In the late first century, with the fall of Judea and the rise of Christianity, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach advised Jews who were struggling to understand all that had befallen them: “Know what to answer our adversaries.” In the early twenty-first century, with Israel being attacked every day as an apartheid state, an occupying colonial power, a nation guilty of genocide, the same advice applies: We need to know what to answer those who attack us –not to convince them, but to re-assure ourselves.
The enemies of Israel, and of the Jewish people, have used three means to try to destroy us. First, actual war. In 1948, in 1967, and in 1973, Arab nations attacked Israel with the stated goal of “driving the Jews into the sea.” When that strategy proved ineffective, the tactics of warfare turned to terrorism. The Munich Olympic massacre, the hijacking of an Air France plane that was then flown to Entebbe, and countless bus bombings and random stabbings are just a few of the thousands of attacks designed to dis-spirit the people of Israel. Though those methods took many lives, they did not succeed in the ultimate objective of destroying the Jewish State. Now, a new tactic has been adopted: Defeating Israel in the Court of Public Opinion. We saw this in 1975 with the UN General Assembly’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” declaration. We see it today with the BDS movement. The war goes on, always in a different form. Whether you’re a student on a college campus, or a potential voter listening to what different candidates have to say about US foreign policy in the Middle East, it is crucial that you know what to answer when statements are made which are not true. But let’s be honest: The story of Israel encompasses more than 3000 years of history, religion, and politics, and is exceedingly complicated; there’s so much to know! Still, there are three basic things that are critical for you to keep in mind, that comprise the answers you need to give when you hear attacks on Israel.
First: Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Others, both non-Jews and some Jews as well, will tell you that Judaism is merely a religion, and Jews are simply citizens of the country they live in; that there is no historical connection between the Jews and the land of Israel; that Jews were given someone else’s land as restitution for the Holocaust, and then they dispossessed the true inhabitants, driving them away, or brutally occupying them. What you need to remember is that the Jews were inhabiting the land more than 2500 years before Mohammed showed up in Mecca. That Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives lived in and are buried in a place that the world calls “the West Bank.” And though we were exiled twice from that land- in 586 bce and in 70 ce- we never forgot it, and always returned- or dreamed of returning- to it. Jews break a glass at a wedding because the Psalm vows that “we will place Jerusalem above our greatest joy.” At the end of Yom Kippur we sing: “L’Shana HaBa’ah b’Yerushalayim. …Next Year in Jerusalem.” Three times a day, every day, we ask God to return us to our land. While there were always some Jews in Israel, even during the exile, we began to return in great waves beginning in the 1880’s. Today, more Jews live in Israel than live in America. An individual Jew can choose to live anywhere he or she chooses, but the Jews, as a people, have a right to their own nation-state, like every other people. Israel always was, and still is, our homeland.
The second thing to know: The Arab-Israeli conflict is not about 1967, it’s about 1947. Others will tell you that Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai in 1967 in an imperialistic war of expansion, and its holding on to occupied territory is what prolongs the conflict. But the truth of the matter is that the conflict is not about settlements; it’s about whether the Arabs are willing to accept the UN’s decision to create a Jewish State in 1947. Back then, the Jews accepted the Partition Plan, dividing the land into two states- one for Jews to be called Israel, one for Arabs to be called Palestine. The Jews said Yes; the Arabs said No. Had the Arabs agreed back in 1947, there would have been no wars, no bloody conflicts these past 70 years.
Let’s talk about the BDS movement. The letters stand for Boycott, Divest, Sanction. The movement was founded in 2005 by Omar Barghouti, among others. The idea is that if artists and universities boycott Israel, if Corporations, Churches and Colleges divest themselves of any financial stake in Israel, if world bodies- like the UN, or the International Criminal Court- sanction Israel with condemnation and fines and prison for its politicians and generals, then the occupation of the West Bank will eventually come to an end, and justice will come for the Palestinian people. But Barghouti himself has written: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.” He, and many BDS activists are against a two-state solution. They want one state, to which 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants will return, and in which Jews will be permitted to remain- as a minority. No Right of Return for Jews, no Israel;I flag with a Jewish star, no Hatikvah as the national anthem. The BDS movement pretends that it only wants justice for the Palestinians; what they really want is the end of Israel.
The third thing to know: Israel has made many attempts towards achieving peace; the Arabs have not. Again, in 1947, Israel agreed to partition, while the Arabs went to war. In 1967, when Moshe Dayan reached out and said: “We’re waiting for a phone call” in order to sit down and make peace and return captured territory, the Arab world at Khartoum responded with three “Nos”: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. Back in 1982, Israel returned the last territory it had conquered from Egypt as part of a peace treaty with Anwar Sadat. In 1993, Prime Minister Rabin agreed to the Oslo Peace Proposals, which would have returned most of the West Bank to the Palestinians. In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to a comprehensive agreement; Yasser Arafat rejected it and initiated the Second Intifada, in which more than a thousand Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks. In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip; the Palestinians responded by using Gaza to launch thousands of rockets into Israel. In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered President Abbas another peace proposal, which would have given the Palestinians more than 95% of the West Bank, with additional land from Israel to make up the difference. Abbas walked away.
In the 1980’s, most Israelis were willing to make painful sacrifices for the promise of peace. Since then, there have been three wars with Hamas in Gaza, two wars with Hezbulah in Lebanon, and two intifadas initiated by the Palestinians in the West Bank. Today, the vast majority of Israelis don’t believe they have a partner to negotiate with. The largest political parties- Likud, and Blue and White, talk only about Security, not Peace.
Do the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli control have, by and large, a difficult life? Absolutely. In order to provide Security for its citizens, Israel has established military checkpoints, built barrier walls, and regulated the daily life of millions of Palestinians. Sadly, for both the Arabs and the Jews, the Israeli Army has had to become an occupying power. But that would end as soon as the Palestinians, and their leadership, accept the fact that the State of Israel is here to stay. Jews and Arabs could live in peace, alongside one another.
Is Israel an apartheid state? When you see that Israel has had Arabs sitting on the Supreme Court, and a dozen members in the Knesset, when you see that Arab and Israeli patients are treated equally at Hadassah hospital, when you see Israeli Arab citizens freely shopping in the malls or attending Israel’s universities- the clear answer is No.
Is Israel guilty of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and harvesting Arab organs for use by Jews, as some of its harshest critics often claim? That is a blood libel, no different than, and just as false as, the idea that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for making Matzah. It’s an attempt to paint the Jews as modern-day Nazis. It is pure anti-semitism, at its most vicious.
The Israeli writer Yossi Klein Ha-Levi has written that, tragically, Israel has been forced to become an occupier of another people. But, he adds, Israel is not occupying someone else’s land; the Land is ours, and always has been. Yet, for the sake of peace, some of that land must be given away to the other people who also live in there. A Two-State solution is heartbreaking to both peoples who dream of all the land as their own, but it is the only possible way to peace.
In the meantime, the war against Israel goes on- sometimes on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon, sometimes on the busses and pizza parlors in Jerusalem, sometimes in the bomb shelters of S’derot. There’s not a lot that we can do about those battles. But the war is also being waged here- sometimes on American college campuses, sometimes in the Halls of Congress, sometimes on Cable TV. While we’re not asked to carry an Uzi, we do play a critical role in that battle.
We need to remember: The role that the land of Israel has played in Jewish history; what the conflict is really about; and that Peace can only happen when each side is willing to accept, and compromise with the other.
Rabbi Elazar taught: Da Mah Sheh-tashiv. Knowing what to answer has never been more important.