After 40 Years of Wilderness, J Street Meets at the River’s Edge: Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel

After 40 Years of Wilderness, J Street Meets at the River’s Edge: Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow


Tonight and for the next few days, in Washington DC, 1200 people are gathering in the name of a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” US policy. Because of my broken leg, I can’t be physically there. But my mind and spirit and 40 years of my work are there today.

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1969, I visited Israel for the first time. On the same trip, guided by a brilliant Israeli kibbutznik-sociologist, Dan Leon, I also visited Palestinian leaders in Hebron, East Jerusalem, and Gaza — old-fashioned notables, social workers, lawyers.

To a person, they told me they had marched and spoken out against occupation by Jordan or Egypt, and would oppose occupation by Israel. They said they had no objection to Israel as it had been before the 1967 war. They wanted to be citizens of a free Palestine, at peace with Israel and Jordan and everyone else.

I saw an occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem that was still relatively mild. (There were as yet, in the areas I visited, no Israeli settlers grabbing Palestinian land.) But I came back to America knowing this occupation was deeply dangerous. I knew this as a secular historian, and I knew it as a Jew who had just rediscovered the power and truth of the Passover Seder – that call to liberation from all pharaohs, all occupations.

This is what I knew: No occupation by one people over another, against its will, can be mild forever. Sooner or later, fury will rise in those occupied and arrogance in those who occupy. Resistance is inevitable — probably violent, just barely possibly nonviolent. And violent repression is almost inevitable.

So I organized a network of peace activists – some Jews and some not — Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rabbis Arthur Green and Arnold Jacob Wolf, Denise Levertov and Stewart Meacham, Abbie Hoffman and John Ruskay, Michael Lerner and myself (neither of us yet rabbis) — to place a statement in the New York Review of Books calling for a peace settlement between Israel and a Palestinian state.

We were then and for years a voice crying in the wilderness, against rage from the Israeli government and from many pro-Arab activists who urged a “one-state secular democratic Palestine,” and contempt or indifference from all American and Jewish officialdom.

Why am I mentioning this ancient history? Precisely because it was 40 years ago. Now, today, the biblical “40 years in the Wilderness” later, J Street has organized and 20 other organizations, including The Shalom Center, are participating in an historic pro-peace conference in Washington DC, with 1200 people taking part and dozens of Members of Congress joining as hosts.

All 21 groups are calling on a rhetorically friendly US government to push not only for a two-state peace settlement but one joined by all the Arab states. To do so even though that means dealing with a divided Palestinian leadership and a hostile Israeli government. Some of us would say the US should not just mouth support for that peace settlement but insist on it. Use its clout to insist on it.

Will the Obama Administration fulfill its lofty rhetoric? Not yet clear. What would make that happen?

Public demand. Insistence by enough Americans to matter. Americans who care enough to insist.

If my auto accident were not preventing my speaking at J Street, this is what I’d be saying:

That there are only two clusters of Americans who care enough about the Middle East to make a difference.

One is Big Oil and its allies the Cowboy Neo-Cons who foisted the Iraq war upon us. That difference was a disaster.

And the other is passionate Jews, passionate Christians, and passionate Muslims who view as sacred the region walked by Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, and who have deep ties of spirit and emotion to their brothers and sisters in that region.

Of course we know that some of the passionate Christians, far from seeking peace in the footsteps of the Jesus who said to his own follower, “Whoever lifts the sword dies by the sword,” seek the Great Armageddon War and worship their version of a Killer Christ who will with sword and H-bomb murder all unbelievers.

Some of the passionate Jews seek not the renewal of Jewish culture or their own safety in the everyday joys of Shalom, Peace, that the rabbis taught as the very Name and essence of God — but worship the military might of a State with 200-plus nuclear weapons that can win military control of every foot of land that any biblical verse might have named as Israelite.

Some of the passionate Muslims are so consumed with rage against the Crusades and colonialism of centuries past and the oppressions and occupations of today that they cannot bear the notion of living in peace with former enemies, cannot celebrate the One Who says in the Quran, “I made the many peoples not to despise each other but to know the inner richness of the many different faces of the One.”

For we know, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

But so can also be the best. We need an Abrahamic Alliance of the passionate best.

The idolatry of worshipping force and violence, war and terrorism, takes root when there is too little energy devoted to the Infinite.

The Abrahamic Alliance that I call for will need to shape a political majority to back up a nervous, hesitant, peace-wishing President.

But that is not all. It must be rooted in passion for the One Who is Infinite, Whose Infinity shines only in the rainbow of diversity, and Who cannot be served by violence – even, and especially, violence in the name of that One or of Its followers.

May those who are gathering in Washington tonight, and all who thirst for peace and who hunger for freedom find a welcome in the Open Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah.

Shalom, salaam, peace!

— Arthur

Read more of Rabbi Waskow’s writing here and here, and check out more information about the J Street Conference at their website.

© Marc Gopin