I can’t remember the last time I’ve cried in a synagogue, but last night was truly extraordinary: a suburban New York temple hosted a Palestinian leader making the argument for one democratic state between the river and the sea. And the Jewish audience did not contest his description of human rights atrocities. And his Jewish hosts thanked him for opening their eyes to new ideas.
If there is a glimmer of hope that the American Jewish community can be redeemed from a tragic course, and that the peoples of Israel and Palestine can be freed from a blind alleyway of history, there it was last night, at Temple Israel in New Rochelle.
The speaker was Jonathan Kuttab, the Palestinian-American lawyer and former PLO negotiator. A stocky, thoughtful man who looks to be in his 60’s and successful, Kuttab does not excite easily, or give ground either. His message was simple. For many years he supported the painful compromise of the two-state solution, but Israeli actions have made that outcome impossible. There are 600,000 settlers, and evacuating 7,000 of them from Gaza was a national trauma for Israel, and today the society lacks the will or ability to evacuate even a handful of settlers from an illegal hilltop outpost.
It is time for the international community to throw itself behind a movement for equal rights for all between the river and the sea, and the right of diaspora Jews and Palestinian refugees to return to the land.
“This is really not an easy conversation to have,” he began. “I don’t think it’s an easy conversation for you, and for me also it is not an easy conversation.”
Our two tribes not only have separate and different narratives, but we also have separate and conflicting ideologies…. We cannot find a way to live together if we continue to hang on to the two ideologies that we started with. We must find a new idea that is worth working towards, and change our ideologies in such a way that acknowledges the other as part of us, as who we want to be… It’s a tall order, I know. But you really must move away from what I call the false view of democracy, which says that if I have 51 percent of the population, I can totally destroy negate crush delegitimize disenfranchise the other. That’s not democracy. The tyranny of 51 percent simply does not work.
Kuttab’s speech was historic because Palestinian voices are excluded from Jewish spaces when they make an argument for the end of a Jewish state. Only the most lukewarm Palestinians are allowed in Jewish halls, if at all; in a signal exhibit of that disgrace, the 92d Street Y in 2011 cancelled the appearance of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor/author whose three children had been killed by Israeli forces, because the Jewish author who would have “balanced” his appearance couldn’t make the date.
But here was an unapologetic Palestinian speaking of the riches of a binational democracy on a Reform temple dais, in suburban New York. Yes there was a cop outside when the event began, but 80 people listened respectfully.
Kuttab’s views are not what interested me chiefly. It was the Jewish response to him, all the layers of it. All the discomfort and warmth and skepticism and fear. I pray that Kuttab and his one-state co-author Bob Herbst can take this show on the road, to a thousand Jewish spaces. It would be transformational.
Kuttab could not just come out on the altar last night. A member of the temple’s Israel action committee spoke first, warning the gathering about civility and the importance to the Jewish community of engaging new ideas on Israel’s future.
Then Herbst, the civil rights lawyer and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, came up to tell a story about Jewish struggle.
“For many years I was painfully aware of the toll that the Israeli occupation was having on Jewish values… and on America’s standing in the world,” he said. But while he was critical of Israel when speaking to friends and relatives, Herbst kept his mouth shut “outside the tribe.”
That changed for me in 2014 in the wake of the horrific operation in Gaza, Protective Edge.
Herbst came to believe that Palestine is “the Jewish issue of my time, much as the Vietnam war was the issue of my time a half century ago.” And when he educated himself, he arrived at a simple moral understanding:
The most powerful voices, the most persuasive speakers on behalf of Palestinians are Palestinians themselves, and they do not get enough of a hearing here in the United States, especially among Jewish audiences.
Herbst invited Kuttab to the podium. The Palestinian spoke for 45 minutes and then sat down for another 45 minutes of dialogue with two leaders of the temple’s Israel action committee. One, Mark Rosing, was a tall, softspoken bearded man with round shoulders who seemed stunned by what Kuttab had to say. Kuttab had opened “our eyes to an idea that is very new to all of us… an idea that we have never been heard before,” he said, almost marveling.
Paul Warhit, the other interlocutor, had short dark hair and seemed a bit coiled. His son served in the Israeli army, and Warhit said he feels a “visceral” connection to the place. “You said a few things that struck a chord with me,” Warhit acknowledged, including the idea that “both sides down deep wish the other side would go away.” But he knew this was not realistic, and the temple’s Israel action committee is trying to envision different political outcomes.
Warhit questioned Kuttab’s motivation. If he could actually choose, which would he prefer, one state or two?
“I was a proponent of the two-state solution before the PLO,” Kuttab said. But every settlement, every settler, every dunam: it has changed the picture forever. Now settlers must be included in the solution.
And Kuttab stuck to his ideals: “Ultimately in terms of human values I would rather live in a pluralistic multi ethnic multi religious society, enriched” by the presence of different groups. That is “closer to an ideal of the kingdom of god in my theology than the two state solution.”
A man in the audience said, “Your plan is wonderful but it requires a level of trust that I don’t think exists at this point at all.” How many Jews would accept it?
Trust is a great intangible, Kuttab said. “Let me tell you what doesn’t provide trust. Walls don’t provide trust, bridges do.” The societies are more separated than ever, but the ingredients of coexistence do exist. He cited the Haifa fires, where Palestinian firefighters helped Israelis out. And he told a story about a settler who was lost for seven days, fallen in a ditch, and a Palestinian rescued him.
He knows the Palestinian population. “I can tell you a majority of them are less interested in political formulations than facts on the ground. If you give them a state tomorrow, they want to know what that means.” They want rights, freedom of movement, equality, an end to discrimination. Not national symbols.
What about Gaza? Warhit said. “People are suffering, I get it.” But as soon as they get concrete, they make tunnels for Hamas.
Kuttab said Israel should “declare immediately that people in Gaza can go and come freely as they choose.” The blockade actually prevented “everything except weapons” from getting in to the strip.
Warhit brought up the biggest issue of all: Zionism is the answer to the Jewish problem.
I appreciate a lot of what you’ve said and you’re saying, and I like you. The problem I have with the idea of a single binational democratic state is, Jews thorugh the 19th and 20th centuries have lived in European nations and in Russia and a lot of times things have gone well and then all of a sudden by the whim of whoever’s in charge, things have taken a turn for the worse, up to the Shoah in the mid-20th century. For so many Jews, that’s why a Jewish state is critical.”
Warhit has “serious problems” with Israeli behavior but: “The idea of a single binational non-Jewish state in my gut is very challenging.”
I did not say non-Jewish. I said it has to be both Jewish and Arab and I wanted to know what do you need for that state to be Jewish enough for you without negating my identity and my rights as an Arab? I hear what you’re saying. And I want to say, make this my dream as well. Make me go along with that. Make this be part of the new state that I want to be a part of. I will know upfront that one of the attributes of this new state is the openness to any Jew anywhere to come– not only to be able to defend himself but to no longer need to defend himself because he is secure.
Right now he is not secure. Right now he is building so much ability to defend himself that he is in greater danger than ever before– if a 12 year old girl with a pair of scissors provides him with a threat.
Warhit nodded. “That’s a legitimate answer and I accept it.” If he and Kuttab could hammer out the constitution themselves, it might work. But what would happen 50 or 100 years from now. Kuttab spoke of the need for a strong constitution and structures to be in place to guarantee all rights.
Mark Rosing’s skepticism was of a more worldly character. He had recently gone to Israel, he’d been troubled by the climate there. As pleased as he was to have Kuttab in his temple expressing these ideals, he did not see such openness from Israeli Jews. In the age of Trump, countries were looking inside fearfully, mistrusting others.
“There is going to be less and less interest in what’s going on in Israel and Palestine, if there isn’t a voice from within that is vocal.”
Kuttab turned to Rosing.
“Maybe that’s your job. Maybe if you really care about Israel, you ought to be talking to your people there. What are you guys doing, what do you guys want? How can you ask us for continued support when what you’re doing is not working and cannot work? It’s only digging the problem deeper and deeper… Tell us what you are doing to move beyond the current situation!
“I think just as the Arab world has failed the Palestinians in major, major ways, I think maybe the worldwide Jewish community has failed Israel.”
There was pure silence in the temple.