Accord Was to Ensure Jewish Majority

The Oslo agreement was the first agreement ever signed between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), intended to put an end to the national struggle that is the heart of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Olso agreement was the natural continuation of the framework agreements signed at the 1978 Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which also provided the basis for the 1991 Madrid Conference.

But, the talks that I initiated in Oslo contained two unique elements: For the first time, the Palestinian partner was clearly identified as the PLO, and the idea was proposed to transfer to Palestinian control most of the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area, even before elections were held for the Palestinian Authority’s legislative council and leadership.

The Oslo process was intended to save the Zionist enterprise before Israel would control an area where the majority of residents would be Palestinian. Anyone who believes that Israel must be a Jewish and democratic state must support the establishment of a border between Israel and the Palestinian side — preferably by consent rather than by unilateral measures.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin understood this and gave his support to the Oslo process. He faced opposition from a right-wing camp that presented itself as nationalist but did not propose any solution that would guarantee a Jewish and democratic future for Israel.

The interim measures did not accomplish their goal — that is, a final peace agreement — because of efforts by elements on both sides.

On the Palestinian side, the extremist religious organizations understood that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be the end of the road for them, and they acted to undermine the process through violence. The more difficult the conditions became in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the more public support these organizations gained.

On the Israeli side, it was the right wing — in particular, extremist settlers — who did whatever they could to foil a final status settlement that would divide the Land of Israel.

Attempts to attribute the past three years of violence to the Oslo agreement are characteristic of people who did not believe in the agreement in the first place and who believe that any agreement with the enemy is a surrender that ultimately will engender more violence.

I am not saying that the Oslo agreement was free of flaws. But those flaws were not the result of an innocent belief that the five-year interim period would build such confidence and esteem between Israelis and Palestinians that it would be easy to reach a final status settlement.

In my opinion, there were two flaws in the Oslo Agreement and its implementation:

First, the fact that no reference was made to the freezing of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — the Palestinians accepted Rabin’s personal commitment to halt the construction of new settlements — created an opening that a subsequent right-wing government used to build new settlements, though it clearly was not the original intent of the agreement.

Second, Israel did not give sufficient importance to incitement in the Palestinian media, thinking it was a trend that would pass when the final status agreement was signed. This incitement played a significant role in the Palestinians’ return to violence in 2000.

Both sides blame the other for the process’ failure, though the Palestinians’ choice of violence means they have the greater share of blame.

But our future does not lie in reciprocal blaming. If we want to secure the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, we must do it before there is a Palestinian majority under Israeli control.

If the Palestinians want a state with a secular and pragmatic leadership, they must do it before Hamas and Islamic Jihad conquer the hearts of the people.

We have no time. The only effective way to do this is to complete the Oslo process and reach the final status agreement as quickly as possible.

Yossi Bellin was minister of justice in Ehud Barak’s government and one of the architects of the Oslo agreement.

In Search of Moderate Muslims

Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA,
estimates that two years ago he received between 30 and 40 requests from around
the country to participate in interfaith dialogues between Jews and Muslims.

Last year he received just one.

“They just vanished,” he said during an interview. “Such
invitations are a barometer of the level of dialogue, though my experience may
not be representative because of my own idiosyncrasies.”

The “idiosyncrasies” to which he was referring, if a bit
obliquely, center on the strong reactions to his urging fellow Muslims to speak
out against the radical elements of Islam that he maintains have gained
controlling influence through the “puritanical” form of the religion promoted
by Saudi Arabia.

El Fadl, 39, who was raised in Kuwait and Egypt, has been
writing critically of fundamentalist Islam for years in scholarly articles and
books, most recently “The Place of Tolerance in Islam” (Beacon Press, 2002).
But he gained international attention — and a flurry of death threats — after
publishing an Op-Ed article in the Los Angeles Times three days after the Sept.
11 attacks in which he asserted that the suicide missions were not a deviation
from mainstream Islam, but rather the result of an “ethically oblivious form”
of the religion that “has predominated since the 1970s.”

Such opinions have garnered admiration for El Fadl in some
quarters of the Jewish community, where he is praised for intellectual honesty
and bravery. Others, though, are far more skeptical.

Daniel Pipes, for example, an expert on Islam and editor of
the Middle East Forum, said El Fadl “has succeeded in fooling influential
individuals that he is a moderate American Muslim intellectual” when he is,
according to Pipes, “just another Muslim extremist.”

Closer to home, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam (religious
leader) of a local mosque only 12 blocks from the site of the World Trade
Center, has been involved in interfaith dialogue for years here and an advocate
of integrating Islam with modern society.

Rabbi Michael Paley, executive director of synagogue and
community affairs of UJA-Federation of New York, believes Abdul Rauf is a
positive force for moderation and a partner for dialogue. But officials of the
American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) are skeptical, asserting that several
post-Sept.11 comments the imam made were problematic.

Understanding Them and Us

What started out as a simple question in my mind — are there
any moderate Muslim leaders in this country with whom we can dialogue? — has
turned into a more complex exploration. That’s because it speaks not only to
the ideology, politics and inner workings of the Muslim community, but to our
own understanding and expectations of that community — and of ourselves.

My limited research has found that there are only a few
leading Muslim clerics or intellectuals who have spoken out forcefully and
unequivocally against terrorism, like suicide bombings — a baseline commitment
for the Jewish community — and who are willing to engage in serious dialogue
with Jews.

Most acceptable to the Jewish community is Sheik Muhammad
Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, based in Detroit and
Washington, D.C., an exemplar of tolerance who has spoken out forcefully
against all forms of terrorism and in favor of a negotiated settlement in the
Middle East. But he is marginalized by many Arab Muslims and has credibility
problems in that community, not unlike the way Noam Chomsky, the Jewish MIT
professor and advocate for the Palestinian cause, is perceived by mainstream

Large Muslim groups like the Council on American Islamic
Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) are viewed as seeking to
undermine American support for Israel, accusing the Jewish State of human
rights abuses and atrocities.

Somewhere in between are people like El Fadl, criticized by
some in the Jewish community for not speaking out more forcefully, but praised
by others, particularly those who know him.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, met
El Fadl when he started coming regularly to the rabbi’s Torah study group held
for faculty, and they have appeared numerous times together in public
discussing Jewish-Muslim issues. The rabbi said El Fadl is “heroic” because he
is willing to criticize Islam from within.

“My belief is that our community needs to hear from
Muslims,” Seidler-Feller said. “I’m not a Pollyanna, but there are not too many
of these people [Muslims willing to appear with Jews and speak out] and they
should be treated as gems. We have to be very careful, think strategically and
realize the precariousness of their positions among their people.

“What’s important is not so much what they are saying to us
but what they are saying in their own community. We don’t need them to be

Seidler-Feller disagrees with critics like Pipes, and says
that by insisting Muslim leaders “meet all our criteria before we can speak to
them, the net result is that we can’t talk to anyone.”

The rabbi said he is worried about the direction he sees
Muslims students taking on college campuses and stresses the importance of
dialogue, because “we need simply to establish human contact. We need to start

El Fadl said much the same as to why he believes in
dialogue. “Without it, we end up inventing each other,” he said, “and each
other’s image. Engaging in the human interaction slows down the tendency to see
each other in convenient packages. If we stop the dialogue, we just pat
ourselves on the back and go on happily.”

Dialogue, he said, makes each party accountable to the

El Fadl was criticized strongly in his community, he said,
“for speaking sympathetically of a rabbi” in another Los Angeles Times opinion
piece. El Fadl wrote that a rabbi friend had offered him and his family
sanctuary after the death threats came.

Prior to the latest round of Mideast violence, he said he
was optimistic that Muslims and Jews might “reach some equilibrium in the
West.” But, after Sept. 11, “the hope has vanished. We are bad examples for
reconciliation,” he said.

His primary focus, though, has been to criticize the kind of
Islamic fundamentalism that has gained acceptance in the Muslim world.

“It is sad to note that [Osama] bin Laden has in fact won in
shaping and shifting the discourse,” El Fadl said.

Alliance or Deception?

Soon after Sept. 11, El Fadl wrote that “[American] Muslim
leadership has failed, and it has blamed everyone but itself for this failure.”
He called on major Muslim organizations and intellectuals to draft and sign a
statement “unequivocally condemning terrorism” in “the harshest language

Such outspoken views have caused El Fadl to be persona non
grata among many Muslims, and others, here and abroad. His car was trashed, his
house staked and the FBI and UCLA have taken precautions to protect him. Does
he feel in danger?

“I have to do what I have to do,” he said, noting that “this
is a defining moment in the history of Islam. Either it will be a player in the
legacy of humanity or it will be a strange marginality, an oddity.”

What will make the difference, El Fadl said, is “if there
are more of those willing to martyr themselves for beauty and morality than
there are those willing to blow themselves up in horrible, ugly, unbelievably
disgusting ways, like at bar mitzvahs. Unless there are [more people to make
sacrifices for truth], I fear for the fate of Islam.”

Some in the Jewish community are not swayed by such
seemingly heartfelt declarations. One critic, Pipes, bases his belief on the
fact that for many years El Fadl published articles in The Minaret, a journal
published by the MPAC, a leading organization that opposed the Oslo peace

Pipes said El Fadl also contributed to the Holy Land
Foundation, which the United States closed down last year because it raised
money for Hamas, an anti-Israel terrorist group in the Mideast.

Similarly, Yehudit Barsky, director of the division of
Middle East and international terrorism for the AJCommittee, said she is
troubled that El Fadl wrote for a publication funded by a Muslim organization
hostile to Israel. She said it is difficult to assess relations with Muslims
who may say one thing to a Jewish audience and something else to a Muslim

“You can’t be all things to all people,” Barsky said.

Further, she noted that the AJCommittee was “burned badly” a
few years ago by MPAC. The group participated in public dialogue conferences
with the committee, “but after Oslo it was opposed to the negotiations and
referred to Israel as ‘the Zionist entity,'” Barsky recalled.

El Fadl said he published in The Minaret for many years
because he “wanted to reach a Muslim audience and it was the only Muslim
publication willing to publish my writings [including criticism of Islamic
fundamentalism],” he said. “But as my writing became more influential, they
banished me.”

The board of the magazine banned El Fadl in July. They claim
the issue was quality, but El Fadl said that is “absurd,” and noted that the
decision came just after his high-profile writings against Muslim leaders and
policy, particularly in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Was it ideal that I published in The Minaret?” El Fadl
asked. “No. But do I regret it? No. I had no other means of reaching that

He said that while he does not recall contributing funds to
the Holy Land Foundation, he has no apologies about giving to organizations
that aid Palestinians or other refugees — “just as Jews do for Israel, which I
respect.” He said he would never support groups that “use funds to kill
innocent civilians,” adding that critics of dialogue in the Jewish community
“assume Muslims are committed to the destruction of Israel,” thus giving the
critics the rationale to take hard-line positions.

One defender of El Fadl in the Jewish community is Leon
Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who said it is unfair for some
in the Jewish community to indulge in the equivalent of “tzitzit checking,” or
“interpreting every expression of solidarity with Islam as an expression of
Islamic extremism, so as to elide the difference between moderate and militant

“We insist that Jews never break rank with Israel,”
Wieseltier observed, “but we are quick to applaud members of certain other
minorities when they break rank with their own groups.”

He called El Fadl “a brave man” and said it was “chutzpah
for Jews to criticize him.”

“The point is to talk to him, not ‘out’ him,” Wieseltier

So the debate continues, speaking to the heart of the goals
of dialogue. Must it lead to trust and a common direction, or is it sufficient
to better understand the other?

Each side here is wary of being used, of losing credibility
in one’s own community by taking steps toward one’s adversary. But in a world
where there are 2 billion Muslims, it may be wise for the Jewish community to
cultivate those few influential Muslims who advocate tolerance and to engage
them in a conversation that could help lead us back from the ruinous path of
eternal demonization.  

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, where this article originally appeared.

Complicated Branches

"The Syringa Tree," which won the 2001 Obie Award for best play and premieres in Los Angeles this week, might be the first theatrical work to deal with the complicated and ambiguous relations between Jews and blacks in South Africa. A solo performance written and acted by Pamela Gien, it is a partly fictionalized — though mostly factual — account of a half-Jewish, half-English child in Johannesburg during apartheid. Created by Gien in a Santa Monica acting class in 1996, the play was inspired by the brutal murder of Gien’s grandfather when she was a child.

Using little in the way of stage effects outside of a swing and a cyclorama (a two-layered semicircular backdrop), Gien creates an uncommonly moving, even wrenching, study of race relations as seen through the eyes of a little girl, Elizabeth, aka Lizzy. I was reminded of James Agee’s tone-poem "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," where the daily events of adults are experienced through the imagination, and expressed through the luminous images, of a child.

Yet "The Syringa Tree" — Gien’s debut writing effort — is about a lot more than the nostalgia of a lazy day in Tennessee. It is concerned with the suffering of black people under apartheid and the various ways whites dealt with their responsibility for it.

In a speech given to the Harvard Jewish faculty by my wife, Doreen Beinart, a Jewish South African, she noted that while organized Jewry (including the Jewish Board of Deputies and most Orthodox rabbis) did not protest apartheid for fear of being subjected to Afrikaner bigotry, individual Jews — such as Joe Slovo, chief of staff of the military wing of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress — were often among the most active white people fighting racism.

That divided attitude permeates Gien’s play. From the moment the black maid, Sellamina, refers to her little charge as "my pickaninny missus," we are in a nest of nurturing warmth and color-blind affection built on a foundation of hierarchy and subjugation — somewhat like that of the antebellum American South.

In order to depict such a world, Gien has single-handedly created a theatrical album of 24 characters. She was once an actress in my company, the American Repertory Theatre, but nothing in her previous work prepared me for what she is delivering here — a series of character transformations so instantaneous and intense that the stage seems peopled with multitudes.

Still, it is not just the technical achievement that startles one into attention. It is the way she manages to delineate, physically and vocally, a whole world of whites, blacks, Jews and Afrikaners — a world of divided identities where the very fact that a black baby (Sellamina’s daughter, Moliseng) has been born without "papers" can destroy her and uproot everyone around her.

Gien has perfect pitch in the way she depicts characters, such as the harassed father dispensing precious medicines; the slightly hysterical, vaguely depressed mother; the rigid Afrikaner farmers praying for rain, and particularly the stoical Faulknerian maid and her own child whom Lizzy’s parents help to birth.

Lizzy’s Jewish father is a doctor and her English mother manages the black staff with sympathy, yet both mother and father are regarded as outlanders, by blacks and whites alike.

When Sellamina takes Moliseng to her family in Soweto, the little girl gets sick and is lost in a hospital where people are dying of dehydration. In her terror and grief, Sellamina rocks under the syringa tree, mindless of the berries falling on her body. Lizzy’s parents help to find the little girl and return her safely to her mother.

It is that sort of thing that leads the hard-nosed Afrikaner farmers to believe that the Jews and English are making trouble with the blacks who will come and kill them in their beds.

Sadly, the Afrikaner prophecy comes true. Lizzy’s father discovers that his wife’s parents have been murdered on their Natal farm in the course of a petty theft. Sellamina is so ashamed of the violence that she can no longer look the family in the eye, and soon she leaves. Not long thereafter, the terrible events of Soweto erupt.

Eventually, the grown-up Elizabeth departs for America, vowing never to come back because "we don’t change things." Nonetheless, she returns to Johannesburg after the fall of apartheid, is reunited with Sellamina and finds her past again. This reunion constitutes a poem of inconsolable loss and nostalgia ("Oh God, how I miss it!") that leaves the audience grieving as much as the central character for the beloved country. At the end of the play, she is back where she began, on a swing, ecstatic with a vision of lost paradise.

The performance is impeccable. Gien has a meticulous eye for detail and the capacity to render each moment with truth and illumination. Don’t miss this transcendent dramatic experience.