On September 25, 2018, at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the president of the United States of America will finally unveil his peace plan for the "the deal of the century." In a radio interview, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has already announced he will reject any deal that the US puts forth. In what seems to be an effort to demonstrate good faith toward the Palestinian leadership, President Trump announced at a recent MAGA rally that after his actions regarding Jerusalem, the Israelis will have a "higher price to pay." Immediately, the social media storm began with anti-Trump supporters effectively saying "See, I told you he would be bad for Israel" and pro-Trump supporters saying, "Don't worry, Bolton assured us this is all just part of Trump's negotiating tactics."
No matter how this plays out, the disturbing trend here is that people have begun to associate being pro-Israel exclusively with being a Republican Trump-supporter." Nothing could be less accurate," says Orthodox Rabbi Hank Sheinkopf, who is also a well-known political consultant for the Democratic party. "This has nothing to do with political parties in America or anywhere else". But, for anyone paying attention to the wagon-circling that pervades most conversations about politics today, you'll see how hostile people have become to Democrats like Corey Booker holding a pro-Palestinian sign at a rally or Oscasia-Cortez admitting she is not a "geopolitical expert" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I personally live in Cortez's district and I was surprised to hear my neighbors so quickly write her off as a "lost cause" and staunch anti-Israel bigot. I believe that if we treat her as an enemy, then she most certainly will become one. Yet she herself admitted she has a lot to learn on the subject plus she's only 28 years old, for crying out loud! So if we reach out to her and share with her our side of the story, we have the chance to maybe, maybe show her how the fight for Israel's right to exist has always been a bipartisan issue (that actually has its origin in the far-left, socialist movements). As Sheinkopf says, "To listen to some so-called experts it's as if this conflict began a half century ago. This conflict is 3,700 years old and resolution requires reality: agreements require at least two parties to agree. There are many Arabs who understand what must be done to maintain regional peace."
Now, Jared Kushner and his team, who are currently in charge of designing the much-anticipated peace-plan, have made multiple trips to Israel only to be rebuffed again and again by the Palestinian Authority. For decades before Kushner arrived on the scene, the two-state solution has been the primary focus of efforts to achieve peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a kid, I grew up on UC Berkeley campus, the bastion of progressive liberalism, and I remember people on campus and in my home talking fervently about the need for a two-state solution. But, after that campus gave birth to "Students for Justice in Palestine" in 1993, all I hear on campus now is how all of Israel is "occupied lands" and how the children of Israel "aren't indigenous and don't belong in any of Israel." Combine that with their reaction to the recent violence orchestrated by Hamas on the Gaza border and groups like SJP have painted a dismal picture of a Palestinian population who have given up the pretense of wanting a "two-state" solution and instead are demanding that "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." Free of what? The Jews?
Yet, as I witness the continued suffering of both my people and the Palestinian people and see the flood of videos on Facebook of children crying in fear and pain, a part of me wishes I could don a cape and swoop in to save both peoples from further bloodshed. As Nathan Thrall, author of "The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine," once said "Perpetuating the status quo is the most frightening of the possibilities." As an aside, it seems I'm not the only one who's just sick and tired of all the fighting – apparently, so is Superman. Recently, DC Comics published an issue making the point that only a rogue man of steel could swoop in and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Back in the real world, when I voice my opinions in public, people rush to advise me that "a rabbi shouldn't get political" and that no matter what I say about the conflict, I'll risk alienating people and losing friends. But, after thinking more about it, I asked myself what type of rabbi would I be if I didn't speak up? All my favorite Jewish spiritual leaders have all gotten involved in politics if that is what was warranted at the time. Think Moses and Tziporah, Esther and Mordecai, Sarah and Abraham, or David and Batsheva. They've modeled for me that the role of a rabbi is to not just comfort the disturbed but also disturb the comforted.
That's why I wrote this article. Because we have become so comfortable hating each other that it completely escapes us that the point of political discourse is to better understand each other. Now, personally, I'm a staunch supporter of Israel and believe that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of my people and that how Israel governs its minorities determines her character as a democracy. So, it would have been easy for me to preach an article that is in line with my own political beliefs. I think what's harder to do is to listen to someone else as they share their opinions without the colored lens of a journalist's prose. Therefore, I now present you with a few people whose opinions often don't make it to the binary black-and-white table of our political discourse but have something to say that people like Jared Kushner and Ocasio-Cortez need to hear.
I admit that there is a certain naivete to thinking that just writing an article with some interviews might help bring peace to one of the greatest conflicts of our generation, but I'd rather be a naïve trying for peace than a cynic preparing for death. After all, wasn't it Einstein who once said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again?" So, when we see no end to the conflict, that's exactly when we must start looking for a new path forward.
Long before 1948 and the mass return of Jews to their homeland, there have been many accounts of Muslims taking great risks to save the lives of their ancestral cousins, whom they called "Ahl al-kitab" – "People of the Book." Whether it was Islamic countries opening their shores to Jews during the Crusades, the Golden Era of Islamic Spain, or even Muslims saving Jews during the Holocaust, there are many reminders that Jewish-Muslim relations doesn't have to be framed as Jews vs Muslims. Bassem Eid, the chairman at the Center for Near East Policy Research, has himself received death threats for his activism championing positive change for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
A Palestinian citizen of Israel, Mr. Eid has an extensive career as a human rights activist whose initial focus was on human rights violations committed by Israeli armed forces. In 1996, he was arrested by Yasser Arafat for also reporting on human rights violations committed by the Palestinian Authority on their own people.
After his release from prison, he resigned as a senior field researcher for B'Tselem, an Israeli Human Rights monitoring organization, after B'Tselem decided not to report on human rights abuses of Palestinians by the PA. Today, he continues to speak out against anti-Israel bias and is virulently opposed to the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement.
Recently, he presented at the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in St. Louis where he said that outsiders – including Presbyterians – are "adding oil to the flames" by heaping blame on one side, the Israelis, for their ongoing conflict between themselves and Palestinians. With the recent announcement that the Trump administration will cease funding UNRWA, it is prudent to note that, over a month ago, Mr. Eid met with United Nation officials and staffers of U.S. Congressman Chris Smith to advise them of UNRWA indiscretions and issues.
RLW: In an age of polarization, do you have any advice for how to have constructive dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
BE: Firstly, I think that people have to educate themselves into what the conflict is really all about. Secondly, I think that the young generation in America, especially on campuses, have to stop following the so-called pro-Palestinian organizations that promote BDS. Finally, young people need to visit Israel and see with their own eyes, without interference from the media, what is really going on here. I think if millennials took these three steps, they would all become supporters for both Palestinians and Israelis. They have to understand that without good cooperation, the conflict will never be solved. At the end of the day, the existence of Israel can't be ignored so I believe we need to accept Israel's right to exist already and also accept them as a member state in the Arab League. After all, Israel is part of the Middle East.
RLW: What's your most important message for Palestinians and Israelis?
BE: I am a person who feels safer in the West Bank than in St. Louis. I've been living in Jericho and see that my people care more about their dignity than their identity. To this end, I think that Israel is more aware of this need that any other Arab country around the world. Consider the border between Gaza and Israel. The Israelis who are suffering from rockets and incendiary kites are the exact same ones who are supplementing aid to the Gazans. I haven't heard of Saudi Arabia supplementing aid. Or what about Malaysia, the largest Islamic country in the world? Where is the aid from them? Where is the aid from Iran? When the Gazan border is closed for security reasons, Hamas states it's a "humanitarian crisis." Yet, it is the Israelis who are the ones actually providing aid.
RLW: You recently wrote an article talking about how Palestinians must reform UNRWA. What other message would you want to tell Mr. Jared Kushner and his team?
ED: Well, one thing is that I feel so sad when leaders from the West threaten that, unless Israel resumes peace talks, they will recognize a Palestinian state. My question to them is, what type of Palestinian state would they recognize? A state which lacks economic resources? A state where over 54 percent of the population are living in refugee camps? I think that a state must first be built before it can be recognized. And before we can talk about tourism or economic entrepreneurship, we must talk about how we can build bridges of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. We need foreign governments who will help us achieve coexistence, trust and reconciliation. The problem here is that the international community became a part of the conflict rather than part of the solution.
RLW: Your website is filled with your travels, articles and lectures on these topics. What inspired you to become such an energetic activist?
BE: I grew up in a refugee camp for 33 years and saw my grandfather and father both pass away in these camps. I told myself I will never die in a refugee camp and will never allow any of my children to die in a refugee camp. UNRWA was supposed to be there for people like me, but they're crying today about how they can save the salaries of their employees. So, I have to continue serving the interests of Palestinians even if I get death threats and warnings about how I do it. I get my strength from the Koran but, more importantly, from the realities and facts on the ground. I must fight for the dignity and peace of my people."
Massad Abu Toameh
Born to an Israeli Arab father and a Palestinian Arab mother, Massad Abu-Toameh is a respected public figure of the Arab community in Jerusalem who has also experienced routine threats on account of his criticism of the Palestinian Authority. But more than threats, this Palestinian Arab journalist was actually kidnapped in 1988 and placed in an underground prison cell in Damascus for his outspoken belief that Arab states, including Syria, were manipulating the Palestinians toward violence and suicide attacks.
His abduction was not disclosed, and the Assad regime repeatedly denied he was in the country. If not for his devoted family, he might have languished there for the rest of his life. But they never gave up and in December of 2001, after 14 years in prison, he finally returned to his family in Jerusalem. Today, Massad has transformed his suffering into activism and runs a non-profit called "DIWAN: The Jerusalem Center for Cultural Development and Equality," as well as being sought after for his expertise on Middle Eastern affairs by governments and corporations around the world.
RLW: As a native of Jerusalem, what do you think of Trump's decision to move the [Israeli] embassy there?
MAT: The long-awaited dream of a day when we will see a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital has disappeared from the hearts of most Palestinians. They no longer believe in any positive change happening, and that is strictly the outcome of what many Arab governments have done. Most Arabs in Jerusalem have not been really concerned with Trump's decision. They know that Israel already has its Prime Minister's Office and its government in Jerusalem and it already treats it as its capital. The ones who seem angry are those who live far away and really have nothing to do with us. Look at the European Union – suddenly they love Jerusalem and see it as the biggest problem in the world. Sorry, they are hypocrites and knowingly or unknowingly do not care for Arabs in Israel or the Palestinian people. If they did, they should see what is happening to our people in Lebanon, what is happening to them in Syria, or even in Ramallah! EU and others simply don't care because they are enjoying this profitable game called the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has given them political revenue at the expense of the blood of my people and the innocent Israeli people.
RLW: Do you think all Palestinians are anti-Israel?
MAT: That's a lie of the media and the BDS movement. Until the first intifada, we were living in good faith with our Israeli neighbors, getting some benefits, and working on becoming equal citizens of the state. Living in Israel is heaven compared to the conditions in the neighboring Arab states but that all changed when the Oslo Accords armed Arafat and unleashed him and his gangsters on his own people. Suddenly we, the Palestinian people, were subject to this cancerous virus inserted in our body, and it's called "the Palestinian Authority." The atrocities and the lawlessness the Palestinian people have been subjected to since then is the fault of the funding for the PA from European countries and American taxpayers. Palestinians are more afraid of Abbas and his gangsters than they are of Israelis. They rape, torture, steal and commit crimes worse than anything you ever hear about in the media. The Palestinian catastrophe, the biggest Nakba, started with the Oslo Accords. It was all lies."
RLW: But, if the PA was taken out of the picture, would the Palestinians be pro-Israel?
MAT: I think that I, as a Palestinian, has to accept we cannot click or delete Israel. Neither can they click or delete me as a Palestinian living here. Before all this started, before the British left us at each other's throats, we were blood-cousins living in relative peace because of our similar values, such as never kill an innocent soul. I'm not a religious person, but I believe the Koran is based on the Torah. After all, the Jews are mentioned more in the Koran than any other nation. But the interpretation of the Koran and jihad has fallen into the hands of interpreters with political agendas who wish to see more violence, death and war. Even before Islam was even born, we lived peacefully with the Israelis because we lived by tribal rules and customs which were very similar.
That's why I would call on everyone who really wants peace to start listening to each other. I visited the families of suicide bombers and the bereaved families of their victims and I cried on both sides. I think even the suicide bomber is a victim because he was a stupid idiot who was manipulated through his ignorance toward crime and violence. The mother of a martyr, as soon as the cameras are off, she curses everyone and anyone that had something to do with her son being recruited. On camera, she says one thing but off camera she says something else. Today, Palestinians call me and ask, "when will Israel reoccupy us?" They want their pride and dignity back which is something the gangsters at the Palestinian Authority are preventing us from having. So, I call upon Israel and America to rid us of our true oppressors – the PA.
RLW: Do you think those kids who walked out on their Birthright trip are helping the Palestinian people?
MAT: No, like the BDS movement, they represent themselves. What they are doing will not liberate Palestine but will only bring more suffering to my people. Every time BDS succeeds in a new boycott, Palestinians lose jobs. If BDS really wants to help us, they should build a hospital in the West Bank! But watch that hospital turn into a slaughterhouse for terrorists because of the rampant corruption. In regard to Birthright, I think it's a great thing to show young Jews their homeland. But I think it's a failure of the Israeli "hasbara" that they don't take them to meet with Palestinians. They shouldn't take them to refugee camps but to academic institutions or places where they can meet intellectual Palestinians. I'm not a diplomat but just a citizen who would be happy to meet with these young people and tell them there is a way for both my people and their people to live together. But it can only happen when the people who are making money off of this conflict are removed from their positions of power in Gaza and the West Bank. Once that happens, I have faith that the Holy Land can be a place of peace. After all, we pray to the same God, believe in the same prophets and walk down the same path of faith, whether it's to the Western Wall of the Dome of the Rock."
Mudar Zahran, Photo, Mida.org.il
Mudar Zahran is a Jordanian Palestinian writer who has been described as the secretary general of the Jordanian Opposition Coalition and had to request asylum in the UK after being convicted in absentia to life in prison by a Jordanian military court for "inciting hatred against the regime, sectarian strife and insulting the king as well as security services." Zahran avidly advocates for Jordan to be the Palestinian state and be fully engaged with Israel on all economic, political and defense levels. For this to happen, the king would have to abdicate. In August 2018, he reported how the Jordanian monarchy has threatened his family members who still live in Jordan with "arrest, death and execution."
RLW: Why is Jordan an important part of achieving peace?
MZ: You interviewed my dear friend Massad Abu-Toameh and he is correct that nothing will change in Palestine before the situation in Jordan changes. When I was working for the United States embassy in Amman, we did a study which showed that more than 88 percent of Palestinians are in Jordan. Plus, the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank no longer want a Palestinian state but want Israel to control the area again. The Jews want peace and we want jobs, security, running water and electricity. Plus, the biggest block of Palestinians in Jordan doesn't want a "right of return" to Israel but want civil rights in Jordan. But nobody is talking about this.
[King] Abdullah doesn't really want the Palestinians out of his country because they drive the economy, pay heavy taxes and receive close to zero state benefits. Despite the fact that they all hold Jordanian passports, they are only regarded as refugees who are completely shut out of government jobs. That's unprecedented in history and why I say that Jordan is the true apartheid state. He's merely using them as pawns in his game against Israel by threatening to make Jerusalem responsible for Jordanians of Palestinian descent in the name of the right of return.
RLW: In one of your articles you claim that if a Palestinian state was created in Jordan, there would be lasting peace. You don't think there'll be more violence like what Hamas orchestrated at the Gaza border?
MZ: Well, consider the fact that every week you have 3.5 million Palestinians working in direct contact with the Israelites. The number of knife stabbing attackers are probably one or two per week. That's less than one in a million. That's why I don't think most Palestinians are interested in liberating Palestine or feeding the Jews to the fish. Back in the 1970s, you would see 20,000 people rioting in the streets. Now it's much smaller crowds of mostly kids throwing rocks. The majority of my people have had enough of the jihad that the extremists promote.
The fact is that Israel and the Irgun were involved with banning Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes in 1948. But we did a number on the Jews when Arab cities kicked out 850,000 Jews from their homes as well. So, injustice was dealt from both sides and to keep crying that Israel is evil is not only unfair but is distorting the facts on the ground. Since 1948, Jordan has kept their injustice toward my people as the status quo, but I see a major regime change happening in the foreseen future. What will happen is that the king will go and a Palestinian will become the elected leader. When India was divided into two countries, the largest religious migration in history, 10 million people, relocated to the side they felt most comfortable in which can happen with Palestinians and our own state in Jordan. Mark my words, Abbas will be the last leader of the Palestinian Authority and in the next 12 months we are about to witness drastic change taking place in the West Bank and Jordan.
RLW: How do you advise speaking to millennials about the conflict?
MZ: The younger generation must be shown the reality of life. They understand it as the Palestinians are prisoners in huge concentration camps being oppressed by Jewish slave masters. So, they need to be shown the truth, how Palestinians are treated in hospitals, the jobs they have, the freedom they have under the Israelis. Even the checkpoints, which only started after the bombings of the second Intifada, only last 5-10 minutes and I've never had an Israeli border guard be rude to me there. Contrast that with the border from the US to Canada and I remember how long it would take me to get across and how I was treated by these "tough guys." Another important reality is for the young generation to realize how much the Israelis and Palestinians are dependent on each other and need each other.
RLW: One final question, what advice would you give Jared Kushner?
MZ: I would tell him to remember that the Palestinian leadership has not been elected. Second, he coined a great statement when he said Israel will have "sovereignty over the soil" and I think his heart is in the right place and he should keep doing what he's doing. He's the best thing Palestinians have had for the past seven years in relation to my people obtaining civil rights in Israel and Jordan. There are certain realities I can't discuss because of my political work, but I would tell him that "all roads lead through Jordan." Whether it's the right of return, refugee status, or citizenship—no peace can materialize without addressing the status of Palestinians in Jordan. If people want to contact me, just email me at [email protected].
Yehuda HaKohen, educator and peace activist
As I listened to the passionate opinions of my new friends, Bassem, Massad, and Mudar, I couldn't help but reflect on the words one of my mentors who said that when it comes to Muslim-Jewish relations, not only do we share a common faith, but we share a common fate. Therefore, I wish to conclude the article with an interview with Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen, an Israeli peace activist and critic of government corruption and westernization. Particularly, I feel it's important to include at least one Jew in this article because most people don't realize that until 1948 it was common for the international press to label Jews, not Arabs, living in the British mandate as Palestinians. Born and raised in New York City, Rabbi HaKohen moved to Israel in 2001 to enlist in the IDF at the height of the Second Intifada. He has since gained notoriety as leader in the Alternative Action movement where he organizes grassroots dialogue sessions for Palestinian and Israeli activists seeking to transcend competing one-sided narratives in favor of a more scientific analysis of the conflict.
RLW: In a few sentences, can you describe what makes your organization different than other organizations that bring Israelis and Palestinians together for dialogue?
RYH: You mean in terms of our peace work? For starters, we circumvent the international community, the European-funded "peace industry" and the failed two-state paradigm that has only exacerbated tensions in recent decades. We reject the notion that westernized diplomats from both sides can attain peace by signing worthless agreements brokered by foreign powers. Peace can only be achieved by bringing those most fully living the aspirations of their respective people. Those who have until now been completely marginalized and shut out of the negotiation process.
We also believe that peace cannot be achieved by forcing each side to compromise on things fundamentally important to us but only through reaching a solution that allows each side to fully experience victory according to how victory is defined in each party's respective narrative. For this to take place, we must first examine the core aspirations and grievances of each side in order to create a larger narrative inclusive enough to encompass both ostensibly rival narratives. The goal should not be to meet in the middle with each side continuing to feel justifiably suspicious of the other but rather winning together through a solution that allows us to transcend the conflict's destructive either/or paradigm.
RLW: I'm interested in stories of settlers and Palestinians who come together to advocate for each other. Your thoughts?
RYH: It's more complicated than that. As an entity, the state has caused the Palestinians more pain than most of us are ready to understand or appreciate. But the Jews living in the West Bank aren't exactly the state. We're not faceless. I know there are many Palestinians who experience us as responsible for, and benefitting from, their situation. I've met some who think this, and I understand the position. But I also know many Palestinian activists who recognize that we're actually from here and here for something more meaningful than material benefit. They can respect the fact that we're living in what we understand to be the cradle of our people's civilization and that we're more deeply connected to our national story than any of the Israelis they've met until now.
Part of the problem with our relationship is that for decades, the most westernized and disconnected sectors of Israeli society had essentially monopolized our relationship with the Palestinians. But the Jews actually living closer to Palestinians, not just geographically closer but also closer to Palestinian society when it comes to culture and values, should be the Jews most engaged in meaningful peace work. Many West Bank Jewish communities have also faced police brutality, house demolitions and administrative detention. And like much of Palestinian society today, we feel victimized by the Oslo Accords and the two-state paradigm we've always struggled to resist. These factors create the conditions for a healthier relationship dynamic.
RLW: You are often brought out to the States to speak on college campuses. What's your message for millennials who care about this conflict?
RYH: Just share your ideas with other people and listen to their ideas. Be as open to learning from them as you want them to learn from you. Don't make it a competition between who's suffered more or who's right. You're probably both correct about different things that actually reveal a fuller picture when considered all together. Rather than try to beat the other person in a argument, try creating enough space to find yourselves on the same side. In general, I tend to find that higher truths are often more inclusive of other truths.
Explore your own people's story. Connect to it deeply. Then explore it some more. It's hard to fight for something you haven't fully struggled with. Once you develop a deep enough national consciousness and feel yourself living the story of your people, you should start engaging Palestinian activists and their supporters with an open mind. Share your story and learn about theirs. Whether you want to fight for Israel, build relationships with Palestinians or both, it makes sense to first deeply connect to your own people's story. And don't feel threatened by their narrative because whether you want to defeat Palestinians or make peace, it makes sense to learn their story as they experience it.
RLW: As an Israeli settler and rabbi, do you believe in a two-state solution?
RYH: First of all, I want to say that I don't think any solution can work under the current conditions. Not a one-state or two-state solution. And not the status quo. The relationship dynamics between our peoples need to change. And that's most of my work right now. I hope I'm creating the conditions for a single state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea that both people's will experience as a victory in our subjective narratives.
For Jews, that means the realization of our tefillot [prayers] and aspirations since the Romans crushed our civilization. My experiences with Palestinians lead me to believe that victory for them largely means a sense of dignity and equal inclusion in a democratic society. I believe we can create a solution together that strikes both chords, but it would require us to make the Jewish character of our state both softer and deeper than it is right now. So soft that non-Jews barely notice the state's Jewish character and so deep that every haredi child can easily recognize the state as Jewish based on the values expressed in its policies and institutions."
In conclusion, I pray that Jared Kushner, Ocasio-Cortez and even Rashida Tlaib – the first Muslim congresswoman who cites her Jewish boss as her inspiration – utilize their positions of power to foster unity and not divisiveness. Of course, it's complicated as Israel is the only country in the world where an exiled people has returned to sovereignty in their homeland. Yet, the violence perpetrated against my brothers and sisters in the Holy Land has brought us to the point at which almost 50 percent of Israeli Jews want Arabs kicked out the land altogether – not out of blind hate but out of learned fear that the death and violence will only get worse in the years ahead.
This is why we must imagine the good we can accomplish together for society if we can just recognize and respect each other. I tasted this type of unity when I worked for "Together for Humanity," an organization in Australia led by Rabbi Zalman Kastel, that focuses on intercultural programming for children. We'd visit schools with a rabbi, imam and priest all talking about positive values from their own faith perspectives. Whether the topic was bullying, charity, or something else, I'd pull out a Torah, the imam a Koran and the priest a New Testament. I'll never forget how the eyes of the Jewish children would widen in wonder as all their classmates turned to them and said, "oh cool, now it's your guy talking. You better listen up!"
But, more importantly, I'll never forget the feeling that pervaded those classrooms when we left. It didn't matter the words we said but the message our actions left on those impressionable minds. That, at the heart of it all, we believed that is indeed achievable to create a future where the prophet Isaiah's words are fulfilled: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)