It’s been an interesting week for the synagogues of Manhattan. On the positive side of the ledger, one Ahmed Ferhani, a resident of Queens, pled guilty both to conspiring to blow up Manhattan synagogues (if he had specific ones in mind, their names were not released to the public) and to conspiring to acquire the weapons necessary to do so. Justice Michael Obus is expected to impose a sentence of ten years in prison. The length of the sentence, significantly less than the twenty-five years that could have been imposed had the accused gone to trial and been convicted, reflects the grand jury’s rejection of the prosecution’s initial argument that the plan was to destroy the synagogues when they were filled with worshipers not late at night when they would likely be empty. In any event, the length of the sentence has to be considered in light of the fact that Ferhani is very likely to be deported back to his native Algeria after he serves his sentence, thus severely limiting his ability to blow up any buildings at all, synagogues included, on American soil. So, for once, it’s a win for the good guys.
In other news, the response of the leadership of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of Manhattan’s largest congregations, sent out an e-mail to their members lauding the vote at the United Nations upgrading the Palestinians to the status of “nonmember observer state” as “a great moment for us as citizens of the world.” (That a message written by the rabbis of a Manhattan congregation to its membership would be considered worthy of front-page coverage in the New York Times is interesting in its own right.) The e-mail, which then went on to encourage congregants to come forward to celebrate this marvelous accomplishment in the forward march of the Palestinians to statehood, was then followed up with some furious backpedaling by its authors, who now insisted that went out was a draft of the intended final copy that omitted several key points. Whether the initial e-mail went over well or poorly depends on whom you ask. In that front-page article in the Times, which those reading this electronically can access by clicking here, some congregants quoted were delighted while others were horrified. The comments collected on the Times’ website were equally varied. Some were truly appalling. (I am thinking, for example, of the self-defined-as-Jewish writer who wrote that she “hate[s] Zionism as the last vestige of nineteenth century German ethnic-based nationalism,” whatever that could possibly mean, other than that the writer must live on some other planet than Earth.) Others were thoughtful and thought-provoking. There were hundreds upon hundreds of comments to sift through, far too many for me to tally on my own in terms of which side of the argument the majority tended to favor. But I did get the sense that the people who self-identified as members of Bnai Jeshurun seemed mostly to be accepting both of their leadership’s right to express itself openly even on sensitive topics and also of the message in the e-mail itself. The letters to the editor that followed, presumably chosen for publication because they reflected the range of viewpoints expressed in the fuller tally of letters received, were equally equivocal, including those written by rabbis.
It being a free country, people can say what they wish to whomever they wish about, mostly, whatever they wish. But the question I want to write to you about this week has to do not with the question of whether the rabbi or rabbis of a synagogue should or should not feel free to speak out forcefully even when it is clear that the opinion being putting forward will be controversial, but with the question of the U.N. vote itself.
We often speak with at least tepid enthusiasm about the so-called “two-state solution,” the latest iteration of the original concept of partition of the Holy Land that the United Nations, still in its glory days, voted to impose on the British Mandate of Palestine as the Brits prepared to pull out and something needed to take its place. As we all know, that “something” was intended to be two states to be carved out of the territory of the mandate, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews of the yishuv, realists above all else, accepted the plan. The Arabs rejected it and instead of peace chose war, thus laying the groundwork for the world still to be discussing the concept of partition in the context of potential and possibility rather than as ancient history all these many decades (and wars) later. Ironically though, and not at all irrelevantly, is the fact that two states, one Jewish and one Arab, actually did come into being on the territory of the original British mandate: Israel and Jordan. But the world seems unable to seize that fact and instead remains fixed on the concept that, Jordan for some unfathomable reason having been awarded the right unilaterally to remove itself from the equation whenever anyone seriously discusses the future of the Palestinians, the two states envisaged by the framers of the original partition plan must now emerge not on the larger territory of the original British Mandate (which itself was, at best, an artificial entity that came into being after the First World War without any specific reference to ethnicity or population on the ground) but instead on the territory of the Jewish homeland.
The numbers are intriguing to contemplate. In 1945, the official figure for the population of the British Mandate was 1,764,520, of whom 60% were Muslims, 8% percent were Christians, and 31% were Jews. (One sole percent of the population belonged to none of the above groups.) Jordan today comprises 35,637 square miles. Israel today, even including the disputed West Bank, covers 8,522 square miles. So let’s see…one third the residents of Mandatory Palestine were Jewish. But Israel today is only one quarter the size of Jordan, thus only one fifth the size of the original Mandate. And now the latest version of the partition plan (always more politely referenced in the press as the “two-state solution”) would make Israel even smaller. Also worth taking into consideration are today’s population figures: Israel now has a population of almost eight million, while Jordan, four times as large, has just 6.5 million residents, almost a full third of whom are Palestinians. So what could make more sense than making Israel even smaller by giving part of it away to form a different Arab state than the one that already exists on the territory that the League of Nations designated as the British Mandate of Palestine in 1920?
Nonetheless, the large majority of Israelis, realists above all else, have embraced the two-state solution, as has the Israeli government itself. In the American Jewish community, we all, almost, have. The rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun, running with that ball, claimed to see only good in the decision of the United Nations’ decision to nudge the Palestinians forward into thinking of themselves as one of those two states. That none of these joyful supporters of the United Nations’ decision seem to care that the Palestinian leadership itself has yet unequivocally to agree to live in peace with Israel seems not much to matter. That just a few weeks ago, the Palestinian leadership of Gaza was attempting to murder Israelis with rockets aimed almost solely at civilian targets also seems not much to matter. That Mahmoud Abbas, representing the “good” Palestinian leadership, does not seem to have anywhere near the political clout to bring the various Palestinian groups together to declare independence and then to negotiate peace with Israel also seems not much to count. (That Abbas’ sole published work is The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism, a book that referred to the Shoah as a “fantastic lie” and a myth, seems to matter, except apparently to me personally, even less.) All that matters is that Israel be pressured into agreeing to someone setting up some sort of state on land that any unbiased observer would refer to as the heartland of the Jewish homeland…and that the exertion of external power to bring that about, even from as morally discredited a source as the United Nations, is therefore a positive development.
To my way of thinking, the true tragedy of the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the way it will eventually be resolved is almost entirely clear to all thoughtful observers. Eventually, somehow, the Palestinians will acquire the absolute right to govern their own affairs. The rights of Jews legally to live in Palestine will have to be considered no less sacrosanct than the right of Arabs legally to live in Israel. People who have lost property will need to be compensated, both Arabs whose property has somehow passed into Jewish hands and the Jews of all the Arab lands whose property has somehow passed into Arab or Muslim hands. The right of Israel to self-define as a Jewish state with a non-Jewish minority will have to be accepted, no matter how begrudgingly, in the same spirit that the world accepts Iran’s right to self-define as an Islamic republic with a non-Muslim one. The Palestinians, I believe, would do best to insist that Jordan be redefined as Palestine, then renegotiate the western border to include land owned by Palestinians and to exclude land contiguous with Israel owned by Jews. Barring that—and I acknowledge that that is completely unlikely to happen—the Palestinians will have to make their peace with living in peace with Israel, then move forward from there to living in some sort of tight economic federation with Israel that will allow both peoples to flourish financially while preserving their right to self-define and to chart their own course forward in the manner of sovereign nations.
Last week’s U.N. vote will eventually be a footnote in a very long story, not a turning point. The policy of our American Jewish community and its institutions should be guided by the single principle of always acting in the best interests of the Jewish people in Israel and in the diaspora. That doesn’t mean blindly supporting whomever happens at any given moment to be leading the Israeli government. It does, however, mean exactly what it says. Every issue should be considered in its own right and subjected to the single question referenced above regarding the best interests of the Jewish people. Breaking ranks with the Israeli leadership should be undertaken only in the truly extreme situation, when the action under consideration can rationally be valued over presenting to the world a united Jewish people prepared almost always to stand with the elected government of Israel. And then only when the moral path is fully and unambiguously clear to all. Suggesting that Israel should take the almost unimaginably big step of formally relinquishing its claim to the very heartland of its ancestral territory for the sake of peace when the other side has yet even to say unequivocally and clearly that its sole interest is in living in peace with Israel, and neither in denying its right to exist or its inherent Jewish nature, that seems, to speak the most kindly, like an exercise in wishful thinking that Pollyanna herself may well have found excessive. And supporting gestures intended only to encourage the Palestinians to think that they can have their state without such a state acquiring the obligation to live in a secure, just, and peaceful relationship with Israel—that sounds to me like folly itself.