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Excerpts from Disputed Speech Given by Head of Holocaust Council

January 12, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

JTA recently reported on charges leveled against Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg concerning a speech he made at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in November.

Journalist Ira Stoll, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, charged that Greenberg, the head of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, was unduly critical of the Israeli response to Palestinian and Israeli Arab violence that broke out in late September.

Greenberg termed Stoll’s attacks “outright lies” that distorted his words to imply the opposite of what he intended.

The following are excerpts from the text of the speech in question:

Now the majority of the state of Israel, as expressed in the election of its government, made a decision that they are prepared to give back lands and therefore to withdraw from ruling over Pales — to make room for Palestinian national existence…

What it is, it seems to me is central to how we judge the moral situation. Israel is the strongest. It is perceived by the Palestinians as occupying because they want to be independent, and one could make a case that from their perspective, it is occupation. I think one can make a reasonable case that it’s occupation. The Jewish answer to that is I’m occupying you because you are trying to kill me and I have a right to protect myself. And I think one can make an equally reasonable strong moral case [that] therefore the occupation is moral.

But it is occupation. So the majority of the Jewish people in Israel and Jews worldwide support the government [that] made a decision, one, to give back 92 percent-plus of the West Bank, to share sovereignty over Jerusalem (although they tried to say that as softly as they could), to share the Old City and to share sovereignty over the Temple Mount, if that would make peace possible. I think it’s a remarkable offer…

Given that peace offer, I believe, overwhelmingly, there is the moral strength of feeling that we have met the first criterion of the ethic of power, which is to minimize the evil side effects of your own dignity and your own need for security as against the Arab need or Palestinian needs for their own dignity, their own standard.

Secondly, central to this thing is of course — with the rejection of that offer, came, of course, the outburst of violence which we are now living through. Demonstrations, continuing demonstrations, in which Israel or Israeli solders have protected themselves…

Now here again I think as Jews trying to do the moral thing we have to weigh these things carefully. The principle of power ethically exercises you [to] try to do the minimum damage for the maximum security and dignity of life. Israel and its army, at least — as it announced — is trying to minimize casualties. And you know the policy is you try not to fire; and then if you fire, you fire rubber bullets and you fire low, that is to say below, the lower half of the body in the hope of not causing death.

The obvious question then is why there are 180 deaths of which many have been young or younger children. The answer in part is because in fact if you ever lived through it — and I have talked to Israeli soldiers who have lived through it — when you are being assaulted by people who are throwing rocks and in the present situation, if you’ve seen those rocks, it’s not pebbles, there’s a serious danger to life and personal safety. Secondly, equally important and devastating, is that in this round they have been frequently backed by people who have guns and there is shooting. And many times the shooting starts (from we now know) Palestinian policemen in violation of the peace agreement. So again the soldier has to make judgments as people get closer: Are they coming just to throw rocks? Will the rocks kill me? Are they coming with people in there who when they get close enough will shoot? Are they coming actually with the gun to shoot? Under these circumstances, for people to stay cool and never to shoot and kill, is I think not only unreasonable, but it’s impossible.

Having said that one has to continually monitor what’s happened. For example again, and to me the criterion is what Israeli — what ethical power we practice here. The outburst of Israeli Arab demonstrations during this period led to very severe clashes with police in the course of which some 13- 14 Arabs were killed. My own personal judgment [it] is very questionable. It surprised me, I must say, and it’s easy to say because obviously here I’m defending a much larger death toll. I was very surprised; I think there have been internal demonstrations as far as I could tell and I wasn’t there, severe ones in the past which have not led to such a loss of life … It is entirely possible in my judgment that they overreacted, and in that overreaction killed people unnecessarily, and as a serious violation of the Jewish ethic of power. But my answer to that is the judgment of a moral country is what? If you’ve done that you investigate and decide. The government has appointed a serious commission …

I believe we will find out if in fact the police either overreacted because they didn’t take Arab life as seriously as Jewish life, or because they were not trained properly and didn’t expect this, or because all of the above was true; or it’s not at all, that they tried their best and under circumstances of difficulty, in fact to defend themselves, shot back and killed people.

Now the same holds true on the question of the 180 Palestinian Arabs. It will be established, and there is a constant review whether the army was trained enough, whether there were methods, not rubber bullets, not regular bullets, that might have had lesser loss of life, and I would not be shocked if 5 percent or 10 percent of those casualties are either — or 20 percent — are scared soldiers or people overreacting. That’s the measure of our morality, that we are able to evaluate and assess and carry it on. But the heart of it is, as far as I am concerned, is what is the evidence so far. The evidence so far is that the army is in fact instructed and is trying (and I’ve talked to people), it’s trying to seriously minimize casualties and death and under much more difficult circumstances than the previous intifada because there are now serious weapons on the other side.

… I can predict in advance that there will be some errors or some soldiers who will be gun-happy, but the bottom line is the continuing attempt to keep that controlled, and to keep it under moral guidance. So the capacity both to review the use of force and to correct it, is I think essential to this continuing ethic of power.

Third, facts speak for themselves and Jewish tradition has never said one romanticizes peace and makes it an absolute ideal, ignoring the human reality. The human reality is that the key partner on the other side has acted so badly as to destroy the trust and the confidence in them as a full peace partner …

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