Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Light Unto the Nations

“I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth.”
                                                            --Isaiah 49:6

"It is clear today that the fate of the Jewish people is the fate of the Jewish state. There is no demographic or practical existence for the Jewish people without a Jewish state. … [O]ur future, is here. The greatest change that came with the establishment of the Jewish state was that Jews became … a sovereign collective in their own territory. Our ability as a collective to determine our own destiny is what grants us the tools to shape our future - no longer as a ruled people, defeated and persecuted, but as a proud people with a magnificent country and one which always aspires to serve as 'Light Unto the Nations'." 
                   --Benjamin Netanyahu, Herzliya Conference, Feb. 3, 2010


In Israel/Palestine, Jews and Palestinians continue to struggle over the land. Can Israel be a light unto the nations by setting an example to the Middle East and the world regarding how to integrate different ethnic groups in a contested land?  It’s what’s at stake politically. 

Bernard Avishai says forget about being a light unto the nations, how about learning a thing or two from other nations, like—you know—upgrade to Democracy 2.0.  I think that’s right, but still … if Israel can find a way to peace, and jobs, and education, and opportunity, and equal rights for Jews and Palestinians alike, it would indeed be a light unto the Middle East if not the world.

Not so much now.

After 116 years of Zionism, Jews are in control of all the land in Israel/Palestine.  As Yaacov Yadgar of Bar Ilan University has argued, Zionism has built a Jewish state that protects and privileges Jews over all others in all aspects of life in the Jewish state. The Palestinian minority within the state of Israel is systematically discriminated against, albeit with democratic rights; the Palestinian majority in the West Bank and Gaza is under Jewish military rule and without civil or democratic rights. God in the mood of Isaiah 49:6 would not be pleased.

The conflation of the Zionist project with Judaism itself, as Netanyahu exemplified in his Herzliya speech in 2010, and as too many in the American Jewish community are ready to do, raises the stakes tremendously. It means if Zionism fails as a project it will implicate Judaism itself.  

There is a contradiction in Netanyahu’s formulation.  Judaism, he said, is a sovereign collective free to determine its own destiny without apology to anyone.  As Berkeley rabbi Menachem Creditor put it in the Huffington Post this past summer, explaining his response to criticism of Operation Protective Edge:  “I am done trying to apologetically explain Jewish morality. I am done apologizing for my own Jewish existence.” A muscular Judaism, one not inclined to apologize for itself when it comes to Israel, is inconsistent with the command for Israel to be a shining light unto the world.

A muscular Judaism unwilling to apologize for itself allows for a vision of Jews occupying all of the land, and either pushing out or dominating Palestinians. This is the position of Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Feiglin, and Caroline Glick. It says the land belongs to the Jews, they have a superior right, and a Palestinian presence will be tolerated only to the extent they accept subservient second class status.

For Israel to be a light unto the nations it must achieve peace. There has to be security, jobs, infrastructure, education, respect, and equal rights for Jews and Palestinians alike. The state has to provide space for Jewish culture and Palestinian culture.

For twenty-five years the model for achieving such a peace has been the two-state-solution.  But the two state solution has lost credibility because the settlers who have lots of power and government support won’t have it; because Israel won’t abandon the West Bank both for security reasons and ideological reasons; because Jerusalem is “the undivided capital of the Jewish state” and won’t be the capital of any potential Palestinian state; because Palestinians will never accept ongoing IDF presence on the West Bank willingly; and because this is all a vicious cycle.

The debate is now bounded, on the one hand, by the muscular unapologetic Judaism of Moshe Feiglin, and, on the other, a vision of one state with equal rights for all that carves out space for Jewish and Palestinian culture equally. This battle is now being waged openly on the pages of the New York Times, something unimaginable just a short time ago. 

This is a historic moment for Israel/Palestine because the collapse of the Oslo two-state vision means the issues are being reframed.  Such a reframing does not happen very often.  How will the debate be framed for the next 50 years? Everything lies in the balance.  It’s what makes this particular time in Israel/Palestine so interesting. It’s what has caught my eye after our trip to Israel this past spring and made it compelling to engage.

If you listen to the American Jewish establishment from Adelson's Birthright Program, to Dershowitz’s “Case for Israel," or witness the knee-jerk deflection of criticism directed at Israeli policy, or look at the support of muscular Judaism in Congress …., a one state solution with equal rights for all seems like pie in the sky for now. But if the issues can be reframed, if the arc of discussion can bend towards justice, Israel/Palestine could yet become a light unto the nations in the Middle East. 

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