Passover, which began Monday at sundown and lasts for seven days in Israel and eight days in the Diaspora, is one of the major, constitutive holidays of the Jewish people. It commemorates the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt 3300 years ago, which led to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and an arduous 40-year trek to the Promised Land.
The basic instructions for Passover are laid down by God in Exodus 12:
And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever….
And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day in your generations by an ordinance for ever.
The “feast” is the Passover seder practiced by Jews all over the world to this day; the “unleavened bread” is the matza eaten at the seder and all throughout Passover by observant Jews. Passover is a joyous holiday, and in our era it has the added spice of the return to the Promised Land and the rise of a free and independent Jewish state.
Passover coincides this year with a dramatic political event—the crisis and possible demise of yet another Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” this one shepherded earnestly, passionately, and futilely by U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. We are now at a juncture that offers two options: to remain enslaved to the same flawed assumptions that lead again and again to failure; or to finally get liberated from them and reach a Promised Land of understanding and rational policy.
Flawed assumption #1: that there is a “peace process.”
The problems with that notion have been handily summed up on PJM by Jonathan Spyer. As he notes, the Fatah movement, which holds sway over the West Bank Palestinians, has not accepted Israel’s existence nor come anywhere near doing so:
mainstream Palestinian nationalism considers that the “imposition” of Jewish sovereignty over part of former British Mandate Palestine (not “historic Palestine,” an entity that never existed) constitutes a crime of such horror and magnitude that it can never be accepted.
On a deeper level, this unusual refusal to compromise with reality derives from [Fatah’s] Islamic roots…, which make it unimaginable that land once possessed by Muslims or Arabs can be accepted as having passed to another sovereignty. This process is experienced as particularly humiliating when the other sovereignty in question is that of a traditionally despised people, the Jews, rather than some mighty foreign empire.
Anyone who bothers to learn something about what the West Bank Palestinians actually say, write, and teach their children—which evidently does not include John Kerry and mainstream Western opinion generally—knows that this description is undeniably and even monolithically accurate.
And if that were not enough, the Palestinian world is now divided into different political entities and groups with different agendas. As Spyer points out, Gaza is now run by Hamas, which “remains openly committed to the goal of destroying Israel,” and “there is no prospect of Palestinian reunification in the near future….” You can’t “make peace” when the other side not only negates your existence but has no clear, coherent agenda of its own.
Most fundamentally, Westerners need to get free of the notion that Western values are universal and the Palestinians are folks just like us who want the same things. They have a very different religion and culture and want very different things.
Flawed assumption #2: that the sides are morally equivalent.
The rhetoric of Israeli-Palestinian peace processors and peace believers is liberally sprinkled with elegant symmetries: “both sides” will have to “take the necessary steps,” “show courage,” “overcome the extremists”…fill in the blank.
Actually, Israel is per capita the world’s most innovative democracy and a member of the exclusively democratic OECD. The Palestinian Authority is a kleptocratic dictatorship, and Gaza is an Islamist dictatorship.
Israel’s Arab citizens have full rights, serve in its Knesset and Supreme Court, and have been cabinet ministers and ambassadors; both the Palestinian Authority and Gaza forbid the selling of land to a Jew on pain of death. Israeli hospitals treat Syrian victims of the country’s civil war; Israelis are forbidden by Israeli law to enter Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank because of the likelihood of being lynched. One can go on and on in this vein.
Given such radical asymmetry, the stock assumption that both sides equally “want peace”—or “do not want peace enough”—is fatally flawed. Flawed assumptions lead to round after round of misbegotten “peace talks,” frustration, and failure. The ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, but they proved that even after lengthy servitude, one can achieve freedom. It’s time to shake off the mirage of moral equivalency and understand how it distorts perceptions and policy. Israel wants peace; Palestinian culture, with its Islamic roots, wants to extirpate Israel.
Flawed assumption #3: that Jewish homes in Jerusalem derail peace.
Jerusalem is mentioned ten times in the Haggadah, the approximately 2000-year-old text that Jews read at the Passover seder. Examples:
Have mercy, Lord our God, upon Israel Your people, upon Jerusalem Your city….
Rebuild Jerusalem the holy city speedily in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, who in His mercy rebuilds Jerusalem. Amen.
The Hagaddah’s final invocation is: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem’s salience in the Haggadah is only, of course, a case in point. The city is mentioned 669 times in the Hebrew Bible. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the focal point of Judaism.
None of this stopped John Kerry from saying on April 8 that yet another peace process had gone “poof” because Israel had announced plans to build 700 apartments in Gilo, a 40-year-old neighborhood in “East Jerusalem.”
“East Jerusalem” refers to parts of the city that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 after a violent conquest. Ever since Israel retook “East Jerusalem” in a defensive war in 1967 (after vainly imploring Jordan to stay out of it), it has been official U.S. and European policy that building for Jews in “East Jerusalem” is “unhelpful,” “provocative,” bad for peace, and the like.
This is confusing to Israelis, since we’re regularly told that “everyone,” including the Palestinians, “knows” that the Jewish neighborhoods of “East Jerusalem”—now numbering over 200,000 people—would remain part of Israel in any final peace settlement with the Palestinians. But it’s more than confusing; it hits us where we live. Hint: if you want to get Jews to trust you, don’t berate them for living in Jerusalem. A recent poll showed that Israelis deeply distrust Kerry as a steward of the “peace process.”
Peace will actually draw nearer when Western leaders regain some pride and free themselves from subservience to the notion that, in an ideal, peaceful world, “East Jerusalem” would be strictly Muslim.
Flawed assumption #4: that Israel is not an autonomous, independent country.
So the last week has seen yet more U.S.-Israeli frictions, with the U.S. publicly upbraiding Israel for not freeing terrorists on the scheduled date, building apartments in areas that should be Jew-free, and the like. It happens often; it seems that just about every week the State Department or other elements in the administration are directing criticism at us. It does not happen between the U.S. and any other democratic ally like Britain, Germany, Japan, and so on; in those cases everyone respects everyone else’s sovereign decision-making, and differences are dealt with discreetly.
U.S. administrations have, as in the current case of Kerry, coerced Israel into adopting entire policy agendas; sent U.S. spin doctors to try and change the outcome of Israeli elections; forced Israel to stop military operations in midcourse, and so on. Overall, the U.S.-Israeli alliance clearly benefits both countries; but only in Israel’s case does alliance carry the cost of a loss of autonomy.
This Passover, the holiday of liberation and self-assertion, is a good time to ask why Israel should not have the right to set its own policy like any other country, and why alliance with the U.S. need infringe that right. Israel has long, direct experience of the Middle East and things might just go better if Jerusalem calls its own shots.