A Light Unto the Nations

Originally published in Forward on September 2, 2005

'Jews don't evacuate Jews" was the slogan on the orange bumper stickers affixed to cars, waved about on banners that crowded the landscape, and shouted by protesters as we drove back into Jerusalem on August 18, after a long day in the Gaza Strip.

I asked my Palestinian driver, a longtime Jerusalem resident, to tell me what the Hebrew words meant. I was embarrassed when I heard his translation, and not only because I, a Jewish American, couldn't understand enough Hebrew to figure it out myself.

There were so many times during the years I have spent in conversations with West Bank and Gaza Palestinians that I have heard them use the word "Jews" as a reference to any and all Israeli government officials' or settlers' actions. Almost as often, I had interrupted such comments to try to establish the distinction between the Jewish people, of which I am one, and the government of Israel, its citizens and actions it or they might take with respect to governance, law and order, and security issues in the West Bank and Gaza, or in Israel proper.

Similarly, in a region where identity on all sides can be so often misconstrued, I had a lengthy discussion with the same driver on the appropriate descriptor for the Arabs who constitute about a fifth of Israel's citizens. He called them Israelis. When I suggested that perhaps many might identify themselves as Palestinians, he told me that could not be the case, because only those who lived in the West Bank and Gaza, or who were residents of Jerusalem, could be Palestinian. We finally nominally agreed that they might be most likely to describe themselves as Arab or Palestinian residents of Israel.

So why did the "Jews don't evacuate Jews" mantra pain me so deeply? For the same reasons that I was angered by the "hilltop youth" pouring paint and hurling dangerous objects at unarmed Israeli soldiers and police at Kfar Darom and other Gaza settlements. These "children" are the settler teens and 20-somethings who have lived without regard for the rules of the state — or, apparently, the rule of law — from their earliest years growing up in illegal settler outposts in the remote hills of the West Bank.

How could it be an acceptable — even a winning — political slogan to defy the very notion of a democratic Jewish state, to assert that somehow the rule of law does not or should not apply equally to all citizens of that state, regardless of religion? And similarly to assert that those who are responsible for enforcing the law, as directed by their elected government leaders, should discriminate in so doing, to ignore the rule of law if applying it meant taking action against other Jewish citizens of the state, citizens who were acting illegally?

When I was young, I was taught a vision of a State of Israel as a "light unto the nations." As I grew older, I was told that in fact such a vision was not realistic for a state that needed to hold its own in the realpolitik of the world as it is. But however realistic the vision, the subject matter, the object of our desire, was always a State of Israel, a democratic state in which the Jewish people would be a majority. In my adult heart and mind, vision and realpolitik merge in how the rule of law governs the state and its peoples.

Though in this regard I have not always been an admirer of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with respect to developing and implementing the disengagement, Israel could not have had a finer leader. As the elected head of government, supported by a minority in his party but a majority of the Israeli people, Sharon led his military and police in an effectively planned and courageously, sensitively and professionally executed removal of 9,000 Israeli Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

The government of Israel, in carrying out the evacuation of the settlers, showed once again that Israel is in fact more than capable of holding its own in the realpolitik world, but that in so doing, it also can act as a light unto the nations.

At the end of the day — or more accurately, the end of a long week — the actions of Israeli government officials provided the winning strategy, not those Israeli protesters who were waving the banners and shouting their ugly slogan.

That gives me hope for the future of Israel, for its ability to work its way toward a comprehensive settlement to its conflict with the Palestinians, and for the future of the Israeli Jewish people to exercise their majority power with wisdom and respect for the rule of law.

Mara Rudman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She was a deputy national security adviser to President Clinton.

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Mara Rudman

Former Senior Counselor