Prospects for peace seem especially bleak in Israel these days.
Since taking office in March, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered
the assassinations of Palestinian leaders, expanded Jewish settlements
in the West Bank, demolished dozens of Palestinian homes and bombed
Israel's electorate opted for Sharon's tainted leadership in a
reaction to the disappointing tenure of Ehud Barak, who seemingly
offered Palestinians the world--through the Oslo Peace accords--only
to have it thrown back into his face with a new Intifada.
This erroneous notion that Israel's gestures of peace were unrequited
by the Palestinians provoked a backlash in Israel that carried Sharon
into office. But it was Sharon himself who sparked the explosion
in the occupied territories with a provocative visit to a Jerusalem
shrine. His visit came near the anniversary of the 1982 massacre
of thousands of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra
and Shatilla, an outrage for which he bore "personal responsibility,"
according to an official Israeli inquiry.
Sharon has been performing as advertised, ratcheting up the violence
of the Israeli Defense Forces in the occupied territories and rejecting
calls for a freeze in Jewish settlement construction made by a U.S.-led
commission. Chaired by former Sen. George Mitchell, the commission
was predictably equivocal in its report, calling on both sides to
stop the fighting. But it did bring focus on the issue of settlements,
making Sharon's defiance of these modest demands seem even more
But could this be the silver lining in the storm clouds ominously
amassing over the Middle East? "Sometimes when things get so bad
and it seems they couldn't get any worse, that's when people begin
to take notice and take action to make things better," explains
Cindy Levitt, one of the organizers of a recent conference called
"Jewish Unity for a Just Peace."
The conference, held in Chicago in early May, brought together
progressive Jewish activists urging an end to the Israeli occupation.
The conference attracted nearly 200 people from across the globe,
exceeding expectations and prompting a sense of optimism that the
time may be ripe for a real debate about Israel among American Jews.
"Now is the time for us to break the lock that a few, well-funded,
narrowly focused, pro-Israel advocacy groups have maintained over
Jewish public opinion on matters concerning Israel and the cause
of peace," read a portion of the group's announcement.
Even as the activity of Israeli peace groups has declined in the
wake of the Sharon landslide, the energy of U.S.-based groups is
seemingly on the rise. "It's gratifying to see more willingness
among American Jews, especially younger Jews, to criticize Israel's
routine abuse of Palestinian civil rights," says Jeff Halper, professor
of anthropology at Israel's Ben-Gurion University and coordinator
of the Israeli
Committee Against House Demolitions.
Although many of the conference organizers are longtime Jewish
dissidents, the prime movers are new to politics. Levitt got involved
in the struggle last fall as part of a Chicago-based group called
Not In My Name, which was formed
following the eruption of the new Intifada last September.
Stephen Feuerstein founded Not In My Name after watching the deployment
of Israeli helicopter gunships against rock-throwing Palestinians
living under occupation. "I could no longer be quiet in the face
of such obvious injustice," he says. "I have decided to be as visible
as possible about Israel's brutal and deadly policies." Feuerstein
notes that many Jews are opposed to Israeli policies, but so few
are willing to take a public stand because they've been intimidated
by powerful Jewish organizations and a misguided sense of Jewish
solidarity. "I think it's very important for Jews to see other Jews
express opposition to the treatment of Palestinians," he says.
Perhaps if Jews themselves begin telling the story of Israel's
unjust occupation, more Americans and their elected officials will
start to listen.