(CLEVELAND, June 1, 2001) The leader of North America's Reform Jewish community tonight conceded "peace is probably not possible now" as he admitted he had been wrong to believe Yasser Arafat would live by the "normal standards of moral judgment."
"The masks are off, and the costume ball is over," said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Somber and discouraged about the prospects for peace, Yoffie termed his speech a chesbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul, as he spoke to the 225-members of the UAHC board who were worshipping with the Reform Jews of Cleveland's nine Reform synagogues.
Yoffie placed the blame directly on the shoulders of Arafat and other PLO leaders for nourishing a culture of hatred. At the same time, he was also critical of Israel for its behavior these past eight months. "Occupation involves acts of degradation and cruelty, and Israel's occupation has been no different," Yoffie said in his first major speech on Israel since the election of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Her settlement policy, it often seems, is in the hands of fanatics."
Yoffie called on Israel to temporarily freeze all settlement construction "not because the Mitchell Commission wants it, or because the American government wants it, but because it is politically wise and morally right. At this moment, deepening or extending settlement simply does not serve Israel's interests."
Yoffie is the first major American Jewish leader to call on Israel to end settlement expansion since the recent outbreak of Palestinian violence.
And he urged the American government to take an active role, because an end to the violence and a return to negotiations can be achieved "only with American involvement," which he said is far preferable to intervention by a hostile United Nations.
But his harshest criticism was of the Palestinian leadership, which he called "one of the most stupid, murderous, and bloodthirsty national liberation movement in all of human history."
"We have believed, along with our allies in the peace camp, that if an Israeli prime minister would be brave enough to say that Israel must choose peace over territories, the Palestinian Authority would also choose peace," Yoffie said. However, "Yassir Arafat was still thirsty for blood and tears" when he rejected former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer of land for peace last summer, Yoffie said. Arafat "says he wants to talk, but he cannot expect to come to the table when he is covered in blood."
Yoffie conceded he had not paid nearly enough attention to the "culture of hatred created and nourished by Palestinian leaders." And, as a result, had not understood that peace is impossible as long as the Palestinians "continue to hate the very idea of the Jewish state."
Referring to the shocking and bewildering escalation of terror and violence perpetrated by Palestinians, Yoffie said the Palestinian leadership "barely bothers anymore to regret these atrocities, or to deny its own responsibility."
Yoffie said peace cannot be achieved until Arafat finds a way to speak the language of peace to his own people. "If he is ever to achieve the agreement he seeks, he must find a way to say to the citizens of Israel: 'You are here in this land by right, as we are. Welcome home.'"
Recalling the positions adopted over the past several years, Yoffie reiterated what the Reform Movement believes must occur if peace is to be achieved in the Middle East, namely:
Israel must end its occupation and its rule over the Palestinian people.
The way to end the occupation is for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated agreement, based on mutual recognition that provides security for both sides. Territorial compromise and the separation of Israelis and Palestinians are essential elements.
A Palestinian state is inevitable, and indeed is already in formation.
While "security and survival receive absolute preference," Yoffie called on Reform Jews to "not put aside our religious concerns" in Israel, where the Reform Movement has been fighting to break the stranglehold of the Orthodox monopoly on religious matters, particularly on marriage and conversion issues.
"Israelis face a prolonged period of political uncertainty. Systems of meaning are needed at such times, to provide comfort and revive hope. And liberal Judaism can offer what secularism, classical Zionism, and Israeli Orthodoxy have all failed to provide," he said.
"Yes, we will defend Israel's body, but we will also nurture Israel's soul. And for this no apology is needed," Yoffie said.
The full text of Rabbi Yoffie's speech is available at www.seekpeace.org, the Web site of the UAHC's "Seeking peace, Pursuing Justice" project.
Seeking Peace, Pursuing Justice, theReform Movement's campaign to encourage the North American Jewish community to examine the risk and rewards of peace for Israel and the Palestinians, and to undertake critical, constructive public dialogue on the most pressing social issues facing Israel today. This initiative was made possible in part by a generous three-year grant from the Ford Foundation.
This web site is geared to be a resource for rabbis, educators, Temple Presidents, social activists, congregations, and the wider Jewish community. Through informational, educational and programmatic resources, the web site is a tool that helps us reach our 900 congregations, 1,700 rabbis, and the broader Jewish community of North America.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, representing over 1.5 million Reform Jews in over 900 congregations. UAHC services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programming, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.