Abram, Lot and The PLO
Abram, Lot and The PLO by Haim Chertok

Volume 4 , Issue 2

One man's history lesson is another's anachronism. This is nowhere more the case than in Israel where the year or epoch to which one harkens as ?the beginning" ? 2,000 B.C.E, 1917, 1937, 1948, 1967, 1973 or the day-before-yesterday serves as the badge of one's political perspective. Of the contention between Israelis and Palestinians, does anyone really believe that there remains unsaid something new or significant? The present crux is not what is said, but who says it, with what degree of passion and conviction, and most crucially to whom.

Gush Emunim "the Greater Israel Movement" includes secularists, but from the start it has drawn its motive force and philosophic basis from among us observant Jews. Ever since the "miraculous" deliverance into Israeli hands of all of Jerusalem together with Golan, Gaza and historic Judea and Samaria in 1967, momentum has belonged to those who view the times as divinely favored and the coming of Messiah as a salient political factor. This has placed a heightened burden of responsibility on Israel's prominent religious peace advocates, academicians like Uriel Simon, Michael Rosenack, and Uriel Tal who roost in the dovecotes of Oz VeShalom and Netivot Shalom. Indeed, they have thoroughly analyzed the religious dimensions of the issue. But despite tireless efforts to spread their message, it has been mainly, it needs to be said, for their own self-edification.

Religious Center Reserved

In fact, Israel's religious center has virtually disintegrated as a moderate political force. With notable exceptions, even those yeshiva-based rabbinic voices who have from time to time dissented have recently been reserved. Muted as well, lately, has been the proto-messianic line issuing from Mercaz HaRav, the Jerusalem yeshiva which has served as the philosophic font of Gush Emunim, a posture reflecting both traditional rabbinic temperament and the dangers inherent in the situation.

Not so every quarter. I recall my dumbfounded astonishment when, while serving with a security unit in 1982 at the Beirut airport, instead of Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, a contingent of Lubavitchers arrived with a message of good cheer: "Messiach is coming. What need has Israel for a peace treaty with Egypt or any Arabs. Jews don't have to compromise with goyim. Messiach is coming and very soon." If such a reading were correct, anyone countenancing the return of even parts of Judea and Samaria was either a ninny or very close to a traitor.

In separate enclaves of Judea and Samaria "the ancient Jewish heartland" 65,000 Jews reside among 750,000 Palestinian Arabs. Well and good, argue hard-liners; that's 65,000 settlers more than 22 years ago. Nevertheless, everyone knows the pace of settlement has slackened to a crawl, which really means that the implicit question our West Bank settlers are posing to the national conscience comes down to why shouldn't 65,000 Jews rule over twelve times our number? If for two decades, why not indefinitely? With the army at their backs, with determination and guns, something will happen? Russian settlers will come. The Arabs will voluntarily leave. Messiah will come?

Gush Emunim Distort Rav Kook's Teachings

Now this position derives from an interpretation of recent events that exercises a particular attraction for many. Its major prop has been the writings of their revered Chief Rabbi of Israel under the Mandate, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, z"l, and although Professor Zvi Yaron, z"l, Rav Kook's major expositor, has argued that Gush Emunim theorists have distorted Rabbi's teaching, it is undeniable that a messianic element may be mined from his thought. Hence the repercussions. If messianic times are indeed upon us, then Nachmanides's view that "we are commanded to take possession of the land" [and] we should not leave it in the hands of any other people? could assume the force of halakhic mandate. Indeed, in 1979 this very position was officially endorsed by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate under the authority of Rabbi Shlomo Goren.

Now, if only the Messiah had appeared in 1968 or '69 or even '79 to confirm the miracle of '67, well, it all would have been perfectly reasonable. After all, how could I, Zvi Yaron or anyone else be so certain that we are not living in a time of messianic redemption? Am I immune to nationalist exultation or to the idea of an Israel which stretches from the River Jordan - its undeniably "natural" boundary ? to the sea? Quite the contrary! To be honest, had Israel been organically able to embrace its historic Biblical dimensions, little could have better pleased me. I'll take any miracle I can get.

For the past six years, a group of us English-speakers in my Negev town of Yeroham have held a study session based upon the weekly Torah portion. The current leader is a learned man with a wide-ranging knowledge of rabbinic commentaries. Every few weeks, although he knows that most of the rest of us are not especially sympathetic to his political position, he leads the discussion toward some putative contemporary parallel, some political lesson for the Jews to learn in dealing with the non-Jews in the land of Israel. Indeed, while some of us cite contrary injunctions (e.g., Deut. 23:17), he finds seemingly endless Biblical warrant for the Jews dealing firmly with any non-Jews in the land. My friend's fundamental, almost obsessive view is that now that we Jews are reestablished in our land, we don't have to explain ourselves or apologize to anyone for our actions vis-a-vis the Arabs inhabiting our land. Any such tendencies he ascribes to residual "galut mentality" of which, he is convinced, we should divest ourselves.

Is there Wisdom in Rabbi Yosef's View?

I recognize that he, like my Jordan-Is-Palestine friend in Jerusalem, is not entirely wrongheaded. Yet, he seems to find no wisdom at all in the formulations of such authorities as former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who concluded that "if the responsible military and governmental authorities determine that if parts of the land of Israel are not returned, there will be danger of an immediate war from the side of the Arab neighbors" and if the territories are returned to them, the danger of war will recede, and there are chances for a viable peace "[then] it is permissible to return territories from the land of Israel in order to achieve this goal, since nothing overrides saving lives."

Rabbi Yosef expresses what has been the dominant tendency of rabbinic commentary on relations between Jews and non-Jews down through the ages. As interpreted by Rashi (Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin 29) we are commanded by the Torah to live in peace with the non-Jewish inhabitants, the gerei toshav, of this land: "He shall dwell with you, among you, in that place where he shall choose within one of your gates, where it suits him best; you shall not oppress him." (Deut. 23:17). Maimonides's comment on Deut. 14:21 "You shall give it to the stranger who is within your gates, that he may eat it" " was that "one behaves toward gerei toshav with civility and kindness, as one would toward a Jew" A similar position has been promulgated by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the most respected voice in the American rabbinate. Nevertheless, the Mercaz HaRav position now predominates at most yeshivot throughout Israel.

Occupation Cheapening Our Values

Reinforcing the messianic triumphalism of Mercaz HaRav theorists has been the situation-on-the-ground since 1967. Even with the best of intentions, military occupation leads perforce to oppression. In such circumstances, although the need for the application of Jewish ethics is all the more great, the comments of Rashi and Maimonides have become increasingly irrelevant. This past year, my son Ted, a yeshivat hesder soldier, and three of his hesdernik friends, heeded a request to volunteer for an additional four months of military duty beyond what was required. Among other considerations, they felt that it was important for soldiers who felt some empathy for the feelings of inhabitants of the Territories to be on the scene.

For most of two weeks in one recent, riot-torn month, Ted led his platoon down the alleyways of Gaza and nearby Khan Yunis. He later described to me the pain of engagements with 10 and 12 year olds in street demonstrations, and of being under orders to refuse water to Arab family members he had had roust our of their homes to clean up debris in the streets. ?Keeping? the whole land of Israel has extracted an excruciating price which neither the young Lubavitchers at the Beirut Airport in '82 nor Israel's current crop of 18,000 draft-deferred yeshiva students need pay up-close: it is cheapening our values, and its is demoralizing our sons and daughters.

The irony is that for normative Judaism, the sanctity of life has clear priority over preciseness of borders or of the "wholeness" of the land. A governing paradigm for the primacy of ethical behavior entailing territorial compromise for the sake of avoiding violence occurs when Abraham compromises with Lot over borders: "Abram said to Lot, `Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsman and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you. Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.? (Gen. 13:8-9). As if signalling a divine, "amen," God immediately reconfirms His promise of the land to Abram.

All observant Jews know that they may not fulfill the commandment to build a sukkah by using stolen materials, that doing so abrogates the point and substance of the mitzvah. Similarly, is it illegitimate to fulfill what may be honorably understood as a commandment to possess Judea and Samaria not only because Judaism insists that peace is the supreme gift of mankind (indeed, the Sages have declared that the very purpose of the giving of Torah to the Jewish people, in the first place, is to promote peace, Gittin 59b; Maimonides, Megillah ve-Chanukkah), but because it entails continual ethical transgression.

Palestinians Cannot Win, but Can Keep us from Winning

It is now 1990 of the Common Era, 42nd year of Israeli independence and 23rd year of Israeli military occupation of these problematic Territories. If Messiah tarried, aliya has quickened. The irony, of course, is that the overwhelming majority of Russian Jews have shown a singular lack of interest in the Greater Land of Israel. It is also the third year of intifada. After more than a score of years without hope, Arab youngsters in Gaza, Dahaishe, and Ramallah have taken to the streets against our Jewish sons in uniform. No, the Palestinians cannot "win," but they can keep us from ?winning? an occupation that our consciences can endure.

Of course, I recognize that the Palestinian youngsters in Gaza and the West Bank camps have been raised to believe that their true homes are the ones in Jaffa, Lod, and Ramle that their parents and grandparents abandoned in 1948 and that many dream that one day they will return to them. No matter that maintaining the Palestinians as refugees was cynical; it has also helped to fashion a people. If, evidently, they were not ready for nationhood in 1948, after spending their own 40 years in the desert, Palestinians give every indication of being so today. Looking to the future, it seems to me in Israel's hands and self-interest to make it worth their while to put an end to the chronic bloodshed, to cease their struggle for recognition and dignity.

My aim is neither to whitewash the bloody PLO past not to minimize the potential dangers to Israel. There is, however, a positive precedent to look to. In the 18 months prior to June, 1982, when the PLO firmly established itself as oppressors of the Shiites and Christians in the Fatahland of Southern Lebanon, they collected taxes, organized economic enterprises, and ran militias that abutted Israel's northern border. Having something precious and vulnerable to lose, in all that time they fired no katushas into the panhandle of Galilee. Indeed, they painstakingly avoided provocation and, much to the chagrin of Ariel Sharon, maintained a quiet border.

In this period prior to Operation Peace in Galilee, there actually was peace in Galilee. Begin and Sharon had to use the shooting of Israel's ambassador in London as the farfetched excuse for sending the Israeli troops north of the border and destabilizing the situation, a condition we live with to this day. Totally obscured was the real lesson of those months prior to June '82: provided with appropriate incentive; i.e., having something tangible to lose, PLO "terrorists" can keep the peace and their word certainly as well as, say, the British.

Indefensible Moral Posture

To refuse to talk with representatives of the PLO, which is equivalent to not recognizing their humanity, not only places Israel in an indefensible moral posture; in a world where even Ronald Reagan negotiated with the head of the "Evil Empire," Israel's fixed posture has also lost whatever tactical advantage it may once have held. Moreover, it is well-known that the Israeli government has already held numerous secret talks with representatives of the PLO for the obvious reason that they have vital matters to talk about which won't wait. For example, Israeli POWs remain in Lebanon. The time is long overdue for an end to speciousness and hypocrisy.

For over a decade, Israel has acted as though peace and its security could be secured through a relatively benign occupation, quick retaliations, imprisonments, and deportations. Events have proven this to be demonstrably fallacious. The course prescribed by Avraham Avinu was suggested in 1948. Because its timing was premature, does not mean it should not be tried again. We should now recognize that whatever was the case in '48, the Palestinians are now a people with national rights. They are not Mohawks or aborigines who can be wished away, absorbed, bought off, or ignored. In return, the PLO must recognize Jewish national rights in principle. These are not mere words; they are something well worth the bargaining for. Far more than the precise contours of predominantly Jewish Israel and predominantly Arab Palestine, our mutual security depends upon recognition of our co-mutual legitimacy. Such is both the precondition to negotiations and its most critical desideratum.

What we Jews, in particular we religious Jews, must finally, painfully come to declare is that neither our Biblical deed to the Whole Land of Israel nor special warrant by virtue of the Holocaust can legitimately infringe upon Palestinian national rights. Entitled to our own self-determination, our moral standing in the world now depends upon granting to others what we have claimed for ourselves. In sum, no matter how reprehensible we may privately view it, we should publicly declare ourselves prepared to negotiate with the only representative the Palestinian people will, in the foreseeable future, have. Moreover, we can do no better, I believe, than to emulate Avraham Avinu, and ready ourselves to relinquish national claims over Bethel and Hebron. Not, I hasten to add, because we love them less than Gush Emunim, but rather because we love justice more and value peace as the highest gift of all.

Haim Chertok has lived in Yeroham, Israel since 1977. His book Stealing Home: Israel Bound & Rebound (Fordham University Press, N.Y.) was awarded the National Jewish Book Award for 1989. His current book is We Are All Close: Conversations with Israeli Writers.

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