Barak Spoke for the ‘Essential Consensus of Israel’

For two weeks, the leaks from Camp David kept reinforcing one insistent message: All the other issues could perhaps be compromised, but not Jerusalem. Ehud Barak could contemplate self-government by the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, but he would not give up Israel’s sovereignty in a formally undivided city, and he dug in his heels at the suggestion that the Old City be put under international control.

I have no doubt that all the stalwarts of “peace in the Middle East” will be busy bemoaning Prime Minister Barak’s obduracy. They will praise him for having the courage to go as far as he went at Camp David, much farther than any previous Israeli leader, and they will be bemoaning the fact that he was unable to walk that last mile because, supposedly, he was afraid of the opposition of Israel’s obdurate right wing.

These analysts are wrong. Prime Minister Barak was behaving as he should have, speaking for the essential consensus of Israel as a whole. I applaud him not as a man of the right, which I am not, but as someone who has spent all of his public life in Jewish affairs, a man of the left, a peacenik. I was a member of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization in the 1970s and earned myself the enmity of Golda Meir when I wrote an essay in 1971 asserting that there could be no peace until a Palestinian state existed beside the State of Israel. I helped found Peace Now in Israel in those years. And yet, this man of the left remains totally convinced, together with most Jews both inside and outside of Israel, that Jerusalem must remain in Jewish control, even as Israel should give autonomy to the Palestinian Arabs in East Jerusalem, and that the Old City should never be surrendered to any sort of international control.

I know the exact moment when I reached this fierce and somber conclusion about Jerusalem. It was in mid-June in 1967, a very few days after the end of the Six-Day War. I was one of the many thousands who streamed on foot into the Old City of Jerusalem. After visiting the Western Wall, my wife and I walked through the shuk. We wandered in its side streets, but everywhere it was dim and dark. The streets of the shuk are covered, but occasionally we saw astonishing shafts of sunlight. As we reached these spots, we found rubble. At every place, the explanation was the same. These were synagogues, over 40 in all in the Old City, which had been destroyed before the Jews had been expelled in 1948 by the Jordanian army. These holy places were dynamited one by one, after the Holy City had been lost at war.

On that walk, my wife and I prayed at the Western Wall, but we did not cry, not even in joy. We were overcome by the privilege of standing in a place that none of our ancestors had ever reached. But as we walked by the rubble of these destroyed synagogues, I wept very bitterly, and soon my wife joined me.Iwas angry at the Jordanians, who had promised in their armistice agreement with Israel to respect the shrines and religious installations that the Jews were forced to leave. I saw tombstones from the Mount of Olives which had been taken from their places and used to pave officers’ latrines. An American who had grown up in a reasonably tolerant Western society, I was especially furious with the silence of Christians. There were innumerable Christian installations in East Jerusalem, and tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims had come through the years from all the countries of the West, and from the United States. The Christian scholars at the biblical institutes in East Jerusalem, and the monks and nuns of the various orders who resided in the area, knew very well what had happened to the synagogues, but not one word of protest had ever been uttered. It was more convenient to look away.

In the course of the next few weeks in Israel, I encountered a number of religious leaders in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Over and over, I asked the same question: Did you feel any moral responsibility to try to stop these outrages? Everywhere I was answered with embarrassed shrugs and silence. The representatives of Islam and Christianity failed the test in the years when they were in control or were respected observers in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Jews of Israel have not been total saints and angels. They did leave many unused mosques to languish within their territory, but there was no systematic destruction. Almost all of the buildings still exist. After 1967, the Jewish rule of the Old City has been methodically fair and just, and especially in the most sensitive holy places of all three biblical faiths.

Before my eyes – the sight is indelible – there has remained the unexpected sunlight that I saw in mid-June 1967 in the places where synagogues once stood. I took the vow that day that I would always support those Jews who would not let such things ever happen again. I support Ehud Barak. He has stood fast on the Jewish responsibility, to ourselves and to the world, to respect and protect fairness and justice for all the faiths in the Holy City.