Rabbi Robert (“Bob”) Orkand



Rabbi Bob Orkand’s talk last week was entitled “The Israeli View of Palestine”. He began by recommending a book titled “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine” that was written by Israeli and Arab teachers and showed how two peoples, without lying or inventing, could have two very different understandings of their own narratives Historians, he said, approached history through different lenses.

As President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Rabbi Bob conceded that he was not entirely objective. But, while he was critical of many aspects of Israeli policy, there was a line that he believed could not be crossed, namely to question the existence of Israel and its legitimacy as a nation. A new form of anti-Semitism had arisen that selected Israel as a target for attack while other countries, with highly questionable human rights records, were left alone.   For example, a group of actors, including Emma Thompson, opposed the invitation to the habima theatre company to perform in the UK simply because they had performed at a theatre center in a West Bank settlement.

A second example of anti-Semitic prejudice was the remark made by the French ambassador at a reception in London that Israel was “nothing but a shitty little country”. Although it was the 100th smallest country in the world, Rabbi Bob listed some of the many extraordinary contributions it had made to the world of arts and sciences.

Moving on to the discussion of the Israeli Palestinian problem, Rabbi Bob affirmed that there had to be a two state solution but this was hampered by the constant challenge to Israel’s right to exist. The Middle East Media Research Institute based in Washington had monitored the prevalence of this theme in Arab news media that had been echoed by the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Rabbi Bob reminded us that in 1947 the UN had voted to partition the strip of land on the Eastern end of the Mediterranean between the new State of Israel and the Palestinians and to pronounce Jerusalem an international city. The Jews had accepted and on May 5, 1948, the State of Israel had been born and had immediately been attacked by 5 Arab states. Israel was eventually victorious but the Palestinians in the area either left or were driven out or became refugees. Only Jordan accepted them. The many Palestinians raised in refugee camps learned only to hate Israel. Over the years, a peace accord between the two groups had come close but had yet to be signed, perhaps because the Palestinian leaders could not sell the terns of an agreement to their people.

Rabbi Bob ended his remarks by noting that today no one in Israel was talking about peace with the Palestinians; the primary issue was Iran. When the political leader of a hostile nation said of Israel “We are your mortal enemy, we will wipe you off the face of the earth” why should he not be believed? Hitler had proved the point – was Ahmadinejad any different? Iran’s aim to acquire nuclear weapons and thereby become a permanent threat to its neighbours was not Israel’s problem alone. It was, in essence, a world problem.

In Q and A, it was observed that there was a record of Arab Palestinian presence in the area dating back to135 a.d. Rabbi Bob said that it was silly to go back to the origins of a name – we should deal with where we were today. There were two peoples sharing land the size of New Jersey. Start from there.

If Iran launched a nuclear attack, what were Israel’s defense plans? Of course the government was not talking – but its 7 million people had 20 million opinions. If there were such a first strike, whatever the harm to Israel, the conviction was that the conflict would be ended by the US. However, Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system had knocked out 97% of the missiles launched from Gaza by Hamas.

Was it true that Arafat had backed away from signing the agreement with Israel because of access to water rights i.e. the Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea? No one really knew – Arafat simply never said “Yes”. But access to water in the area was a very big issue.

How was the relationship between the US and Israel today? Israelis remained convinced that their one true ally was the United States. Certainly there had been the suggestion that Obama was not a friend of Israel but Rabbi Bob described this as “baloney”. Obama had given more to Israel in the form of armaments than any previous President. Yes, there were disagreements, especially on the settlements issue, and he felt that these should not be debated in public. Rabbi Bob himself did not agree with the settlements policy that, he said, was established by the left wing Golda Meir as a kind of covered wagon strategy to help negotiations – to have something to negotiate away.

What opportunities for Israel did the Arab revolutions in the region present? Still very uncertain. Young activists had largely been replaced by the Islamic fundamentalists. The former dictators had at least kept their borders secure – now, nobody knew. Jordan, a Hashemite kingdom, was especially concerned as 75% of its population was Palestinian.

What did the future hold? Israel had built a barrier against terrorism and developed very good intelligence. Netanyahu was concerned about his place in history. Rabbi Bob felt that a peace treaty with Palestine would not be signed in his lifetime but sooner or later it had to come about because the Palestinian people were educated and wanted something better for themselves and their children.

Finally, on the West Bank settlements – how would these unfold? The settlers, by and large, were not religious crazies and were willing to be resettled but under reasonable conditions and with compensation. Those leaving Gaza had not been properly compensated. A land swap of part of Israel for the settlement areas was a possibility. It remained a huge problem.

On the Peter Knight scale of 1-10, Rabbi Orkand scored a thought provoking and informative 10.