Gary E. Rubin

By Gary E. Rubin

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I doubt that many of the contributors to this symposium will seriously propose the dismantling of the Jewish state. The critical question we must all address is the nature of the state we should like to see in the future, and, most important, the responsibility each of us bears for helping to realize that vision.
Discussions on issues like the Jewish character of Israel invariably evoke a spate of prescription-mongering. Secular Jews admonish the Orthodox to exhibit greater tolerance and are told in turn to demonstrate greater respect for religious values. Pluralists criticize insufficient appreciation for difference, while traditionalists decry threats to Jewish uniqueness. Each group advocates a Jewish state that launches its own convictions onto the national scene.
Breaking out of this unproductive cycle of lecturing to others requires that each of us take responsibility for his or her own behavior in affecting the emerging Jewishness of the state. We all need to focus not on the problems of identity that others cause, but on what each of us can do constructively to build a strong and viable Israel in the future. The key question we must all face is: How can I contribute to an identifiably Jewish state that promotes ideals I cherish, while avoiding alienation and conflict with other Jews with whom I disagree but who have an equally legitimate stake in the Jewish future?
In this spirit of introspection, I would like to draw on my three-year experience as executive director of Americans for Peace Now to consider how peace supporters like me can contribute to the positive evolution of the Jewish state, with the hope that other sectors of Israeli society will examine their roles in similar fashion. An honest appraisal of our record will require the candid admission that much of our past and current behavior has impeded the achievement of a unified Jewish state. Yet, a peace movement aware of its historic mission and deep roots in Jewish history could contribute much to a homeland firmly rooted in Jewish values.
To contribute meaningfully to the moral evolution of the state, the peace movement must relate to all Jews across the spectrum of political opinion. Peace advocates will promote a sense of broad membership in a common political community only if they seek dialogue with other Jews on the basis of shared convictions and aspirations. The movement must decide if it aims to isolate itself in a separate camp, appealing only to Israelis who share its political platform, or if it seeks to reach out to others on the basis of widely shared values.
The sad fact is that in both Israel and the United States, the peace movement has too often promoted divisive positions and rhetoric which have greatly diminished the prospect of Jews of differing views sharing a commitment to a state based on commonly held values. This confrontational approach has both limited the effectiveness of peace advocates and impeded the realization of a state that would enshrine peace as a central Jewish commitment.
How have peace advocates unnecessarily alienated Jews with whom they must share a polity and community? Consider the following examples:
One of the top leaders of Israel’s peace movement told me of a public forum in which he had debated the secular ultra-hawk Rehav’am Ze’evi and the religious settlement advocate Benny Elon. Recalling the event with great emotion several months after its occurrence, he told me that at least he could speak to Ze’evi on the basis of shared assumptions, but there was no common value base from which he could even begin a dialogue with Elon. This reaction is, of course, pure religious discrimination. There exists an equally minute chance that this peace leader could ever reach agreement with either Elon or Ze’evi because of irreconcilable positions on territorial compromise. But the fact that this political dispute signaled to him an inability to engage a totally alien religious value system raises the serious question of whether the two could ever meaningfully share in a Jewish state of which both are citizens.
Yet this level of divisiveness is wholly unnecessary. Pro-peace positions can and should be phrased in genuinely religious language, so that differing opinions on political issues do not translate into incompatible visions of statehood.
Israel’s peace advocates are often needlessly confrontational in the way they argue for territorial compromise. I firmly believe in the need for a negotiated withdrawal from large segments of the West Bank in order to further Israel’s security and end its morally corrupting occupation. But advocates of a land-based settlement, to be credible, must demonstrate an understanding of the loss to Israel which their position entails. Names like Hebron, Shechem, Shiloh and Beit El resonate deeply in Jewish history. While ceding territory may be required to achieve the peace that alone can protect Israel’s security, giving up control of these areas should evoke the pain of reaching a very difficult though necessary agreement. However, peace leaders I have known in Israel visit Hebron with no visible appreciation of its holiness; some even refuse to enter the Old City of Jerusalem since they regard it as “occupied territory.” Building a Jewish state requires a much deeper sense of a shared history by recognizing the agony that withdrawal will legitimately entail and demanding that any settlement include access to holy places.
These examples demonstrate an endemic weakness in peace advocacy: An inability to state positions in a way that reaches out to the concerns and values of fellow citizens.
What can the peace movement do to overcome these shortcomings and contribute to the future Jewish state? Several steps should be taken:
A common language. Peace advocates should employ language that connects them to the values of other Jews. Drawing on sacred texts like Psalm 122, which envisions a united Jerusalem under conditions of peace, would highlight a heritage that all Jews share. Each side in the political debate, of course, will cite traditional sources that advance its own position, but, given these very differences, it is important that Jews employ a common vocabulary and sacred reference points.
A common audience. Leaders articulating the movement’s point of view should strive to appear on common platforms with their political opponents and make special efforts to speak to audiences in synagogues and yeshivas. There should be no place in the Jewish state where the values of the peace movement are alien.
The argument for security. Advocates should continue their historic emphasis on peace as the only route for achieving true security, since this position speaks to a paramount concern of all Israelis. For the same reason, they should retain the practice of utilizing military experts to convey their positions. In fact, the peace movement would serve itself and all of Israeli society better if it showed the same outreach capacity on religious and values concerns as it does on security issues.
Needless to say, building a viable Jewish state requires similar sensitivity from Oslo’s opponents. However, we must each begin to build a common value base from within our own community. We will then have the standing to demand the same from others.

Gary E. Rubin has held executive positions in Jewish communal service in North America for over twenty-five years. From 1993-1996 he was executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

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