Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November Second - and Fourth

Last week there passed quietly the date of November 2. It is exactly 94 years since that day in 1917 when Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Minister of Britain, signed a document known in Zionist history as "The Balfour Declaration". There were times when this date was noted with ceremonies and enthusiastic celebrations among Jews living in this country and by angry protests of their Arab neighbors - but since then, quite a few other things had happened, adding various other dates to be marked with joy or rage, and the Balfour Declaration was pushed into the margins. Perhaps this opportunity should be taken to briefly remind of it again.

A short document of great historical significance. "His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" – to which, however, was added the proviso "It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". In the original English was written " Palestine". Hebrew translations almost always render it as "Eretz Israel", a difference which is not only linguistic.

The British deliberately did not give a detailed explanation what exactly a "national home" is, leaving it to "constructive ambiguity". But there was no doubt that with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, that National Home did in fact become a reality (at which point, by the way, His Majesty's Government no longer viewed it with any great favour). And what about the other half? Which Zionist - even the most ardent – would dare to assert that the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine have not been infringed in the least during the years which passed since 1917?

How to build and maintain in this country a Jewish national home without prejudice to the rights of the Arabs? How to protect the rights of the Arabs without damage to the Jewish national home? How to eat your cake and have it, get into the water and stay dry? The British tried to maintain an impossible balance for thirty years of conflict and bloodshed, and finally gave up and went away. After that nobody even tried seriously to strike a balance, and there were many, many conflicts and wars and much suffering, and the conventional wisdom was that of a zero-sum game, what's good for us is bad for them and vice versa, and better be ready to kill them before they kill us.

Then, in a moment of hope, it seemed that the rules have changed. A ceremony was held on the lawn of the White House and an Israeli leader shook hands with a Palestinian  leader and a document was signed which stated that "The Government of the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, representing the Palestinian people, agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security, and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation.

The Prime Minister which Israel had at that time signed this document and took it seriously and tried to realize it in practice. He intended to reach a definite peace agreement  with the Palestinians by the date stipulated in the agreement signed - no later than the month of May, 1999.

But he did not live to see that day. On the night of  November 4, 1995, seventy-eight years and two days after the Balfour Declaration, three shots reverberated in a city square where a peace rally had just ended. The first (and so far only) Israeli Prime Minister who seriously wanted and intended to achieve peace with our Palestinians neighbors paid for it with his life. And May 1999 passed without an agreement and without a Palestinian state. The occupation continued, as a matter of fact became worse; the settlements expanded further and further, as did violent attacks and assaults and  bombings and bloodshed and more bloodshed on both sides.

We have come back to the zero-sum game, to fighting and fighting without hope; to killing and dying and wandering in the dark of a tunnel with no glimmer of light ahead. Ninety-four years after the Balfour Declaration and sixteen years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the government of Israel government decided to punish the Palestinians for their audacity in asking UNESCO for recognition of an independent statehood – punish them by building a further 2,000 housing units reserved for Jewish settlers only, on  parcels of land which the State of Israel proclaimed to be "State Land " and thus expropriated them from the  Palestinians. ("It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" - but who remembers that?).

This week Dr. Yuval Steinitz, the renowned philosopher of Haifa University who serves as Finance Minister in the Government of Israel, paid an especially hearty and cordial visit to the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba (yes, the same settlement in which pilgrimages are taking place to the grave of Baruch Goldstein at the heart of Rabbi Meir Kahane Park) and noted how glad and happy he was to increase the government budgets allocated to the settlements in general and to Kiryat Arba in particular. And Dr. Steinitz also noted during his visit to  Kiryat Arba that "it would be strange if the State of Israel  continues to transfer funds to UNESCO".

Much less strange that Steinitz' colleague FM Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of an extreme right racist party - sent his ambassador at the UN to meet Marine Le-Pen, leader of France's extreme right racist party (perhaps to convey his sincere wishes for her to become Foreign Minister, too?)

Next Saturday night, November 12th, at 7:30 pm, will gather at the Rabin Square in Tel Aviv the people who remember Yitzhak Rabin, and what he came to symbolize; what he sacrificed his life for. People who think that Israel can still change direction, get on the path of peace and follow it.