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The Occupation:Immoral & Self-Destructive--How to End It and Build Lasting Peace

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From the moment that it started, Israelis with a desire for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people urged the Israeli government to allow the Palestinian people freedom and national self-determination. It was not Israel, but Jordan, who occupied Palestine in the early years after Israel had been created, from. And it was not the Palestinian people, but Egypt, Syria, and then in a lame way Jordan who seemed to threaten Israel's existence in the months of April, May and June 1967 until a preemptive strike by Israel followed by a decisive victory in the 6 Day War gave Israel reason to temporarily occupy land that was recognized by an international community as Palestinian (though, to be fair, we need to acknowledge the double-standard of the Arab states and the U.N. in never passing any resolution demanding an end to the occupation when it was being done by Jordan in the West Bank and Egypt in Gaza).

Unfortunately, the passion of religious Zionists for a return to the ancient borders of "The Land of Israel" combined with a misguided pragmatism by those who were concerned with security, and a political desire to show that Israelis were "tough" and not "idealistic" or governed by merely moral concerns, led the Labor (weakly socialist) government of the time to embrace occupation, and the consistent rejection by Arab states of any notion of recognizing Israel played into the hands of the right-wingers in Israel who insisted that "security concerns" dictated a need to hold on to the territory.

Had Israel held on to the territory in a way that sought to encourage reconciliation, it could have built apartment buildings throughout the West Bank and Gaza (despite the desire of some leaders to reject any cooperation with the occupiers, the lure of decent housing would have soon broken such a boycott), built the infrastructure of Gaza and the refugee camps of the West Bank so that they became desirable places rather than hell holes, provided every child with a decent education in both Arabic and Hebrew that told the story of the Jewish people and its desire for reconciliation with the Palestinians, and integrated Palestians into the Israeli economy or helped them develop an independent economy (if it was two states that they were after).

Instead, like occupiers around the world from the U.S. dealing with Native Americans to the French dealing with Algerians to the Soviets dealing with Afghans to the Chinese dealing with Tibet to the Iraqis dealing with the Kurds, Israelis treated Palestinians with arrogance and insensitivity, sought no integration or economic advancement for the Palestinian people (yes, the refugees were far better off in Jordan by the 1990s than they were in the West Bank), and sought to balance the growing popularity of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) by encouraging the growth of Hamas. In the most cynical move of that sort in the past years, Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 while refusing to negotiate with the PLOs moderate and peace-oriented leader Abbas, thus allowing the Hamas forces to claim credit for the Israei withdrawal ("we drove them out with force, not with the weakness of the Abbas/Fatah strategy of negotiated peace"), which contributed to the Hamas' electoral victory in 2006.
Any accounting of the last forty years cannot put all the moral failures on the Israeli side. The continued support by the Palestinian majority of political forces (first embodied in the PLO till it changed its line in 1993, now in Hamas) that reject the right of Israel to exist as a state has played fast and loose with the justifiable fears of the Jewish people whose experience of statelessness (including statelessness in Arab and Islamic countries) was always coupled with second-class status of roughly apartheid dimensions, special taxes, and vulnerability to occasional (in Arab lands) or systematic (in Christian lands) violence, murder, rape and then genocidal policies.

The acts of terror against civilians in Israel undermined the peace movement and contributed decisively to the election of militarists, just as the 9/11 terror in the U.S. led to the dramatic strengthening of fear and militarism that provided the foundation for the war in Iraq. These random acts of violence are immoral and cannot be called "understandable" as a way to excuse away the stupidity that they represented except for those who really do seek a full annihilation of the Jewish people and consciously wish to undermine those seeking peace and reconciliation and a two state solution. Nor can Palestinians plausibly call their liberation movement "non-violent" when it has particular non-violent demonstrations: a non-violent movement has to be non-violent in principle, articulating that principle and rejecting as a traitor to that movement anyone who resorts to violence.

Still, the overriding fact is that the primary cause of the violence is plain for all the world to see: the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948, the subsequent refusal of Israel to allow those refugees to return to their homes, and then the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and the harsh way Israel implemented the occupation including systematic and well-documented torture and other human rights violations. In my book Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003) I tell the story in a balanced way that acknowledges the way each side has been insensitive to the needs of the other and how both sides have contributed to the fundamental impasse.

Yet it's hard to deny that Israel's overwhelming military power, its ability to dictate conditions for any negotiations, its daily abuse of Palestinians (from the road blocks to the withholding of Palestinian tax monies to the incarceration without trial of tens of thousands of Palestinians to the frequent killings of Palestinian civilians so that ten times as many Palestinians have been killed in recent years than Israelis), the testimony of Israeli military experts who can show that in an age of rockets and guided missiles that holding on to the West Bank provides little security advantages?all these contribute to the growing world consensus that makes Israel one of the least respected countries in the entire world (confirmed by a British poll in March of 2007).

Israeli behavior might have led to anger only against Israelis, had it not been for the fact that virtually every organized Jewish community in the world claims that Israel is "the Jewish state" and then contributes large sums of money to support its activities. But Jews cannot have it both ways?either Israel is a state like other states, having no special relationship to Judaism or the Jewish people except that a lot of Jews live there (as they do in the U.S. as well), or if Israel is in fact a manifestation of the Jewish people and Judaism so that Jews and those friendly to the Jewish people are expected to support it, then Jews cannot be surprised if anger at Israeli policies slips over into anger at the Jewish people who claim to overwhelmingly support that state. And that anger grows dramatically when AIPAC manages to convince otherwise liberal or progressive elected officials that they dare not speak publicly the upset they feel at Israeli policy, lest they face an organized campaign to label them as "anti-Israel" and defeat them in elections by providing financial and political support for their opponents.

The anger grows stronger when Jews and non-Jews encounter the efforts in the organized Jewish community to suppress debate, and when hundreds of thousands of the members of that American Jewish community join in labeling as anti-Semitic or as "self-hating Jews" those who critique publicly Israeli policy.

We have no sympathy with those who hate Jews for any reason, and insist that generalizing to an entire people from the behavior of some, even their elected government or the state that they support, is illegitimate. We don't accept anti-Americanism from those who rightly are outraged at US policy around the world, and we don't accept anti-Semitism from those who are outraged at Israeli policies. But we also recognize that if the public perception continues to be that large majorities in the Jewish world stand behind Israeli policy no matter how destructive or immoral, the likelihood of real anti-Semites becoming successful in manipulating the legitimate moral outrage people feel toward Israeli policies. So Israel's policies are not only immoral, but also self-destructive.

We have a great deal of compassion for people on all sides of this struggle.

Jews as a people, both in Israel and around the world, are a traumatized people suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In my lifetime one out of every three Jews on the planet were murdered. Is it a surprise that our people are completely disoriented, and though seeming to function in a rational way in pursuing their own personal self-interests, are actually unable to think rationally about their own survival as a people, but instead simply are acting out on others the trauma that was acted out upon us.

Similarly, though we are very critical of the role Arabs played in the period before the creation of the State of Israel, we have compassion for how the trauma of the expulsion from their homes and the subsequent life in refugee camps and under Israeli occupation has led to Palestinians also becoming a traumatized people suffering from PTSD and unable to think rationally about their own survival as a people, instead embracing one false messiah after another from Nasser to Arafat to Saddam Hussein to the current leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah. and embracing armed struggle when it was obvious that violence and terrorism had only impact: to strengthen the hands of the most hateful and militaristic elements in the Jewish world.

The political terms of a settlement are well known to all?and you can read them in detail in my book The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace (North Atlantic Books, 2004). The Saudi plan takes a major leap in that direction, and many of its details make sense (but not the desire to have Jews give up all claim to the Wall and to any part of the Old City of Jerusalem). But all that political detail is ultimately irrelevant until there is a more fundamental change: an opening of the heart of Israelis and Palestinians to each other, a willingness to hear and really try to understand the others' historical experience, an acknowledgment of wrong-doing and willingness to enter into a process of repentance and atonement for the way each side has been cruel and insensitive to the needs of the other, and a genuine openness to lasting peace and reconciliation in a spirit of compromise and caring for the other.

And this is where people in the U.S. could play a role. If instead of lining up behind the extremist elements in the Jewish world or the Palestinian world, the people who really cared about peace in the Middle East were to talk in ways that were compassionate toward both sides, and consistently challenge those who sought to demean "the other," they'd begin to have an important impact on both American and Israeli dialogue. And if these same people were to challenge the Strategy of Domination, both in Israel/Palestine and in the U.S. in all its relations with other countries, they could transform the public discourse in the U.S. and that would have a tremendous impact on what happens in the Middle East.

As long as people in Israel/Palestine remain trapped in the Strategy of Domination, there is little reason to hope for a lasting settlement beyond another false start like that which was negotiated in the Oslo Accords. If, instead, either side were to adopt a Strategy of Generosity toward the other, or if we could popularize a Strategy of Generosity in the Western world, there would be major breakthroughs toward peace in the Middle East. Imagine, for example, if Israel were to start on a massive house building project in the West Bank and give the housing they were building to Palestinian refugees, and were to not only release funds being held of Palestinian tax money but were to grant a general amnesty of all Palestinians held in Israel jails, and the government of Palestine were to publicly announce the creation of new textbooks that told the story of the Jewish people in Arabic in a sympathetic way and required teachers to go to trainings led by peace-oriented Israelis about how to teach that material, and were to openly repent for the deaths of Israelis at the hands of terrorism, what an impact these deeds would have on the consciousness of the other side. Imagine if both were to embrace the strategy of domination in their own communities and say to their own people: we cannot win this struggle by hoping to dominate the other side, but we could by acting in a spirit of generosity that showed the other that we cared about their well-being and not just our own.

That's why, in my view, it's so sad to witness peace groups in the U.S. or Israel or Palestine who can vigorously support new negotiations but who cannot speak out in a clear and strong way to affirm the humanity of the other, to lament the pain that the other has experienced, to publicly repent for acts of oppression and violence done by their own side, and who cannot publicly challenge those who demean either side of the struggle. It takes little courage to denounce; it takes great courage to affirm the decency of the majorities on all sides of the struggle.

When I wrote my book Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003) and its follow up The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace (North Atlantic Books, 2004) it was with the intention of showing how to read the history with compassion for both sides. Needless to say, it was ignored by the left media which frequently seeks to demean Israel (yes, Amy Goodman, I mean you, and yes, Pacifica, I mean you, and yes, ZNet and CounterPunch, I mean you) and by the mainstream media which primarily seeks to portray Israel as the "righteous victim" in the same way that the Left seeks to portray Palestinians as the only "righteous victim."

Compassion for both sides, a switch to The Strategy of Generosity, an insistence on educating one's own group to the need to have an open-heartedness and generosity of spirit toward the other side, including the pathologies on the other side and acknowledging the pathologies on one's own side?these are the only realistic ways to achieve peace. Use this as your criterion when you assess any given political move, demonstration, article, speech or whatever in the synagogues and mosques, in the Left media and in the mainstream media, in the organizations claiming to be pro-peace or for liberation, and in the symbolic gestures that each side takes.

Anything short of this is a utopian fantasy. Politics is a manifestation of the spiritual and ethical consciousness of humanity, and it will never solve problems until we are willing to work simultaneously on all the different levels. Till that happens, we can only grieve at the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the start of the Occupation.
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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
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