Dear President Trump,
I’m writing to you in the hope that you will help to resolve a problem that until now has proved completely intractable: the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians over a piece of land that each people regards as their home.
Why am I writing to you? After all, I’m a British citizen, so if I’m looking for help from a government, surely, I should be turning to the British government? But the thing is, the record of British governments on this particular issue isn’t good. In fact, in large measure Britain helped to create the problem. Certainly, in a letter to Lord Rothschild on November 2nd 1917, Lord Balfour asserted that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” But following the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War, Britain and France divided up the territories between them. Of course, at the time this was only supposed to be an interim situation. But then, in the subsequent decades, the British Mandate in Palestine only served to make matters worse, and when a proposal to partition the land into two states was put before the United Nations on November 29th 1947, Britain abstained. The United States, on the other hand, voted for partition.
Despite the UN’s positive vote in favour of two states, the conflict continued, and when the British Mandate came to an end on May 14th 1948, the leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine declared the establishment of the State of Israel. That bold unilateral act precipitated a war, and the fledgling nation was immediately attacked by the neighbouring Arab states. The war continued for two years. When it finally came to an end, the ceasefire line cut Jerusalem in two, with the old city sacred to Jews, Christian and Muslims on the east side of the line.
That ceasefire line, known as ‘the Green Line’, effectively established the border between Israel and Jordan. In June 1967, the Green Line was breached, when following the concerted attack of the Arab states, Israel was the victor in what became known as the ‘Six Day War’ (5-10 June). For Israel, victory on the ground, was immediately transformed into a spiritual homecoming, as for the first time in decades, Jews now had access to the Jewish quarter of the old city, and the western wall of the last Temple, which had been destroyed by the Romans conquerors in 70 CE. But the spiritual homecoming was soon overwhelmed in the years that followed by the heavy cost of occupation of the territory beyond the Green Line – a cost borne by the Palestinians, and also by Israelis, as occupation precipitated the development of a campaign of terror against Israel.
Why am I telling you all this? You probably know it already. And why you? I mentioned that the United States voted in favour of the UN partition plan in November 1947. Years later, after decades of conflict, including further wars after 1967 and the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it was an American president, who helped broker a peace accord, which brought the two sides together. I will never forget being in my sister, Julia’s home on September 13th 1993, Julia heavily pregnant – she gave birth just over two weeks later – and her two-year-old daughter, Rose, running around the living room, as we sat glued to the TV screen, watching President Clinton facilitate a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Two men who had been sworn enemies, reaching across the gulf between them with the help of the President of the United States of America. And what a gulf that was: Yitzhak Rabin, a former Israeli soldier, as Minister of Defence at the time had been involved in directing the Israeli military response to the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987; meanwhile, as chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat had been the instigator of numerous terror assaults, including, the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich in 1972.
A historic moment and cause for celebration. But the rejoicing was short-lived. As we all know that famous handshake on the White House lawn came to nothing. The Oslo Accords of 1993 so difficult to achieve, were shattered one fateful November night in 1995 (4th) with the murder of Prime Minister Rabin by an Israeli fanatic at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv.
Now, I have to admit when it comes to American politics, my allegiance is with the Democrats rather than the Republicans. I had hoped that Hillary Clinton would become president at the last presidential election, not least because as Secretary of State in the first Obama administration (2009-2013), she had addressed the issue of the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had hoped that as president, she would make the issue a priority.
So, I am writing to you, Mr President, because you are the incumbent president of the United States. But that’s not the only reason for my letter to you. As president, you have already intervened in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, by moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and so affirming the position of the Israeli government that the whole of Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. I’m sure that you would like to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but this is not the way to do it. On the contrary, by moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem you have taken sides – something which previous American administrations have not done – and betrayed the trust of the Palestinian people.
But even with the American Embassy now up and running in Jerusalem, all is not lost. After all, you are the president of the United States – and the embassy is situated in West Jerusalem, not in East Jerusalem. In recent months, the world has witnessed a change of heart on your part in regard to dealing with North Korea. Perhaps, you may yet secure a nuclear-weapons agreement and help heal the breach between North Korea and South Korea. That would be a truly historic achievement. And so, Mr President you have an opportunity to do likewise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All you need to do is make it clear that the establishment of the American Embassy in West Jerusalem proclaims the message that West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and then declare your intention to establish an American Embassy in East Jerusalem, following the negotiation of a two-state solution in which East Jerusalem becomes the capital of Palestine, with the ancient sacred walled city under joint Israeli-Palestinian governance, supported by a special international body, agreed by both nations.
Perhaps, this looks like an impossible dream. But surely, you of all people, never allow yourself to be stymied by what others deem to be impossible. And there’s something else to consider. Watching the television reports of the gathering held at the opening of the new American Embassy, it was clear that there was a strong presence from Christian groups. On the surface, all that this demonstrates is Christian support for the ‘Holy Land’ that was home to Jesus, which seems perfectly reasonable. But the agenda of fundamentalist Christian groups goes way beyond allegiance to the land in which Jesus, a faithful Jew after all, was born, lived and died. The principal reason for their ardent support for Israel is the belief that it is essential for Israel to become the singular home of the Jews, and that it is only when all the Jews of the world have returned to their ancestral home that the Messiah Jesus will return, at which point all the Jews will see the light and convert to Christianity. Now, I’m certain that you don’t subscribe to this agenda, but that doesn’t mean that it is not a real agenda – and a real threat to Israel as a Jewish state.
So, Mr President, as a steadfast friend of the State of Israel, there are two very pertinent reasons for you to take steps to help reignite negotiations between the Israeli government and the leadership of the Palestinians: first, because justice demands that finally, the land is partitioned into two states, so that a secure State of Palestine is established alongside a secure State of Israel; second, because the land that is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the homeland – the only homeland – of the Jewish people.
Mr President, I would like to conclude my letter to you – my plea to you to engage your energies and the energies of your administration in the task of helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – by quoting extracts from a speech delivered at the alternative Memorial Day event on April 17th 2018 held in Tel Aviv in the presence of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians. The speech was given by Israeli writer, David Grossman, whose son, Uri was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War. In his address, David Grossman asked a crucial question:
What is a home?
Home is a place whose walls — borders — are clear and accepted; whose existence is stable, solid, and relaxed; whose inhabitants know its intimate codes; whose relations with its neighbors have been settled. It projects a sense of the future.
And we Israelis, even after 70 years … are not yet there. We are not yet home. Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at-home-in-the-world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home.
The solution to the great complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations can be summed up in one short formula: if the Palestinians don’t have a home, the Israelis won’t have a home either.
The opposite is also true: if Israel will not be a home, then neither will Palestine.
At the end of his address, David Grossman turned to the ‘home’ he would like Israel and Palestine to be:
Where we will live a peaceful and safe life; a clear life; a life that will not be enslaved — by fanatics of all kinds — for the purposes of some total, messianic, and nationalist vision. Home, whose inhabitants will not be the material that ignites a principle greater than them, and supposedly beyond their comprehension. That life in it would be measured in its humanity. That suddenly a nation will wake up in the morning and see that it is human. And that that human will feel that he is living in an uncorrupted, connected truly egalitarian, non-aggressive and non-covetous place. In a state that runs simply on the concern for the person living within it, for every person living within it, out of compassion, and out of tolerance for all the many dialectics of ‘being Israeli’. Because ‘These are the living words of Israel’.
… One can dream. One can also admire achievements. Israel is worth fighting for. I also wish these things for our Palestinian friends: a life of independence, freedom and peace, and building a new, reformed nation. And I wish that in 70 years’ time our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, both Palestinian and Israeli, will stand here and each will sing their version of their national anthem.
But there is one line that they will be able to sing together, in Hebrew and Arabic: “To be a free nation in our land,” and then maybe, at last, it will be a realistic and accurate description, for both nations.
Israel is a fortress, but not yet a home.
David Grossman concluded his address with those words.
Mr President: Please will you do what you can to make it possible to restart negotiations, so that both Israelis and Palestinians may at last be at home.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
26th May 2018 – 12th Sivan 5788