April 16, 2003

Passover road map: U.S. troops in Jerusalem


The controversial decision to wage war in Iraq is now left for historians to analyze. The weeks and months ahead will influence their decision. Was the war in Iraq justified as a journey toward democracy? Did political change in Iraq bring new hope to the peoples of the Middle East? The time ahead might make the military victory in Iraq simple by comparison.

As an American I am compelled to pay attention to events unfolding in Iraq and the Middle East. Our nation is at war; the lives of American soldiers are at risk. I also think about the Iraqi people and their casualties. With the fall of the Iraqi regime, anarchy reigns in the streets of Baghdad. Dictatorships are horrible beyond words, but their dissolution presents a complex challenge.

As a Jew, these and other things are on my mind, especially during the Passover season. The drama of liberation as recounted in the Passover story is one of compelling, universal significance. Who is not drawn to this epic tale of struggle and freedom?

Yet the continuing expansion of Israel and the denial of Palestinian rights overshadow Passover. It is an accusing image that strikes at the very heart of our celebration of liberation. With the four questions asked by the children at the Passover meal -- of their commitment to the Jewish people and our history -- now a fifth demands a response: Can we as Jews celebrate our liberation if we deny liberation to the Palestinian people?

It is a startling question rarely articulated, remaining buried, hovering around the festive celebration, until a false note is evident and the raised wine glasses become empty of meaning.

For many Jews the light of Passover has gone out. I think here especially of Jews of conscience who see Palestinian freedom as intimately tied to the freedom of Israel and the Jewish people.

Jews of conscience are in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Freedom for Palestinians would renew the Passover season. It would bring light again where today there is darkness.

As the season of liberation begins, let us think religiously, ethically and politically; the Hebrew Bible and the Passover story tie these themes together, as should we. There has been talk lately of a road map for peace in the Middle East. President Bush promised one, the world anticipates one.

There is little mystery to the general thrust of the road map, the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. The devil is in the details. What kind of Palestinian state is envisioned? What territory will become the Palestinian state? What will happen to the Israeli settlements that intrude upon and divide Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, rendering the discussion of a Palestinian state almost ridiculous?

Peace processes have come and gone while the situation worsens. Blame is passed around, not only between Jews and Palestinians, but among nations and world religions. Now we are set to begin again. Will this be the time when "peace is at hand" becomes justice achieved?

The last few days have seen the process begin again with maneuvering that is all too familiar. Ariel Sharon has spoken of the need for painful concessions but few believe that he is speaking of anything but the dismantlement of a few settler outposts created in the last months, hardly enough to satisfy the Palestinian aspirations. Yasser Arafat, who fought hard against the appointment of an independent prime minister, has now vetoed the prime minister's Cabinet nominations. It is said that Arafat, a survivor, has many political lives. He wants to hold on to power until his last breath. Both Sharon and Arafat are playing for time, but the hour is late. The very future of Israel and Palestine is at stake.

So let me try my hand. The only peace between Israel and the Palestinians will come through a rough justice and within the international consensus of a two-state solution. This means a full withdrawal of Israel from the territories occupied in the 1967 war: a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with a shared Jerusalem. The Israeli settlements and soldiers have to be removed. A viable Palestinian state would only then become a reality.

The rub, of course, is that Israel wants the settlements and the land they dominate. The Palestinians have no power to remove the Israelis from their land. The United States is the only country with the authority and power to demand and enforce Israel's withdrawal. It has not done so. Just the opposite: it has aided and abetted Israel's expansion. But the cost of that policy to American interests, prestige and principle is more and more apparent. The double standard toward Iraq and Israel is self-evident.

Lately I have been thinking the unthinkable. American troops are in the neighborhood. On the way back from Iraq perhaps they could stop over in Jerusalem. American forces in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, these forces could separate the parties and push Israel back to its internationally recognized border. A Palestinian state would be born. America would monitor the peace until both sides proved their ability to maintain their borders.

Perhaps this new American policy could be announced during Passover. The nights of our ancient liberation, celebrated as a hard fought struggle and a miracle, would become contemporary. The energy of that liberation would spread throughout the Middle East and perhaps even the world. It certainly would bring light to the Passover tables around the world, where Jews tell our story for ourselves and the world.

American forces in Jerusalem. Call it the present-day road map of liberation.

Ellis is University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco. His most recent book is Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes; The Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century, published by Pluto Press.