In President Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East, he endorsed Palestinian demands for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 lines. This brings fears that Israel will be vulnerable to repeated attacks, like those that occurred between 1948 and 1967. As a Jew, how can I vote for a President that is pressuring Israel to withdraw to indefensible borders even though I support the President’s domestic policies?
Before responding to the substantive nature of this question – which is the role of a Jew as a citizen in a Diaspora land – it is first important to verify the facts. This is indeed also an important halachic obligation. Before one can render a decision based on the law of the Torah, one must first ensure that his/her understanding of the facts is as clear as possible. Within Jewish Law, the drisha v’chakira, the examination of witnesses, is very thorough. One cannot render a correct psak, legal decision, without an understanding of the facts to the best of one’s ability.
Having said all this, it is now important, before answering this question, whether what is reported to be Pres. Obama’s position is actually his position. It seems clear, both from what he explained afterwards and from subsequent analysis of his initial speech, that he does not believe that Israel should return to these indefensible borders. As such, the exact formulation of this question is problematic. It may be, though, that President Obama’s position regarding Israel still is one that a person may find to be problematic and the intent of this question still stands. We can thus ask: what is one to do when the politician one is thinking of supporting has views regarding foreign policy, in particular, regarding Israel, with which one disagrees but has domestic policies with which one agrees? We could also possibly ask: how is one to vote if President Obama does have this view regarding Israel’s borders yet one appreciates his domestic policies? How is one to integrate his very specific Jewish views into his role as an American citizen?
In Canada, the question is actually framed in the opposite way and indeed in our recent election people did raise this issue with me. We are most fortunate in Canada to have as our Prime Minister a man who has taken a principled stand in favour of Israel. While this may have resulted in some political gain in that Prime Minister Harper’s party did win some predominantly Jewish ridings that were previously held by the opposition Liberal Party, it is generally felt that, especially given the larger Muslim population in Canada, his views regarding Israel are not politically expedient. It is also generally recognized that Canada was furthermore recently denied a seat on the UN Security Council because of the Prime Minister’s views on Israel; this was used by political opponents to contend that the Prime Minister was hurting Canada’s good name internationally. The question I was thus asked was: whether one could vote against Prime Minister Harper given his stand regarding Israel because one strongly disagreed with his domestic policies? A different situation but essentially the same question – how do you balance views regarding Israel, or essentially any specifically Jewish issue, with views regarding a general policy matter that would affect the voting constituency as a whole? How are you to be a Jew in a Diaspora nation?
In certain ways, the essence of this question is clearly an old one and there is a substantial amount of material on this general subject within the sources. We are told numerous times in the Talmud (for example, T.B. Baba Kamma 113a) “Dina d’malchuta dina”, the law of the land is the law, meaning that the law of the country in which one is living is binding also within Jewish Law. There are, though, many limitations within this principle; a primary one being if they conflict with Torah law. As an extreme example, a national law forbidding circumcision would, of course, not have any status within Jewish Law notwithstanding this principle. The concept of dina d’malchuta is actually generally understood to apply specifically to monetary laws with even some debate as to the extent of this application. There are those, though, who also do apply the principle to other laws, within a country, which serve the proper functioning of society. As with many if not the vast majority of areas within Jewish Law, this subject is a most complex one. One who wishes to read more about it may wish to begin his/her study with an excellent article on the subject by Rabbi Herschel Schachter entitled “Dina De’malchusa Dina”: Secular Law As a Religious Obligation found in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Vol. 1, No. 1. Another possible starting point for study is the Encyclopaedia Talmudit entry on the subject.
The bottom line, though, is that it is expected of the Jew to be a good citizen within the Diaspora land in which he/she may find himself/herself. Tractate Avot 3:2, building on Yirmiyahu 29:7, instructs us to pray for the welfare of the government of the land in which we reside. We are clearly to do what we can to further the positive functioning of the society in which we live. There are also those who contend that the concept of dina d’malchuta dina reflects a recognition of a social contract that we have with the people with whom we live. We are, clearly, to maintain our end of the agreement. The question posed here, though, is different than the general question posed throughout the centuries. In the past, the charge to a Jew was to be a good citizen. That is not the issue here. The question here is how are we to let Jewishness affect the way we vote?
Democracy offers a new perspective to this issue. Before we can explain the Jewish view on the subject, we have to formulate what is expected of us from the mores of the society in which the question is asked. If the society maintains that a person can vote in whichever manner the person wishes even if it only matches the perspective or meets the needs of a particular group within the society, then a Jew voting in line with Jewish self-interests would be totally acting within the parameters of the society’s rules. It would seem to be difficult to contend that a Jew could not vote in this manner. But that wasn’t the precise question here. The question here is: whether one could vote against Jewish self-interests because of the needs of the society?
The answer to this question would most likely be a factor of weighing. Clearly what may be good for the society in general may also, most likely, be beneficial to the Jewish community within this broader society as well. It is thus difficult to define any question simplistically as presenting two positions, one good for the Jews and one not. As such, one must weigh the benefits of any position versus its costs. In this analysis, though, the fact that we have a social contract with the people with whom we live must also be considered as a factor within this weighing. One wishing to vote for a politician’s domestic policy must believe that it would serve the best interests of the constituents, Jew and Non-Jew. This is why the person is voting in this manner. The question is: what is one to do when this politician also has a policy that will harm another specifically Jewish group of non- constituents (as well as Jewish constituents)? The first demand must be to evaluate the extent of harm and the extent of benefit.
We clearly do have a responsibility to our fellow Jews and to Israel. Given that with the power of the vote we are given the liberty to vote simply as we wish, we have a right pursuant to the laws of our lands to vote in the best interests of Israel. We also, though, do have a responsibility to fellow Jews in our immediate society as well as, in fact, to all within our society. We thus, from a Jewish perspective, also have an obligation to evaluate the costs and benefits to our immediate society in our consideration. Obviously, at the extreme, if a politician has policies that will clearly, powerfully harm Jews anywhere in the globe, this politician’s positive domestic platform cannot sanction voting for this person. But if this politician’s policy may have some limited negative effects on Jews elsewhere such as in Israel, it is hard to totally outlaw voting for this individual if his domestic policies would have excellent results for his constituents. The specific question and circumstances would have to be evaluated. Hopefully, all our fellow citizens are also attempting the same evaluation. Of course, ‘I love my neighbour but he doesn’t care for me’ might change the entire criteria. This is, after all, a social contract.
If we want to approach this matter from an ethical point of view it is important to carefully read words that were spoken and to understand them in the full context of what was said and to quote them accurately. As an AIPAC member who was present when the President delivered his second speech on this subject, I heard him repeat verbatim what he said the first time: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” Thus, his call for a two-state solution does not foresee a border based on the pre-1967 lines. It includes “mutually agreed swaps” that result in “secure…borders…for both states.” Having been at the 2010 AIPAC conference, I heard President Obama’s representatives, Vice President Biden, one of Israel’s most steadfast friends in Congress, and Secretary of State Clinton, also a ling-time friend of the Jewish State, both say the same thing. So, when Obama said these words, he was merely repeating what had been American policy, at least from the time of the Clinton Presidency. This is what was Prime Minister Ehud Barak, with the prodding and support of President Clinton, offered Yassir Arafat (and what Arafatr turned down).
It came as no surprise me, therefore, when, at the 2011 AIPAC meeting, the President said: “By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.” A close reading of the President’s May 19 and AIPAC speeches will show that this statement is an accurate summary of his approach to the matter.
It is not my purpose here to engage in a political discussion of what should or should not be U.S. Middle East policy. JVO is not a forum for political debate; it is a forum for the exploration of ethics. The ethical issue that I see arising out of the discussion of Obama’s speeches is the same problem that makes rational and appropriate discussion of political affairs in our time a great challenge: Commentators and politicians quote out of context statements that their opponents make and twist their meaning in a way that the speaker never intended. From an ethical perspective this is a transgression of the first order. It amounts to spreading a falsehood that has been cloaked in a façade of authenticity on the basis of a half truth.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his important book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1, You Shall Be Holy (“Becoming More Truthful,” pp. 403-6), begins by admonishing the reader, “Avoid half-truths.” He goes on to suggest that an early example of a perpetrator of this immoral act is none other than Haman, who in, his attempt to move King Ahasuerus to destroy the Jews, moves from a truth to a half-truth to an out-and-out lie (Esther 3:8). Rabbi Telushkin then teaches us to be precise and accurate in what we say and to avoid making even minor alterations to the truth. Telushkin then cites the 19th century ethicist, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin, who taught: “Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.” I would add to this: “…And do not include in your e-mail, Face-book or Twitter messages anything that you are not certain is completely true.” Doing otherwise in this age of the instantaneous transmission of information can not only sully a person’s reputation, destroy a career, break up a marriage or instigate a suicide, it can change the fate of masses of people.
Sharing information is a mitzvah; sharing half-truths is a sin.
I can’t tell you who to vote for, but I urge you to make your decision based on the facts, not on propaganda and misinformation. The idea of a two-state solution is hardly a “Palestinian demand”. For most of Israel’s history, the Palestinian leadership refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Today, Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel, while at the same time making unity agreements with Fatah. The fact that the Palestinians are moving toward asking for a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood in no way equates to a Palestinian recognition of Israel. Nor is President Obama pressuring Israel to withdraw to indefensible borders. For one thing, Israel managed to defend those borders pretty well between ’48 and ’67, so I’m not sure by what definition those borders are ‘indefensible’. But even if they are, that’s not what the President said, despite Netanyahu’s convenient misquoting of the President when he spoke to our Congress. This is what President Obama said:
“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
The crucial element, that Netanyahu and others try to leave out, is ‘mutually agreed swaps”. This means that each side would give up certain areas of land in order to recognize facts on the ground (e.g. Jewish neighborhoods on the east side of Jerusalem would remain part of Israel, Palestinian neighborhoods would become part of Palestine) and to provide Israel with enough of a buffer zone to be secure. This formula is not new, is not radical, is not anti-Israel, and is not original with President Obama. It has been the basis for peace negotiations at least since the 2000 Camp David peace talks, and has been the stated policy and position of every United States President since Richard Nixon.
Presidents’ statements from Nixon onward on Israel’s occupation of land beyond the ’67 borders include:
The expropriation or confiscation of land, the construction of housing on such land, the demolition or confiscation of buildings, including those having historic or religious significance, and the application of Israeli law to occupied portions of the city are detrimental to our common interests in [Jerusalem]. The United States considers that the part of Jerusalem that came under the control of Israel in the June war, like other areas occupied by Israel, is governing the rights and obligations of an occupying Power. Among the provisions of international law which bind Israel, as they would bind any occupier, are the provisions that the occupier has no right to make changes in laws or in administration other than those which are temporarily necessitated by his security interests, and that an occupier may not confiscate or destroy private property. The pattern of behavior authorized under the Geneva Convention and international law is clear: the occupier must maintain the occupied area as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation. I regret to say that the actions of Israel in the occupied portion of Jerusalem present a different picture, one which gives rise to understandable concern that the eventual disposition of East Jerusalem may be prejudiced, and that the private rights and activities of the population are already being affected and altered.My Government regrets and deplores this pattern of activity, and it has so informed the Government of Israel on numerous occasions since June 1967. We have consistently refused to recognize those measures as having anything but a provisional character and do not accept them as affecting the ultimate status of Jerusalem. . . .
President Ford’s administration:
Clearly, then, substantial resettlement of the Israeli civilian population in occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, is illegal under the [Geneva] Convention and cannot be considered to have prejudged the outcome of future negotiations between the parties on the location of the borders of States of the Middle East. Indeed, the presence of these settlements is seen by my Government as an obstacle to the success of the negotiations for a just and final peace between Israel and its neighbors.
President Carter’s administration:
This matter of settlements in the occupied territories has always been characterized by our Government, by me and my predecessors as an illegal action.
And I let Mr. Begin know very clearly that our Government policy, before I became President and now, is that these settlements are illegal and contravene the Geneva conference terms.Mr. Begin disagrees with this. But we’ve spelled this out very clearly on several occasions in the United Nations and other places that these settlements are illegal.
President Reagan’s administration:
The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transition period. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlements freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be fee and fairly negotiated.
President Bush I’s administration:
Since the end of the 1967 war, the U.S. has regarded Israel as the occupying power in the occupied territories, which includes the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The U.S. considers Israel’s occupation to be governed by the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the 1949 Geneva Conventions concerning the protection of civilian populations under military occupation.
President Clinton’s administration:
The Israeli people also must understand that . . . the settlement enterprise and building bypass roads in the heart of what they already know will one day be part of a Palestinian state is inconsistent with the Oslo commitment that both sides negotiate a compromise.
President Bush II’s administration:
Consistent with the Mitchell plan, Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop, and the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries, consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338.
Excerpt from President Obama’s speech on the Middle East:
For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.
For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.
I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That’s certainly true for the two parties involved.
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.
The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people -– not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.
Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them -- not by the United States; not by anybody else. But endless delay won’t make the problem go away. What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Now, let me say this: Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.” We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. “I have the right to feel angry,” he said. “So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate. Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow.”
That is the choice that must be made -– not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -– a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.
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