A Palestinian State: Good News for Jews?

FayyadPalestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has told a leading Israeli newspaper that a Palestinian state will be unilaterally declared by August 2011 if negotiations with Israel don't allow it to happen sooner.  Click here to read the story.

What would Jewish values have to say about such a declaration?

On the one hand, you might think that since the Jewish tradition promises the land the Palestinians are living on as an inheritance for the Jewish people, we would take a dim view of this pronouncement.  After all, the territory they want to establish their nation on is the same chunk of land that many call by their biblical names "Judea and Samaria" (or "Yehuda and Shomron").  The central mountain range of the West Bank is where my nomadic made their home.  This is the countryside where a lot of Jewish history happened.  Hotly contested Hebron includes the Cave of the Patriarchs where according to legend many of the most important persons in the Bible are buried.

However, as always, there is more to the story and more to the answer than "this is our land, how dare you guys declare a nation here!"

There are two major reasons the Jewish tradition would support Fayyad's declaration.

First of all, there is a teaching that says t'fasta meruba lo t'fasta, "if you grab too much, you grab nothing."  If you are greedy — and go for the "two in the bush" — you may find yourself losing "the one in your hand." 

One of our greatest rabbis, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, was a realist — he knew he wasn't going to be able to beat the Romans, so instead of trying to get everything, he negotiated with the Roman emperor Vespasian and got an agreement that saved the critical mass of Jewish leadership, who were able to setup the Sanhedrin in Yavneh and adapt to the changing reality.

We also learn this lesson from looking at the example of another Roman emperor — one much hated by the Jews for his crushing of the revolt in 132, Hadrian.  Even mighty Rome had limits — Hadrian chose not to take on the Parthians, even though he had the mightiest armed force in the world at the time.  He knew that if he took on the Parthians, he would be spread too thin, and it would jeopardize other parts of his empire.

If Israel refuses to cede to the Palestinians sufficient land for them to have a viable country of their own, we will find ourselves with no choice but to share a single country.  And the prospect of a single bi-national state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan is not one that I find pleasing.  Given the demographic realities in this part of the world, if that happened in a generation or two there would no longer be such a thing as a Jewish state.

The other reason the Jewish tradition might look favorably on Fayyad's declaration is because of all the people in the world, the Jews should appreciate another people's desire for self-rule.

We are right now in the middle of celebrating Passover, the holiday when we celebrate our liberation from living under Egyptian rule.  As a people, we know what it's like to be a slave, we know what it's like to live under someone else's rule.  Now I'm not comparing our slavery in Egypt to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.  The situations are nowhere near comparable.  However, there is no denying that Israeli rule has a heavy impact on the average Palestinian's life.  They do not have freedom of movement, job and education opportunities are limited, they are not even "second class citizens" because they are not citizens.  The Torah tells us mishpat echad yiyeh lachem "you shall have one manner of law" for both citizens and "resident aliens."  The status quo is not acceptable morally, theologically, or practically.

Not only were we "strangers in a strange land" in Egypt over 3,000 years ago, but much more recently we have been a "stateless" people, with no home to call our own.  The Palestinians today find themselves in an analogous situation — they have been rendered "stateless" people, albeit while continuing to live on the land they have called home for generations.

I visited Yad Vashem today with my three oldest children.  Always a sobering experience.  A reminder of  how important it is that we have a Jewish state as a refuge.  And a reminder that the world needs compassion, not cruelty.  Tolerance and acceptance, not hatred. 

I hope Fayyad gets to realize his dream of a Palestinian state.  It will be good for the Palestinians.  And good for the Jews.  And not bad for the rest of the world.

Shabbat shalom,

Reb Barry

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