Beyond Gaza:  An Abrahamic Peace

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Posted Jan 26, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Beyond Gaza:  An Abrahamic Peace

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Beyond anguish, what can we say about the massive death and destruction in Gaza and the traumatic fear of falling rockets in Israel?  How do we shape not just the temporary palliative of “cease-fire” but a true alternative? Not just in pretty theory, but in political practicality?

The Obama Administration could start by insisting that the Israeli and Egyptian governments open the borders of Gaza to shipments of food and medicine and fuel, while improving the prevention of importing weapons. At the same time, it could refuse to supply Israel with white phosphorus and other weapons that the Israeli government illegally used against the civilian population of Gaza.

But such changes—only the beginning—- will not happen without public demand for change from a new political alliance inside the US and a new nonviolent campaign by Palestinians, Israelis, and Europeans.

First of all, Palestinians could change reality on the ground by mounting vigorous, assertive, nonviolent resistance to the blockade/ embargo. In the weeks just before the invasion of Gaza, small boatloads of people were bringing food and medical supplies to Gaza, ignoring or violating the Israeli blockade. After the invasion began, two more such boats were forced to turn back by the Israeli Navy.

These “ship-ins”  were building support in much of the world, pointing out the injustice and violence of the blockade. Instead of canceling the cease-fire and firing rockets once again, Hamas could have turned those boats into a multitude. They might have built an enormous popular pressure in Europe and the US for an end to the blockade and negotiations between Israel, the various powers, and Hamas.

Even now, with or without support from Hamas, European doctors, academics, clergy, political leaders, and peace activists could sponsor a flotilla of “ship-ins.”  And Palestinians who live in Israel and in the allegedly “annexed” East Jerusalem could start blockading Israeli roads in a strictly nonviolent way—not even stone-throwing.  They could and would be joined by some Israelis.

Such an effort to challenge in a new way the assumptions behind Israeli power could galvanize a new response from the word at large — even from the United States. But even if such a nonviolent campaign does not emerge, there are the beginnings of a more conventional approach to peacemaking.

Any effort to heal the wounds of the Middle East must include the Palestinian-Israeli relationship but cannot stop there. For years, the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, has proposed a regional peace settlement that would bring peace to Israel in exchange for the recognition of a new and viable Palestinian state.  The Israeli government, with support from the US government, has ignored the proposal.  But for many Israelis, this would actually be the fulfillment of the dream of a secure and peaceful life.

Can an Israeli government now say: We are ready to join in these negotiations. We are ready to deal with a new Palestinian government of national unity that includes Hamas, which obviously has considerable strength among the Palestinian community.  For us the deal must include only very small symbolic numbers of Palestinian refugees returning to Israel itself, and control of the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Perhaps now, after the Gaza invasion,  any Israeli government can do this and say that they have not rewarded terrorism, are not negotiating from weakness, have shown they can be bloody. But would they want to? That would require a deep rethinking, because it would mean a serious commitment to ending the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the blockade of Gaza. Settlers and other opponents of doing this will, though fewer in numbers than those who will support it, be much more intense in their opposition. So the government is likely to be paralyzed, refusing to do what is necessary for peace, resorting to old slogans and the institutional and cultural power of the military to justify paralysis.

So the necessary counterweight for this domestic paralysis will have to come from outside—that is, the United States. Appointing George Mitchell, the weaver of the Irish peace settlement, as peace envoy to the Middle East is an excellent start. But it will mean little unless the US adopts a whole new policy toward the region. The alternative policy for the US government would be to use the disaster of Gaza to—

Insist on a regional Middle East peace conference, to insist that even a Netanyahu government of Israel and even a Hamas leadership of Gaza or Palestine take part and accept a decent peace, to connect the end of the US occupation of Iraq with serious diplomacy with Iran and a political settlement of the Afghan agony; to move swiftly off the fossil fuel addiction that drives a planetary disaster and drives American policy into corruption or conquest in the Middle Eastern oil pools.

Only the biggest response can meet the need. Half-measures, the normal response of governments facing complex conflict, will not work.

And what might make such a break with automatic US policy possible? The Presidency of an unusual person chanting “change” is not enough. There are only two clusters of power in the US with enough passion about the Middle East to matter. One is Big Oil. The other is the ethnic and religious passion of American Christians, Jews, and Muslims. If sizeable parts of these groups could work together for such a policy, it might be possible.

For many Jews and Muslims, that is even harder now than it was a month ago. But for others,  the shock of so much blood has already brought about unexpected alliances—and could make it possible.

At the grass-roots in some American communities, some Jews have joined with some Muslims in local demonstrations calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. The peace-oriented American Jewish organizations might be willing to take their previous positions one step further. They might be able to work with American Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and others to press the new Administration toward a grand peace.

The building blocks for such a coalition now exist . Can they be mortared together?

An aroused Muslim-American community, not yet well organized for political action but speedily getting more so;

The beginnings of an independent base in the Jewish community (Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, J Street, Americans for Peace Now, The Shalom Center, the Israel Policy Forum, Tikkun,  Jewish Voice for Peace)  ) that could draw strength from the majority of real live American Jews— who support such a result but whose politics are unvoiced by the big American Jewish organizations,

Mainstream Protestant groups that are raring to go, and will be effective if they can focus on changing US policy, not on parading their own personal purity as in the divestment campaigns; and if they have Jewish allies so as not to be accused (or accuse themselves) of anti-Semitism;

A vague Roman Catholic support for the same result, which might be stimulated into action;

Black community support, pro-peace and ready to affirm Palestinian self-determination but so far not focused on this issue because there are other urgencies and because they feel the need for Jewish allies to address those urgencies;

And non-religiously or ethnically identified progressives, IF they can get over their habit of treating the word “Zionist” as a curse word and can start clearly condemning terrorist attacks on civilians by the underdogs, AS WELL AS military attacks, occupation, and blockade by the uber-dogs.

The effort to shape such a Grand Abraamic Alliance should begin now.

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center

< > ;  co-author of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Chrstians, and Muslims (Beacon); and author of many books on Jewish thought and practice and on US public policy.