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Guest Opinion: Atoning for the Middle East Tragedy

By MICHAEL LERNER

My son served in the Israeli Army in the West Bank, so for me the barbarous killings of two soldiers by a lynch mob in Ramallah made me feel the same anger that must have led Israeli Prime Minister Barak to bomb Palestinian leader Arafat’s compound in retaliation and to escalate the war against the Palestinians. So when I saw the pictures of the murder of those young men, I cried and was filled with rage.

Yet I can also understand that to those Palestinians these two young men killed were just members of the occupying army, the army that had been brutally killing over 80 Palestinians and wounding more than 2000 civilians in the past week’ and might have seemed indistinguishable from the Jewish mobs that attacked random Arab Israelis in Nazareth a few days ago, beating and burning. For every outrage on one side there is a story of outrage on the other. For me, that doesn't justify either side--both are wrong and both sides need to atone.

I have to take responsibility for my side, my community, my people. That's why, in my synagogue on Yom Kippur we atoned for our side of the story’ for Jewish violence. Our atonement was not an attempt to claim that Israel holds all the responsibility. I believe that Palestinians ought to adopt a nonviolent pose and reject any leader that advocates violence’ both because I believe that violence is always wrong no matter how noble the purpose and because in the context of the current struggle it had the predicted effect of destroying rather than enhancing the chances for peace (an outcome sought by extremists on both sides’ remember that it was Arafat’s Palestinian police that tried to use force to restrain the angry crowd that was attacking Israeli soldiers, knowing full well that that attack would undermine peace the Palestinian Authority was doing its feeble best to revive).

Palestinian violence is both immoral and irrational. Yet the preponderance of responsibility lies with Israel and with an international media that continue to obscure the basic realities facing the Palestinian people, and continue to treat the death of Israeli soldiers enforcing a brutal occupation as somehow more outrageous and barbarous than the killing of (many times as many) Palestinian teenagers who were resisting the occupation. To me, Israeli deaths are a personal tragedy. But have we not yet learned that in God’s eyes every human being is equally treasured? "But they were animals" I've heard said in response to the lynchings.

Yet these terms Jews never apply to those who were engaged in years of torture of Palestinians--acknowledged when the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that the torture should stop (torture documented in TIKKUN magazine by B'tselem, the Israeli Human Rights Organization). Nor are these labels applied to those Israelis who continue to visit and honor Baruch Goldstein's grave to publicly support his act of entering a mosque a few years ago and kill 30 Muslims at prayer. Nor the acts of the Israeli Underground which blew off the hand of the mayor Bethlehem. Nor so many other brutal acts--we Jews can't remember any of them, because we see ourselves as eternal victims and so simply are unable to see the situation in other terms besides being the victims of inhuman others (and hence, we have no partner for negotations, because the other side are just animals or irrational crazies whose only desire is to destroy Jews).

The way we talk that discounts the huge amount of Palestinians killed and wounded reinforces the desperation that led to the current tragic moment.

But, you might ask, didn’t Arafat irrationally reject a wonderful peace accord being offered him by Barak? Isn’t this current outbreak just more of the same irrational hatred that always leads Palestinians to reject a generous peace being offered by Israeli?

The reality is quite different. Since taking office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has expanded existing settlements, built new roads into the West Bank and made it clear at Camp David that he would insist on keeping the vast majority of settlers in place. The state Palestinians would then be offered would have within it a group of Israeli nationalistic fanatics, many of whom moved to the West Bank precisely to ensure that there would never be a Palestinian state.

The resulting scenario is obvious: The settlers would continue their long history of violent attacks against Palestinians, and when the Palestinian state tried to impose law and order, the settlers would demand protection from the Israeli army, which would use the new roads to send in tanks and heavy artillery just as it has done in the past week.

The Israeli roads and settlements turn the claim of offering the Palestinians 90% of the land into a cruel hoax. With the Israeli military patrolling those roads that crisscross the Palestinian state, Palestinians would face humiliating searches and would not be able to move freely.

Imagine someone offering you a house in which you were going to have large rooms (90% of the space) but they were in charge of the hallways between the rooms. You would quickly realize that your freedom to be ''at home'' was remarkably compromised. For a people who have endured 33 years of military occupation, complete with a long history of documented torture, house demolitions and harassment, this doesn't sound like such a great deal.

Nor are Palestinian demands for control over the Temple Mount and the adjacent sections of East Jerusalem irrational. Muslims from the occupied territories have frequently been prevented from coming to the Temple Mount when Israel proclaims ''security closings'' of the border. Israelis who were rightly outraged at being denied access to the Western Wall when Jerusalem was under Jordanian (not Palestinian) rule from 1948 to 1967 have effectively imposed similar conditions on the 1 million Muslims in Gaza.

At the same time, many religious authorities ban Jews from walking on the Temple Mount until the messiah comes. So ceding sovereignty there would not have been a religious hardship. Barak could have conceded interim sovereignty to the Palestinians on the condition that those arrangements would be reopened when the messiah arrived (by Biblical criteria: nations beating their swords into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb).

Nor has Israel ever acknowledged responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were driven out of Israel in 1948, many of whose descendants today live in refugee camps.

None of this had been resolved at Camp David, and so most Palestinians realized that the peace process was just another mechanism to prolong the status quo of an oppressive occupation.

I was honored to attend the signing of the Oslo accords at the White House in 1993, and in the pages of Tikkun magazine I have severely criticized those Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said who did not believe that Palestinian self-determination would be granted in the five years that Oslo promised. Now, seven years later, I can understand why Palestinians would feel cheated and outraged over the endless occupation.

Add to that the racist attitudes that led Barak to seek Israeli Arab votes in the last election, his subsequent refusal to allow Arab parties into his government for fear that their presence would make the government appear ''illegitimate'' and the long history of discrimination against Israeli Arabs in housing and employment, and you get the volatile ingredients that led to the explosions last week and the subsequent massive violence against Arabs both inside Israel and in the occupied territories. For example, as police looked on, Jewish mobs reenacted a classic Russian pogrom on Palestinian civilians in Nazareth this week.

None of this justifies Palestinian violence or the far more massive counter-violence of the occupying Israeli army. But I see no hope that the disgusting cycle of violence on both sides will stop until Israel is willing to end the occupation and end its internal racism against Arab Israelis. And as a religious Jew, I know that God and the Torah are served best when we insist that every human being, including our enemies, be seen as equally valuable to God and equally created as embodiments of the divine. Given my own outrage at the killing of Israeli soldiers, this is a moment when it seems easier to just forget my faith and stay in my anger.

But I also know that when the Jewish people can only see our own (very real and legitimate) pain, its time to atone.

AUTHOR NOTE: - Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun: a Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society and author of ''Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul'' (Walsch Books, 2000)

– Scoop received his editorial via Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace network.

- EXTRACT FROM LETTER ACCOMPANYING ARTICLE – “I don't know if you've seen the article I wrote which has been widely distributed in the U.S. Since I published this I've had many people cancel their subscriptions to Tikkun.. I knew that [my taking this stand] would cost Tikkun dearly in the financial support we need to keep going--and that is why taking this stand was a really risky thing for me to do. In addition, I've received several death threats for it after this appeared in the Los Angeles Times' op-ed page. Needless to say, nobody on the opposite side of this issue in the Jewish world is facing any financial threat or death threats for taking their kind of stand.”

- A subscription to TIKKUN costs $29 in the U.S.and $42 (US) outside the USA. Send to TIKKUN, 2107 Van Ness Ave, Suite 302, SF, CA 94109.


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