Michael Walzer - A Call for Truth and Peace - Rosh Hashanah 2014/5775

Michael Walzer: Time for Israel and her supporters to do cheshbon nefesh -- an accounting of the soul


August 2014


Dear Friend,


I write this letter as a blessed cease fire is just going into effect, — not the first cease fire, and I don’t know if this one will hold. But it may be, so we all hope, that the Gaza war is over. If not now, then very soon negotiations for a lasting cease fire or even for something that might look like peace will begin. I have no sense of how these negotiations will go, but all of us at Americans for Peace Now believe that this is an opportunity for Israel to act boldly to strengthen the Palestine Authority (PA) and its new unity government and, with its help, to prevent or strongly curtail the rearmament of Hamas and to open the way for reconstruction and economic development in Gaza. But Gaza is not alone. There can’t be a legitimate PA in Gaza unless Israel is ready to work with the PA in Ramallah for the two-state solution that we have been defending for so long. When you read this, you will know whether Israel and Palestine have moved closer, or farther away, from this necessary goal.

Meanwhile, we have to think about what is happening inside Israel itself. Before the war began, we followed with horror the news of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys and then of the murder of a Palestinian boy. Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir: in our hearts, these are all “our boys,” who died deaths that no child should.


I recall those terrible days because of the approach of Rosh Hashanah, a time for facing facts and telling the truth about ourselves as individuals and as a community. The process is called cheshbon nefesh in Hebrew, an accounting of the soul. It is time for Israel and her supporters in this country to do just such an accounting.

After the Israeli boys’ bodies were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for revenge. Perhaps he was speaking rhetorically. But the next day Israelis marched through the streets of Jerusalem chanting “Death to the Arabs” and assaulting Arab Israelis. Only after Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s murder did Netanyahu call for restraint.

There are those among our people who need the firm hand of restraint, and Netanyahu should know this. One of the many chilling scenes in Dror Moreh’s documentary “The Gatekeepers” is a Likud-sponsored rally protesting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s peace moves. Above signs that call for “Death to Rabin” stands an unconcerned Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi would never pull a trigger or condone a murder, but calls for revenge and the unrestrained exhortations of extremist rabbis and politicians will always find a listening Yigal Amir.

This is the truth about the Netanyahu Government.

This is the truth that Americans for Peace Now stood up and told this year and will continue to tell next year, because it’s vital for Israel and her supporters in this country to face the truth: that the status quo of occupation, building settlements, and paying lip service to a peace process while working toward its failure is harmful to Israel’s security and to its future as a Jewish and democratic state.

Some might say the season turned on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in June, with the deaths of the four teens and the Gaza war. But I would argue the change came in April, when the sputtering U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations flat-lined.

Many Middle East observers have correctly pointed out that the Palestinian side bears its share of the blame for the impasse on negotiations.

But there are other truths that many Israel supporters need to face: That while Netanyahu gives lip service to a two-state solution, his government, by word and deed, worked against it.Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon

Indeed, after the peace talks failed, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, crowed, “We have succeeded in taking [peace] negotiations off the agenda.

It was the same Yaalon who dismissed Secretary of State John Kerry as “messianic” for his pursuit of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Yaalon’s use of the word is ironic — it is the settler minority, with its messianic certainty that it can rule over a Greater Israel and its millions of Palestinians with no downside for the Jews, that has hijacked Israeli politics. The truth is that the settlers and their allies are placing the country on a course that its founders never envisioned and the majority of its citizens oppose — a bi-national state that is either not Jewish or not democratic.

This is the truth about settlements.

They are the most potent of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. Yet such is the power of the settlement forces that Netanyahu chose to release Palestinian terrorists from prison rather than freeze settlement building as a confidence-building measure during the peace talks.

And so, while the talks went on, Israel built an average of 50 apartments in the West Bank every day — a total of nearly 14,000 settlement homes. It was Shalom Achshav, Israel’s Peace Now movement and APN’s partner, which discovered and publicized these facts.

Settlements are used to punish Palestinians. In retaliation for the formation of a Palestinian unity government with Hamas, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, invited bids for 1,500 new homes in Jewish settlements. This fact would not have been news in Israel if Peace Now had not revealed it.

Peace Now and APN are fighting the attempts of some to cover the truth of the Israeli government’s work against the two-state solution by changing the subject. Have you heard this one — “Whatever Israel’s sins, they pale when you look around the Middle East”? Taking a cue from Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic rule — “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman regularly points to catastrophes in Syria and Iraq rather than address issues regarding peace negotiations, occupation, and settlements.

The civil war in Syria is a calamity. And Israel’s proud democracy is still the freest and fairest in a region that has slumped back to autocracy and chaos after the Arab Spring. But isn’t there another way — to condemn the crimes committed in the Syrian civil war and still to urge Israel to change its course?

The truth is that Netanyahu and the settler zealots need bogeymen to change the subject. Luckily for them they’re easy to find — Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah — each posing an undeniable threat to Israel and at the same time offering a change of subject from the relentless building of settlements and continued subjugation of the Palestinians.

This is the truth about the occupation.

It has led not only to an increasingly cynical Israeli mindset, but a defensive, blinkered American Jewish mindset as well. Too many of us have hardened our hearts in order to rationalize the dehumanization, injustice, and brutality of the occupation in the name of presenting a unified front to the non-Jewish world.Too-many-hardened-hearts

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel is the latest bogeyman to allow Israel and many of her backers to change the subject and shut down the conversation about the occupation. Opponents of BDS in the American Jewish community need to distinguish between those in the movement who are hostile to Israel, who would like to see the Jewish state erased from the map, and a different group of pro-Israel critics who have become frustrated with the oversized impact the pro-settler minority has on Israeli policy. APN has denounced BDS against Israel, while at the same time offering a nuanced rational alternative — boycott the settlements. It sends the right message.

APN will continue speaking the truth in the New Year, as will our sister organization, Peace Now in Israel. Truths about the six former Shin Bet heads who appear in “The Gatekeepers” getting shouted down in front of an American Jewish audience because they sharply criticize the occupation. Truths about writers and peace activists Amos Oz and David Grossman now being “outside the tent” because they agree with selective boycotts of the West Bank that don’t include Israel proper.Donate

Yuval Diskin, one of those Shin Bet heads, spoke the truth after the discovery of Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s body. He said Arab rioting was hardly surprising when Israel was continuing to build in the West Bank while ignoring Palestinians’ statehood aspirations, rejecting the peace overtures of the Palestinian leadership, and disregarding the social gaps between Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations.

It’s the simple truth. In the New Year we hope that you, along with the rest of us at APN, will continue to insist that the truth be told. Don’t kill the messenger. Support us. Our truths must be heard.

The settler movement collects millions of dollars from the likes of Irving Moskowitz, bingo magnate, from Sheldon Adelson, casino billionaire, and from John Hagee, megachurch minister. Yes, the John Hagee who is a believer of the imperative of ingathering all Jews to Israel to facilitate the second coming. So when he says “Next Year in Jerusalem,” run. When we say “Next Year in Jerusalem,” may it be for peace. May it be for two peoples. May it be for the right reasons, for we all have some accounting to do for our souls.

Grassroots donations are the foundation of our existence. We don’t have bingo magnates or casino billionaires. We’re proud that we have you — pro-Israel for the right reasons. Your donations, large or small, are tax-deductible. Thank you.



Michael Walzer is a longtime member of APN’s Board of Directors. He is America’s leading expert on ethics in wartime, and one of America’s foremost political philosophers. He is the author of the iconic Just and Unjust Wars, a practical analysis of the Just War doctrine, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, the co-editor of Dissent, and contributing editor to the New Republic.   (picture was taken in Jerusalem in 2013)