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September 30, 2018 9:01 am

We Must Stop Demonizing Political Opponents and Seek Out Different Opinions

avatar by Levi Welton

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An aerial view of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, President Trump explicitly backed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and announced that within three months, his administration will finally unveil its peace plan for the “the deal of the century.” Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas both addressed the United Nations General Assembly. The Wall Street Journal reported that although Mr. Netanyahu had requested a meeting with Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian leader refused to meet on the sidelines of the assembly with either Israel or the US.

Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to seven consecutive Israeli prime ministers, told The Jewish Insider, “It’s hard to believe that Trump has suddenly become enamored with the two state program. The more plausible scenario is that someone with the President’s ear proposed that he drop the phrase into his comments as a decoy to deflect some of the heat surrounding his administration’s Middle East diplomacy.”

In what seems to be an additional effort to demonstrate good faith toward the Palestinian leadership, President Trump announced at a recent rally that after his actions regarding Jerusalem, the Israelis will have a “higher price to pay.” Immediately, the social media storm began with anti-Trump supporters effectively saying, “See, I told you he would be bad for Israel,” and pro-Trump supporters saying, “Don’t worry, Bolton assured us this is all just part of Trump’s negotiating tactics.”

No matter how this plays out, the disturbing trend here is that people have begun to associate being pro-Israel exclusively with being a Republican Trump-supporter.

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“Nothing could be less accurate,” says Orthodox rabbi Hank Sheinkopf, who is also a well-known political consultant for the Democratic party. “This has nothing to do with political parties in America or anywhere else.”

But for anyone paying attention to the wagon-circling that pervades most conversations about politics today, you’ll see how hostile people have become to Democrats like Corey Booker for holding a pro-Palestinian sign at a rally, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez admitting that she is not a “geopolitical expert” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

My favorite Modern-Orthodox rabbi lives in Cortez’s district, and told me that he was surprised to hear his neighbors so quickly write her off as a “lost cause” and staunch anti-Israel bigot. I agree with him that if we treat her as an enemy, then she most certainly will become one.

She herself admitted she has a lot to learn on the subject, plus she’s only 28 years old, for crying out loud. So if we reach out to her and share with her our side of the story, we have the chance to maybe show her how the fight for Israel’s right to exist has always been a bipartisan issue (that actually has its origin in the far-left, socialist movements). As Sheinkopf says, “To listen to some so-called experts it’s as if this conflict began a half century ago. This conflict is 3,700 years old and resolution requires reality: agreements require at least two parties to agree. There are many Arabs who understand what must be done to maintain regional peace.״

Jared Kushner and his team, who are currently in charge of designing the much-anticipated peace plan, have made multiple trips to Israel only to be rebuffed again and again by the Palestinian Authority.

As I witness the continued suffering of both my people and the Palestinian people, and see the flood of videos on Facebook of children crying in fear and pain, a part of me wishes that I could don a cape and swoop in to save both peoples from further bloodshed. As Nathan Thrall, author of The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, once said, “Perpetuating the status quo is the most frightening of the possibilities.”

When I voice my opinions in public, people rush to advise me that “a rabbi shouldn’t get political,” and no matter what I say about the conflict, I’ll risk alienating people and losing friends. But, after thinking more about it, I asked myself what type of rabbi I would be if I didn’t speak up. All my favorite Jewish spiritual leaders have gotten involved in politics if that is what was warranted at the time. Think Moses and Tziporah, Esther and Mordecai, Sarah and Abraham, or David and Batsheva. They’ve modeled for me that the role of a rabbi is not just to comfort the disturbed, but also to disturb the comforted.

That’s why I wrote this article. Because we have become so comfortable hating each other that it completely escapes us that the point of political discourse is to better understand each other.

Now, personally, I’m a staunch supporter of Israel and believe that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of my people — and that how Israel governs its minorities determines her character as a democracy. So it would have been easy for me to write an article that is in line with my own political beliefs. I think what’s harder to do is to listen to someone else as they share their opinions without the colored lens of a journalist’s prose. Therefore, I now present you with a few people whose opinions often don’t make it to the binary black-and-white table of our political discourse, but have something to say that people like Jared Kushner and Ocasio-Cortez need to hear.

I admit that there is a certain naivete to thinking that just writing an article with some interviews might help bring peace to one of the greatest conflicts of our generation, but I’d rather be a naif trying for peace than a cynic preparing for death. After all, wasn’t it Einstein who once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again”?

Long before 1948 and the mass return of Jews to their homeland, there have been many accounts of Muslims taking great risks  to save the lives of their ancestral cousins, whom they called “Ahl al-kitab” — “People of the Book.” Whether it was Islamic countries opening their shores to Jews during the Crusades, the Golden Era of Islamic Spain, or even Muslims saving Jews during the Holocaust, there are many reminders that Jewish-Muslim relations doesn’t have to be framed as Jews vs. Muslims.

Bassem Eid, the chairman at the Center for Near East Policy Research, has himself received death threats for his activism championing positive change for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

A Palestinian citizen of Israel, Mr. Eid has an extensive career as a human rights activist whose initial focus was on human rights violations committed by Israeli armed forces. In 1996, he was arrested by Yasser Arafat for also reporting on human rights violations committed by the Palestinian Authority against its own people. After his release from prison, he resigned as a senior field researcher for B’Tselem, an Israeli Human Rights monitoring organization, after B’Tselem decided not to report on human rights abuses by the PA. Today, he continues to speak out against anti-Israel bias and is virulently opposed to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

Recently, he spoke at the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, where he said that outsiders — including Presbyterians — are “adding oil to the flames” by heaping blame on one side — the Israelis — for their ongoing conflict between themselves and Palestinians. With the recent announcement that the Trump administration will cease funding UNRWA, it is prudent to note that, over a month ago, Mr. Eid met with United Nation officials and staffers of US Congressman Chris Smith to advise them of UNRWA indiscretions and other issues.

To read my interview with Mr. Eid, click here.

Rabbi Levi Welton is a writer and educator raised in the Bay Area. He is a proud member of the Rabbinical Council of America and can be reached at www.RabbiWelton.com.

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