Atoning for the Middle East Tragedy
By  Rabbi MICHAEL LERNER
October. 3, 2000

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'Äôs 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'Äîand 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'Äîfor 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'Äîboth 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'Äîremember that it was Arafat'Äôs 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'Äôs
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.

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)