August 2009

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President Obama speaks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Cairo, Egypt.

Deaf to Peace

-- Rabbi Avi Shafran

My daily commute often puts me in the presence of one or another ear bud-wearing young person whose music device’s volume is turned up sufficiently high to be audible (and annoying) to others many feet away. The experience makes me think about the Middle East. No, really.

The tinny noise, surely astoundingly loud to the eardrums mere millimeters away, makes me envision a world twenty years hence in which millions of middle-aged are unable to hear. And unlike the congenitally deaf, the newly hard-of-hearing will find it hard to manage. I wonder about the toll a chronically cranky chunk of the populace might take on society.

And that is what brings me to wonder about a different toll, on Palestinians.

President Obama received much criticism from some Jewish circles for elements of his Cairo speech earlier this month. His every turn of phrase, his juxtaposition of topics, what he said and what he didn’t say – all were subjected to great scrutiny, and found wanting by some.

Others noted that, for goodness’ sake, he was speaking to an Arab audience, seeking to seize an opportunity to win some trust on America’s behalf. If peace between Israel and Palestinian Arabs is possible (a big “if,” they concede), it will require a United States President who is seen by most Palestinians as sympathetic to their cause. The President, moreover, was explicit to his Muslim audience about “America’s strong bonds with Israel,” which he declared “unbreakable.”

The issues are well known. What borders should a Palestinian state have? Should it be independent or confederated with an existing Arab country? Should it be armed or demilitarized? Should it be at all?

Should some or all Israeli communities built on land captured in 1967 be dismantled? Limited in growth? Left alone to grow and thrive as part of the Jewish State? Should Hamas and other murderous groups be included in any peace process directly or indirectly or shunned as incorrigible?

Should Arab refugees and their children and grandchildren be permitted to return to lands where they or their forebears once lived? Compensated in some way? Or absorbed by one of the dozen or so Arab countries?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his own recent speech at Bar Ilan University, addressed some of those issues, rejecting limitations on existing communities and accepting in principle the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

What is arguably the most important issue, though, is something else.

It is something President Obama actually broached in his Cairo speech, when he called Holocaust denial “ignorant” and “hateful,” and said that “repeating vile stereotypes about Jews” is “deeply wrong.”

He was even more explicit in an interview after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in which he recounted telling the Arab leader “that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square,” that “all those things are impediments to peace.”

The President spoke, as always, diplomatically. “Those things,” in fact, are more than impediments; they are nail-packed bombs under the possibility of peace. As long as television programming for Arab children features puppets spewing hatred for Israel and cheerfully committing themselves to jihad; as long as streets in Palestinian-controlled areas are named in honor of vicious murderers of Jews; as long as Palestinian schools teach canards about Israel and use maps of the region that do not indicate the existence of a Jewish State – issues of states and borders and settlements are purely academic. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 21b) that “the learning of youth” is the most strongly absorbed, remaining indelible into later years.

Decades, even centuries, of hatred do not preclude peace. But neither can peace be built on a foundation of hatred.

Whatever one’s views on a “two state solution,” on “settlements” or on a “right of return” for Palestinian Arabs and their descendants, it should be clear that the President was on target about the need for Arab incitement to cease. If I had his and Mr. Netanyahu’s ears, I would respectfully suggest that they move that issue to the very front and center of the “peace process,” where it belongs; that nothing else even be contemplated until it is fully resolved.

Because a loud, lewd and relentless stream of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish noise pumped into impressionable young Arabs’ brains today will only render yet another generation of adults down the road stone-deaf to any possibility of peace.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.


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