Every year, I, along with Jews all over the world, confess to sins I have not committed, and sometimes, frankly, don’t even understand. As part of the High Holiday liturgy, we read off two lists of sins, one alphabetical and the other categorical, confessing to each in the first-person plural: we have committed this atrocity, we have participated in that horrible deed. We confess collectively, as a community, each one assuming the burden of the sins of each other member of that community.
When the prophet Jeremiah preached about the fall of the Kingdom of Judah, he did not emphasize the misdeeds of the Babylonians, who were after all the aggressors, invading the land and forcing its residents into exile. Instead, he laid most of the blame on the Jews themselves, whose corrupt practices had weakened their society and thereby created an opportunity for the invaders.
Historically and culturally, we Jews have not sought to blame others for our misfortunes but have looked inward to see where we have fallen short. True, we have sometimes overdone this, failing to take a stand against our oppressors, but there is also something noble in this tradition, something holy even. I think, on the whole, it is a tradition we can and do take pride in. When others shirk responsibility for their misdeeds, we accept that responsibility. Why then, when the misdeeds of Israelis are revealed, is our first response so often, “But what about the Palestinians? Why aren’t you talking about their crimes?”
Now Palestinians have certainly committed horrible crimes, and Palestinian society too often has endorsed them, by pensioning the families of terrorists, for example. But these are Palestinian problems and the Palestinians must address them. We may call attention to these problems and if and when, God willing, we return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, we will certainly make them a key part of the discussion, but we must not use them as excuses for not addressing our own problems.
Recently, more and more accounts of Jewish settlers committing acts of violence against Palestinians have come to light, and the Israeli authorities in each instance seem to stand idly by at best and participate at worst. These acts must stop, they must stop immediately, and those perpetrating them must face serious consequences to make it clear that such acts are not to be tolerated.
These acts cannot be dismissed as isolated incidents and must be taken seriously, but they not the core of the problem. Rather, they are part of a system that underlies all of these acts and others, and that system is called occupation.
International law recognizes that occupations are sometimes inevitable outcomes of war. In the case of the 1967 war that brought about the current occupation, it was seen as necessary to control areas from which attacks aiming to obliterate the State of Israel were in preparation. But that same international law also sees occupations as a temporary solution to a temporary problem. The current occupation has now lasted 55 years. It is long past time to bring it to an end.
The ill effects of the occupation extend far beyond sporadic acts of violence to include placing the Palestinian residents of the occupied territory under an oppressive system of justice not imposed on their Jewish neighbors and in which they have no say. They also include the theft or destruction of Palestinian property. Perhaps most pervasively, they include acts that amount to a gradual but inexorable de facto annexation of the occupied territory itself, another violation of international law.
The defenders of the status quo, defying logic and law, deny that the occupation is even an occupation. They seek permanent control over the Palestinians, a situation which they imagine would improve the lives of the Israelis but would, in fact, make them immeasurably worse.
Of course, the occupation cannot be ended simply by declaring it over. That requires negotiation, but the current Israeli government proudly refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians. This stance makes long-term peace with the Palestinians impossible, and the Israeli government must drop it. As long as the Israeli government’s position is a refusal to negotiate, It bears responsibility for the problems caused by that position. The United States government, our government and the oldest and staunchest ally of Israel, must insist on a willingness to negotiate, loudly, publicly, and repeatedly.
Are the Palestinians willing to negotiate? Are they, in their weakened and unstable condition, even able to negotiate? I don’t know, but as long as the Israelis willingly accept the responsibility for preventing negotiation, we will never know. And again, that is their problem to solve.
We, the international Jewish community of which Israel is a part, need to solve ours.
In the words of the High Holiday liturgy, “We are not so arrogant as to say before You ‘We have not sinned.’ Indeed, we have sinned.” The remedy for sin is atonement. And atonement is not just an expression of regret. It is changing our behavior.
Martin J. Levine of Maplewood is a volunteer leader of J Street and a member of its New Jersey chapter’s steering committee.