Israeli writer and anti-occupation activist Peretz Kidron on Jan. 16, 2010 in East Jerusalem. Kidron is with the Jewish organization Yesh Gvul ("There is a limit!"), which supports Israeli soldiers who refuse to take part in the oppression of Palestinians.
That exclamation is on a billboard beside I-95 outside of Richmond, Va. It refers to global poverty and the ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots. But for nearly as long as the United Nations has pledged to eliminate abject poverty it has attempted to make peace in the Middle East. For me and countless other Americans, Israelis, Palestinians (and anyone anywhere who reads beyond the front page) the billboard could just as well refer to the Israeli government's persistent defiance of international law, the Fourth Geneva Convention, dozens of U.N. resolutions and U.N. fact-finding committees (e.g., the Goldstone Report), and some basic rules that govern common decency.
Or as the name of Peretz Kidron's Israeli anti-occupation group states, "There is a limit!"
Israel's victory in the Six Day War of 1967 does not give it license to oppress its neighbors and continue building Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Ironically, it is the Fourth Geneva Convention Rules of War, adopted in 1949 by the international community in response to Nazi atrocities, which forbids a victorious military from occupying, building, expanding, and then moving its citizenry onto conquered land. U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden was correct last week to condemn Israel's plans to build an additional 1,600 housing units in hotly contested East Jerusalem.
But then he fumbled, bumbled, and played the lapdog. For him to later temper his criticism by saying that the United States has "no better friend than Israel" is absurd. Anyone who has traveled off the beaten path in the Arab world (and many who remained on it) knows that friends like Israel are what generate enemies for the United States.
Contrary to the hate charges that criticism of Israel routinely draw, I've no personal bias against Israelis and Judaism. None, nada, zilch. I admire the societal values in Judaism and the wisdom of the Talmud, e.g., the Noahide Laws that forbid murder, cheating, theft, etc. I also can understand and sympathize that on the heels of the Holocaust the founders of Israel were of the mindset, "Enough already!" Fueled by the deep-seated fear and hatred loosed by Nazi Germany, including the Third Reich's Christian (far fewer Muslim) supporters, Israel would no doubt want to carry a big stick. History would not, will not be repeated. In that environment a brutal Israeli army was going to be birthed. (Think "brutal" is too harsh an adjective? Read the Goldstone Report about Israel's ongoing illegal and collective punishment of Gaza).
But might doesn't equal right. Or peace. It's only an intoxicated reflection of itself. Neither Israel nor the United States will ever witness real peace through the crosshairs of an M16 or towering walls erected on the pretense of security. Peace crosses bridges not barriers; it comes with open arms not with fingers on triggers. Security is built on mutual respect and kindness.
We all know this. It's in all the lesson books and in the words handed down by elders everywhere. The solution to the Middle East is so simple that only talking heads and heads of state can muck it up. It goes like this:
Follow the rules.
When the world's Middle East mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia, the U.N. -- meet this week in Moscow to discuss (yet again) the best laid plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace, they would do well to narrow their discussion to the common lessons they learned as children.These have been written, simplified and codified by time, convention and various legal bodies. Not only international law and the United Nations, the revered rules and robes of humanity, e.g., the Torah, the Koran, the Christian Bible; Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel and the rabbi formerly known as Jesus of Nazareth. History's wisest leaders agreed on these basics: No murdering, lying, robbing, cheating, stealing.
Pretty simple. It's not nuclear science. (Not yet, anyhow.) On his last pilgrimage to Mecca, Mohammed told followers, "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you." In the New Testament, Jesus emphasizes the Golden Rule, the one I learned as a preschooler: Treat others with kindness and respect, just as you would like others to treat you. When asked to sum up all the lessons of the Torah, Rabbi Hillel, the most noted Jewish leader and scholar in the time of Jesus and King Herod, said simply, "What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man. This is the whole law; the rest is just commentary."
It's the commentary that keeps Middle East peace on a dysfunctional loop of planned negotiations, canceled negotiations, rescheduled negotiations, failed negotiations, planned negotiations. That, and the fear that prevents so-called enemies from looking one another in the eyes.
True story: On January 15, 2010, me and seven other civilian Americans crossed into Iraq in two Opels. We were unarmed and had no security other than our good intentions. Jordanian secret police and the U.S. military stopped us at the Jordan-Iraq border and attempted to save us from our "naivete." They warned that we would be kidnapped and beheaded. Just the same, we proceeded into Iraq to the Sunni city of Rutba. Town leaders were shocked to see civilian Americans unarmed and with hands extended in friendship and reconciliation. They responded in kind. If there had been a key to the city, they'd have given it to us. They hosted us like family, fed us like kings, and when we left they said they felt as though they now had family in the United States. Healing had begun.
The world's military powers have it backward. Right equals might. Any government that routinely oppresses and intimidates a people sows perpetual discord. And any government that relies on billions of dollars every year of American taxpayer money in order to oppress and intimidate others does it with U.S. sanction. (And you wonder why they hate us?) To then behave as if Washington has no say in Israel's abusive tactics is ludicrous.
After Biden and Israel kissed and made up, the Arab media called Washington weak and Israel's oldest daily newspaper, the Haaretz, could be seen doubled over in laughter. "Based on Biden's reaction, it seems that he (and, presumably, his boss) has decided that it is better to leave with a few sour grapes than to quarrel with the vineyard guard," a Haaretz report read. "... To wipe the spit off his face, Biden had to say it was only rain. Therefore, he lauded [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's assertion that actual construction in [East Jerusalem's] Ramat Shlomo would begin only in another several years. Thus Israel essentially received an American green light for approving even more building plans in East Jerusalem."
Rabbi Hillel was correct. Commentary is excess -- the noise drowning out what is clearly right.
Apparently President Obama had heard enough of it. On Friday his Secretary of State joined the fracas swinging. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly phoned Netanyahu and chewed his ear for forty-five minutes. Not since Secretary of State James Baker III, a Republican serving in President George H.W. Bush's White House, has Israel drawn such ire from Washington.
Here's another billboard I saw recently, this one in the West Bank. It's a silhouette of Obama. Beside him, written in Arabic, it reads: "One year after Obama ... What has changed?"
Perhaps Obama just needed a little shove.
For that, we can thank Israel's aggressive government.
Photo by Nate Wright, Feb. 1, 2010