Published in the Chicago Weekly, Spring 1999

Israel’s Jubilee: A Time for Peace?

by Andy Mager

The upcoming 50th anniversary of Israel’s establishment has already received extensive media attention. This silver anniversary presents Israel with a unique opportunity to reclaim a lost Jewish tradition, and in the process to break the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Unfortunately, the state of affairs within Israel and between Israel and its neighbors affords little reason for celebration. Israel’s vibrant democracy is rent by religious and political strife. And, U.S. Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross’ return to Washington after three days of fruitless diplomacy, demonstrates the utter torpor of the peace process. Few imagined that the optimism generated by that White House handshake nearly five years ago would disintegrate so dramatically.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown little interest in peace. His refusal to meet the timetables under the Oslo Accords has led to a stalemate which threatens escalating bloodshed and confrontation.

It should be clear to all that the incremental, trust-building approach has reached a dead end. The U.S. call for a 13% increase in Palestinian controlled territory was dismissed out of hand by the Israeli government, and even if they had accepted it, few Palestinians would have been satisfied.

A bold new initiative is needed to catapult the process forward–to grant the Palestinians the state they have sought for many decades, and by doing so to increase security for Israelis and Palestinians. Only such a step has the possibility to reclaim the momentum necessary to marginalize extremists on both sides. Netanyahu, who has strong support among religious Jews, can look to the prophetic tradition of Judaism for inspiration to act.

The Biblical commandment to observe the Sabbath as a weekly day of rest is known to all Jews, and many are aware that every seventh year farm fields are to be left fallow. However, few of us learned that every 50 years–the Jubilee Year–slaves and indentured servants were to be freed, debts forgiven, and land was to be redistributed.

According to Jewish Renewal advocate Arthur Waskow, "The Sabbatical/Jubilee cycle was the direct way that the people of Israel, having become landholders instead of slaves, could make sure that slavery did not return; neither the enslavement of the Israelites, nor the enslavement of others, ‘sojourners,’ who lived in the land."

Because most devout Jews in Israel oppose a peace arrangement which would return the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, the struggle within Israel is sometimes portrayed as secular versus religious. Reclaiming the Jubilee year as a time to return land to those who lived on it at the beginning of that period offers a powerful religious argument to bridge that gap within Israel. At the same time it would offer a just and reasonable solution to a conflict which has killed many tens of thousands and appeared intractable over the past 50 years.

Netanyahu argues that security steps by the Palestinians must precede the return of their land. Perhaps the speedy arrest of Hamas members for the killing of reputed bombmaker Mohiedin Sharif will help him recognize the steps taken by the Palestinian authority.

Nevertheless, such a narrow perspective ignores the Palestinian reality. Palestinians, whose expectations were raised at the beginning of the peace process, now despair that they will ever see the benefits of peace. They desperately need a sense of hope, a positive project into which they can sink their ingenuity and resources. The creation of a Palestinian state is just such an undertaking.

Genuine Palestinian control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would allow Palestinians to focus on the productive work of building their nation and economy. In the process, their incentive to attack those who have occupied their land and repressed them in so many ways would be severely diminished.

There is risk in such an endeavor. Some Israelis will threaten civil war, will resist. No one can guarantee that terrorist acts will cease permanently. However, it would cut the ground out from under the rejectionists and give hope to millions of Palestinians and Israelis, as well as reopening the prospect of agreements between Israel and the Arab nations of the region. Equally important for me, it would draw on the best of our tradition, the quest for "Shalom," for peace, and the recognition that the strangers who come to our door are indeed our sisters and brothers.

Andy Mager, a freelance writer in West Lafayette, IN, became involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts after the 1982 Shabra and Shatila Massacres.