Statement to the Congressional Black Caucus, September 12, 2002

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 09/02/2002

My name is Arthur Waskow. I am a rabbi, and director of The Shalom Center, a network of North American Jews who draw on Jewish wisdom of the past and present to work toward peace, social justice, the healing of our wounded earth, and the renewal of Judaism so as to meet the needs of the next era of human history. Our offices are in Philadelphia, our Website at

I am also a member of the board of Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America, a member of the steering committee of Break the Silence, and a member of the Advisory Council of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. But what I am saying here today are my own individual views.

In the early 1960s I was a legislative assistant to Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier, and from 1963 to 1977 I was a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

I thank the Congressional Black Caucus for your invitation to bring you my experience and thoughts today.

Jewish tradition teaches that before undertaking a sacred act, we bless the One from Whom all blessings flow. So: — Blessed are You, the Breath of Life, Who breathes into us the wisdom to know that we become holy by connecting with each other and with all of life; by breathing together words that aim toward wisdom; and by acting together to seek peace and justice. Baruch attah Yah elohenu ru'ach ha'olam asher kidshanu b'mitzvot, vitzivanu lirdof tzedek v'shalom.

The present actions of the Sharon government place it in a de facto collaboration with the most violent and destructive elements of Palestinian society. Through this de facto collaboration, the Sharon government and Hamas have shattered Palestinian society, deeply wounded Israeli society, and poser the danger of poisoning the bloodstream of the Torah for many generations to come.

I come to this view out of a deep love for and commitment to the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and the Torah. Torah teaches us that we must seek the goal of justice by using just methods, and that we must not only seek peace but pursue it — even if it seems to be running away from us, we must pursue it.

In my view, God and history — use either word or both — demand that the two families of Abraham — the Jewish people that tradition regards as descended from Abraham and Sarah through Isaac, and the Palestinian people that tradition regards as descended from Abraham and Hagar through Ishmael — share in justice and peace the land that was the land of Abraham, each governing itself with respect and compassion for the other.

The biblical stories of this family tell of tension, fear, distrust, alienation — and ultimately reconciliation. When Abraham dies, his estranged sons come together to bury him and mourn him, though he endangered both their lives. After they do this, Isaac and Ishmael are able to live together face to face at the Well that God sent to save Ishmael's life — called the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. There at last they are able to see each other.

Today it is essential that both peoples mourn not only the deaths of their own people who have been killed by violence from the other family, but also the dead of the other side. And it is essential that the two families see each other deeply, in all their similarities as well their differences.

But both peoples have been caught up in a dynamic of abuse. We know that abused children sometimes — by no means always — grow up to become abusers. Here we have two peoples that within the last two generations have suffered agonizing abuse. They have been thrown into the same room. Each act that one of them sees as an attempt to prevent abuse, the other experiences as being abused anew.

Only from outside can that cycle be halted. Yet the only "outside" that has the power to intervene effectively — the United States — has not yet had the courage, the wisdom, or the will to do so. I hope you will bring your courage, your will, and your wisdom to the correction of that failure.

This past spring, I took part in shaping an inter-religious call for action by the US government, signed by more than 500 religious leaders, including 73 rabbis, the head of the National Council of Churches, the editor of Sojourners magazine, and the heads or high officials of a number of Christian denominations.

We crafted our proposals carefully, not only to bear ethical witness but to be politically effective. We believe that within both Palestine and Israel, there are constituencies that, if they have help from each other and from the US, can act for peace.

For both Israelis and Palestinians, that means a strong, clear demand from the US for acceptance not just of the vague concept of a Palestinian state but a secure, viable, and peaceful Palestine living alongside a secure, viable, and peaceful Israel , both of them accepting boundaries close to the 1967 borders with minor adjustments agreed on by both sides, both agreeing that the Palestinian capital will be in East Jerusalem alongside the Israeli capital in West Jerusalem.

It means vigorous action by the US to secure agreement by all the Arab powers to a peace treaty with Israel, in affirmation of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.

It means vigorous action by the US to end the present Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, clear readiness by the US to help pay for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the new Palestinian state, and clear support by the US for stringent limits on the numbers of Palestinians who over the next decade might go back to places within Israel where they themselves actually lived.

Such a US policy would galvanize energies in Israel and Palestine that are now paralyzed by despair. It would free large parts of the Labor Party from subservience to Sharon, and large parts of the Palestinian community from the fear and rage that gives support to suicide bombers.

Such a policy could begin right now by addressing the settlers. Careful public-opinion surveys have shown that 60% to 80% of them are living on the West Bank/ Gaza not for "religious" or nationalist reasons but only because the Israeli government offers subsidies for living well there. These "subsidy settlers" say they would leave in an instant if they could afford housing inside Israel.

That is one need the US could meet. Alone or together with Europe, we could afford to offer to pay for that resettlement. In the present state of Israeli fears, carrots are far more likely than sticks to bring change. So "Bring the Settlers Safely Home!" is a slogan and a policy that would transform Israeli politics by detaching most of the settlers from their present frantic need for protection by Israeli occupation forces.

Such a shift in US policy would meet opposition from both Hamas and Sharon, in de facto collaboration. For both Hamas and Sharon want control over the entire land from the Jordan to the Sea.

Both policies are monstrous. Both are out of touch with reality. Both bring great suffering. Both of the de facto collaborators fear any reasonable political accommodation, and both have used violence to derail negotiations.

On two occasions, the veteran reporter of military and security affairs for the right-of-center Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot has reported that the Sharon government hastened to assassinate leaders of Hamas when it knew that serious efforts toward ending suicide bombings were under way and might succeed. (The most recent case was the Gaza bombing.)

The Sharon government knew that the assassinations would stop these efforts by inciting more suicide bombings, and Hamas obliged by delivering. This and many other actions show that Sharon's policy is to prevent, not support, the processes that might lead toward a political settlement with a viable Palestine.

The Sharon government knew that the assassinations would stop these efforts by inciting more suicide bombings, and Hamas obliged by delivering. This and many other actions show that Sharon's policy is to prevent, not support, the processes that might lead toward a political settlement and a viable Palestinian state.

What could the US do to prevent this cycle of assassinations and suicide bombings?

We could sponsor a Special International Criminal Court for the Middle East, that could investigate accusations of terrorism and of war crimes, order those credibly accused held for trial, and then try them.

To back up such an international court, we could sponsor an international force — with or without a UN label, since many Israelis for some good reasons distrust the UN — to protect both Israelis and Palestinians from each other and to carry out arrests ordered by the Court. Troops could come from countries friendly to Israel like the US, Canada, Australia, etc, and from such countries as Jordan and Egypt that are friendly to the Palestinians and have peace treaties with Israel.

Am I asserting "moral equivalence" about the actions of the two peoples? No. As a rabbi, I am deeply concerned with moral action, both by individuals and by institutions. I have concluded that in this conflict, the issue of moral equivalence is asymmetrical.

At the individual level, many civilian deaths caused by Palestinian bombings were deliberately willed — mass murders. Most Israeli actions that have killed helpless civilians were not deliberately aimed at them, though by now everyone knows that such deaths are inevitable unless enormous care is taken, so that the nature of "deliberation" is more complicated. At the level of individual ethics, these are not morally equivalent behaviors.

It is also true that at the institutional and policy level, the Israeli occupation is bringing about more deaths, deeper economic collapse, more widespread malnutrition among children, sharper humiliation, and a fuller denial of self-determination of a people, than any actions by Palestinians — even though the vile acts of suicide bombings have brought death, fear, and an increasingly weakened economy upon Israel. Perhaps the moral scales are out of balance simply because the Palestinians have less power. But from my perspective, the very fact that Israel has more power obligates it to act with more responsibility.

Is there a political base inside the US for the kind of shift in US policy I am describing? I think the most important base for change would be an American Jewish-Christian-Muslim alliance.What stands in the way of creating it?

Many Christian churches have been inhibited from moving with public vigor to espouse a vigorous pro-peace, two-state US policy for fear that such efforts will actually be tinged with anti-Semitism or will be charged with being anti-Semitic. Given the very long history of Christian anti-Semitism, these fears are not unreasonable.

Some degree of support from some part of the mainstream Jewish constituency is therefore crucial to the willingness of the churches to act more vigorously on Middle East questions. What are the chances of such Jewish support?

Most of the official mainstream Jewish community is likely to keep supporting the Sharon government's policies as long as the Labor Party is part of the governing coalition.

Yet debate within the established Jewish organizational world is growing. The Reform Jewish movement is planning a nationwide teach-in on these questions on September 29, to stimulate open discussion of alternative approaches.

A new organization, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom/ Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, which defines itself as pro-Israel, anti-occupation — has shown the potential for joining religious and secular Jews in affirming the legitimacy of a Palestinian state on or very close to the 1967 boundaries alongside a Jewishly oriented Israel.

Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America has emerged, in sisterhood to and support of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, which addresses deprivations of the human rights of Palestinians as well as of Israelis and of foreign workers.

Americans for Peace Now and the Jewish Peace Lobby continue their lobbying work in Washington. Break the Silence has gathered signatures on a number of pro-peace public statements, and initiated the inter-religious statement that I mentioned.

More than a thousand Jewish academics recently joined in placing an ad for peace in several general and Jewish media.

Many Jews find it hard to voice publicly their criticisms of the actions of the Sharon government because they are concerned that their own legitimate criticisms — inspired by love for Israel and Torah — may become entangled in critiques by others who are inspired by hatred, contempt, and hostility for the Jewish people or for Judaism or for the State of Israel.

Perhaps you can imagine how hard it is for us to criticize, knowing that such hostility is hovering in some of the air around us. It is as if a Muslim American were thinking of criticizing Palestinian actions in an arena where someone has accused Islam — all Islam — of being a gutter religion.

Nevertheless, despite these concerns we must face the truth, if we are to choose life, to seek justice, to seek peace and pursue it — all commands of Torah. When one of the great rabbis asserted that Justice, Peace, and Truth are the three great pillars of the world, another rabbi responded: "These are not three pillars, but simply one. For where Truth is spoken, Justice is affirmed and Peace is achieved."

May the One Who makes peace in the ultimate reaches of the universe teach us to make peace among ourselves, among all the children of Israel, among all the children of Ishmael, and among all who live upon this planet.