Last Thursday, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to confer Non-Member Observer State status on the Palestinian Authority.
While the effects of this decision remain to be seen, many local rabbis fear that the move will not lead to peace but rather will embolden the Palestinian Authority to sidestep bilateral negotiations. Others, however, say this might be an important opportunity – with the ball now in Israel’s court.
Rabbi Benjamin Shull of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, head of the New Jersey Board of Rabbis, said that “It feels like tightening a noose around Israel. I don’t think it’s a good thing.
“What is most troubling is that Hamas felt empowered” after recent hostilities in Gaza, he said, and the U.N. vote, in turn, “gives further public credibility to Fatah.
“Most troubling is the chutzpah, in the sense that the Palestinian and Arab community rejected the very same opportunity to create a state [in 1947]. They killed the baby in the crib and now they’re crying out for justice when they’re the ones who committed the murder. It’s like the guy who kills both his parents and then asks the judge for mercy because he’s an orphan.”
Shull said it is also troubling that “the narrative put before the world is that Israel’s founding is illegitimate and was at the expense of other people, not mentioning [the Arab] response. That narrative seems to be accepted by the world community. The vote was an official confirmation of that.”
Shull said he wished that the decision would lead the Arab nations to be more flexible, “but the world supports their lying, as if they have no responsibility for their own failure. What would lead to peace is more flexibility. This leads to more intransigence.”
Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center/Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park (and this newspaper’s executive editor) said that “Peace cannot be achieved unilaterally. It cannot be forced down anyone’s throat. Statehood cannot be used as a Damoclean sword to hang over the heads of the other side, as if to say, ‘Concede our points or we’ll go to the International Court and have you charged with war crimes.'”
No, he said, “Peace takes two sides talking with each other, engaging in confidence-building measures together, and making painful concessions for the sake of ‘no more war,’ to use Anwar al-Sadat’s words. All the Palestinians and the foolish diplomats at the Glass Palace have achieved, sadly, is to delay peace even longer than the intransigent attitudes on both sides have already done.”
Whatever anyone thinks of the move to gain recognition at the U.N., “let us hope that maybe, just maybe, this move will bring the Palestinian Authority back to negotiations with the State of Israel without preconditions, as some Palestinian officials have been hinting at the last few weeks,” Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck said. “At the same time, it with great disappointment that I must note that Mahmood Abbas’ speech at the U.N. was full of calumny and invective against the State of Israel that was false, infuriating, and unhelpful to the cause of peace and reconciliation.”
Another Teaneck rabbi, Lawrence Zierler, said he is “disappointed when the U.N. does things like this.”
“It’s not unprecedented,” said Zierler, rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, adding that the world body has “always marginalized Israel.” Still, he said, “They called us racist before and we’re still here. I don’t believe it ‘stuck,’ and I don’t think this will be more than a diplomatic fiction.”
Zierler said he doesn’t think Thursday’s vote will change facts on the ground. If anything, he said, it may “exacerbate tensions.” The rabbi added that the vote was an “affront to history,” taking place on Nov. 29. (On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. voted to end the British mandate over Palestine, adopting a partition plan meant to foster the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states.)
“They had their state once before and they missed their opportunity,” Zierler said.
Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge said that Israel has been seeking peace for 65 years and continues to seek it today.
Borovitz, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, spoke at the Frisch School on Thursday evening at a meeting called to express solidarity with Israel. (The meeting had been scheduled before the U.N. vote.)
Borovitz said we can draw a lesson from the story of Jacob and Esau, who “decide to live in peace with each other as neighboring communities rather than as ‘one big happy family.’
“Is there not a lesson here for the modern Middle East?” Borovitz asked. “Are Israel and the Palestinians destined to remain entwined in a wrestling match, or is the applicable lesson of this story, a call to Israel and the Palestinians to each make the hard choices that will create a territorial compromise by which they can live side by side?”
Borovitz continued, “Let us pray that Mr. Abbas … will recognize that like Esau and Jacob, [he] needs to face his brother and with the elected leaders of Israel create a sukkah of peace where the modern children of Israel and the modern children of Esau can dwell side by side, each in their own encampment, in peace.”
He also called upon American Jews – like their counterparts in 1947 – to pledge both financial and political support for the people and the state of Israel.
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah thinks that “the ball is in Israel’s court. I want Israel to write the narrative.”
Israel “has a choice about what comes next,” he continued. “Peace will take outstretched hands in both directions.” While he is not suggesting that Israel is solely responsible for making or not making peace, “This is a moment for Israel to decide how it is going to respond. Israel – which I love so much – has a moment to either act in a punitive way or to seize this as an opportunity to move the dialogue in a way that brings things closer to negotiations.
“I’m not sure what will happen,” he said. “I do think that Israel has the chance to respond and write the next chapter.”
Mosbacher, who was in Israel during the recent rocket attacks from Gaza, said his “heart bleeds for the people there, suffering under constant attacks.” While he worries about Israel taking a hard line, he said, “The world has proven that maybe that’s the only stance she can take.” Still, he added, “I don’t see how that is a tenable stance for the long term for the future of the people in our land.”
Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus said he does not believe the U.N. decision “will contribute at all to the cause of peace, and may make peace efforts that much harder.”
The vote, he said, undermined previous agreements signed by the Palestinians that there would be no unilateral action. He pointed out that last year a similar effort at the U.N. had been defeated, with the United States and its allies preventing a vote from taking place.
“It’s a stunning setback for the goal of the U.S. to prevent unilateral actions and foster negotiations,” he said. “It undermines the road map and the positions of the Quartet, and it will alienate the Israeli public – which wants and is ready for hard choices and a two-state solution – by proving that negotiations and agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority are ultimately worthless. Since the day the Oslo Accords were signed 1993, the tactic of the Palestinian Authority has been to go outside direct negotiations.”
“This won’t further peace efforts at all,” he said. “It will serve to embolden them to continue to seek their goals outside the negotiations process.”
Asked how the U.N. vote might affect the peace process, Rabbi Lawrence Troster, rabbinic director for the political action committee J Street, said that rather than dwell on the vote itself, “I think it will really depend on what happens afterward.”
A statement issued by his organization said the group is “focusing on the day after the vote – because it is the actions of the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians following the vote that will determine whether we are moving toward or away from a negotiated resolution to the conflict.
“We really oppose any retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority,” Troster said. “It wouldn’t be useful. We’re hoping that the responses will be measured by the U.S. and Israel.” Some will call for retaliation, he said, “but the majority will want to see something positive come about even if they’re troubled by timing and tone.”
Troster suggested also that “this will be an important time to begin a new diplomatic effort. We’re calling on President Obama to launch a renewed initiative for a two-state solution.”
He hopes that this will become an opportunity to renew the diplomatic mission. If, instead, it becomes a time for retaliation and shutting down of the peace process, “it will turn out to be no good.”
Troster, who works with 700 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical students publicly affiliated with the group through its rabbinic cabinet, said that virtually nothing has been done on the diplomatic front over the past 18 months. “Only Obama can do this,” he added.
He pointed to a J Street poll conducted after the U.S. presidential election showing that a majority of American Jews favor a new diplomatic initiative and strongly support a two-state solution.
“I am deeply grateful to the United States for its continuing support,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood said.
“I believe that it something that we should never take for granted. Having a powerful friend at a time of such deep isolation in the world is something that should be appreciated. Obviously my position is the position being taken by most Jewish leaders and organizations – that this is not a productive step. It is an attempt to take an end run around the serious negotations and discussions that have to take place.
“What happened at the UN is posturing. As long as the Palestinian Authority is unwilling to sit down, without preconditions, to disucss all the things that need to be discussed I can’t imagine that there will be a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”
Goldin visited Israel in November, during the skirmish with Gaza. One thing he noticed there, he said, is “It’s so sad that no one is speaking in terms of a solution any more. They’re just speaking in terms of buying time.”