Everyone in Washington Talks Peace, but the Pope Talks Justice

If Israel wants future popes to lay wreaths at Herzl’s grave, it must recommit itself to the liberal ideals in which Zionism's founder believed.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Pope Francis at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism on Mount Herzl.
Pope Francis at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism on Mount Herzl.Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

This weekend in Bethlehem, Pope Francis called on Israel and the Palestinians to seek a “stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual, and on mutual security.” I had to read the statement twice. “Stable peace” is familiar enough. What threw me was the word “justice.”

It’s a word American politicians and Jewish officials rarely apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And for good reason. “Peace,” according the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means merely “a state in which there is no war or fighting.” It doesn’t say anything about why “there is not war or fighting.” David Grossman wants to stop the “war or fighting” between the river and the sea by helping Palestinians achieve their aspirations for a state. Naftali Bennett, by contrast, wants to stop “war or fighting” by forcing Palestinians to abandon those aspirations. If you talk only about “peace” but never about “justice,” you don’t have to choose between Grossman and Bennett’s visions. Which is why so many members of congress and American Jewish leaders do just that.

To be fair, some in Washington, and in the American Jewish establishment, endorse the “two-state solution.” So they do partially take a side. But even the “two state solution”—absent any moral discourse—can lead in very different directions. Avigdor Lieberman supports two states, and wants to create them by redrawing Israel’s borders so as to kick thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel out of their own country.

Benjamin Netanyahu supports two states as well. But he doesn’t want the border to be the 1967 line, even with land swaps. In fact, Palestinian negotiators have repeatedly claimed that Bibi wants their prospective state to occupy only 60 percent of the West Bank. That’s roughly the amount of territory he wanted to give the Palestinians before his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, back when he supported only Palestinian “autonomy.” A Palestinian state fragmented into chunks, and lacking both a capital in Jerusalem and control of its eastern border, would probably not meet the yearnings of even those Palestinians who can accept Israel’s right to exist. But if you never discuss “justice,” you don’t have to bother with that.

By embracing Palestinian statehood but rejecting the ‘67 parameters, Bibi and his American Jewish allies have divested the two state solution of much of its meaning. By calling for a “stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual,” the pope challenged them. He reminded listeners that the two-state solution is not an end in itself. It’s not even merely a means to achieve peace. It must also bring justice: By giving Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip a viable country in which they can enjoy citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote, and by offering Palestinian refugees compensation and public recognition of their suffering. (As the descendant of Egyptian Jews, I’d also like compensation and recognition for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. But only the Arab countries can grant it. The Palestinians cannot).

To some Israeli and American Jewish ears, the pope’s demand for “justice” may sound threatening. But it shouldn’t. First, it’s also a challenge to Palestinian leaders to ensure that if and when they achieve a state, that state respects the rights of all of its people. To my mind, that very much includes those Jews willing to live in a Palestinian state as equal citizens.

Second, Israel’s survival depends on showing the world that Zionism can be just. It’s nice that the pope laid a wreath at Theodor Herzl’s grave. But Herzl himself understood that making Zionism just would be a struggle. In his utopian novel Altneuland, he imagined an election in a future Jewish state between the racist Dr. Geyer, who wants only Jews to be able to vote, and David Littwak, whose party includes both Arabs and Jews and supports equal rights for all. At one campaign stop, Littwak tells the Jewish citizens of Herzl’s imagined state that, “All your cultivation is worthless and your fields will revert to barrenness unless you foster liberal ideas, magnanimity, and a love of mankind.”

In different language, the pope is saying something similar. If Israel becomes permanent master of millions of Palestinians who lack the right to vote and live under military law, it will become a pariah. The movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS)—many of whose leaders reject a Jewish state within any borders—will grow and grow. And, ultimately, a century of Zionist “cultivation” will be for naught.

Israel doesn’t only need peace as much as the Palestinians. It needs justice as much too. As Herzl understood, the Zionist project will rise or fall on whether Zionists can prove that a state dedicated to Jewish self-protection can act justly toward the non-Jews under its control. In the West Bank today, Israel is failing that test.

If Israel wants future popes to lay wreaths at Herzl’s grave, it must recommit itself to the liberal ideals in which Herzl believed. That’s the warning that Francis, in his gentle way, offered Israel on his first trip as פope.

Pope Francis observes a moment of silence after laying a wreath during a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem May 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Click the alert icon to follow topics: