King David, Batsheva, & Making M. E. Peace: What Can Americans Do?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 8/10/2004

Dear friends,

I. What can Americans do to change the policies of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships and publics toward peacemaking?

Let me start by urging you to check three important recent articles on our Website.

One is from The Forward, the nearest there is in the US to a national Jewish newspaper. It describes a major demarche by the Reform Jewish movement, criticizing recent Congressional resolutions as being too one-sidedly supportive of Sharon government policy while ignoring Palestinian needs.

The other two articles are from Haaretz, the leading Israeli center-liberal newspaper. One of them describes the emergence of a new grass-roots Palestinian nonviolent movement.

The other describes the emergence of a new Israeli organization, Maaglei Tzedek (Circles of Justice) in which Orthodox rabbis and others are protesting savage cuts in the social budget of the Sharon/Netanyahu government as violations of Torah's command to assist the poor. Though these protests do not directly address the war-peace issue, and most of their participants support the Israeli settlements on the West Bank, they have indirect implications because one of the major reasons for the budget cuts is the need to pay for settlements and soldiers in the Occupation and for the Separation Wall.

These developments offer new possibilities for actually changing what happens in the Middle East. They bespeak new grass-roots energy in the American Jewish, Israeli Jewish, and Palestinian communities, to go beyond the present paralysis in official American, Israeli, and Palestinian policy.

Leaders often get closed off into their own fear, rage, or arrogance. Yet we have just seen a small change in course taken by the High Court of Israel, when it insisted that some of the route and location of the Separation Wall must be changed to balance concerns for Israeli security with concerns for Palestinian lives and livelihoods.

(Is it a Wall or a Fence? — I have seen some sections of this Barrier. At least those sections are tall four or five times my own height slabs of gray concrete, blank and forbidding. There is no way to see through them. The gateways that were supposed to grant access through them are infrequently manned. They look and act like a Wall, not a fence.)

What stirred the High Court to change course? Let me draw on the discussion among some rabbis in Jerusalem last month of a Biblical text about an arrogant ruler and his changing course. The discussion was what rabbinics at its best is all about: how to draw on ancient Jewish wisdom to birth new wisdom both Jewish and universal.

The story is certainly interesting, and I think the interpretation is. But if you don't feel like listening to a Biblical interpretation midrash you can skip from this row of asterisks to the next row, which begins Section III on change that is already beginning within Israel and Palestine. And if you want the bottom line right away: — What can Americans do to bring peace closer? — skip to the third row of asterisks, which begins the section marked IV.

I welcome responses and comments on this letter. Please let us know whether you want us to post your comment on our Website.

II. Recall the biblical story of King David & Bathsheba: While David's army is away at war, David sees Batsheva bathing on a nearby rooftop. He falls in lust, and takes her — though she is married. (To one of his Army officers, no less. But the officer is after all only a foreigner.)

When she gets pregnant, David tries to disguise his adultery by quickly bringing his officer home but the officer invokes his military duty and honor to refuse the joy of sleeping with his wife while his soldiers are still fighting for their lives.

Nothing daunted, David orders his general to order the officer into the thick of battle. He is killed. David marries Batsheva. All is well.

Or is it? Somehow a chutzpadik prophet, Nathan, has understood the truth. He tells David a story: A rich man who owns many flocks of sheep knows a poor man who owns only one beloved lamb, who shares his bread and water. The rich man has a visitor. Rather than slaughter one of his many sheep for dinner, he steals the poor man's only lamb, and cooks it to win favor with his guest.

David erupts: This thief deserves death!

You are the man! says Nathan and explains the parable.

David repents. He cannot restore his officer's life, but he understands that he, the king, has sinned. His arrogance dissolves. Perhaps it is only this that makes him a good king and the model of messianic kingship — for all kings are arrogant, and the only question is whether they can, when challenged, turn away from their arrogance, toward justice.

Even David's repentance does not prevent a dire punishment: His son with Batsheva falls desperately sick. David wails and weeps, but the boy dies. It is not till he has a second son with her, Solomon, Shlomo/ Peaceful One, that it becomes possible for his heir to build the Holy Temple.

Why did David change?

The seed of change was planted by someone else, by Nathan. And Nathan did not confront David head-on, but led David into accusing and changing — himself.

Nathan told a story about a baby lamb a story that appealed to the little shepherd boy who still lived somewhere inside David's regal arrogance.

The shepherd boy awoke the boy who had nurtured lambs, nuzzled them to his breast, kept them from falling off cliffs.

To steal a lamb so nurtured by another? To slaughter it not for the household's dire need but for pomp and splendor, for greater influence with a visitor? Not on your life!

Once David has rejected such behavior out of his own ethical stance, Nathan can take the second step of pointing to David's own behavior — and so complete the task of wakening David the King out of his ethical stupor. And David cops to his sin, instead of having Nathan's rebellious head removed.

III. What do we learn?

I do not think the parable calls forth an exact parallel. It is not the arrogant leaders of Israel and Palestine but their hypnotized followers that I think we need to address. Who and what can speak to them? What is the shepherd boy within them, the memory of a just and compassionate persona?

First, notice that the process began outside David. I think it needs to begin outside Israel and Palestine, today. For the two societies are too caught up in fear and rage against each other to be able — on their own — to soften their rigidities.

Let us start with Israel. What persuaded the Israeli High Court to insist on moving the Separation Wall? According to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, there were six factors. He writes:

As late as August 2003 the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected all petitions about the route of the Barrier and the word "route" was largely absent from the public debate. The ongoing terror campaign prompted most Israelis to simply demand a barrier to protect themselves. They had no interest in where or how it was being built. Individuals and governments were portrayed as either for or against the Barrier.

Today, the word "route" is part of the Israeli lexicon, while Israel's High Court of Justice has become very assertive in pressing the government and army to re-examine the route.

There are a series of factors that led to the court's decision and
some change in how the Israeli public views this issue:

    1. RHR, along with other Israeli NGOs, sponsored educational efforts and a media campaign which helped change the terms of the public debate in Israel.

    2. In response to internal and international pressure, recognition in statements by senior government and army officials that Palestinian needs were not sufficiently taken into account, that they can not meet their commitments to provide access to land between the Barrier and the Green Line, and that in some cases changing the route improves the Barrier's contribution to security.

    In some places, parts of the barrier already constructed were uprooted and moved. It became much more difficult for the army to maintain that every millimeter of the route was planned according to security criteria only, and much more difficult for the courts to reject petitions.

    3. Mainstream Jewish neighbors immediately across the Green Line (and therefore with the greatest self-interest in preventing infiltration) began signing petitions calling on the government to change the route of the Barrier. In some cases these neighbors joined the legal appeals.

    4 Increased involvement by the Council for Peace and Security, whose membership is comprised of retired high ranking army and police officers. They have submitted affidavits in favor of alternative routes which they argue are also more effective in terms of security.

    5. Effective legal representation.

    6. Popular resistance by entire Palestinian villages, men, women and children. This resistance attempts to be non-violent, although in a number of locations there has been stone throwing. [Some Israelis and Internationals have joined in some of these nonviolent resistance movements.]

Please note that according to Rabbi Ascherman, international pressure was one of the elements. The Prophet Nathan, speaking from outside David, helped change what David did.

This included direct pressure from the US government. It also included more subtle pressures from the effects of the World Court decision against the Wall. It is true there was a massive wave of rejection of the decision by the Israeli government and public, and a great wave of derision toward the World Court. But the expectation of an adverse World Court decision probably helped make the Israeli High Courts more restrained ruling more palatable.

The fact that many of the Palestinian resistance efforts were nonviolent and popular rather than violent and carried on by a specialized cadre also made a difference. Some are calling it the third intifada, more like the first than the second, in that whole villages and towns are fully involved and mostly nonviolent.

For years, American opponents of the Israeli occupation have argued whether nonviolence would matter to the Israelis or would Israelis respond with more repression? We now have some empirical data to suggest that nonviolence can matter.

It seems that the results may change depending on the interaction of Palestinian behavior with the outlook of whoever happens to be the local Israeli commander. At Budrus, where the protests were wholly nonviolent, the Army moved the wall back toward the Green Line. At Biddu, where the protests included some rockthrowing and the Israeli commander had a different outlook, the Army fired into the protesting crowd and killed several Palestinians.

And the involvement of Israelis in opposition to the route of the Wall also made a difference. - Some joined in by protesting the impact on their Palestinian neighbors, some as lawyers bringing court cases, some as partners with Palestinians in nonviolent demonstrations, some in their role as retired generals and police chiefs in asserting that the Wall could be rerouted without undermining security.

IV: How can Americans help make a difference, speaking to the shepherd boy within the Israeli and Palestinian publics as the Prophet Nathan spoke to the shepherd boy within King David?

It seems to me there are five things that Americans can do:

1. Strongly support the whole spectrum of Israeli peace-committed groups with money, publicity, etc. Those are the clearest shepherd boys inside Israel. They live both the best hopes and the daily fears of Israelis, and so can be heard by their compatriots. It is groups like this that help stir support from grass-roots Israeli Jews for Palestinian neighbors whose towns were chopped apart by the Wall; that help provide Israeli lawyers for Palestinian plaintiffs; that encourage generals and police chiefs to publicly criticize security policy.

For most Americans, and certainly most Jews, this may be the simplest step to take. Do not, however, expect it to be emotionally or politically easy. For those Americans who have rigidified their perception of Israel into a monolithic oppressive society, it may awaken them to another, fuller view of the sectors of Israel that move past their own fears, to seek peace. For those Americans who have actively been pursuing peace, it may expose them to the degree of fear and caution that even many peace-committed Israelis feel when they think about making peace with angry and sometimes violent Palestinians.

There is also a danger that the closer Americans come to fully identifying with the Israeli groups, the more likely they will find the Israelis asking them to put limits on what they do in public advocacy of peace positions — lest Israel be endangered by changes in US public policy, and lest the peace-committed Israelis be stigmatized within Israel by the actions of their supporters.

In my view, Americans should listen carefully to these fears, take them into account, and then make their own judgments about effective action. See Item (3) below for more about such public advocacy.

2. Speak out vigorously for and give actual help to Palestinian nonviolent resistance; speak out against violence and terrorism as tools of opposition to the occupation. Give up the nonsensical and unethical view (held by some on the so-called Left) that no one has the right to criticize the tactics used by the oppressed.

Purchase from and proactively invest in grass-roots Palestinian co-ops that are making olive oil and tablecloths and objects of religious ceremony.

Where possible, get synagogues, churches, and mosques to work together in this kind of purchase and investment. Display such purchases proudly in US homes and religious congregations, as Body-Prayers for Salaam/Shalom.

For example: look at the wonderful products at Sunbula, which has a physical outlet shop in St. Andrews Church in West Jerusalem and a virtual one on the Web at —

What shepherd-boy within does this appeal to? — To the grass-roots hope and pride and financial need of Palestinian artisans, and to memories within Palestinian society of the successes of the first intifada.

(That struggle was rooted in their own West Bank/ Gaza communities themselves rather than the overseas PLO. It brought them internal solidarity and international support. It won them the partial victory of the Oslo agreement.)

Just as I noted about the wrenching realities of working with Israeli peace groups, let me make clear: the Palestinians may also mix bitterness with hope, may mix demands for uncritical, even unthinking commitment with abject pleas and sensible proposals. And in the present state of America, working with any Arab groups may invite charges of supporting terrorism. Indeed, making sure not to do so is a hard task in itself.

Palestinian organizations to contact:

Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People

HASHD, the Arabic acronym for the Peoples Campaign for Peace and Democracy

3. Bring to America pairs of Palestinians and Israelis who have kept on working with each other toward peace — not only the big-name authors of the Geneva Initiative, but also the women leaders of grass-roots initiatives and demonstrations, the Israeli women who stand watch on the behavior of Israeli soldiers toward Palestinians at the military checkpoints, and their Palestinian sisters who organize nonviolent marches.

Give them venues to speak publicly together in America, to meet with newspaper editors and religious leaders and members of Congress.

Contacts for this purpose:

The Geneva Accord plan for a practical and definitive peace between Israel and Palestine, created by political and intellectual leaders of both nations.

Jerusalem Link, comprising two women's organizationsBat Shalom (Israeli), and the Jerusalem Center for Women

Coalition of Women for a Just Peace

The interreligious work of Sulha (the Arabic word for reconciliation), which brings together Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druse religious leaders to pray, explore, and hear each others stories.

The Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), which has done extraordinary planning toward what a peaceful relationship would require, and also sends out important nuggets of information and articles from the Israeli and Palestinian press.

4. Urge the US public and government to press Israel gently but firmly — to move the Wall toward the Green Line, to bring settlers and soldiers safely home, to disengage from Gaza and West Bank settlements by planning with Palestinians rather than against them.

The US organizations that may be freest to act in these ways include —

The Tikkun Community

Brit Tzedek vShalom / Jewish Alliance for Justice & Peace

Americans for Peace Now.

On more specific human-rights issues, there is Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America.

What are the hidden Israeli shepherd boys that might be reawakened in these ways? Pride in Israel's own High Court. The hope of a safe return of solders and settlers from the fear they live in. (Many of the settlers moved across the Green Line not for ideological passion but to meet their narrow household budgets.)

What does gently but firmly mean? In 1975, I spent the summer in Israel while Henry Kissinger was trying to get the Israelis to settle some left-overs from the 1973 war. The Israeli government was stubborn. Kissinger talked publicly about an agonizing reappraisal of US relations with Israel. The Israelis were still stubborn.

Then in midsummer my friends in the government began to tell me something odd was happening. Supply shipments from the US were late. When Israelis would call to ask, they were being told, How odd! I'll check and let you know. But there was never a call back. And no shipments, either. No public furor, but a quiet pressure. Not lethal, not even dangerous. But effective.

Kissinger got his way, the US got its way. Since the pressure was private, Israeli leaders did not feel they lost prestige.

As we suggested above, some Israelis who seek peace may be frightened by such US pressure, even for the sake of peace. Why may they be fearful?

Bottom line: They are afraid that any shift in US public opinion will lead to an avalanche, not a measured insistence on a secure two-state peace agreement. In my estimation, they have very little sense of the multidimensional levels of support for Israel that are now built into American society: in the Departments of State and Defense, in Congress, in the press, in the strength of the Jewish community and its allies in labor, business, and religious life.

Indeed, my own estimate is that rigidity and rage in the Israeli government and the official American Jewish leadership are the factors most likely to weaken that level of support.

On the contrary, an Israeli and American Jewish leadership more flexible in the search for peace, more willing to negotiate with the Palestinians toward a real two-state solution rather than rule over them and annex large chunks of their land, would encourage American public opinion and the US government to measure its steps with care.

Would it be effective to divest financially from Israel-related businesses? This tactic hardly speaks to the hidden shepherd boy within Israeli culture. It is more likely to stir panic and rigidity --- and rarely does divestment actually work to reduce the amount of capital available to businesses. So it is likely to be counter-productive on both scores.

If divestment were aimed not at Israeli-related businesses broadly but with a very sharp focus on a very few businesses doing very unpalatable work — for example, the Caterpillar tractor company's provision of bulldozers to the Israeli government to demolish Palestinian homes — that might both be financially effective in regard to Caterpillar, and ethically defensible among Israelis who already see home demolitions as a denial of human rights.

5. Urge the US government and public to join in the Quartet (the UN, US, Russia, & Europe) to call a peace conference in which Israel, all Arab states, Iran, and Palestine make a full peace with each other. Back up this broad peace agreement with political, military, and financial support and guarantees from the Quartet.

This is of course the most far-sighted effort and perhaps, given the present morass of fear and rage, the hardest goal to achieve.

It will run up against the intense opposition of some turf-oriented Israelis to leaving any inch of what they call the Land of Israel, and it will also run up against the fears of some peace-oriented Israelis that any intervention by the US might turn into a snowball from hell — going beyond its original intentions to press Israel into disastrous concessions.

And it will run up against the demands of some Palestinians to scuttle Israel altogether.

On both sides, opponents may very well actually cooperate in violence intended to shatter such an effort for an over-all peace.

Yet this approach also deals most deeply with the yearnings of those Israelis who seek a full peace with all states in the region, as well as with Palestine. It addresses most deeply the yearnings of Palestinians for their own state and the yearnings of other Arab governments and peoples to have a just and stable settlement.

And it addresses the need that more and more Americans are feeling for a settlement that protects Israel while defusing Arab hatred for America.

To succeed, this approach will need the US government to play politics inside both the Israeli and Palestinian societies, just as the US has already done inside the Palestinian community. Instead of demonizing particular politicians on either side, it will need to establish its commitment to a decent result as well as a decent process, and then support politicians who adopt that plan.

How to get the US government, now far from such an approach, to undertake it?

I think the US government is likeliest to take that path in response to a multireligious campaign by peace-committed people from the three communities that have a deep connection with the broader Middle East: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. It is this effort that The Shalom Center is itself pursuing, together with a multireligious plan for peace in Iraq. That is the goal of our Tent of Abraham Initiative.

See the lead article on our Home Page at

Remember — I welcome responses and comments on this letter. Please let us know whether you want us to post your comment on our Website.

Shalom, Arthur