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Getting in Touch with our Inner Birthright (Jerusalem Post)

August 1, 2013

Herzl1The hand-wringing pundits are right. Time is running out for the two-state solution. Israel’s reputation as a democracy is in danger, and its Jewish character does need to be carefully tended lest we lose it. Yet with any peace deal highly improbable, one might be excused for quoting the Psalmist, “from where shall come my deliverance?”

From Taglit-Birthright, actually. But we digress.

For starters, let’s remind ourselves of a few simple factors that make any real progress in these talks exceedingly unlikely:

You gotta wanna dance with somebody (with apologies to Whitney Houston): Our esteemed prime minister has been reminding us that in this region, “it takes three to tango.” Not a pretty image, but he’s right. For this to work, the Palestinians have to want it to work. Yet if they have to be bribed (think 104 prisoners) just to show up at the table, how badly do they want to be there? How well does that bode for the hard work ahead?

Fairness matters:  Even if we excuse the bribing, let’s at least be honest about it. Yet US Secretary of State John Kerry recently remarked, “Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions.” Really? Did I miss something? The Americans have twisted Netanyahu’s arm almost to the point of snapping off (if Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon voted “yes,” one shudders to imagine the American threats), but what “difficult decision” has Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas been pressured to make? If simply showing up to talk is a major concession because his street is so unalterably opposed, of what possible utility is any agreement he might sign?

Refugees: The Palestinians continue to insist that any agreement must include a solution to the refugee problem. Yes, reasonable minds know that Israel would admit a token number and make some sort of financial compensatory gesture towards others. For all we know, Abbas himself might also think that that’s reasonable.Herzl6

But what will happen to him if he agrees to that? Has the Arab street become increasingly tolerant and pluralist since the last serious talks were held? World over, has Muslim moderation waned or flourished in that time? Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat declined to attend the ceremony at which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with prime minister Menachem Begin. He sent his son-in-law in his place (you can’t make this stuff up). The finesse didn’t work, sadly; he was killed nonetheless. Abbas, a “historian,” has undoubtedly thought of Sadat many times in the course of the past few weeks.

And in the cause of honesty, let’s acknowledge that matters are no simpler on the Israeli side:

Judea and Samaria are not Gush Katif : Israel dodged a bullet in 2005. The approximately 10,000 Israeli citizens who had to be moved out of Gaza behaved with extraordinary dignity and restraint. In the past eight years, though, they – and we – have learned that Israel’s international standing actually plummeted after the disengagement.  Sderot and others towns have been subjected to years of shelling to which Israel had no effective response. Many former Gush Katif residents still do not have permanent housing.

Whether the deal is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s 86 percent or prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 97%, roughly 120,000 Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would have to be moved (Abbas wants no Jews in his country). But would these people leave peacefully as did the residents of Gush Katif? Talk to them, and they’ll tell you. Many will, but some will not. Will Israelis at large have the heart to use force? I doubt it. For when the debate unfolds, Israelis will be reminded that these people – whatever one thinks about “settlements” – went to those places out of the very same Zionist impulses that founded Petah Tikva and Karmiel.

Do Israelis have it in them to use force to destroy thousands of homes built by non-radical, thoroughly decent, religious and secular Israelis who went to Judea and Samaria for the same reasons their parents and grandparents established kibbutzim and moshavim – all for a deal with the Palestinians whom no one trusts? It’s hard for me to imagine.

Herzl2The Zionist impulse still matters: I was recently at a meeting with the legal expert and political activist Talia Sasson (of the famous Sasson Report – just Google it). When asked whether there was “anything at all that is good about the settlements,” she responded, “No, nothing. Zero. Less than zero.”

Really? If decent, extraordinarily articulate, committed Zionists like Sasson, who want out of Judea and Samaria because they are deeply concerned about our rule of law and democracy (concerns that I share) can see nothing good about the impulses of the people who have built some extraordinary (and legal) communities out in those hills, what form of Zionist ethos worthy of the name will be left after we pull out? Would we, in seeking to save our state, destroy the very impulse and passion that have always fueled its greatness? Here, then, is our conundrum: We do need a deal, for time is running out, but there’s almost certainly no decent deal to be had. So, back to the Psalmist, “from where will come our deliverance?”


For me, it comes from Taglit-Birthright – not because of its impact on a generation of Jews worldwide, but because of what it does for us. Every now and then, a student on Birthright extends their trip for a few days and stays at our home. Typically raised in rather tepid Jewish homes, these kids are suddenly on fire, in love with Israel, moved by Jewish issues as never before.

So I talk with them, perhaps too much, trying to get to the bottom of what moved them so.

Not surprisingly, it’s the story of this place, the stories we all know but seldom speak of anymore: A people exiled from its homeland for 2,000 years, a people that kept a dream alive, that clawed its way back into its homeland through all sorts of extraordinary means, that breathed new life into an ancient, mostly moribund language, that restored immediacy to Jewish memory, that created Jewish communities of urgent purpose, fashioning a Judaism of activism and Jewish lives with responsibility for our own destiny.

Most know very little history, so they don’t appreciate how improbable was Theodor Herzl’s success, Israeli economic stability after the early 1950s, our democracy after the vicious and violent reparations debates or our very survival when UN secretary-general U Thant pulled out his peacekeepers in 1967.Herzl4

What they intuit, though, is that Israel is a country where what does happen is not necessarily what reason suggests will happen. Even these young students sense that there is something inexplicable about how we’re here. That’s what’s lit their fire, and it ought to reassure us, too. That is no excuse not to be smart, strategic or profoundly moral. But it is reason to continue to believe that even when a deal is both absolutely necessary and totally impossible, despair is not an option.

Belief in something greater than ourselves has brought us this far. By all logic, we’re at a dead end with no good options, but we must reject that calculus. As Begin said when US president Jimmy Carter viciously pressed him for concessions, “Our people lived thousands of years before Camp David, and will live thousands of years after Camp David… If we are told that this is the last chance to arrive at peace, we shall not agree: There are no ‘last chances’ in life. ”

Let us be smart. Let us be strategic, and moral.  But let us also believe that we’re here for a reason, and that we always will be.

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