineteen years ago, I rehearsed a play with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers at Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine. Forging a script both sides could stand behind took perseverance. But at our cast party, Arabs and Jews leaned on each other and sang songs. It gave me a glimpse of what could be.
I contrast that hopeful moment with the appalling news coming out of Israel and Gaza. While Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli forces were firing on (mostly unarmed) Palestinian protesters gathered along the fence between Gaza and Israel, killing at least 60, and injuring more than 2,000.
Israel defends its response, claiming that the demonstrators were trying to breach the border. But the absence of any casualties on the Israeli side proves the response was grossly disproportionate. This is not an isolated incident, but an ongoing saga since 2007, when Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza following Hamas’ election victory. Nearly 2 million Gazans are squeezed into a virtual prison one-ninth the size of Rhode Island. Israel and Egypt control the borders and access to water, fuel, medical supplies and electricity. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to see that Gaza has become a concentration camp, and the demonstrations at the border are a desperate response to a humanitarian crisis.
Some Jewish intellectuals, such as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and scholar Norman Finkelstein, have condemned Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza, while still defending the Zionist premise that Jews deserve a homeland. Although a few Israelis on the far left and right, such as journalist Gideon Levy and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, support a one-state or binational solution for both Jews and Arabs, this view has rarely been voiced in American Jewish circles. As an American Jew, I feel compelled to speak the unspeakable: it is in Jewish best interests, morally and pragmatically, to rethink the notion of Israel as a Jewish state.
Central to Jewish faith is the notion of tikkun olam, that it is our responsibility to help heal the world. And yet, when it comes to the Palestinians, we persist in a victim mentality that spins the uprising of an oppressed people as attempted annihilation, and justifies any measure of force.
A two-state solution has proved to be an illusory goal. Settlements have undermined any serious progress toward creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank; and Gaza, with no industry, little infrastructure, 40 percent unemployment and controlled borders, is not viable as an autonomous entity.
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The creation of a Jewish homeland may have seemed an apt response to the Holocaust, but its very notion was flawed. If it is justified to have a state that favors Jews over other ethnic groups, then it is theoretically also justified to have a state that discriminates against Jews. I find that logic unsettling. Jewish long-term security depends not on the perpetuation of European ethnic nationalism, but on exemplifying American values of inclusion and multiculturalism.
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It is often argued, even by those sympathetic to the Palestinian’s plight, that peace is impossible until Palestinians accept the legitimacy of Israel. But how can we ask anyone to accept the legitimacy of a nation that by definition excludes them? I have traveled in Israel and the occupied territories, and spoken to many Palestinians. They accept that Jewish Israelis are here to stay. What they don’t accept is the perpetuation of an apartheid regime.
Annexing the West Bank and Gaza would deprive Israel of its Jewish majority, but it would allow it to truly become a democracy, instead of perpetuating a fictional democracy that excludes the regions where Jews are outnumbered. While this raises risks to be sure, constitutional safeguards and institutions can be put in place to protect the rights of all peoples. The best reason for taking this leap of faith is that the status quo is untenable.
Imagine what a new Israel could be, an Israel for all peoples. If all the young lives, Jewish and Arab, cut short by this violence could instead be harnessed to irrigate the desert, desalinate the sea, create music and translate love poems into each other’s (very similar) languages! Now that would be an Israel to inspire the world. I saw it happen, one magical summer in Maine, so I have faith it’s possible.