As I write these words, Jews throughout the world are busy getting ready to celebrate the new year of 5770. Jews celebrate the new year quite distinctly from the way that other people, do. One essential element of the way we do it gives a sociological understanding for what many of my people have been going through over the past sixteen years, which this week on September 13th, marked the sixteenth anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords.
The process of “Tsheuva” involves one of deep, serious introspection, an accounting for one’s soul and an atoning for one’s sins, plus a commitment to better oneself. The process involves that of a genuine soul searching of any possible wrongs that we might have done before G-d or our fellow man and a real and honest attempt to rectify them, both on the individual and the collective level.
We pray and quite literally, beat our breasts, reciting repentance collectively, not only the sins of ourselves, but for those of the entire community. This has imbued us with 1.) a huge sense of collective responsibility and collective guilt and 2.) the feeling that we are active agents of change; that everything is in power; that anything can be achieved if we only tried hard enough.
This brings us to the other major event we are marking this week, the anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords. Sixteen years ago, many wonderful, idealistic people had determined that they would take the brave step of offering the Palestinians regional autonomy which would lead to independent statehood, if they only abided by certain conditions. Most important among them was that all further disputes would not be resolved through the use of violence, but around the negotiating table.
It had been 2,000 years of exile for Jews, and we Jews, felt a unique sense of guilt and a heighted degree of discomfit at this new role of “occupier”. Now that we had achieved our own dream of erecting a free, independent Jewish state in the ancient homeland of our ancestors, we had felt that we could afford to be benevolent, and to help our neighbors establish theirs. We were prepared to share the land. “The status quo is untenable”, is what the mantra was, or “We could afford to be the big ones..After all, we were the ones who had won the war of 1967. We can take risks for peace.”
With tremendous empathy, we beat our chests at the plight of the Palestinians. For many years, our own Israeli culture, including art, fiction, dramas and cinema, focused primarily on their plight.
We felt that if we just tried hard enough we could change the conditions on the ground for the Palestinians and we could therefore convince them to love us, or at the minimal live next to us without wanting to destroy us; if not for us, then at the very least for themselves, to motivate them toward the goal of “two states living side by side in peace and security.”
It is not only a very Jewish sentiment, but a very Western one. With good old American ingenuity, we feel all problems can be resolved with enough effort.
The United States, therefore inserted itself into the equation as “honest broker”.
However in the ensuing sixteen years, thousands of lives on both sides have been tragically lost While the Israelis had instituting a “Peace Curriculum”, teaching their children a sense of empathy for the plight of the Palestinians, the Palestinians children had been horrifically exploited by their own people to make themselves into human bombs and to blow themselves up “for the sake of Palestine”.
When Israel would then respond in self defense, the world would equalize the equation, making countless statements to the effect of, “Both sides have got to refrain from engaging in the cycle of violence.”
The condition that was placed on the Palestinians during Oslo, and all subsequent accords, of resolving all further disputes around the negotiating table was conveniently ignored. If we are going to insert ourselves into the equation as being “honest brokers”, then the operative word must be “honest.”
However, rivaling the senseless deaths in terms of tragic outcomes of Oslo, was the tremendous schism that developed between many Jews. Many on the left looked towards the religious and the settlers as “The Obstacles” standing in the way of peace. This, while the bombings on Mike’s Place and the Dolphnarium Discotheque, to name only a few that happened way inside the Green Line, dramatically brought home the lesson that the dispute had nothing to do with the shape, configuration or contours of the map if Israel, but had everything to do with the fact that there was a Jewish state anywhere in the Middle East. And many on the right looked at those on the left as naïve idealists living in a dream world that is quite remote from the harsh realities of the Middle East.
The gravest part of the tragedy is that people became entrenched and calcified in their beliefs, some more empathic to the suffering of their Palestinian neighbors and immune to that of their fellow Jew, particularly if he lived “beyond the Green Line.”
All of this has been happening and has been the focus of much of the attention of the Israelis and the world, while the Iranians have now reached the breakout point of being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon. While we have been busy worrying about contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza and stop signs within Pkaestinian Authority, Israel is on the brink of its destruction.
My prayer for the new year is simple, but three-fold. That 1.) Jews should first come together as a people and feel the pain of one for the other. We should begin to cry, once more at the deaths of each fellow Jew. (When did that stop happening? When did Jewish lives become a statistic instead of a life?) We should begin to appreciate that both left and right share a vision of peace, but that the state needs a peace that it can live with, with defensible borders and where there will be no more human “sacrifices for peace” (as the victims of Palestinian terror had frequently been dubbed by many during the Oslo years), and 2.) That my people begin to have a certain wisdom and humility to understand that some problems are not resolvable, irrespective of whether we try hard enough, but simply manageable. If we keep giving and each land withdrawal or release of prisoners is perceived as a sign of weakness, then we have to go back at the premises of this paradigm and evaluate whether or not this process has actually gotten us any closer to the goalpost of peace.3.) We look at the big picture and unite over the existential Iranian threat.
We might have to be a bit more modest in our aspirations. We might not ever be able create what Shimon Peres had once described as a “New Middle East”. Some things are simply beyond our scope.
We can, however, start on a much smaller scale. We might be able to gradually start with one young mind at a time, by instituting a peace curriculum in the Palestinian schools and conditioning American aid on whether or not it is implemented. We know that everything starts with ideas, and no one is born wanting to strap a suicide belt around their waists. That is anti-Darwinian. As long as young Palestinian children, however, are schooled with the idea that the best thing that they can do for their people is to continue to blow themselves up and take as many innocent Israelis with them, there will never be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
My prayer therefore is that we will finally posses sufficient intellectual honesty to evaluate whether or not this paradigm works, the humility to start on a much smaller scale, the wisdom to know that some things are within the ability of us to change; and some may just be beyond our scope, and the moral courage to change our focus and unite over the real, existential threat to the Jewish state..
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of EMET, the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel think tank and policy shop.
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