Peace with Justice in Israel/Palestine: A Dialogue

Since my recent post on the current round of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process I’ve received many responses, via comment, in person, and email. Here’s one of the most thoughtful and challenging, sent to me by a good friend. Click at the finish for my response:

As the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 9) teaches, “Great is Peace, since even in a time of war, one should begin with peace…”

Even now, when the prospect of achieving peace seems so remote and the hostility from some in the Netanyahu government so hostile, we as Jews are commanded to pursue peace. This doesn’t mean that we should be Pollyannaish about the possibilities of success in the upcoming talks, but neither should we give up before they’ve started. There is always the possibility, however remote, that Netanyahu will decide to take the bull by the horns and do a Nixon to China like move. Those of us who care deeply must encourage the best possible outcome. After all, if these talks fail and the Palestinian Authority disintegrates, where will this leave in terms of security in the West Bank and international credibility? Where will it leave President Obama who has hinged so much of his foreign policy on resolving the conflict? These are serious and weighty matters for Israel and the U.S.

I know that the political maneuvering around peace talks can be very discouraging for those like you who are trying to improve the situation on the ground. Politicians make all sorts of moves that are hard to swallow. Hillary Clinton, for example, started out very strongly on human rights issues leading the way for international financial assistance to Gaza following the war and strong denouncing settlement building in East Jerusalem. To get to these talks, she has become much more restrained in response to both the failure of the settlement freeze policy and to fear of attacks from the right wing (both Jewish and Christian) in characterizing Obama as anti-Israel. There is a place for politics in moving things forward, but it operates in a very different manner than truth telling. Mobilizing support from people with a broad range of perspectives involves compromises that can be very hard to swallow, but until we find a way to win over broader grassroots support, this is the price we will pay until then.

I admire your decision as a prominent rabbi to telling the truth about the on the ground situation in Israel and Palestine. This is extremely difficult to look at for many of us, and yet you have decided to unflinchingly dive in headfirst. However, I believe that your framing the political process in opposition to justice on the ground is quite problematic and ultimately more harmful to your dreams than heuylpful.

I cannot praise your glorification of hopelessness and the messianic like idea that we cannot pursue peace until there is justice. We cannot stop seeking peace and we cannot stop seeking justice, and we must use all of the tools at our disposal including politics and including truth telling.

Most importantly, if you really want to “extend civil rights, human rights, equity and equality for all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine” then you will need every possible ally. Please don’t make yourself the leader of an exclusive club that turns away your natural allies for lack of moral purity. It’s so much easier to stand on supposed high moral ground and criticize those who imperfectly seek to bring about change than to do the dirty work of making it happen. In the end, we all need each other if we’re going to move this forward.


Thank you for your very thoughtful response. After receiving a great deal of feedback – and re-reading my post – I realize now that my words conveyed no small amount of righteous anger and despair. That was partly by design of course, but it was certainly not my intention to “glorify hopelessness.” Knowing me as you do, you must know that I am not a hopeless person by nature and that I’ve long believed that hopelessness and cynicism is a luxury we simply cannot afford in this day and age.

Although I will plead guilty to occasional bouts of self-righteousness, I ultimately consider myself to be a realist like you. I also believe that in order to achieve peace, we must engage in “the dirty work of making it happen” – this was in fact the spirit in which I wrote my post. I was not interested in claiming a “moral high ground,” but in simply facing facts: I do not believe any more that the peace process as it currently is defined offers a realistic hope for a true and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

To say that those who advocate for justice as part of the peace process are more interested in claiming an ivory tower “moral high ground” than actual results is exceedingly unfair. I do believe that advocating for justice to be as much a part of the nitty-gritty as anything else in this process. To be clear: it is not my position, as you put it, that “we cannot pursue peace until there is justice.” Rather, I’m suggesting that as long as we ignore an inherently unjust status quo in I/P, any peace process will ultimately be built upon sand.

In my opinion, it is time to stop pretending that we have any kind of level playing field upon which successful negotiations might be built Think of it this way: when we think of a US-brokered peace process, we invariably compare it to past efforts such as the treaties between Israel and other Arab states. But when it comes brokering a peace between Israel and Palestine, we face an entirely different situation. When two sovereign states come to the negotiating table, there is a relatively balanced power dynamic. When it comes to I/P, however, that is simply not the case.

In truth, the Palestinians are the overwhelmingly disempowered party in this particular equation. Whether we are comfortable admitting it or not, Israel’s founding entailed significant injustice toward the Palestinian people. This historical injustice is experienced and re-experienced daily through Israel’s oppressive occupation. Whether we are comfortable saying it out loud or not, Israel is the party that wields overwhelming power over its ostensible peace partner in this equation.

Moreover, Israel also enjoys a “special relationship” with the US – the party that purports to be the “honest broker” in this process. Israel continues to receive billions of dollars in annual military aid from the US, with which it obtains the state of the art weaponry, equipment and security apparatus that is uses to maintain its occupation over Palestinians – their ostensible partner in negotiations. In short, there is an radically imbalanced power dynamic at play here. And it is not unrealistic to suggest that this injustice is an ongoing impediment to the success of the peace process.

Rather than looking to past Arab-Israeli peace treaties, I would suggest looking to the South African experience as a more helpful model. Indeed, this was a negotiation between two unequal parties that consciously pursued peace with justice. There was nothing “‘messianic” about this process – the successful peace brokered between whites and blacks in South Africa involved the very real, difficult work of restorative justice. In this process, peace negotiations were pursued in the context of the South African regime’s acceptance of responsibility for its oppressive behavior toward South African blacks.

I realize how immensely difficult it is for Israelis and many Jews to countenance such a comparison. I fully understand the psychology of vulnerability experienced by Israelis and many Jews vis a vis their relationship to Palestinians and the international community. But those of us who advocate a realistic peace in I/P simply cannot afford to look the other way on these issues for fear of alienating our potential “allies.”

I remember once that you told me “shaming ” Israelis is not the way to bring them to the table. But somehow, some way, Israelis will have to find a way to reckon with the inherent injustice that has become a part of the fabric of their society. As for American Jews, though it pains me to say so, those of us who care deeply about Israel will have to find a way to look this oppression in the face and call it out for what it really and truly is. Then we will have to have an honest conversation about how far we, as Americans and Jews, will be willing to go to end our complicity in this oppression.

Unless or until that happens, I believe that the latest version of the peace process will we destined to go the way of previous incarnations: a process that simply seeks to formalize inequity. This is not the way to a real and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

You opened with one of my favorite Jewish texts – I’ll close with another:

Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel says: “The world stands on three things: On truth, on justice and on peace, as it is written: ‘render truth and peace – and justice in your gates.'” (Zechariah 8:16)

– Pirke Avot 1:18

Thank you for your challenging words. Please know I take them very seriously. I hope that our dialogue will help in some small way, to clarify these difficult and very painful issues for all who share our hopes and dreams for Israel/Palestine.

3 thoughts on “Peace with Justice in Israel/Palestine: A Dialogue

  1. Shloime Perel

    Just a brief comment. It’s worth remembering that some years the discussion on a peace treaty has focused exclusively on the possibility of a final agreement at the “top,” so to speak. We should remember that a number of years ago, there was at least one widely publicized Israel/Palestine people-to-people peace agreement. And needless to say, there have been many contacts between peace seeking Palestinians and Israeli Jews over the years. It would be wonderful if all these contacts and friendships could contribute to a formal peace agreement. Can all these people somehow mobilize themselves toward that end? Can we make peace a fashionable, trendy thing?

    Shabbat Shalom to everyone.

  2. Mary Tappero

    First, thank you for your blog, which I found by accident when looking for news about Yonatan Shapira. You’re a breath of fresh air and I admire you.

    Second, a Jewish-American friend who signed up for emails on J Street received an email today, pasting Martin Indyk’s New York Times op-ed. Do you have any comments to the op-ed?

    Third, I came across the translation of a White House briefing on the peace process that was published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth, at If true, this seems to me to be far from an outline for a good faith peace negotiation.

    Many thanks again for your site.

  3. Aaron Litoff

    I was glad to see this post, as I too found the “peace process dead” blog to be uncharacteristically cynical, whereas I think your message here is realistic but still hopeful. Prehaps a peace process in which israeli wrongdoings are realized on all sides is not out of the realm of possiblitity in the near future.


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