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This Yom Kippur, We Must Atone for the Sins of Israeli Policy

Israel could not have sustained all these years of occupation without the political, diplomatic, and financial support of much of the worldwide Jewish community.

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Which is why the spiritual cleansing -- the confession and commitment to change -- is also a profoundly political act. When American Jews publicly voice a more critical view of Israeli policies, the political effect ripples out around the world. Not only does it encourage other Jews to do the same, it also sends a message to gentile friends, relatives, co-workers, and neighbors that it’s now permissible to criticize Israel. (If you’re not Jewish, be sure to ask Jews you know about the change they see in their Jewish circles.)

The old monolithic consensus in the Jewish community had an immense chilling effect on gentiles; there was good reason to fear that even the mildest critique of Israeli policies would trigger charges of anti-semitism. A Jewish community engaged in free and open public debate, with even the most radical voices heard, will put an end to that chilling effect.

Once Americans of every persuasion feel free to voice their views on the Middle East freely, we can expect a slow but steady and sizeable shift in public opinion toward a genuinely even-handed U.S. policy. The mass media will gradually, even if grudgingly, follow suit. The old raucous right-wing views (from Christians as well as Jews) will still fill the air too, of course. But a diversity of opinion will eventually become the norm.

That will give the U.S. government a lot more room to maneuver in its diplomatic dealings with Israel. The Obama administration has clearly signaled its desire to put more pressure on Israel than its predecessors, especially in its early call for a halt to all settlement expansion on the West Bank. The administration quickly backed off from that demand, showing that the political times have not yet changed enough.

But Obama is still putting gentle pressure on Netanyahu to extend the moratorium, and at the latest round of talks U.S. envoy George Mitchell again called on Israel to take that step. The latest signal from Netanyahu is that the Israeli, not the U.S., leader is waffling, trying to find a compromise that might satisfy both the Americans and his own right-wing base. With the Pentagon now indicating that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is a vital U.S. national security interest, Obama has every reason to keep pushing the Israelis as hard as he can.

With a critical election coming up, though, he can push only as hard as domestic political conditions will allow. The more options the electorate gives him at home, the harder he can push. Of course the administration will still be somewhat limited by powerful pressure from the right. The policy shifts will be gradual and behind the scenes, at least at first. But that’s how all diplomacy works. So a publicly-voiced change of heart among U.S. Jews, opening the door to a wider debate among gentiles too, could have powerful political repercussions in Washington.

And the ripple effect would reach beyond our shores. Though Israeli Jews hate to admit it, they know deep down that they depend heavily on support from U.S. Jews and the U.S. government. Economic support isn’t as vital as it used to be. But military weaponry and, even more, diplomatic cover remain crucial. With the rest of the world increasingly questioning the very idea of a “Jewish state,” most Israelis see the U.S. as their last dependable ally. A changing American Jewish attitude would weaken the foundation of U.S. diplomatic support, which would throw Israel into deep anxiety, giving the U.S. more leverage to push the Israelis to make concessions.

The ripple would impact the Arab side of the conflict powerfully, too. In an extensive study of Palestinians and Israelis, asking what would really help to end the conflict, two social scientists found that it wasn’t so much tangible trade-offs as symbolic expressions of mutual acceptance and respect: “Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war.”

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