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For Israel’s 70th Year: Let’s Recommit to Promoting a Two-State Solution

For Israel’s 70th Year: Let’s Recommit to Promoting a Two-State Solution

Rabbi Rick Jacobs at Kotel

A week ago, we celebrated the extraordinary miracle of the modern state of Israel, 70 years young. But, now that the celebration is over, we must return to the hard work of resolving what appears to be intractable: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

I’m not naïve; we clearly are not close to a two-state solution. But, this is clear: There can be no legitimate Jewish state that is not a democracy. A one-state solution that would deny Palestinians any claim to sovereignty would result in the abandonment of either the Jewish or the democratic essence of modern Israel. I couldn’t imagine losing either.

The Occupation is real. As Ariel Sharon, hardly a left-wing progressive Zionist, noted back in 2003: “You may not like the word, but what is happening is an occupation – to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. I believe,” concluded Sharon, “that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians.”

We must protect Israel’s security, without doubt. But, a robust debate is underway in Israel about whether settlements truly make Israel more secure. It divides the Israeli public, Israeli politicians, and former IDF commanders and Israel security service heads. Many of the military and security chiefs believe that one can be deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being andfully support the right of Palestinians to a homeland next to Israel.

There is no doubt that the Palestinians, too, have missed countless opportunities to negotiate a final status agreement. And, the divisions in Palestinian society make negotiations ever more difficult. But, we must not turn away from our holy duty to seek justice, to make a broken world whole. 

Let me be clear: We North American Jews cannot and should not make Israel’s policy decisions. The people of Israel live and die by those decisions, but they must listen to the voices and opinions of those who are devoted to Israel’s well-being and can offer perspectives they may miss.

In that spirit, we will challenge those who wrongly suggest that lovers of Israel must support the most extreme ideology of the settler movement as part of a core commitment of Zionism. We will show up in Israel and here in North America, proudly displaying our social justice and deep ethical commitments, fully in keeping with important strands of Zionist thought among such influential thinkers as Ahad Ha’am, A.D. Gordon, Henrietta Szold, and Judah Magnes.                  

Through the years, Israeli Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres, Olmert, and Sharon took courageous steps toward peace. Today, however, the prime minister of Israel will no longer even say that he is committed to a two-state solution.

To illustrate this point, I want to share with you a reaction to three recent speeches about Israel.

The first: When Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Israeli Knesset this past January, he acknowledged longstanding U.S. policy that supports a secure Israel, side-by- side with a future Palestinian state. In response, there was nearly stone-cold silence among the Israeli political leaders. It was a shocking moment, quite frankly.

A second speech: When Howard Kohr, the head of AIPAC, expressed support for two states at the recent AIPAC conference, most people in attendance did not acknowledge his statement with even tepid applause.

And, finally, at the recent J Street conference, when Knesset Member Tzipi Livni stressed the urgency for two states, there appeared to be scant enthusiasm among the audience there, too. I was very surprised by this last one.

So, in a meeting with students from J Street U, I asked them about that response. Did it mean that J Street activists are moving away from two states toward support for one state? They told me, “Absolutely not. But, the dream appears so elusive to them at the moment that it is hard to be enthusiastic.”            

What has happened, indeed, to the two-state option? We have an Israeli government that appears neutral, at best, to support for two states; a U.S. administration that is on record in support of maintaining the U.S.’s longstanding policy for two-states, but without a clear path toward accomplishing that goal; and a new generation that sees a two-state option as a distant dream, at best. (If, indeed, President Trump was to introduce and pursue a viable two-state option, our Reform Movement would be out there applauding.)

We are at a critical moment. There is a new belief among those in Israel’s leadership that, indeed, the status quo can be sustained. Worse is the belief that there is a way for the continued growth of settlements in the West Bank to be sustained and that Israel will maintain its democracy and its place on the world stage. This scenario is a dangerous illusion.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the unexpected honor of meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He made clear to us, a small group representing the three main streams of Judaism together with our clergy colleagues from the Muslim and Catholic faiths, that his aim is to open up his kingdom.

He is promoting the Arab Peace Initiative; this offers extraordinary promise for Israel, if Israel is willing to embrace it. We must not be led astray by foolhardy ideas that Israel can make a lasting peace with a broad swath of the Arab world by ignoring the urgency of the two-state solution. There is no detour to peace without resolving the Israel-Palestine impasse.

There is simply no security, no safety, and no justice for or within Israel by maintaining an unsustainable status quo. So, as we celebrate Israel’s establishment and her resilience, let’s also emphasize that it is time to take every opportunity to forge ahead for a better future and recommit ourselves to the two-state option, without which the very essence of Zionism evaporates.

This blog post is adapted from the Elizabeth and Richard Dubin Family Foundation Lecture that Rabbi Jacobs delivered in April 2018 at a conference to commemorate Israel's 70th anniversary hosted by the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 850 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
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