We are writing in response to David M. Millstone’s story, “Are Israeli settlements in West Bank illegal under international law?”
We are citizens and residents of both the United States and Israel. All of our lives and our ancestors’, children’s and grandchildren’s lives, we have been and continue to be deeply connected and committed to Israel and Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people. Our community, volunteer work and philanthropy are centered around Jewish day school and Israel education.
So, it is crucial for us to ensure a thriving future for the Jewish people in Israel. We strongly agree with the conclusion that “both Jews and Palestinians have legitimate claims of connectivity to this ancient land.”
While the question of whether or not the settlements are legal is important, there is a more important question. In our opinion, the more important question is, given the settlements do exist and are scattered throughout the landscape of the West Bank, alongside more than 2.5 million Palestinians who are citizens of no state, what is the right way forward?
The “temporary” status quo that has existed for 54 years can no longer be considered temporary. And, for many, including us, this status quo is inconsistent with our core Jewish values. The most important question is what kind of future will best ensure the security, dignity and freedom of all inhabitants who live in all of the land: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
In 2017, we spent five days with 28 Jewish leaders of all the Jewish denominations in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah with a program called Encounter. It’s an educational organization that advances constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Founded in 2005, it helps Jewish leaders become more engaged and more informed by having meaningful connections with Palestinians on the ground and by deeply listening to Palestinian perspectives. We were all well-rooted in the Jewish narrative to be able to assimilate, with some difficulty, to be able to deeply listen and hear a very different story.
We would like to share just a bit of what we saw and heard from the lived experiences of the people we met – 20 Palestinians who shared their individual personal experiences. They were peace and reconciliation teachers, they led women’s empowerment groups, a bookshop owner, an entrepreneurial businesswoman. This was an experience in proximity, in the reality of what’s happening on the ground not only in the Jewish narrative but in the Palestinian narrative as well.
• In 2000, the security fence/separation barrier was erected after the second intifada. It reduced suicide bombings to just about zero. So in the narrative we have always held and still believe, it is fundamental to Israel’s security ... and 21 years later, those living on the other side, like Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour from Youngstown, told us that the barrier is a daily reminder of segregation and discrimination, like an outdoor jail. He is reminded every day when he tries to commute from his home in Ramallah to business in Bethlehem, within the West Bank, that a 40-minute trip takes 2½ to three hours because of the time he must spend at the checkpoint. He is reminded every day that, unlike in Youngstown, he has lost one of the freedoms he used to take for granted, the freedom of movement.
• In Ramallah, we met Dina who works at a business incubator called Fast Forward. She told us about some of the broadband restrictions that are in effect in the Palestinian territories. Dina told us that 3G is unavailable. Dina told us Palestinian credit cards are not accepted by PayPal. Dina told us the people she’s working with who are trying to become entrepreneurs don’t have the freedom of movement that allows them to visit corporations and start-ups worldwide that might be doing something that could be instructive to them in their own efforts. Yes, it would be wonderful if Palestinians could commit themselves to economic development the way Israelis have and it would be wonderful if they had the same resources with which to make that commitment.
• We were in a Palestinian restaurant in Ramallah. When we walked in, the 11-year-old busboy, a Palestinian child helping his family in the restaurant, saw some in our group wearing kippot. The kid blanched, eyes wide in fear. He started crying and ran down the stairs. Now, we could have a conversation about what creates negative images of Jews for Palestinians. There’s plenty to talk about there. But the fact is that for a lot of Palestinians in the West Bank, the only Jews they have ever met are soldiers with guns or settlers with guns. The Israeli people we love are so different from the Israeli people they see.
• One of the Orthodox rabbis in our group reflected on our experience walking through the checkpoint with day laborers who had waited in checkpoint lines for hours, packed together, scarcely with room to breathe let alone sit or use bathroom facilities. The rabbi said, “I had considered the checkpoints to be ‘admat kodesh,’ holy ground. And, I now consider the checkpoints a defilement of ‘admat kodesh,’ of holy ground.” And then he wept. And then he, whose daughter is a soldier in the Israeli army, said, “And to think that my daughter could be one of those soldiers.”
• The last speaker of our week was a man named Osama Elewat. He belongs to an organization called Combatants for Peace. Founded 15 years ago, they are former fighters on either side – Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinian activists –
who have decided to lay down their arms and work for peace. Elewat told the story of when in one of his many imprisonments, he was put in solitary confinement at age 14.
The only thing that brought him a sense of calm is that every now and then, he would hear the same melody wafting through the bars of the jail from outside and it would give him a sense of calm and allow him to sleep. It was only after he was released from jail that he heard the melody again and learned where it came from. The melody that helped the imprisoned, violent 14-year-old Palestinian activist find sleep was “Sholom Aleichem,” peace unto you. And, lest you think this is a sort of kumbaya thing, he concluded his telling of the story by saying, “I realized that I had heard that song four times, and when I learned what it was, that’s when I knew that I had been in solitary for four weeks.”
What to do with the dissonance?
Step one is to be willing to hold it – to be willing to say both and be willing to hear in such a way that may complicate who we are, but does not have to negate who we are.
By the week’s end, we felt shaken by what we had seen, heard and learned. By then, all of us were using the phrase “hold complexity.” It became clearer and clearer to us that holding complexity can only be an intermediate step. Because if we consider holding complexity to be the goal and end in and of itself, then it simply perpetuates whatever the situation is. What we learned from our experiences, from holding the dissonance, from truly recognizing the deep connection both peoples have to this land, is that anyone who cares about Israel, the Jewish people and the lives of all those who live in the land, rather than focusing our energies on litigating who is right and who is wrong, or on resolving policy debates, our energies are best focused on asking – and working toward – what each of us can do to ensure a better future for all.
In the Israel we love. For the Palestinians who are God’s creatures. In our own hearts. We remain committed to our Jewish values and to advocate so that it be a place of safety and security and peace for all. (Excerpted and adapted from a sermon by Rabbi David Stern.)
Ilana Horowitz Ratner is an Encounter board member, a lawyer, leadership coach and adult Jewish educator. Chuck Horowitz Ratner is a principal at Max Collaborative. They live in Shaker Heights and Jerusalem.