Yet I can also understand that to those Palestinians, the two young men killed were just members of the occupying army, the army that had brutally killed more than 80 Palestinians and wounded more than 2,000 civilians in the past weeks. And to Palestinians, the mob that lynched those soldiers may have seemed indistinguishable from the Jewish mobs that attacked random Arab-Israelis in Nazareth a few days before. For every outrage on one side, there is a story of outrage on the other.
So in my synagogue (Beyt TIKKUN in San Francisco) on Yom Kippur, we atoned for our side of the story--for Jewish violence. Our atonement was not an attempt to claim that Israel holds all the responsibility. I believe that Palestinians ought to adopt a nonviolent pose and reject any leader that advocates violence--because I believe that violence is always wrong no matter how noble the purpose and because, in the context of the current struggle, it had the predicted effect of destroying rather than enhancing the chances for peace. Palestinian violence is both immoral and irrational.
Yet the preponderance of responsibility lies with Israel and with an international media that continue to obscure the basic realities facing the Palestinian people and continue to treat the death of Israeli soldiers enforcing a brutal occupation as somehow more outrageous and barbarous than the killing of (many times as many) Palestinian teenagers who were resisting the occupation. To me, Israeli deaths are a personal tragedy--and I understand why so many Israelis are still in shock. But have we not yet learned that in God's eyes every human being is equally treasured--including the more-than 100 Palestinians killed by Israelis these past two weeks.
"But they were animals." I've heard this said in response to the lynchings. Yet Jews never seem to apply these terms to those who were engaged for years in the torture of Palestinians--acknowledged when the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that the torture should stop (torture that left many Palestinians maimed or permanently injured, torture that was documented in TIKKUN magazine by B'tselem, the Israeli Human Rights Organization)
Nor are these labels applied to so many other brutal acts (for instance, the murder of 30 Muslims in a Hebron mosque a few years ago by an Israeli settler whose memory is still honored by others settlers). We Jews can't remember any of them, because we see ourselves as eternal victims, and so we see the situation only as Jews being the victims of inhuman others. The way we talk discounts the huge number of Palestinians killed and wounded and reinforces the desperation that led to the current tragic moment.
But, you might ask, didn't Arafat irrationally reject a wonderful peace accord being offered him by Barak? Isn't this current outbreak just more of the same irrational hatred that always leads Palestinians to reject a generous peace being offered by Israelis?
The reality is quite different. Since taking office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has expanded existing settlements, built new roads into the West Bank, and made it clear at Camp David that he would insist on keeping the vast majority of settlers in place. The state that Palestinians would then be offered would have within it a group of Israeli nationalistic fanatics, many of whom moved to the West Bank precisely to ensure that there would never be a Palestinian state.
The resulting scenario is obvious: The settlers would continue their long history of violent attacks against Palestinians, and when the Palestinian state tried to impose law and order, the settlers would demand protection from the Israeli army, which would use the new roads to send in tanks and heavy artillery just as it has done in the past week.
Nor are Palestinian demands for control over the Temple Mount and the adjacent sections of East Jerusalem irrational. Muslims from the occupied territories have frequently been prevented from coming to the Temple Mount when Israel proclaims ''security closings'' of the border. Israelis who were rightly outraged at being denied access to the Western Wall when Jerusalem was under Jordanian (not Palestinian) rule from 1948 to 1967 have effectively imposed similar conditions on the Muslims in Gaza.
At the same time, many religious authorities ban Jews from walking on the Temple Mount until the Messiah comes. So ceding sovereignty there would not have been a religious hardship. Barak could have conceded interim sovereignty to the Palestinians on the condition that those arrangements would be reopened when the Messiah arrived (by biblical criteria: nations beating their swords into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb).
Nor has Israel ever acknowledged responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were driven out of Israel in 1948, many of whose descendants today live in refugee camps.
None of this had been resolved at Camp David, and so most Palestinians realized that the peace process was just another mechanism to prolong the status quo of an oppressive occupation.
I was honored to attend the signing of the Oslo accords at the White House in 1993, and in the pages of TIKKUN magazine I have severely criticized those Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said who did not believe that Palestinian self-determination would be granted in the five years that Oslo promised. Now, seven years later, I can understand why Palestinians would feel cheated and outraged over the endless occupation. Add to that the discrimination against Israeli Arabs in housing and employment, and you get the volatile ingredients that led to the explosions of the past weeks and the subsequent massive violence against Arabs both inside Israel and in the occupied territories. (For example, as police looked on, Jewish mobs reenacted a classic Russian pogrom on Palestinian civilians in Nazareth this week.)
None of this justifies Palestinian violence or the far more massive counterviolence of the occupying Israeli army. But I see no hope that the disgusting cycle of violence on both sides will stop until Israel is willing to end the occupation and end its internal racism against Arab Israelis. And as a religious Jew, I know that God and the Torah are served best when we insist that every human being, including our enemies, be seen as equally valuable to God and equally created as embodiments of the divine. Given my own outrage at the killing of Israeli soldiers, this is a moment when it seems easier to just forget my faith and stay in my anger. But I also know that when the Jewish people can only see our own (very real and legitimate) pain, it's time to atone.