Remember that this is about settlements, not the UN

PM Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the UN in October [AFP]
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the UN in October [AFP]
The fury from the Israeli government after the United Nations passed a resolution denouncing settlement construction was unsurprising. So too was the speed with which conservative Jewish organizations and mainstream politicians like Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham also denounced the resolution.

But what did surprise me was this press release from the Union for Reform Judaism, issued on Thursday, before the resolution was postponed and then finally approved on Friday. It is technically the statement of URJ’s President Rabbi Rick Jacobs but was issued as a press release by URJ and speaks for the entire organization and not the Rabbi personally.

The Union for Reform Judaism, representing the largest segment of American Jewry, has a long-standing policy of opposition to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. At the same time, we stand firmly against any U.N. resolution that would dictate the way forward on this complicated issue. The United Nations has a long and troubling record of hostility to Israel, and it has proved itself incapable of playing a constructive role.

Every day of the occupation—which is now tragically almost 50 years long—causes pain and hardship to too many Palestinians. Only two states for two peoples living side by side in peace will allow this tragic conflict to end.

We remain deeply concerned by the statements being made by the President-Elect’s advisors regarding the new U.S. administration’s policies favoring settlement expansion that would undermine the possibility of a two-state solution. We are especially concerned that the continuation of settlement without a two-state horizon is cutting off all options toward maintaining a Jewish democratic state. We will continue to stand against such destructive settlement policies now and in the future.

What the Middle East needs are governmental policies that lead to Israeli and Palestinian negotiations toward a secure and lasting peace.

I’m proud to be a Reform Jew, and I’m proud that the URJ has a “long-standing policy of opposition to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.” But the statement doesn’t make me proud. It makes me angry and a little ashamed.

In polite terms, it’s counter-productive and mealy-mouthed. And it’s not the polite terms that first come to mind.

Now I understand that issuing a statement is a lose-lose scenario for URJ. No matter what they’re going to say, they’re going to offend someone. All things considered, if they didn’t make a statement, I’d understand. Silence may have even been the best course of action: if you can’t do good, don’t bother.

But that’s not what the URJ decided to do. Weighing the risks of offending different congregants, they issued the least politically offensive statement they could muster. What it says, in essence, is “We agree with what the resolution says, but we oppose it anyway (because we don’t like the UN).”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like the UN either. It gives a platform to countries that, either sincerely or cynically, regularly voice anti-Semitism and question Israel’s legitimacy. As the US’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power eloquently summarized after the vote, the UN is unfairly critical of Israel as a matter of course:

One need only look at the 18 resolutions against Israel adopted during the UN General Assembly in September; or the 12 Israel-specific resolutions adopted this year in the Human Rights Council – more than those focused on Syria, North Korea, Iran, and South Sudan put together – to see that in 2016 Israel continues to be treated differently from other Member States.

So yeah, the UN is bad, but that doesn’t make it wrong for the Security Council, for the first time in decades, to condemn settlement construction for the simple reason that settlements are bad, too. I don’t much like Donald Trump either, but in those rare instances when Trump says something I agree with, I don’t denounce the statement. It’s still valid, even if the deliverer is flawed.

But here’s the important thing: In the aftermath of the UN vote, Netanyahu and his surrogates have more or less echoed the URJ statement. They don’t defend settlements like Amona for the simple reason that they’re indefensible. 

Instead, in instances like Netanyahu’s Hanukkah speech Saturday or his spokesperson’s recent television appearances, they’ll simply pick the most extreme example–Jerusalem–and reduce it to the simplest terms possible: “the Western Wall is here, therefore Jerusalem is Jewish and Israeli and none of it can ever be referred to as occupied.”

READ MORE: Obviously moving the embassy would be bad for peace 

Then, before the listener realizes that possession of Jerusalem is maybe a little more complicated than all that–they distract. “The UN is biased against Israel. The US should never let the UN discuss Israel. President Obama ‘abandoned’ Israel. And don’t you know that the Palestinians are the problem with peace, not Israelis, never Israelis? We are eternal victims.”

Some of these things are true, but that doesn’t matter because they’re not about settlements, and this resolution is about settlements. (To be fair, it also denounces Palestinian violence, but that gets ignored by all of its detractors.) When the UN is being anti-Semitic, call them out. When the UN is being unfair, call them out. But when the UN is speaking truth, just admit that it’s truth and move on. It’s no more or less complicated than that.

What Netanyahu wants, what everyone else who supports or enables settlements wants, is more statements like the URJ’s. “We don’t like what you’re doing, but you’re Israel, and anti-Semitism exists in the world, so let’s maintain the status quo.”

Except the status quo is a nightmare. If Jews everywhere don’t work to change it, then it’s a nightmare with no end.

I get fear: fear of terrorism, fear of loss of control, fear of losing congregants, fear of being blasted as a “kapo.”  

But, for some perspective, this is an essentially meaningless diplomatic resolution with no sanctions or enforcement. This is the smallest battle there is. Each one after is going to be harder. And scarier. They will only be winnable if we say goodbye to fear and refuse to let bullies dictate the terms of the conversation.

This is about settlements. This is about how settlements de-legitimize Israel in the eyes of the world. This is about how settlements do the work of anti-Semites for them. 

We can talk about the UN tomorrow. 


12/26/2016 6:02 PM by David Kinzer

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