I feel like the odd man out this week. But don’t feel sorry for me, I often feel like the odd man out. On four major timely issues in the Jewish community, I find myself in dissent. Let me explain.
Last week in a meeting with Rabbi Marc Schneier, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas unequivocally stated that the Holocaust is “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and he expressed sympathy with victims’ families.” Prime Minister Netanyahu response was, to put it mildly, less than charitable. He called it a public relations move aimed at placating the West in the aftermath of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.
He repeated the very same mantra, the failed strategy that he followed with Iran when President Rouhami also accepted the historicity of the Holocaust. Instead of acknowledging that this was progress, however modest, over the previous statements of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who explicitly and provocatively denied the Holocaust, he began to quibble.
For Abbas to acknowledge the Holocaust is no small matter. After all, he wrote his doctorate at a Soviet University minimizing the Holocaust in a work that fell somewhere between softcore and hardcore Holocaust denial. So he had to repudiate not only his own views but a work for which he had received a Ph.D.
For Abbas to accept the Holocaust is also no great matter. After all, the perpetrators do not deny the Holocaust—neither its significance nor the numbers killed. So for Palestinians or Iranians to deny the Holocaust is ludicrous. What do they know about German history that German historians and moral, political and religious leaders do not know? When they deny the Holocaust, they look quite foolish and diminish their own standing in the world.
Still Abbas’s statement should be welcomed: He has joined the world of reality-based thinking and not the fantasy that for political reasons wants to wish away history.
Abbas should also get another issue out of the way. As Sacred Scripture, religious writings and archaeological remains demonstrate, Jews are linked to the land of Israel. It is sacrilegious for a Muslim to deny the Hebrew Bible, which along with the Christian Bible and the Qur’an is regarded as sacred literature by Muslims who consider Jews the people of the book. So to acknowledge Jewish links to the land is no grand concession but merely reality-based thinking. It is another move from fantasy to historical, fact-based thinking. Acknowledgment of Israel as a Jewish state would actually be a monumental concession as it would also have implications for the Right of Return and for Palestinian claims to the land. I can understand why he hesitates.
I also know that the issue is not without controversy in Israel, where the concept of Israel as a Jewish state means something very different to Orthodox Jews and Haredi Jews, to secularists and to Russian immigrants whose mothers were not halachically Jewish, are not considered Jews by the rabbinate despite serving—and sadly on occasion losing their life—in the IDF, and being citizens of Israel, or to Arab citizens of Israel, who have lived in the state of Israel for 66 years and in the land of Israel for generations.
So much as we wish that Abbas had not made the statement in the same week that he signed an agreement with Hamas, we should welcome the statement and say, one problem solved—next.
Thank You Mr. Secretary
I know that many of the Jewish right feel empowered to attack, even to ridicule, John Kerry, first for his seemingly failed pursuit of peace and secondly for his remarks that Israel without peace runs the risk of becoming an apartheid state. I am grateful that the Secretary of State, after having spent his valuable time and political capital in peace negotiations for Israel and the Palestinians, faced new realities in the contemporary landscape.
Israel has never been stronger in relationship to the Arab States that surround it. Neither Egypt nor Syria can pose an existential or military threat to Israel, which is in a strategic alliance with Sunni Arabs against Iran. No one who loves Israel can believe that a bi-national, one-state solution will work in the Middle East where fellow Muslims are fighting civil wars and artificially constructed bi-national states are collapsing one by one.
And the Palestinians know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been more peripheral to events in the Middle East, to the divisions in the Middle East. While the U.S. government cannot impose peace, an administration that cares about Israel should be willing to risk its political capital, its time and energy on the pursuit of peace. Only the enemies of Israel or U.S. administrations that don’t care enough about Israel to be willing to pay a political price at home would not undertake such a mission. So thank you, Mr. Secretary.
As to apartheid, most of the Israelis I know and most of the Jews I know are asking a basic question: How can Israel remain a Jewish and democratic country and rule over a significant Palestinian population that does not welcome its rule? Woe to Israel as a Jewish state if the Palestinians change their tune and speak of “One man [person], one vote.” It would either spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state or as a democratic state. So lovers of Israel should remind themselves and each other of what is at stake and the Secretary of State may be inelegant in his wording—apartheid is a loaded word—but he is not wrong.
Can Awful Men Do Good/Should Awful Men Be Allowed to Do Some Good?
I think that all decent people must condemn the words expressed by Donald Sterling and the sentiments behind them. As a basketball fan and a person who fought in the civil rights movement, I congratulate Commissioner Adam Singer for banning Sterling for life and believe that Sterling should be forced to sell the team. But UCLA’s return of his donation to the Kidney Center in just plain stupid and perhaps even immoral.
Take his name off the building or the program, by all means. But if you solicited the money to advance scientific research and ultimately save human lives, then use it for that purpose. Even bad men can do good things, and my tradition teaches me that a human life is worth saving.
One might argue that if UCLA could identify the direct and immediate victims of Sterling, the money might be given to them rather than returned to the billionaire, who surely doesn’t need it. NBA players don’t need the money; they who have made him millions and millions of dollars are entitled to respect and dignity—and they now have it. So if I had been the ethical advisor to UCLA, I would have said: “Keep the money, advance the research and save human lives. And if Sterling has a role to play in that, so be it. He is an awful man, but even awful men can do some good.”
Last week, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted not to allow J Street to join this exalted lobbying body. I would have voted for their inclusion. Much to the consternation of many in the established Jewish community, J Street has shown that it speaks for a large segment of the American Jewish community—its primary focus is geared toward young liberal Jews who want to give voice to pro-Israel sentiments, want to affiliate with something Jewish and who feel uncomfortable with the right-wing policies and statements that come forth from Zion and that are echoed in the Jewish establishment. If marginal organizations on the right with little membership belong—organizations that opposed the Israeli governments that were headed by Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon [on Gaza withdrawal] and Ehud Olmert are inside the tent, why not those who dissent from the left? Young Jews are already unaffiliated with Jewish institutional life. The vote of the Presidents Conference will only reinforce their tendency to go it alone and independently of the establishment.
If more than two-thirds of American Jewry supports the peace process and a two-state solution, and if some seven in ten voted for President Obama last time around, then J Street’s voice belongs around the table. We can no longer pretend that Jews speak monolithically about Israel—not here in the Diaspora and not in Israel. If a cacophony of voices is to be heard, J Street belongs among them. I suspect that their rejection by the Presidents Conference will only strengthen their standing and weaken the Conference: A foolish move indeed.
By Michael Berenbaum