Peace: The Jewish Priority

melchior186x140When we at Americans for Peace Now discuss the necessity of the two-state solution for the future of a Jewish and democratic Israel, we typically do so in geopolitical and security terms. We talk about the occupation as a terrible liability that damages Israel's democratic character, its international standing, and, obviously, its ability to live in peace and security with its neighbors.But the impassioned case that we make for peace for Israel stems from our caring about the future of the Jewish national home and its adherence to Jewish values.

Peace with the Palestinians that is based on territorial compromise - a two state solution for the conflict - is not just the geo-strategic right thing to do. It is also the moral thing to do, the decent thing to do, the Jewish thing to do.I can't think of a person better equipped to explore the significance of seeking peace and pursuing it, "Jewishly," than Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Israeli cabinet minister, a former Knesset member and chairman of the Education and Culture committee of the Knesset, an Orthodox Jewish scholar and a leading global interfaith activist and environmental activist.Rabbi Melchior's clear voice of reason and moderation is the voice of the Israel that makes us proud, the Israel that strives to be a light unto the nations. Rabbi Melchior is not alone. There are many Israelis - religious and secular - who like Michael Melchior choose to make room for the other in order to make Israel a better place.

Clear Jewish Priorities
by Rabbi Michael Melchior
Melchior Collage
On one of my visits on Capitol Hill, I was invited to a debate with US legislators regarding the future of the Middle East. After having presented my case, one of the senators expressed his utter surprise that somebody who is an Orthodox rabbi, a staunch Zionist, and one who even looks like I look, could express views which he had always been told were a betrayal of "Judaism."

The truth is I should not have been shocked by his reaction. Over the past 40 years, the Torah, Judaism, Zionism, and at times even God Himself have been hijacked both in Israel and around the world, both by friends and foes, by religious Jews and evangelical Christians. They have been hijacked by an extreme messianic ideology, in order to advance a specific political agenda, which, if successful, I fear will mark the end of the Zionist dream and the Jewish State. My deep disagreement with these people is not about Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), the love of the land and the concern for its future (although I do not always understand why this love only concerns borders and not the environment inside these borders, or the dignity of the human beings living in this environment). Like them, I have a deep affiliation with, and affection for, all parts of the land. And like them, part of me will feel grief and sorrow the day we will have to give up Judea and Samaria.

My fundamental disagreement with them is about their interpretation of "Judaism." Judaism, like all religions, embodies a very delicate balance between the particular and the universal. When being faithful to this balance, we can contribute to a better world. But when distorting this balance, we will contribute to endangering the future and the hopes of humankind.

I believe that those who have created priorities where love of the land supersedes love of man and of peace are distorting the Torah. I believe that those who censor the Torah of such concepts as the natural morality of man, as the belief that God has created every human being in His image, and as the basic human right to respect and dignity which stems from this belief, are desecrating the Holy name of God. I believe in a Judaism which is great, broad, and inclusive. I am committed to the ruling of our great teacher the Rambam (Maimonides) who states, when it comes down to a conflict of priorities where saving human life is at stake, "and you shall observe my laws and my statutes, which when a man performs, he shall live by them (Leviticus 18, 4) - live and not die by them, because the statutes of the Torah are not vengeance in the world but mercy, loving kindness and peace." This is not an abstract principle meant for festive speeches at inter-religious gatherings but a binding legal and moral guideline, which has dominated Jewish thinking since we received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

I have often challenged my rabbinical colleagues to show me one single source from the "Jewish Bookshelf," the Bible, the Talmud, the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch, or the immense traditional rabbinical literature, which rules that you cannot give up land in order to obtain peace. They have never been able to do so.

On the contrary, the Bible tells us that the builder of the first temple, King Solomon himself, gave up 20 cities in northern Israel to King Chiram of Zor. He did this as an act of appreciation for the cedar trees that Chiram contributed to the Temple. During the building of the second temple the immigrants from Babylon in the period of the great leaders Ezra and Nehemiah decided not to include many cities in the new sovereignty of the land. This was done so that the holiness of this sovereignty would not create an obstacle in facilitating charity extended to the needy receiving social gifts of crops in the sabbatical year. We see that the possession of the land was put aside not only to save lives but even for legitimate socioeconomic considerations.

And there were no "orange" demonstrations against this "betrayal" of the land.The prophets of Israel did not rally much support in their day, but still today inspire and enrich humankind, Jew and non-Jew alike. They knew how to stand up and talk truth to power and to kings. And what did they talk about? Did they talk about the borders of the land? Or did they talk about justice and compassion? They were very clear about Jewish priorities.

The right of the Jewish people to self determination in its ancient homeland, to live with recognized, secure borders, is one of the most just and moral causes in our time. However, to occupy and control the lives of millions of Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria, and to negate their right to create their own state and future in peace, side by side with the State of Israel, is not just, is not moral, and is not Judaism. There can be a legitimate disagreement about how peace is to be obtained and who is to be blamed for having missed opportunities in the past for reaching this peace. However, these disagreements have nothing to do with "Judaism" or the betrayal of "Judaism." Those on both sides of the debate, who are turning the conflict into an existential conflict of religion and theology, are doing so because they know that in doing this, they can prevent necessary compromise, or any solution at all for that matter. Because who is going to be willing to compromise on the totality of God?

We have reached a tragic situation where the dream of the great messianic peace has become the main threat to pragmatic and necessary agreements, which at least have the potential of providing a measure of peace and a future, which both sides deserve and which can certainly save many precious human lives.

I believe that if religion has a redeeming force for humankind, then religious teachers and leaders must be on the frontlines of the struggle to transform our conflicts and to work together for the greater good of our communities. The good news is that there actually are a growing number of impressive and courageous people, including Jewish, Christian, and Moslem leaders, who believe likewise - although their voices may still not be heard as loudly or as distinctly as the voices of the totalitarian extremists. These are leaders who, like me, will feel a profound measure of grief at having to give up and compromise on land that they believe is theirs. And yet this grief will be overridden by the joy of hope: The hope of building a future together, dominated not by fear and hatred but by optimism and commitment to the peace of Jerusalem.

All Jewish prayers ends with the beautiful prayer to God, that He who makes peace in His heavens, may assist us in making peace on earth. When we express this prayer, we withdraw three steps, symbolically saying to the Almighty that we cannot expect Him to intervene on our behalf if we are not willing to withdraw and leave room for the "other." Yes, this might be a naïve and romantic message but I know no better alternative than an uncompromising commitment to making this prayer our reality.