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For years, countless synagogues and other Jewish institutions in the United States have flown the banner declaring "We Support Israel in Her Quest for Peace."
For most American Jews, these words have given voice to a shared love and concern for Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, and to a hope that the conflict that has raged on and off since even before Israel's founding in 1948, will finally end. For some, this devotion to Israel has been embodied in unwavering support for the policies and actions of her government. For others, it has included criticism of that government, when its words and deeds were seen as antithetical to the interests of an Israel that seeks a just and lasting peace in that troubled corner of the world. The gap between these groups of American Jews, both caring deeply about Israel but from markedly disparate perspectives, has for years seemed unbridgeable.
But now, the time has come to build the bridge.
Why? Because, for the first time in seven long and painful years, there is serious talk of peace. The Annapolis conference, with all its shortcomings, happened. Almost 50 countries participated, including Saudi Arabia and Syria among many Arab states. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas earnestly pledged to "resolve all outstanding issues" before the end of 2008, and serious bilateral negotiations have begun.
This real prospect of peace has led to some remarkable pronouncements. In his Annapolis speech on November 27, Olmert directly acknowledged that the alienation, bitterness, and deprivation suffered by so many Palestinians is a significant cause of the "ethos of hatred" toward Israel, and that, "we are not oblivious to the tragedies you have experienced."
This unusual recognition by the Israeli leader was followed a few days later by his statement to journalists that, four years ago, he had said "if we don't do something, we will lose the possibility of the existence of two states" and "[w]e will be an apartheid state." This is Ehud Olmert speaking, not Jimmy Carter or Desmond Tutu.
A month earlier, Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, recent president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, boldly observed that Israel must not "come to the negotiating table telling a dishonest story - a story in which our side has made no mistakes and no miscalculations, a story in which there is no moral ambiguity in the way we have chosen to rule the people we conquered, a story in which we don't owe anything to anyone."
Rabbi Kanefsky passionately declared that peace and reconciliation are only possible through the telling of truth. The Palestinians must own up, but so must Israel. By so stating, he effectively legitimized what has been viewed by many American Jews as a taboo: the open acknowledgement that Israel, too, comes to the table with hands that need washing.
So, Rabbi Kanefsky admonishes that before we can ever celebrate peace, we need a clear and honest reckoning from both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides. Olmert, by his words, has begun that process. American Jews should encourage him to continue to speak truth, even, and especially, when difficult. We must urge him to follow through, with a proposal for peace that is fair and just, and that best ensures the flourishing of two viable states, a Jewish homeland and a Palestinian homeland, side by side, in friendship and security. The Clinton-Taba-Geneva outlines of such a resolution are well known; the hard but reasonable compromises they embody call out to be endorsed. By speaking truth, by recognizing the wounds inflicted and the pain endured, both sides can provide the oxygen needed to nourish a healing process that leads to reconciliation.
We, the American Jewish community, should firmly embrace that process. And when we do, perhaps we'll even find ourselves choosing to unfurl a new banner, that proclaims: "We Support Israel and the Palestinian People in their Common Quest for Peace."
The writer is an attorney and president of Boston Workmen's Circle, a 100-year old Jewish communal organization committed to promoting social justice and the celebration of Jewish/Yiddish culture. firstname.lastname@example.org
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