Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Truth, Justice and Peace: A Jewish Approach to the Palestine Conflict

John D. Rayner
Spring 2001

Truth, justice and peace, said Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, are the three pillars that sustain the world (Avot 1:18). From this perspective anyone who aspires to be a religious Jew should view all things, not least the Jewish-Arab conflict over Palestine.


"Speak the truth to one another," demanded the prophet Zechariah (8:16). "Who may dwell on God's holy mountain?" asked the Psalmist. "Those who speak truth in their hearts" (15:2).

Thus we have a duty to try to ascertain the truth about the Middle East conflict, even when it is uncomfortable - indeed, especially then, because that is when our respect for truth is critically tested.

Consequently we may not simply go along with the version of the truth that emanates from Israeli government agencies and from Diaspora Zionist and Communal Establishment organisations. That we should be inclined to do so, is very understandable, since these sources invariably put the most favourable gloss on Israeli policies and actions, and we naturally want to think well of our people. But all nationalisms are partisan, and Jewish nationalism is no exception. Therefore to take its interpretations at face value is not good enough. Here are just a few examples of how misleading that can be.

Arab Refugees

For a generation and more after Israel's War of Independence these sources told us that the `Arab Refugee Problem,' which resulted from it, was not our fault. The responsibility for it rested on the Arab nations, who rejected the UN partition plan, sent in their armies to forestall a Jewish state, called on the Palestinian Arabs to flee, and kept them in squalid refugee camps for propaganda purposes, whereas the Jews begged them to stay.

But from Israeli archives and objective historical studies we now know that the facts are significantly different. Although the mayor of Haifa urged his city's Arabs to stay, that was an exception. In general, the Jewish leadership, though it disowned the Deir Yassin massacre, encouraged or welcomed the mass exodus which it precipitated. Nor is there any evidence that the commanders of the invading armies broadcast appeals to the Palestinian Arabs to leave.

For many years we were assured that the creation of more and more settlements on the West Bank was necessary for Israel's security and had nothing to do with any expansionist designs of the `Greater Israel' kind. Then that pretence was abandoned.

Lebanese Incursion

In 1982 we were led to believe that the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, code-named `Peace for Galilee,' was a necessary response to incessant PLO shelling of Israel's northern settlements from inside Lebanon, and was to be a limited operation, intended to penetrate no further than 40 km into Lebanese territory. In fact, apart from a minor incident on May 8, there had been no such shelling for eleven months. On the contrary, there was a cease-fire which the PLO, out of self-interest, had been observing scrupulously. It is also clear that Sharon, who had planned the operation long before, had always intended to carry it to Beirut, and had deceived his own government and people in that respect.

For a long time we were constantly told that there were no moderates in the Arab world with whom it might be possible to negotiate, that they all wanted to destroy the State of Israel. But Sadat flew to Jerusalem, Israel made peace with Egypt, then with Jordan, then Palestinian leaders announced that they, too, accepted Israel's right to exist.

When the first intifada broke out we were told that it was entirely unprovoked, and now we are being told the same about the second intifada. Neither Sharon's walkabout on the Temple Mount, nor any of Israel's actions since the beginning of the Oslo peace process, had anything to do with it. "They only want to drive us into the sea" has again become the popular slogan.

Clearly, the truth is not to be ascertained from one-sided propaganda, even when it emanates from Israel, still less from the various Arab versions, which are often even more tendentious. We need also to acquaint ourselves with honest attempts at impartial, objective historiography. To do less than that is to be merely partisan, and therefore to behave as any secular devotee of any nationalism would. Judaism requires more than that. There is an important sense in which religion begins where mere partisanship ends.


"Justice, justice, shall you follow," says the book of Deuteronomy (16:20). "The sword enters the world," added the Rabbis, "because of justice delayed and because of justice denied' (Avot 5:8).

Clearly we have a duty to consider the implications of the justice principle for the Palestinians as well as for Israel. Both peoples lay claim to the same land that, and both claims, though differently grounded, are valid. Surely the acknowledgement of this fact must be the starting point of any serious approach to the Middle East conflict.

From this fact it follows that, as a matter of justice, the two peoples need to share the land, and there are only two possible ways in which they can do that. One is to create a joint or `binational' state in which Jews and Arabs enjoy equal rights. That solution was advocated by eminent personalities like Judah L. Magnes, the first President of the Hebrew University, and Martin Buber, the philosopher; but it was rejected as unrealistic or otherwise undesirable by both sides.

Need for Compromise

This left partition as the only other morally tolerable option. It would give neither side all that it desires or all that it feels entitled to. It represents a compromise. But sometimes perfect justice is unattainable, and compromise offers the closest realistic approximation to it. Both sides must acknowledge this fact and abandon aspirations inconsistent with it. The `Greater Israel' ideology contradicts the partition principle. So does the claim of some Palestinians to all of Palestine. Both must be abandoned.

Partition is the principle towards which successive British, American and international commissions of inquiry veered in the Mandatory period, which was finally adopted by the UN in 1947, and on the basis of which the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. It was reaffirmed by UN Resolution 242 in 1967 and again by UN Resolution 338 of 1973, and subsequently. It represents the considered opinion of the international community. And it has been endorsed time and again by the Israeli government itself as well as, more recently, by the Palestinian leadership.

Such unanimity is quite remarkable and indicates a clear framework within which a political settlement needs to be sought. However, the corollary of partition, which is the `two-state solution', has not always been conceded. For decades supporters of Israel asserted that a sovereign Palestinian state was out of the question because it could never be economically viable and / or because it would pose a security threat to Israel. For about as long Palestinian spokespersons maintained the old dogma that a non-Arab, non-Muslim state within Palestine could never be tolerated. But in recent years both sides have modified their position. A Palestinian state is no longer unthinkable in Israeli eves, and a Jewish state is no longer unthinkable in Palestinian eyes.

Despair Over Solution

At least in theory that seems to be the case. In practice, Arab extremists and Islamic Fundamentalists have often continued by their rhetoric to delegitimise the State of Israel and by their terrorist attacks to undermine it. Conversely, many policies and actions of successive Israeli governments - especially the confiscations of Arab property and the creation of more and more settlements in the occupied territories - must look to Palestinians suspiciously like stages of a master plan to implement the `Greater Israel' design and so squeeze the very possibility of a Palestinian state out of existence.

As a result, the Palestinians, incensed by what they see as colonialism of the worst kind, and by the humiliations to which they are daily subjected, have tended to despair of a political solution offering them anything acceptable, and therefore to revert to violent resistance, even without an end in sight, as the only self-respecting option left to them.

Thus there needs to be a substantial shift on both sides if even rough justice is again to be seen as an attainable objective.


"Seek peace, and pursue it," said the Psalmist (34:14), and it has always been the supreme Jewish hope that a time will come when "they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they train for war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).

But peace cannot be bought cheaply. It comes at a price. It has its preconditions. These preconditions are truth and justice: Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel got the sequence exactly right. First, both sides need to face the truth about themselves as well as each other. Secondly, each side needs to concede to the other the justice, in principle, of its claim. Then they will realise that the choice is between compromise and eternal warfare. And if their will for peace is strong enough, they will opt for compromise.

The preconditions of peace are not merely political. Even more fundamentally, they are moral. Isaiah understood that long ago. "In days to come justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field; and the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and confidence for ever" (32:160).

Heroic Reconciliation

What is needed is nothing less than a heroic act of reconciliation going far beyond the normal parameters of Realpolitik-driven international behaviour. Israelis and Palestinians need to meet in humility and declare: "We have done much wrong to one another, and it has brought nothing but disaster to both our peoples. Now let us confess our past mistakes and make a fresh start. Let us devise a compromise which will give neither of us all that we would like but which is the best solution realistically attainable. And let us therefore agree upon such a compromise, not grudgingly, but magnanimously, for the benefit of both our peoples, and of the Middle East as a whole, and as an example to humanity."

The responsibility of Jews who are sensitive to their religious heritage is not to bolster partisanship - that is much too easy and much too stultifying - but to raise the debate to a higher level. Politics is indeed the art of the possible. But the boundaries of the possible can be extended. And the task of religion is, by its moral influence, to do just that.

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.