A Jewish Path to the Peace Camp

by Janina Frankel

I am a Jew who believes absolutely in the need for a secure and democratic State of Israel. I am a Jew who believes in the necessity for Israel to maintain its broadly defined but essential character as a Jewish State. I am also a Jew who believes that in order to sustain and nurture the future of those dreams I must endeavor with equal conviction to sustain and nurture the parallel dreams and aspirations of the Palestinian people. I did not always feel this way. These beliefs are the result of personal and historical evolution. How did I get here. The following is a brief history of my convictions:

I grew up in a committed, liberal Jewish environment. My parents were active in the community, we celebrated the holidays. From early on, I knew I was part of a Jewish family. In the earliest childhood this awareness was bathed in the warmth and security of rituals: the candles on Shabbat and Holiday gatherings. At the age of seven this womb-like warmth suffered a severe and traumatic birth into a cold reality when I was unwittingly exposed to documentary footage of the Nazi concentrations camps. It took place on the day when my family moved to a new home.

In the morning I said good-bye to the only home I had ever known. I went to school. At the end of the school day I went to my weekly Hebrew School class and was told that there would be an assembly. I can not longer remember whether anything more was said by way of introduction. All that remains for me are the horrific images of inhumanity, death and destruction. It took away my breath and with it all sense of a secure world. That evening, after Hebrew school, I was brought for the first time to my new home. An event which should have been a celebration was tinged by a chill that the mere glow of Shabbat candles could never again hope to warm. It marked in a very real sense the end of childhood and could very well have marked the end of faith and optimism for a Jewish child. It didn`t.

I was first taught about what was then a State of Israel in its infancy. I learned about the history of Zionism, the early pioneers, the struggle for statehood. I watched a film in which masses of Jews in Palestine listened to the broadcast of a United Nations roll call. One by one, the nations of the world voted for the creation of a Jewish State. When the vote was completed, the flag of Israel was raised and I cried as I listened to the collective voices sing Hatikvah. It was for me, as indeed for many Jews, the raising of a phoenix. Out of the ashes of the holocaust, the Zionist dream for a Jewish State rose up into reality. It was a moment of redemption the core of which was contained in a motto, "Never Again." Never again would the Jewish people have to be helpless victims in foreign lands. We had our own nation in which we could defend our own destiny.

Defense became our destiny. In 1948 and 1956 the fledgling state took up arms to defend its right to exist and protect its vital national interests. In 1967, the Six Day War was my first living experience of Israel actively engaged in war. There is no denying that I felt proud on hearing the broadcasts about the miraculous achievements of the Israeli Defense Forces. This was the ultimate affirmation of "Never Again". For me, much more than D-day or the Allied victory over the Nazis, this was the definitive act in the final defeat of forces which would strive to snuff out the Jewish people. The experience was visceral and emotional. For the first time since learning about the holocaust, I, as a Jew, felt safe and invulnerable.

In the succeeding years my faith in Israel`s invulnerability was buffeted by tides of vicious terrorism and the untamed anti-Zionist rhetoric of Arab leaders. The Yom Kippur war left me with rattled nerves and wounded faith. I began to feel as if the establishment of a Jewish state had done little to alleviate the victimized condition of the Jewish people. If men like Herzl and Weizman and Ben Gurion had dreamed of a Jewish state as the answer to a people`s perpetual oppression in Diaspora, then how was this different? If anything, it seemed to have more clearly defined our condition as one of constant anticipation of attack and invasion. How could Israel hope to establish a true and lasting peace? And how could she possibly hope to thrive without it? For the first time I began to question the effectiveness of maintaining Israel`s security merely by maintaining its military strength. Clearly, this was a path to nothing more than more-of-the-same. But what was the alternative?

If you had asked me then whether I would be willing to compromise one inch of the West Bank, Sinai or the Golan Heights I would have had only one response. No. Unequivocally, no. I was convinced that those territories were a necessary buffer against future attacks. Holding on to them was the key to Israel`s survival.

The jubilation of the Camp David peace agreement in 1978 did not entirely shake these convictions. While it gave me the first opportunity to feel admiration and deep respect for a leader in the Arab world, I remained convinced that Sadat, a man of undeniable courage and inspiration, remained an aberration. I saw no indication that the rest of the his brethren would follow suit. I was also ambivalent about the return of the Sinai. Two years before, I had experienced a moment of exhilaration camping under the stars of Mount Sinai and climbing its peak at dawn. While it may only have been a desert, it was the desert. It represented in a very real sense the birthplace of the Jewish people as a nation. Quite simply, while it appeared to be buying a modicum of peace, it was bittersweet to let go. It did not, however, change my convictions about the other territories. Egypt, after all, was not Jordan or Syria and it was certainly not the PLO. It was not until 1982 that these convictions were brought into question.

The invasion of Lebanon, while it might well be considered a military success, was also the opening of moral conundrum. It appeared to be a tired battle in a war of attrition. Israelis I spoke with were depressed and demoralized. I, for the first time, began to question the infallibility of Israeli military judgment. But it was not until hearing of the tragic events at Shatila and Sabra that I began to see something which had perhaps always been there but not visible to me. Virtually all my life I had been so caught up in my sense of belonging to an oppressed people that I had lost my ability to clearly weigh the suffering of others. I was not callous or unsympathetic, but rather inured against tragedies which seemed to pale in comparison-especially if they were the tragedies of those I considered my enemies. These massacres in Palestinian refugee camps, while not the direct action of the IDF, were facilitated by Israeli actions. They could not have happened as they did if not for the invasion. While I recoiled at the way Israel`s detractors drew inappropriate comparison to Nazi Germany, I did recognize that these massacres could be called nothing less than pogroms. The fact that these sorts of atrocities were not unprecedented in the Arab world did little to exonerate what I saw as a degree of Israeli culpability. We had been there and we did nothing to stop it. The significance of this moment was not so much in the gravity of taking a measure of responsibility, but rather in that it was the first time that my eyes were opened to the desperation of the Palestinian condition. As a people disinherited and disenfranchised, treated as little more than pawns by those who would call themselves allies, they had suffered genuine loss and injustice at the hands of history and-difficult as it is to swallow-Israel. If not for the fact that their aspirations and dreams for a state were in direct conflict with those of Israel, perhaps I would have seen it earlier. It is an undeniable and necessary aspect of human nature that in order to effectively fight our enemies, we must turn them into strangers. We must not look them in the face lest we see our own reflection. At this point I must make it absolutely clear, my recognition of justness in the Palestinian cause does not diminish my conviction regarding the justness of the existence of the State of Israel. This is not a simple case of right against wrong. It is the tragedy of right against right. It is the conflict between two peoples with two equal and just claims to national sovereignty who-if it were not for the fact that their claims adress the same small piece of land-might otherwise conceivably recognize themselves as comrades embroiled in kindred struggles.

It was a painful realization. It forced me to re-evaluate many of the convictions I had held sacred. It brought me face to face with the virulent irony contained in the motto, "Never Again". Those words had become for me, as I believe for many Jews and Israelis who have been so deeply traumatized by the Holocaust, something more than a vow. They had become a battle cry. What is more, they had become dangerously close to a raison d`etre for the State of Israel. Using it as such Israel finds its definition more in that which opposes it than in that which it proposes to be. It becomes struck in a past which becomes a paradigm for the future and carries an inherent danger of blinding us to distinctions. all enemies become the enemy. It makes us vulnerable by keeping us inflexible.

If this is a case of two immovable objects attempting to occupy the same space what can the future hold for either side? It can only remain a bitter and burdensome stalemate in which Israel, quite frankly, has the most to lose simply because the possesses the most. Israel is a sovereign, democratic state with a developed (even if strained) economy. The Palestinians have nothing, not sovereignty, not democracy not anything vaguely recognizable as a viable economy. In any battle, the most dangerous enemy is the one with nothing to lose. If there is nothing to lose, there is nothing to fear losing, nothing to protect, nothing sacred. For the first time, it seems that the PLO and a growing number of Palestinians are recognizing the futility of carrying on their struggle as an active conflict. The recent agreements and the transfer of Gaza and Jericho are evidence of that trend. Are there guarantees? No, not as such. The continuing acts of terrorism around the world are evidence of a Palestinian faction fueled by Iran and Syria which is nowhere near accepting any sort of compromise-which is why it is so important to nurture and support the endeavors of those that do. It is as much in the interest of Israel as of the Palestinians to do everything possible to make these initial "experiments" in Gaza and Jericho flourish to the greatest extent possible. Only after the Palestinians are able to see that there is everything to gain can they also recognize that here is something to lose. In a war of all or nothing the one with nothing is the one to fear.

I still believe that the occupied territories are the essential element in securing Israel`s survival, however it is clear to me that their importance is no longer their value as a buffer but rather their worth as barter. The time has come when the notion that the territories offer a zone of safety from external enemies is no longer tenable. If nothing else, the Intifada has made it quite clear to maintain control over the territories is to usher the enemy into our midst. How long can Israel hope to subjugate the rising tide of Palestinian nationalism by means of military force. How long can her soldiers maintain their moral conviction in the justness of razing homes and having to do battle with adolescents and children? I am not saying that Israel chose this path, but one cannot deny that history has brought her to it. If these territories are to be considered a permanent part of the land, population statistics indicate that in less than one generation Jews will be a minority in the land of Israel. Is this realization of a Zionist dream for a Jewish State? How would Israel maintain its democracy? What is the moral cost of maintaining the occupation of a land whose people`s opposition to it is daily growing more belligerent?

The uncertainties are many and complex and this is meant merely as a brief explanation of my personal path to support of a negotiated "land for peace" agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It is my belief that this is the only avenue to a secure and democratic future for Israel. But deep within me I believe that it is also in keeping with the biblical invocation: Justice, justice, you shall pursue. I am reminded of a Midrash in which the Israelites have just succeeded in crossing the Red Sea and it has closed up to swallow their Egyptian oppressors. The Israelites begin a celebration in song and dance which is interrupted by God. He speaks to admonish them saying: "How is it possible that you should sing and dance when I am grieving the loss of my children?" Israel can attain the fullness of its promise only by having the courage to embrace that irony and address its ramifications. The completeness of justice rests in its attainment for all concerned.

The copyright © holder Janina Frankel hereby gives permission to copy this material and to distribute it to others for non-commercial purposes including discussion, inquiry, and criticism, with the additional request that she be informed of its use by e-mail or otherwise. All other rights are reserved.

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