Reform Zionism: Caring for Both Israelis and for Palestinians

by Rabbi Maderer

This article originally appeared in the March issue of the Rodeph Shalom Bulletin.

Last month, I expressed here, and in a sermon, my gratitude about my extended family’s trip to Israel. Several things made it deeply meaningful. I have an almost life-long relationship with Israel, having begun my visits as a child. In preparation, I read from Rabbi Larry Hoffman’s book about spiritual pilgrimage to Israel. My children were moved to journal every night we were there, and for a progressive lens, my family traveled with the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). The ARZA-led experience was important to me because it meant a critically thinking guide whose approach would feed my passion for Reform Zionism. Last month, I shared with you one critical aspect of Reform Zionism– that we need to own our place in Israel, our place at the Western Wall/Kotel, and our authentic place in Judaism.

This month, I would like to share another critical aspect of Reform Zionism. Much like Reform Judaism is devoted to cultivating a meaningful Jewish community and also caring for the other, Reform Zionism is devoted to the love for and support of the Jewish homeland and also caring for the other. Support for a Two-State Solution indicates the commitment to a home for two different peoples–both Jews and Palestinians. Too often, leadership voices and the media express polarizing views, as if we may only advocate for the Jews or for the Palestinians, as if human beings may care either for our own or for the other. I believe this is the false choice of those on the right who won’t speak of hard truths about the occupied territories to be spoken, and of those on the left who neglect to be transparent that Boycott Divestment Sanctions does not seek to make Israel a fairer place, it seeks to eliminate Israel. In a state established in the wake of the Holocaust and where over a million Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries landed, in a state where security is so different that my hotels had bomb shelters but no chain locks on the room doors, and in a state that has occupied territories of other peoples, I cannot see how either the far right or the far left can alone lift up the truth.

Leadership voices and the media often also make the mistake of characterizing Israelis as monolithic or Israeli attitudes as an extension of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attitudes. In my short time on my recent trip, I was privileged to share moments with Israelis. In these moments, when I learned about their attitudes, I wished you were there. I wished you could hear the depth of love for Israel and for others, and the nuances that I heard over and over.

I am thinking of Joseph, the driver on our jeep tour of the North. His parents were from Morocco and his wife’s parents’ family had lived in the Galilee ever since the 1870’s when they bought land from the Rothschilds.

I am thinking of our guide in the Golan Heights who spoke in such a heartfelt way about the tragedy in Syria. He spoke passionately about his and Israel’s readiness to return the Golan Heights to Syria if only Syria would recognize Israel’s right to exist.

I am thinking of our guide on the bus who noted how quickly and easily we would be going through the checkpoints, and how different that experience is for Palestinians. And in the same breath as his true empathy for the Palestinians, he spoke about the need for security.

The people I have met in Israel just don’t fit into the boxes on the left or on the right. They are living it and experiencing a human reality that is more complex than polarizing over-simplification. Actually, what many Israelis perceive and express sounds to me a lot like Reform Zionism.

For an outstanding summary of Reform Zionism’s understanding of Two States for Two Peoples, please read the piece by the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, below.

The Issue Remains: Two States for Two Peoples
As referenced in Rabbi Maderer’s article, this piece by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, was originally published on on January 23, 2019.

Because of my deep admiration for Michelle Alexander’s brilliant work on the unfinished tasks of civil rights, I eagerly read her recent New York Times piece, hoping she’d shed new light on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Instead, this endlessly complicated and painful conflict was simplified in Alexander’s narrative, with Israel shouldering complete responsibility for the deplorable status quo. Right-wing voices that put the blame solely on Palestinians make the same reductionist mistake.

Let me be perfectly clear: As a lifelong Zionist, I believe in the justice and rights of the Jewish people. I also believe in the justice and rights of the Palestinian people. That’s why I believe in two states. As the leader of the largest Jewish movement in North American life, I and so many of my colleagues have been anything but silent in the face of the painful reality for Palestinians living under occupation.

But calling for an end to the occupation is not the same as resolving the underlying issues of security for Israelis and sovereignty for Palestinians.

One can be deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being and fully supportive of the right of Palestinians to a homeland that is side-by-side with Israel. The security barrier and checkpoints were not created to oppress Palestinians, but rather to save Israeli lives during the waves of terrorism that blew up Israelis on buses and in cafes. Removing them without addressing the root causes of the conflict will unleash, not quell, the violence. And yes, the proliferation of settlements in the West Bank causes much Palestinian suffering and makes the possibility of a two-state solution more unlikely.

That’s why our Reform Movement has long opposed Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. The occupation threatens the very Zionism we hold dear – the living expression of a Jewish democratic state. It causes pain and hardship to the Palestinians and alienates Israel from friends and allies around the world. Only two states for two peoples, both states viable and secure, living side-by-side in peace, will bring this tragic conflict to its long-awaited end.

But honesty must resonate from the right and the left, from all people of good will. Let’s briefly examine three points: Gaza, the lack of negotiations, and the situation between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Gaza is a humanitarian disaster. There is plenty of blame to go around for sure. Let’s include Egypt along with Israel and talk, too, about the bifurcation and cynicism of the Hamas-Fatah divide when we discuss Gaza. To debate Gaza with no mention of Hamas rule obscures the complex reality. I recently visited with Israeli residents along the Southern border. Yet, Hamas, which cynically commandeered the peaceful protests that were taking place inside Gaza, encouraged kites be flown across the border to set aflame miles of Israeli fields, and has furrowed tunnels that open up into kindergartens and dining rooms in order to conduct covert operations inside Israel.

There must be a return to active negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, the current Palestinian Fatah-led government, which President Abbas has led for 18 years, is itself in a stalemate.

There is alas, here too, enough blame to go around. The current Israeli government is a right-wing government that has not encouraged negotiations and has, instead, supported the growth of more settlements, making a two-state solution appear intractable.

The Netanyahu government continues to rule by appealing to dividing people, similar to what, alas, is happening elsewhere at this moment – Brazil, Poland, Hungary, the United States. These efforts are being fought not only by our movement here in North America and in Israel, but also by many Israelis. We fight in Israel for a shared society that will embody the very values that Israel’s founders called for: “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…” – values that continue to inspire all of us who love the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, the situation between Jewish and Palestinian citizens (who comprise 21 percent of the population, based on the 1967 international borders) within Israel is different from the broad strokes too often painted by critics. Today, the dean of Israel’s top law school is a Palestinian citizen of Israel; 41 percent of the students at Haifa University and 22 percent at the Technion (known as Israel’s MIT) hail from this population, and while discrimination continues to be a problem, the trend line – despite the politicians – is moving in a different direction.

Of course, the world keeping silent will not make Israelis or Palestinians more secure or more free. But neither will the status quo improve if one-sided narratives prevail, reducing this complex conflict to a morality tale with one side holding all the moral virtue.

I look forward to open, balanced, and honest dialogue with all who want to shape a better tomorrow for Israelis and Palestinians.