By Dan Segal
The year 2017 is rich in anniversaries for the Jewish state. Over the next 12 months, Israel and Jews worldwide will mark the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, the centennial of the Balfour Declaration and 70 years since the U.N. General Assembly Partition Resolution calling for two states for two peoples. Of all these momentous anniversaries, however, none is freighted with more emotion than the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.
The Six-Day War was a transformative event in the history of Israel and the Jewish people. Surrounded on all its borders and threatened with annihilation so soon after the Holocaust, Israel emerged after six days of battle with a decisive military victory against the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. The victory ended the Jordanian occupation of parts of Jerusalem in which access to Jewish holy sites had been denied since the founding of the state two decades earlier.
After 2,000 years, Jews were once again able to pray at the Western Wall. For these reasons, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s miraculous victory and the reunification of Jerusalem is a perfect moment for enthusiastic celebration.
It is also, however, a time to take a closer look at the unresolved and serious challenges resulting from the war, ones with which Israel grapples to this day. The Six-Day War left Israel in control of millions of Palestinians; despite repeated efforts over the years, a peace agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leadership has not been achieved. This stalemate has caused untold trauma and suffering on both sides.
Appropriately then, the 50th anniversary of the war is an occasion not only to celebrate, but also to reflect on how Israel can move forward toward a widely shared goal: a two-state solution resulting in a democratic State of Israel that is the homeland of the Jewish people existing side by side in peace and security with all its neighbors.
Reaching that goal means understanding and addressing issues of enormous nuance and complexity. As chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, I recently participated in a JCRC-sponsored interfaith study mission to Israel specifically designed for non-Jewish clergy leaders in our community. The mission was built on the recognition that many people of good will, concerned about Israel and the Palestinians, simply don’t appreciate the complexity of the conflict, having been subjected for years to a steady diet of brief, overly-simplified and often out-of-context news coverage.
We met with people in Israel and the West Bank representing a broad variety of viewpoints on the conflict — left and right, Arabs and Jews, religious and non-religious. The group’s participants emerged with a new-found realization that whatever one’s political views, it is a reality that multiple narratives exist, that both sides live in fear and that both sides have suffered together from 50 years of political stalemate.
To be sure, the 1967 victory brought substantial strategic benefits to what was a tiny state considered indefensible by many experts. The territory won in battle gave Israel bargaining chips with the Arab world that it has used with some success. While all the Arab states initially refused to negotiate with Israel, Egypt, the largest and most powerful of them, came to the table and made peace with Israel in 1979, a peace which, while “cold,” has remained in place for 38 years.
In 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan that has also held to this day. Both treaties prove that, given the right conditions, peace can be achieved between Arabs and Jews. Moreover, despite the ongoing political stalemate, Israel has developed a working administrative and security relationship with the Palestinian Authority, creating increased security for both sides.
Notwithstanding these favorable developments, since the war, generations of Palestinians have unfortunately grown up knowing only the harsh realities of military occupation. For Palestinians forced to endure constant checkpoints that disrupt their daily lives, and to live in fear of being humiliated by daily interactions with soldiers, the current experience defines their existence. And it is fueled by an Arab educational system that relentlessly demonizes both Israel and Jews. Motivated by frustration not only with Israel but with their own ineffective leadership, Palestinians, angry and powerless, far too often resort to violence as a form of resistance, thus perpetuating a cycle of tragedy.
At root, however — as the late Israeli leader Shimon Peres observed — “the Jewish people weren’t born to rule over another people.” The occupation was not of Israel’s choosing. Peace offers and the chance for two states have been rejected on several occasions by the Palestinians. Seventy-plus years of Arab hostility, support for Hamas and Hezbollah — which openly call for Israel’s destruction and rain missiles on Israel’s civilian population — and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement add to the fear and isolation Israelis experience.
In addition to being a cause for celebration, this anniversary is therefore a painful reminder of how far there is to go in securing a true and just peace. Getting there will require Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and Arabs to look at their shared history and redouble their efforts to create two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace and security. On our JCRC Israel mission, we met many on both sides who are genuine in their desire for peace. Despite the political climate and the sound bites we often hear, Israel is awash in NGOs working on reconciliation between Arabs and Jews in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza.
Rather than retreat into recriminations, there are constructive things that those of us who live outside Israel can do to help create conditions conducive to a two-state solution. Such action includes:
- Supporting Israeli and Palestinian civil society leaders in building an infrastructure of peace through people-to-people initiatives. Such efforts will create the bonds of trust that can help lead to true long-term peace.
- Urging both parties to act in a fashion compatible with a two-state solution. For Palestinians, that means ceasing incitement against and delegitimization of Israel. For Israel, that means limiting any construction to communities that will almost certainly not be part of a potential Palestinian state.
- Encouraging both parties, when the moment is right, to resume direct negotiations leading to a comprehensive conflict-ending agreement resolving all outstanding disputes.
- Urging organizations and churches outside of Israel to resist attempts by some to support the BDS movement. BDS brings false hopes to Palestinians, who believe that they can bypass negotiations with Israel by appealing to the international community for assistance. In fact, some Palestinians we met with on our mission believe that the BDS movement ultimately hurts their community more than it helps.
In sum, let this anniversary energize us to more forward aggressively to create a better future for both peoples.
Dan Segal is the chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Appreciate your efforts to share the good work of the JCRC. I hope that you and your members will continue to bring all you saw and heard to our Jewish community and to work to build new bridges here that not only place you and the JCRC in mosques and churches, but open the doors of our synagogues to all faiths in ways that promote true understanding and the kind of enlightenment that will engender many more interfaith adventures in peaceseeking, peacemaking and peacekeeping. Shabbat shalom.