The Common Good
January-February 2001

A Cry for Atonement

by Michael Lerner | January-February 2001

Peace will only be achieved when Israel embraces the Palestinian people.

As a religious Jew deeply committed to the survival of Israel and the Jewish people, this is a moment of great pain and sadness. Every night I watch Palestinians being killed as they throw rocks or aim rifles at young Jewish soldiers.

My own son served in the Israeli army a few years ago in a combat unit on the West Bank. So when I watched on television Palestinians dipping their hands in the blood of two Israeli soldiers whose bodies they had just thrown from a second story window after stabbing them to death, I was sickened and shocked. I cried. It could have been my own son.

I deplore the violence. Yet in my view there can be no end to the violence until Israel withdraws its troops from the West Bank and Gaza, provides significant compensation for the families of Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in 1948 (with corresponding compensation from Arab lands for Jews who fled Arab oppression in 1948-1954), and tells its 250,000 Jewish West Bank settlers to move back to the pre-1967 borders—or tells them that if they remain they must live according to the laws of a new Palestinian state.

The Palestinian people participated in a massive evil when they refused to allow Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe to settle in the land of Palestine and create their own national self-determination there. But the subsequent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the systematic oppression that both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have faced from Israelis is another massive evil.

I have called upon the Palestinian people to adopt nonviolence in their struggle—both because it is the only moral path and because it would prove far more effective in dismantling Jewish fears than has violence and terrorism. It is a disservice to the Palestinian people to refrain from critiquing their means of struggle on the grounds that they must know best since it is they who are suffering. Sometimes people who are victims have impaired judgment—and those who wish to support them need to give them strong advice about what is likely to work.

And yet doesn't it seem incredible that the Jewish people feel so scared—they have one of the most powerful armies in the world and are facing people that have no effective means to protect themselves from Israeli tanks and helicopters. What the Palestinians are facing is the paranoid consciousness of a people that has been brutalized by 1,700 years of Christian oppression.

For much of this period, Jews were legally and de facto treated as sub-humans, periodically subject to outbursts of Christian violence (particularly around Easter time), and constantly subject to harassment, rape, and murder. All this culminated in a genocide in which one out of every three Jews alive at the time was murdered. And while some Christians today have been willing to stop perpetuating demeaning stories about the Jews, most have never engaged in any systematic attempt to educate their own communities about the actual history of Christian anti-Semitism and how it prepared the world for a legacy of hate that could easily be mobilized by demagogues like Hitler.

One of my goals in starting Tikkun magazine was to begin the process of healing some of those wounds (tikkun is a Hebrew word meaning "healing and transformation"). Jews must move beyond the trauma of the past and recognize that the Palestinian people are not the Christians who oppressed us. Unless they do so we risk the possibility of creating new generations of people who will point to Israeli actions as a reason to revive anti-Semitic attitudes.

Unfortunately, the second intifada that began in October has set back the forces of peace and reconciliation. My own actions, including dedicating part of our Yom Kippur-Day of Atonement services to atoning for the sins of the Occupation, have been met with hostility, death threats to me personally, and cancellations of subscriptions to Tikkun magazine.

Our Christian friends and allies could help by a) taking greater public efforts to combat the legacies of anti-Semitism; b) urging Palestinian Christians to build a nonviolent movement of resistance to Israeli occupation; c) organizing a nonviolent peace corps to go to Israel and the West Bank as a moral witness for peace and justice; d) subscribe to Tikkun magazine as an act of solidarity.

Ultimately peace can only happen when Israel open-heartedly embraces the Palestinian people and accepts their right to full national self-determination and economic well being.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, author of the new book Spirit Matters, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco.

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