The Issue Remains: Two States for Two Peoples

A Response to Michelle Alexander's Recent Op-Ed
January 23, 2019Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Because of my deep admiration for Michelle Alexander’s brilliant work on the unfinished tasks of civil rights, I eagerly read her recent New York Times piece, hoping she’d shed new light on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Instead, this endlessly complicated and painful conflict was simplified in Alexander’s narrative, with Israel shouldering complete responsibility for the deplorable status quo. Right-wing voices that put the blame solely on Palestinians make the same reductionist mistake.

Let me be perfectly clear: As a lifelong Zionist, I believe in the justice and rights of the Jewish people. I also believe in the justice and rights of the Palestinian people. That’s why I believe in two states. As the leader of the largest Jewish movement in North American life, I and so many of my colleagues have been anything but silent in the face of the painful reality for Palestinians living under occupation.

But calling for an end to the occupation is not the same as resolving the underlying issues of security for Israelis and sovereignty for Palestinians. 

One can be deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being and fully supportive of the right of Palestinians to a homeland that is side-by-side with Israel. The security barrier and checkpoints were not created to oppress Palestinians, but rather to save Israeli lives during the waves of terrorism that blew up Israelis on buses and in cafes. Removing them without addressing the root causes of the conflict will unleash, not quell, the violence. And yes, the proliferation of settlements in the West Bank causes much Palestinian suffering and makes the possibility of a two-state solution more unlikely.

That’s why our Reform Movement has long opposed Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. The occupation threatens the very Zionism we hold dear – the living expression of a Jewish democratic state. It causes pain and hardship to the Palestinians and alienates Israel from friends and allies around the world. Only two states for two peoples, both states viable and secure, living side-by-side in peace, will bring this tragic conflict to its long-awaited end.

But honesty must resonate from the right and the left, from all people of good will.  Let’s briefly examine three points: Gaza, the lack of negotiations, and the situation between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Gaza is a humanitarian disaster. There is plenty of blame to go around for sure. Let’s include Egypt along with Israel and talk, too, about the bifurcation and cynicism of the Hamas-Fatah divide when we discuss Gaza. To debate Gaza with no mention of  Hamas rule obscures the complex reality. I recently visited with Israeli residents along the Southern border. Yet, Hamas, which cynically commandeered the peaceful protests that were taking place inside Gaza, encouraged kites be flown across the border to set aflame miles of Israeli fields, and has furrowed tunnels that open up into kindergartens and dining rooms in order to conduct covert operations inside Israel.

There must be a return to active negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, the current Palestinian Fatah-led government, which President Abbas has led for 18 years, is itself in a stalemate.  

There is, alas, here, too enough blame to go around. The current Israeli government is a right-wing government that has not encouraged negotiations and has, instead, supported the growth of more settlements, making a two-state solution appear intractable. 

The Netanyahu government continues to rule by appealing to dividing people, similar to what, alas, is happening elsewhere at this moment – Brazil, Poland, Hungary, the United States. These efforts are being fought not only by our movement here in North America and in Israel, but also by many Israelis.  We fight in Israel for a shared society that will embody the very values that Israel’s founders called for: “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…” – values that continue to inspire all of us who love the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, the situation between Jewish and Palestinian citizens (who comprise 21 percent of the population, based on the 1967 international borders) within Israel  is different from the broad strokes too often painted by critics. Today, the dean of Israel’s top law school is a Palestinian citizen of Israel; 41 percent of the students at Haifa University and 22 percent at the Technion (known as Israel’s MIT) hail from this population, and while discrimination continues to be a problem, the trend line – despite the politicians – is moving in a different direction.

Of course, the world keeping silent will not make Israelis or Palestinians more secure or more free. But neither will the status quo improve if one-sided narratives prevail, reducing this complex conflict to a morality tale with one side holding all the moral virtue.

I look forward to open, balanced, and honest dialogue with all who want to shape a better tomorrow for Israelis and Palestinians.

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