Give Peace a Chance?

Peace1In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s main character Von Humboldt Fleisher is the consummate American. He cares about America more than anything else. He also reads voraciously, but the more he reads, the more despondent he becomes – because he’s not seeking that sort of complexity. He wants a simpler universe. “History,” Bellow says of Humboldt the American, “was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s sleep.”
Fifty years before Bellow’s novel, in 1907, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote his third and final play, A Strange Land. In it, he introduces the young Russian Jew, Gonta, just back from several years in America. Gonta had gone to America “to forget,” he says. And when asked what it was that he was hoping to forget, he responds, “Who I was.”
Two utterly different writers, one American and one European, separated by an ocean, by largely competing ideologies and by half a century. Yet for both, America was the place where one could essentially put on blinders. In America, you could forget who you were; in America, you could get a good night’s sleep even in the midst of the nightmare called history.Peace2
That, of course, has been key to America’s greatness, to its optimism, to its sense that every problem has a solution. The United States has come of age fighting most of its wars in lands far away, buffered by large oceans that make the world the object of interest – but not the source of personal distress.
Israel could not be more different. No one goes to Israel, temporarily or permanently, to forget who they are. No one goes to Israel to get a good night’s sleep in the midst of the nightmare called history. To go to Israel is to have who you are be the focus of your very existence. To go to Israel is to sometimes live the nightmare even when you’re awake. No oceans here to serve as buffers. No luxury of fighting our wars far away, in lands we will never see. During the Second Lebanon War and more recent Gaza conflicts, our friends packed up food for their sons who were on the front – sometimes for Shabbat, and sometimes just because – loaded up the trunk of their car, and drove to deliver the food to the boys. No Iraq or Afghanistan – out of sight and often out of mind – here.
Peace3The DNA of the world’s two largest Jewish communities could not be more different. We need each other and have much to learn from each other, but we could not be more dissimilar.
One is a place where you can imagine that if you play your cards right, you’ll have no enemies; the other is a place where such a delusion can get you killed. One is a place where young people have “Holocaust fatigue” and wish to hear no more about it – after all, it was a long time ago, and it’s time to move on; the other is a place where Yad Vashem is a national institution, where Holocaust imagery and memory are to be found everywhere, where Israeli rightists printed posters of Yitzhak Rabin dressed as Hitler (and then pretended to wonder why he was assassinated), where haredim dress their kids up as concentration camp victims to make a political point, and where the Shoah is – for better and for worse – a reminder of the Jewish people’s very real vulnerability.
That is why the “give peace a chance” mantra of many thoughtful, Israel- committed and well-intentioned Diaspora Jewish leaders strikes many middle-of-the-political-road Israelis as ludicrous. “If US Secretary of State John Kerry fails, it will be because the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships could not summon the courage to take the painful steps required for peace, security and dignity,” said one recently. Ah, the luxury of balance, of optimism, of the belief that every conflict has a solution. It’s the gift of the buffer of the oceans.
It’s for that reason that I’m actually delighted that the Israel book du jour for American Jews is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (a book I reviewed very favorably in this column). It’s wonderful because not only does Shavit’s book raise important questions about Zionism that we must all confront, but because his gifted pen illustrates that deeply committed Zionists – who live here, send their kids to the army and plan to stay here whatever might happen – believe that the key to meaningful Zionism is asking terribly penetrating questions about the choices we have already made.
So here’s my question to today’s Humboldts, who simply don’t want the nightmare to bother their sleep. Where are the Palestinian or Arab Ari Shavits? I don’t mean Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Wafa Sultan, who hate the tradition in which they were raised. I mean committed Muslims who choose to stay in Lebanon, or Syria, or Jordan, or in the West Bank – and who write critically of their own culture the way that the Israel-loving Shavit writes of his.Peace4
Have you read or even heard of a single book by any citizen of those countries (who choose to stay there) who says that the 1947-1949 Arab attack on Israel was a mistake? Have you read or even heard of a single book by one of those people that says that the attempt to destroy the just-born Jewish state was morally wrong? Have you read a single book by a committed Palestinian who says that just as the Palestinians have a right to a state, so too do the Jews, and it’s time for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
Neither have I.
When (not “if,” but “when,” I fear) the talks fail, it will be in part because both Israeli and Palestinian leaders made some serious mistakes. But the real reason will be because the War of Independence isn’t over. The real reason will be that to this day, no Palestinian leader will look at their people and say “The Jews, too, are indigenous here. They, too, have a right to a homeland here, so let’s share.”
Have you heard any of them say that, in Arabic, to their street? Do you think it’s likely to happen soon? Do you think you’re likely to live long enough to hear that?
Neither do I. 

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

14 Comments on "Give Peace a Chance?"

  • martin kessler says

    Your piece only contributes to my “Israeli Fatigue”.

    Did you really expect any Arab would someday come to his senses and say: “Were so sorry to have been so inhospitable. It has all been a tragic mistake. Come , let us all accept whatever state you desire and we shall all live happily ever after”.

    Please tell me you’re jesting

  • There is much wisdom, even poetry, in your thoughtful essay “Give Peace a Chance?” I also especially like your point about there being at least two indigenous Peoples living there between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And, I have written about this aspect in “Aboriginal Rights of the Jewish People,” available at:

    However, I do want to raise another small, but significant, matter about some confusion between “a” Jewish State and “the” Jewish State. Your Jerusalem Post piece speaks about recognition of “a” Jewish State. Mahmoud Abbas also likes to talk about his refusal to recognize “a” Jewish State.

    By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refers to “the” Jewish State. In his speeches over recent years, and in some current exchanges with the Palestinian Authority, Israel does not seek recognition of “a” Jewish State. Rather, the Israel government seeks recognition of the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as “the” Jewish State, i.e. as the political expression of the self-determination of the Jewish People in a part of its aboriginal homeland.

    The more than 6 million Jews now living in Israel are over 40% of world Jewry and 75% of that country’s population. Public-opinion polls consistently show that worldwide most Jews self-identify as part of the Jewish People. They see Israel as “the Jewish State.” As in centuries past, Jews generally regard Israel as their aboriginal and spiritual homeland. Most Jews also see Israel as the political expression of their self-determination as a People among the world’s Peoples. Thus, Israel as “the” Jewish State is internationally not primarily about the religion of Judaism, but rather mostly about the modern political and legal doctrine of the self-determination of Peoples. This means that, in the relevant diplomatic context, the adjective “Jewish” in the phrase “the Jewish State” largely refers not to the religion of Judaism, but mostly to the Jews as a People; just as there is a Japanese, an Italian and a Greek People.

    For example, the phrase “a Jewish State” does not feature once in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947) recommending the partition of what remained of Mandate Palestine after the 1946 treaty specifically excising the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. The partition recommendation refers more than thirty times to “the Jewish State” which is juxtaposed to “the Arab State.” This couplet powerfully supports the understanding that the adjective “Jewish” in the phrase “the Jewish State” internationally refers primarily to the Jewish People rather than to the religion of Judaism. Otherwise, the companion reference to that other part of Mandate Palestine (1946-1947) would logically have been “the Muslim State” rather than “the Arab State.”

    The centrality of the notion of the Jewish People is also supported by the May 14, 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which has more than a dozen references to the Jews, as a People among the world’s Peoples. By contrast, the declaration has just two indirect references that perhaps point to the religion of Judaism.

    In addition to being “the” Jewish State internationally, Israel may also at home be more or less of “a” Jewish State, i.e. a country that chooses to domestically give the religion and values of Judaism a special role in the public space. And to be sure, a hotly debated topic among Jews — both in Israel and abroad — is whether Israel ought to follow the United States in a thoroughgoing observation of the domestic principle of the separation of Church and State.

    Internationally, there is no legal norm that requires governments to be secular domestically, i.e. at home to observe something like the USA separation of Church and State. Nor internationally is there a moral or political consensus that there ought to be such a requirement of domestic secularism. Not surprisingly, there are many countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Greece, and the United Kingdom whose constitutions have a special place for the native religion.

    Accordingly, the extent to which Israel ought to be domestically more secular or more of “a” Jewish State is a matter of choice for all Israel citizens. They regularly argue all sides of this question, including with Jews in the United States and elsewhere in the Diaspora.

    Though the native religion has a special place in Israel, that country is hardly exceptional in this regard. Such special treatment for the religion of Judaism at home does not detract from Israel’s status as “the” Jewish State internationally, i.e. as the political expression of the self-determination of the Jewish People in a part of its aboriginal homeland.

    Thus, it remains important to carefully distinguish the meaning of “the” Jewish State from that of “a” Jewish State. Fudging this key distinction is important to Mahmoud Abbas who stubbornly adheres to the indefinite article to advance the false claim that the Israel government’s position points principally to the religion of Judaism. Abbas argues that the Jews are practitioners of a religion but not “a People” for purposes of the modern political and legal doctrine of the self-determination of Peoples. This is exceedingly peculiar because a self-identified “Jewish” People was born there around the 6th century BCE, while local Arabs generally styled themselves “Palestinian” only after 1967 CE.

    • I don’t think there is any linguistic confusion here between “the” and “a”…
      What Palestinian leaders are demanding is:
      – Palestine to be an “Arab state” (i.e. Judenfrei)
      – Israel to be a “state of all its people”: the Jews (for now), the Israeli Arabs, and the several million so called “Palestinian refugees” who will be granted a “right of return”…

      It’s simple really…

  • Bob Jackson says

    So if American Jews are naive about Israel, why aren’t Israelis making their own case – load and clear?
    In fact, what is happening is just the opposite – American Jews are getting more aggressive in telling Israel that Israel needs to acclimate to them and a number of Israelis, such as Gidi Grinsten, are going along.

  • Mr. Gordis, I share your prediction the peace talks will fail… However for slightly different reasons than what books were published by who…
    I summarized my thoughts on John Kerry’s mission in:

  • Jacques Adler says

    Rabbi Gordis,
    I am a 78 year old lifelong (at least 63 years) committed liberal American Jew. I am appalled at the position of most of my liberal friends, viz a viz Israel/Palestinians. Please find a way to communicate this column, “Give Peace a Chance?”, to American liberals. Come over here and speak to and with American liberals. We need you.
    On another note, you say “the War of Independence isn’t over”. I am very sorry to admit that I believe trying to end a war by truce, without total defeat leaves your enemy believing that they can yet one day defeat you. So, your observation may well explain why we have been unable to find peace with our neighbors.

  • Steve Kalin says

    I wish the Arabs could bring themselves to accept the State of Israel but they won’t. So what? Who cares? I wish Danny had explained why he thinks we need the approval of Arabs

  • Leslie Benjamini says

    Daniel, you are so right!
    As an aside, American Diaspora sarcasm doesn’t help matters, it just highlights the problem.

  • Nachman Kanovsky says

    Your article, “give peace a chance” is generally on point and on target with regard to the overall Arab-Israel conflict. What’s lacking is a more resounding emphasis that not only was it the Arabs who initiated all the hostilities against the Jews since Islam lost control of much of the Middle East after WWI, but only the Arabs have yet to honor ANY of their parts of ANY agreement since the delusional Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. There isn’t always a need for relativism by stating that “BOTH sides must make sacrifices for peace.” Israel already had made many unilateral compromises. On this issue, it’s nearly black and white.

    I don’t live in Atlanta otherwise I would love to see you debate the treacherous Ben Ami, founder of the uber-treacherous Soros-funded “J Street,” an organization which gives refuge and legitimacy for Jews who subscribe to the historically fraudulent “Palestinian Narrative.” History only happens one way. The reasons why it happens is indeed subject to interpretation. Edward Said and his descendants invented a fabricated history which the likes of Ben Ami embraced. To paraphrase what you wrote, there are two indigenous peoples who lived in Palestine, Jews and Arabs – not “Palestinians.” The latter were a much later invention. Please armor your position in the debate with irrefutable history, i.e., uncontested sources of historical facts expressed by such sources which were clearly impartial at the time of their writing. Expose Ben Ami for the fraud he perpetuates . Goebbels would have been proud with the tactic of calling J Street a “pro-Israel” organization.

    Many people like myself are willing to, in essence, reward 90 years of (extremely) bad behavior and make serious concessions for a serious peace agreement. But like you, I don’t believe that it’s possible today, or anytime in the foreseeable future. As long as orthodox (i.e. “radical’) Islam is ascendant, it won’t allow any non-Islamic political entity in its midst. It may allow a peaceful hudna via taquiyya, which too many on the left will eagerly embrace, and especially Europe and the Obama administration. But unless General Sisi’s call for an Islamic reexaminations of its values ever gains traction, such a peace will inexorably unravel…to Israel’s grave detriment. As my late father, Professor Eliyahu Kanovsky of Bar Ilan University told me many times, “not every problem has an immediate solution.”
    Nachman Kanovsky
    Englewood, New Jersey

    With regard to your embrace of Ari Shavit’s book, I am enclosing an article I wrote to my email list critical of one of its overarching assumptions.

    The never-fail-to-criticize-Israel New York Times recently published a review of a new book by Ari Shavit (a columnist of the left wing high brow Israeli newspaper Haaretz) called “My Promised Land,” subtitled” The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.” The reviewer for the Times, Leon Weiseltier (literary editor of the New Republic), described the book as “… the least tendentious book about Israel I have ever read. It is a Zionist book unblinkered by Zionism.” What this reviewer ostensibly implies is that Shavit could have written a more “correct” critique of Israel in which Israel would deservedly have been “blinkered” by its fatally flawed Zionist underpinnings.

    The Times reviewer continues, “Shavit chose 16 dates in the annals of Zionism and Israel from 1897 to 2013, and not the canonical dates through which to tell the national story.” Among Shavit’’s important 16 milestone dates is the expulsion of “tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs” from the central Israeli city of Lydda (now called Lod) during Israel’’s 1948 war for independence. Shavit writes, “By noon a mass evacuation is under way… by evening tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs leave Lydda in a long column… Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda. Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism… If Zionism was to be Lydda could not be.” The reviewer concludes, ” Shavit’’s narrative of the massacre and expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda by Israeli forces in the war of 1948 is a sickening tour de force even if it is not in his view all one needs to know about the war or the country. “The choice is stark” Weiseltier unflinchingly declares: “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”

    As Senator Moynihan once said, everyone is entitled to his opinion, but no one is entitled to his facts. Maurice Ostroff in the Jerusalem Post factually dissembles this specific linchpin of the largely contrived “Palestinian Narrative” where Lydda is cited as proof of the Zionists’ original intentions to “ethnically cleanse” Palestine of its Arab residents. Ostroff, inter alia, points out that Lydda prior to the evictions had surrendered to the Israeli Army. When Lydda’’s residents mistakenly heard that the Jordanian Arab Legion was approaching, they butchered (i.e. massacred) the Jewish soldiers who were left behind. That’’s the only massacre which took place in Lydda – not as Weiseltier cavalierly intimates. But why allow factual history to get in the way of your narrative? The balance of Ostroff’’s article historically deconstructs Shalit’’s contention that Lydda marked an important (negative) milestone in Israel’s history which the likes of Thomas Friedman and Weiseltier – and of course the New York Times – are only too glad to employ in their indefatigable penchant to define Israel in terms which apply to no other country on this planet.

    Unfortunately – but typically – a response to mendacious allegations which is limited to correcting the specific historical facts and context will often miss the greater overriding point. Let’’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the Jews did evict the Arabs of Lydda with little or no specific provocation. So what? Did the German citizens of Danzig need to commit any specific act in order to justify their expulsion from lands they occupied for millennia? Their country initiated and lost the war – as did the Arabs. Can one even begin to fathom what the Arabs would have done had they been victorious? Thrice the world agreed to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine; once in San Remo in 1920, the second time as part of the Peel Commission report of 1937, and finally in New York in 1947. The Jews agreed to all these partitions of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. It was the Arabs who sent five armies into Palestine to wipe out the nascent Jewish state. Accordingly, it really shouldn’t matter what percentage of the 650,000 Arabs who later became refugees actually left on their own accord, because forcibly evicting any of them during a war of personal and national survival is clearly a justifiable objective! Why then is the Left so obsessed with constantly trying to uncover Arab villages allegedly or factually razed in the 1948 war?

    This avoidance of facing the basic underlying issue persists to the present day. Why criticize Israeli-created checkpoints, fences, and other “inconveniences” the Arabs must endure without bothering to address why fences and checkpoints were installed in the first place? More to the point, would there have been any “occupation” had not the Arabs violated all their agreements since 1949 and resorted instead to violence and terror? Stage 1 of the Oslo accords was an Arab agreement to recognize Israel and cease terrorism. I don’t recall either the PLO or the Hamas charter ever having been revised. Renounce terrorism? It only increased many fold after Oslo. I also don’’t recall the New York Times reviewing any books or publishing any articles explaining why even these basic elements of the “accords” remain in notorious noncompliance. While it’’s important to respond on point, it’s equally important not to overlook the often simpler, overarching points.

    Nachman Kanovsky
    Englewood, NJ

  • Evelyn Rosenbaum says

    Daniel, This time you have got it right except for one small thing: The right wing did NOT depict Rabin in Nazi uniform! That was the work of the agent provocoteur of the Shabak Avishai Raviv!!

  • Your final statement, “The Jews, too, are indigenous here. They, too, have a right to a homeland here, so let’s share.” is an answer i have given many times to my freinds (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who talk about a solution to the “Israel problem.” It isn’t Israel’s problem, its everybody’s problem. When the rest of the world can say, “Yes! The Jews have a right to a homeland, and it is Israel,” then there can be peace. Until then, all the other arguments for and against are meaningless.

  • James says

    Rabbi Gordis, This is the second time you seem to be attacking Rabbi Brous’ expressed interests in a two-state solution. Why is she getting so much attention – particularly when her language is far more guarded than that of R. Matalon and others who have embraced the pro-peace side to the exclusion of bipartisan pro-Israel groups?

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