In watching on-line a recent debate in Atlanta between J Street Founder and President, Jeremy Ben Ami, and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, I was struck both by their agreements and disagreements. (Their conversation begins at approximately 28 minutes into the video – http://www.livestream.com/templesinai/video?clipId=pla_89e743f2-cef2-47ab-8b6b-5b22b0eea84f)
Both recognize the need for a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to preserve Israel’s Jewish character and democracy.
Both believe that the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank is contrary to Jewish values and ethics.
Both respect and admire Israel’s accomplishments in a myriad of arenas following the darkest period in Jewish history.
They fundamentally disagree, however, about whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solvable, whether there is a true negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, and about the greatest existential threat to the state of Israel.
Jeremy believes that not only is this conflict solvable, but the alternative is a nightmare leading to the end of the Jewish democratic state of Israel. The conflict is, in his view, Israel’s greatest existential threat.
Danny is convinced that this conflict is unsolvable because whereas Israel’s attitudes towards the Palestinians have evolved from Golda Meir’s statement that “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people” to PM Netanyahu’s acceptance of the existence of the Palestinian people and their right to a state of their own, the Palestinians, he says, have not evolved since 1948, and PA President Machmud Abbas’ most recent refusal to accept a “Jewish State of Israel” is proof positive that Israel is still fighting the 1948 war and that the Palestinian President is not a real peace-partner. He believes that Israel’s greatest existential threats are an uncertain Middle East and Iran’s nuclear threat.
Danny made three specific points:  Some problems cannot be solved, citing cancer and other international conflicts;  The trajectory of the Palestinian thinking about Israel (see above) makes it impossible for there to be real peace; and  Israel should strive just to make the life of Palestinians in the West Bank less difficult under occupation.
Regarding point #1 – many cancers are, in fact, treatable. However, that is a comparison between apples and oranges. When it comes to human-made problems, of which the Israel-Palestinian is one, JFK once said that problems human beings create can be solved also by human beings.
Regarding point #2 – The PLO, in truth, recognized the right of the state of Israel to exist in the early 1990s which enabled Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin and now-President Shimon Peres to enter into the Oslo Peace process. Last year Abu Mazen said he would like to visit his home town of Safed, but not live there because that is the state of Israel. He has consistently spoken of a two-state solution that settles all claims.
Regarding point #3 – Though much can probably be done to alleviate inconvenience on the West Bank, the fact of the occupation itself is a serious threat to Israel’s democratic traditions and an ongoing point of tension between Israeli settlers and Palestinians among whom they live that only a two-state solution can address completely.
Once all the primary issues are settled (e.g. borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, water) I believe that the Palestinians will also acknowledge Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people just as Israel has acknowledged that Palestine will be the nation state of the Palestinian people. Let us remember that Bibi too has made categorical statements that Jerusalem will never be divided again and from the Palestinian side, that would doom negotiations.
What we have represented by Jeremy Ben Ami and Rabbi Daniel Gordis are two distinct approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to world problems and even to life itself. One is pragmatic optimism (Jeremy Ben Ami), and the other is cynical realism (Rabbi Gordis). Yet, we have so many examples showing that what was once thought impossible became possible (e.g. Northern Ireland, South Africa, post-WWII Germany and Japan).
Robert F. Kennedy expressed the pragmatic optimistic approach when he said, “Some people see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”
And so did Israeli President Shimon Peres when he said: “There are always skeptics in life…To be an optimist you have to work very hard to maintain optimism with the people you lead and have a lot of patience. It’s more natural to be a skeptic, be on the safe side…But in my experience in life I feel that being optimistic is wiser and more realistic…”
Judaism is, I believe, based on pragmatic optimism, as the Mishnah reminds us in the name of Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
I would hope that those now at the AIPAC Conference in Washington, D.C. will support Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts and refrain from second guessing him, the President and the negotiations until they conclude, and that they avoid destructive rhetoric that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.