It’s time for words to lead the peace process

It is now clear that no peace agreement, not even on principles, will be signed by the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating team before some time in 2009, after the
new American administration takes charge, the Israeli election runs its course and the fate of Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency is decided.

Analysts who have been urging the two sides to expedite matters for all the many reasons that made the window of opportunities narrower by the day are now urging them to “keep the momentum going,” lest the window, which I doubt ever existed, becomes too narrow to re-open.

But how do you keep momentum going when the two sides are locked in a fundamentally immobile stalemate?

Israel is physically unable to accommodate a sovereign neighbor a rocket range away from its vital airports, one whose youngsters openly vow to destroy it. And Palestinians, on their part, cannot change their youngsters’ vows after having nourished them for decades, especially under occupation, while Iran is promising to turn those vows into reality.

Yet there is a way. If we cannot move on the ground, we should move above it — in the metaphysical sphere of words, metaphors and paradigms — to create a movement that not only would maintain the perception of “keeping the momentum going,” but could actually be the key to any future movement on the ground.

Let us be frank: The current stalemate is ideological, not physical, and it hangs on two major contentions: “historical right” and “justice,” which must be wrestled with in words before we can expect any substantive movement on the ground.

Starting with “historical right,” we recall that a year ago, the Annapolis process was on the verge of collapse on account of two words: “Jewish state.”

In the week preceding Annapolis, Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat proclaimed, “The PA would never acknowledge Israel’s Jewish identity,” to which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reacted angrily with: “We won’t hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state…. Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me.”

Clearly, to the secular Israeli society, the insistence on a Jewish state has nothing to do with kosher food or wearing yarmulkes; it has to do with historical claims of co-ownership and legitimacy, which are prerequisites for any lasting peace, regardless of its shape. Olmert’s reaction, which is shared by the vast majority of Israelis, translates into: “Whoever refuses to tell his children that Jews are here by moral and historical imperative has no intention of honoring his agreements in the long run.”

In other words, recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” is seen by Israelis as a litmus test for Arabs’ intentions to take peace agreements as permanent. Unfortunately, for the Arabs, the words “Jewish state” signal the legitimization of a theocratic society and the exclusion of non-Jews from co-ownership in the state.

Can these two views be reconciled?

Of course they can. If the PA agrees to recognize Israel’s “historical right” to exist (instead of just “right to exist” or “exist as a Jewish state”) fears connected with religious exclusion will not be awakened, and Israel’s demand for a proof of intention will simultaneously be satisfied: You do not teach your children of your neighbor’s “historical right” unless you intend to make the final status agreement truly final — education is an irreversible investment.

But would the PA ever agree to grant Israel such recognition?

This brings us to the second magical word: “justice.” One of the main impediments to Palestinians’ recognition of Israel’s “right to exist,” be it historical or de-facto, is their fear that such recognition would delegitimize the Arabs’ struggle against the Zionist program throughout the first half of the 20th century, thus contextualizing the entire conflict as a whimsical Arab aggression and weakening their claims to the “right of return.”

All analysts agree that Palestinians would never agree to give up, tarnish or weaken this right. They might, however, accept a symbolic recognition that would satisfy, neutralize and, perhaps, even substitute for the literal right of return.

Palestinian columnist Daoud Kuttab wrote in the Washington Post (May 12): “The basic demand is not the physical return of all refugees but for Israel to take responsibility for causing this decades-long tragedy.”

Similar to Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Palestinian refugees demand their place in history through recognition that their suffering was not a senseless dust storm but part of a man-made historical process, to which someone bears responsibility and is prepared to amend the injustice.

Journalist Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset, believes that this deep sense of injustice can be satisfied through an open and frank Israeli apology.

“I believe that peace between us and the Palestinian people — a real peace, based on real conciliation — starts with an apology” he wrote in Arabic Media Internet Network, June 14 (

“In my mind’s eye,” he writes, “I see the president of the state or the prime minister addressing an extraordinary session of the Knesset and making an historic speech of apology:

‘Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

‘On behalf of the State of Israel and all its citizens, I address today the sons and daughters of the Palestinian people, wherever they are.

‘We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

‘The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement was to save the Jews of Europe, where the dark clouds of hatred for the Jews were gathering. In Eastern Europe, pogroms were raging, and all over Europe there were signs of the process that would eventually lead to the terrible Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews perished.

‘All this does not justify what happened afterwards. The creation of the Jewish national home in this country has involved a profound injustice to you, the people who lived here for generations.

‘We cannot ignore anymore the fact that in the war of 1948 — which is the War of Independence for us and the Naqba for you — some 750,000 Palestinians were compelled to leave their homes and lands. As for the precise circumstances of this tragedy, I propose the establishment of a Committee for Truth and Reconciliation composed of experts from your and from our side, whose conclusions will from then on be incorporated in the schoolbooks, yours and ours.'”

Is Israeli society ready to make such an apology and assume such responsibility? Not a chance.

For an Israeli, admitting guilt for creating the refugee problem is tantamount to embedding Israel’s birth in sin, thus undermining the legitimacy of its existence and encouraging those who threaten that existence. The dominant attitude is: They started the war; wars have painful consequences; they fled on their own, despite our official calls to stay put. We are clean.

Can this attitude be reconciled with Palestinians’ demands for official recognition of their suffering? I believe it can.

Whereas Israelis refuse to assume full responsibility for the consequences of the 1948 war, they are certainly prepared to assume part of that responsibility. After all, Israelis are not unaware of stories about field commanders in the 1948 war who initiated private campaigns to scare Arab villagers and, on some occasions, to force them out.

So, how do we find words to express reciprocal responsibility? Here I take author’s liberty and, following Avnery, appeal to my mind’s eye and envision the continuation of that extraordinary Knesset session at the end of the Israeli president’s speech.

I see Abbas waiting for the applause to subside, stepping to the podium and saying:

“Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

“On behalf of the Palestinian people and the future state of Palestine, I address today the sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, wherever they are.

“We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

“The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement was to liberate Palestine from colonial powers, first the Ottoman empire and then the British Mandate Authorities. In their zeal to achieve independence, they have treated the creation of a Jewish national home in this country as a form of colonial occupation, rather than a homecoming endeavor of a potentially friendly neighbor, a partner to liberation, whose historical attachment to this landscape was not weaker than ours.

“We cannot ignore anymore the fact that the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 has resulted in the British White Paper, which prevented thousands, if not millions, of European Jews from escaping the Nazi extermination plan. Nor can we ignore the fact that when survivors of Nazi concentration camps sought refuge in Palestine, we were instrumental in denying them safety and, when they finally established their historical homeland, we called the armies of our Arab brethren to wipe out their newly created state.

“Subsequently, for the past 60 years, in our zeal to rectify the injustice done to us, we have taught our children that only your demise can bring about the justice and liberty they so badly deserve. They took our teachings rather seriously, and some of them resorted to terror wars that killed, maimed and injured thousands of your citizens.”

Admittedly, this scenario is utopian. The idea of Palestinians apologizing to Israel is so heretical in prevailing political consciousness that only six Google entries mention such a gesture, compared with 615 entries citing “Israel must apologize.”

Yet, peace begins with ideas, and ideas are shaped by words. And the utopian scenario I painted above gives a feasible frame to reciprocal words that must be said, in one form or another, for a lasting peace to set in.

And if not now, when? Recall, we must keep the momentum going.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation ( named after his son. He and his wife, Ruth, are editors of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Jewish Writing: A Renaissance Awaits

What is Jewish writing, and what is a Jewish writer? The question has so many answers that it has almost become tedious.

Those who have ventured into the literary world know that if even a page of their work touches upon anything remotely Jewish, they will be sentenced to a lifetime of sitting on panels during which they will be asked the question, "Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?"

In fact, it could be said that in America today, we have a new definition of a Jewish writer: A Jewish writer is one who is asked to participate in a panel during which she will be asked the question, "Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?"

It may be a joke, but this reality reflects a certain consensus about what Jewish literature in America has become. The truth is that "Jewish writing" now refers to any work in which either the writer or the characters are Jewish or both. That’s pretty much it. You can write a story that has no connection whatsoever to Judaism or anything in Jewish culture, but if it’s about someone named Goldberg who once ate a bagel — poof, you have become a Jewish writer.

But today, as we mark 350 years of Jewish life in America, and as we celebrate the 100th birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer, it is worth taking a look behind us to see what Jewish writing used to be, and what it might still become.

A century ago, Jewish writers didn’t go around wondering whether they were Jewish writers, not because they were more "traditional" — far from it. But even with all of their doubts about their heritage, the vast majority of these writers were Jewish writers for one very specific reason: They were writing in a Jewish language — Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic or any number of others.

In fact, the only way to say "Jewish writer" in Yiddish is to say "Yiddish writer." The word for the language and the identity is the same, and the intentional confusion between them reveals the enormity of what language once meant to a Jewish writer’s identity.

It wasn’t just that these writers’ words were written in Hebrew letters. It was that everything about the way the words were used was somehow layered upon 4,000 years’ worth of stories that were also written in Hebrew letters.

When you know that your audience is familiar with the Torah, metaphors and references from the Torah are the ones you use, just as English-language writers today might make references to movies or TV.

A Yiddish writer like Sholem Aleichem could describe an insurance fire by saying a character was "lighting Sabbath candles in the middle of the week" and could be confident that all of his readers would get the joke. Isaac Bashevis Singer could title a novel "Der Baal-Teshuvah" (literally "the Master of Return") and be certain that all of his readers knew exactly the sort of religious conversion he was talking about — a very particular "return" to Jewish life that the "translated" English title, "The Penitent," simply cannot capture.

That is what Jewish writing was: not a subject but a language. Specifically, it was a language built on the foundations of a world where writing was a sacred act, where the easy diluting of the profane with the sacred was not an act of rebellion but a side effect of a deep intimacy with holiness.

Today in America, virtually none of our Jewish writers are writing in Jewish languages. They are writing in English. And they are writing for an audience whose familiarity with Jewish culture can no longer be assumed.

So are we doomed to 350 more years of writing about people named Goldberg eating bagels? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Jewish writers today have the power to change the way their audiences read — and when I say writers, I don’t mean just big-name novelists, but everyone, including writers for local Jewish newspapers.

If it sounds impossible, it has happened before. In 1897, journalist Abraham Cahan founded a Yiddish newspaper in New York City, The Forward, with a very specific goal: to turn the thousands of Jewish immigrants descending upon New York into Americans. Everything about the newspaper served this purpose. The advice column, A Bintl Briv (A Bundle of Letters), for instance, with the alluring melodrama of readers’ letters, was largely aimed at tutoring clueless immigrants in the American way of life. But the real way Cahan transformed his Jewish readers into Americans was more subtle: by changing the language of the paper itself. English words and syntax were mixed into the text at every opportunity.

Of course, American Jews’ Yiddish, including that of the reporters, was naturally influenced by English at the time. But the editors, ostensibly running a Yiddish publication, clearly made no effort to apply copy editing standards when thousands of Englishisms appeared in print. The heavy dose of English served the paper’s goal of converting Yiddish speakers into English speakers. It succeeded all too well. Within a generation, readership evaporated.

Is it possible to reverse the work of Cahan? That is, to turn English into a Jewish language, to invert the attempt to turn Jews into Americans into a new process — to turn Americans into Jews?

I think the possibility is there. But how?

Jewish languages always incorporate Hebrew. By that I don’t only mean the Hebrew alphabet or even just Hebrew words, but rather references to Hebrew literature and particularly, the vast legacy of the Hebrew Bible and the commentaries built upon it. Imagine if Jewish literature in English could bring back to life the Jewish linguistic tradition of the prooftext — the endless echo chamber of ideas that allows even a simple idea to reverberate with centuries of meaning.

This isn’t nearly as difficult or obscure as it sounds. I was once asked to write an article for a Jewish magazine about Jewish teenagers in public high schools and their connection to Jewish life. After some investigation, I determined that most didn’t have one. But they were intrigued whenever the subject came up; many wanted to know more but had no clue where to look. Stuck with what seemed to be a nonstory (and a deadline), I considered that these teenagers were mostly fourth-generation Americans — and then I thought of the four sons of the haggadah.

These teenagers’ great-grandparents had come to America with a knowledge of Judaism, which their grandparents, the second sons, had consciously rejected. Their parents, the third sons, had a simple awareness of the potential of Jewish life, but these teenagers had become the sons who did not even know how to ask. Suddenly, the story made sense, and the article appeared with the title, "The Fourth Son."

That’s a recognizable enough reference; probably even the most secular Jewish reader has been to a seder once or twice. But what about all of the writers who don’t have the background to dig deeper?

For those with passion, I will make a recommendation that has probably never been made in an English-language Jewish paper before: Read the Torah. I say this not to impose religion on Jewish writers but rather to alert them to the enormous cultural resources awaiting them. There are stories, characters and turns of phrase in the vast gold mine we have inherited that resonate with almost any situation a writer could possibly invent.

Unfortunately, Jewish history tends to repeat. As each generation passes, another new one is born in the wilderness, standing at Sinai whether they like it or not. We’ve seen many Pharaohs, many Hamans and we have thousands of years of writing to draw from whenever we find ourselves needing to write about them again. And when we include the vast resources of post-biblical works like the Talmud, the riches only expand.

Rabbi Tarfon’s description of the world could apply to any writer, Jewish or otherwise: "The day is short and the task is huge and the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the boss is insistent."

The reward is indeed great. Imagine if this connection to the past really was a part of secular American Jewish writing. The writing would deepen but so would the audience, as each echo of language became gradually more familiar until a common cultural vocabulary was restored. Writing that draws on such a legacy has the potential not only to inform but to enrich, to enliven, to nourish, to revive the dead.

In recent years, I and many others have come to rely more on Jewish writing in all its forms — novels, newspapers, Internet, everything — to discover what our community is thinking and caring about, especially today, when Jewish communities around the world have fallen under siege.

But at 350 years old, ours is one of the few that hasn’t. And if one looks at the enormous revival of interest and passion among young people today, it becomes clear that we are sitting on the edge of an American Jewish renaissance.

All of us, writers and readers, have the power to make it happen. As a famous Jewish writer once wrote: "If not now, when?"

Dara Horn’s first novel, "In the Image" (W.W. Norton), received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award. She lives in New York City.