Jewish Left Must Speak Out Against Delegitimizing Israel


The Opinion piece by Rabbis David Rosenn and Jill Jacobs on the pride and joy Israel evokes and their intention to march in the Celebrate Israel parade (“Marching For Israel, With Love And Criticism,” May 27) is an important statement by two highly respected colleagues of the Jewish progressive left.

They make clear that the tent of our pro-Israel community is wide enough to encompass many groups striving to make Israel even more democratic and pluralist than it is. Their statement also signals to those on the left that they are welcome and needed in the total effort to uphold Israel; and it signals to those on the right the folly of excluding any group that has such strong Zionist feelings.

But it is disturbing that the article notes uncritically that there are those on the left who find it “especially galling to be celebrating Israel on June 5, the anniversary of the first day of Israel’s occupation of the territories.” These non-participating groups clearly affirm that “the first day” is a day of shame, and by implication, the Six-Day War is a blot on Israel’s moral record.

We believe this is a classic expression of the errors in judgment that have crept into the left over time. Such positions have influenced many to accept the distorted Palestinian anti-Israel narrative and a false moral equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian behaviors. We need the pro-Israel left and colleagues with the credibility of Rabbis Rosenn and Jacobs to refute this rewriting of history that has contributed to the free-fall demonization of Israel around the world.

In truth, on June 5, 1967, the embattled State of Israel faced an act of war — a blockade closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli naval passage. Imminent was a multi-front war, with Egypt and Syria joined by Iraq and strongly backed by the Soviet Union. Ten days earlier President Nasser of Egypt announced that “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”

Israel did not occupy the territories on June 5. That day government leaders approached King Hussein of Jordan — which occupied those territories and did not set up a Palestinian state in 1948 — and urged him not to enter the battle, promising that Israel would make no moves against the West Bank and east Jerusalem if Jordan would stay out. Having been told earlier in the day by Nasser that the Israeli air force had been decimated — in truth, it was the Egyptian air force that had been destroyed — the king joined the Arab front. Jordanian artillery shelled Jewish Jerusalem. Two days later, Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

There would have been no occupied territories if the Arabs had not attempted to wipe out Israel, or if the Jordanians and Palestinians had not joined that assault.

Israel’s victorious war in self-defense against a genocidal attack should be a matter of praise and moral pride for all time. No serious thinkers question the morality of America’s victory in World War II, though there were Allied mass bombings of civilians and post-war expulsion of millions of Germans, and transfers of other minority populations in Eastern Europe.

Israel carried out no such acts; moreover, it has repeatedly offered to return more than 90 percent of the lands in exchange for peace.

It is true that important blocs in Israel concluded that the wars had opened the door to Israeli settlement in, and even annexation of, the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. It is also true that Israel has imposed hardships on the Palestinians — though primarily to protect the settlers and its own population against terror and violence from the Palestinians. It is no less true that a majority of Israelis have come together to return the bulk of the lands and even to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel — if the Palestinians accept the right of the Jewish state to exist in peace.

All of this background has been obscured or erased by the narrative of Israel as a domineering conqueror, guilty of “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid” and the “deliberate killing of civilians.” The left ought to take the lead in showing the falsity of such labels instead of giving them currency; the consequences of not doing so are enormous.

For example, B’Tselem, the Israeli group dedicated to protect human rights in the conquered territories, accepted the Hamas report that more than half the Palestinian casualties in Operation Cast Lead were civilians; it then supplied these numbers to the UN Goldstone Commission, which in turn used them to support its charge that Israel deliberately targeted civilians and committed war crimes. Detailed investigations afterward showed that only 200 out of the 1,400 casualties were actual civilians, a tragic number to be sure but “by far the lowest ratio in any asymmetric conflict [guerrilla war with combatants embedded in the civilian population] in the history of warfare,” according to Col. Richard Kemp, who headed the British Army in Afghanistan.

These later findings led Richard Goldstone himself to repudiate the charges of targeting civilians. But due to B’Tselem’s and other human rights NGOs’ uncritical acceptance of Hamas claims and the distorted Palestinian narrative, the damage was done. The residue of constantly repeated poisonous portrayals of Israel are toxic — especially among academics, university students, the radical left and mass media.

Legitimating the distorted Palestinian narrative in the name of helping the “underdog” or the “victim” encourages Israel’s unreconciled neighbors to cling to the hope of achieving an ultimate single [read: Arab] state. This must be stopped not only because it corrupts the Palestinians but because it gives legitimacy to extremists who openly declare a desire to destroy Israel and the Jews. The Jewish left must take the lead to refute the moral equivalence between attacks aimed intentionally at civilians and those committed out of self-defense to protect civilians.

A Palestinian state alongside Israel is on the horizon. We are going to have to live with — and maybe one day even celebrate — each other’s moments of national liberation. Israelis will affirm Palestinian independence and statehood, whatever the cost in giving up biblical lands, if the Palestinians run a truly peaceful, demilitarized state. If the Palestinians decisively turn away from war, they will come to appreciate the restoration of Jews to their ancient homeland. But that will never happen as long as Palestinians think and some Jews confirm that it is “galling” to commemorate Jewish survival, or that the miraculous restoration of Israel is illicit and reversible

Much of erosion of Israel’s standing has occurred on the left. That is why the moral progressive left must play a central role in re-legitimating Israel, and thus heal the left, the Palestinians and the moderate forces in Islam. 

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Blu Greenberg are longtime educators and authors.