Change in U.S. Middle East Policy: A Religious Argument to Obama and McCain

Sounding of the Rams Horn at the Conclusion of the Day of Atonement
Sounding of the Ram's Horn at the Conclusion of the Day of Atonement

I just published this piece in the Washington Jewish Week. I wrote it as a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek Ve’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, a national American Jewish organization with over thirty thousand members and thirty eight chapters, which argues in Washington for a just solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict.

It is settled: The election is about change. Sen. Barack Obama had made that his central motif all along, but now Sen. John McCain is onboard. Now that everyone is using the word “change,” it begs a question. The question is not “Who stands for change?” but rather, “Whose changes are going to really make a difference, and what are those changes?”

One place where change is desperately needed is in the disastrous United States policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been in effect for the past eight years. It is a policy of studied avoidance, coupled occasionally by heavy-handed intervention decisions that lost Gaza and set back the possibility of a two-state solution. Israelis and Palestinians need White House leadership and leadership on the ground. Which candidate will provide that leadership is an essential and fateful question for the Middle East and for the world.

The president must be a person who sees the need for constant engagement on the ground in Israel, so that both sides have a third party they can rely on to push for compliance to agreements. Both sides of the conflict need a U.S. president who understands that there is no military solution to this conflict, and that careful negotiation has yielded the most hope and progress over the years. The president must have a keen understanding of the Jewish community of Israel, but also of the Arab world.

I once had a conversation with Sen. George Mitchell about what worked in his successful intervention in Northern Ireland. The answer was deeply committed engagement in which he as a special envoy could personally represent the president’s wishes and guarantees. This meant that as he negotiated, he could help both sides commit to a step-by-step process of positive change….There is an ancient story told in the Talmud from almost 2,000 years ago. It tells the tale of Aaron, the high priest and prophet, brother of Moses, the foundational lawgiver of Judaism. Despite his highest status of ritual purity, Aaron inserted himself into the dark depths of human conflict. Aaron was famous across the Jewish world for his capacity to resolve conflicts and turn hate into love, so much so that thousands of children were named after him because he successfully reconciled so many husbands and wives.

How did he do it? Aaron would first go to one person and say, “Look at your neighbor, look at how he is suffering, and how he really wants peace with you.” And then he would go to the other and say exactly the same thing! When the two met, they would fall into each other’s arms and weep with regret.

The world needs people of the highest stature to immerse themselves in the darkest problems of humankind. No one is more powerful than the president of the United States. Nothing is darker than the senseless violence and waste of life that we have witnessed in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We need an Aaron, we need someone with compassion, with care, with cleverness, who can take the risk of engagement and thereby bring peace to a Holy Land thirsting for leadership…..

© Marc Gopin