Commentary: For lasting peace, respect rights of both Israelis and Palestinians

LAST WEEKEND, the world ushered in a new year, while Jews celebrated the final day of Hanukkah. It is traditional to light the Hanukkah menorah in your window or other public place, so all may benefit from its light.

It is in that spirit that members of Jewish Voice for Peace's Philadelphia chapter gathered at Mayor Kenney's menorah lighting ceremony to shine the light on our unflinching dedication to justice for all people. Each candle of the menorah declared our commitments - fighting Islamophobia and racism in our city, resisting white supremacy in our country and reinforcing the message we brought several months ago, when the Democratic National Convention was in town: Palestinians should be free.

For 50 years, Palestinians have lived in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, under an oppressive military regime that grants them no rights. The truth is Palestinians have waited far too long for their freedom. And responsibility for that wait lies in no small part with the United States and the otherwise liberal, even progressive elements of Jewish communities that have doggedly insisted that a two-state solution remains plausible, even as Israel's actions have shown otherwise.

As Secretary of State John Kerry laid out in his major speech in late December, the accelerated rate of illegal Israeli settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land is a significant barrier to peace in the region and has all but destroyed prospects for a two-state solution.

On top of that, Israelis continue to elect right-wing legislators who advocate the further expansion of settlements and who have passed a steady stream of anti-democratic legislation aimed at curbing the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the population, as well as the rights of Jewish Israelis who support freedom and equal rights for Palestinians.

In fact, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett has pledged to push through legislation that would annex Ma'ale Adumim, a major illegal settlement in the Palestinian West Bank, as part of a longer-term strategy to swallow up more Palestinian territory.

For there to be any lasting peace, it must be based on international law and respect for the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis. So while Kerry laid out an extremely clear, even brave, recitation of the myriad ways in which successive Israeli governments have undermined the two-state solution, in the end, he is still trying to force the parties back into the dead-end, two-state box, with a set of parameters that will negate the basic human rights of millions of Palestinians.

There is no denying that last-ditch efforts by President Obama, including the U.S. abstention at the U.N. Security Council on a resolution condemning Israel's settlements as illegal, are a sign of the administration's grave concerns about the alliance between the incoming Trump administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government. All indications point to this alliance cementing Israel as an apartheid state. Because, as Kerry said, echoing what we at Jewish Voice for Peace have said for a decade, Israel cannot be a democracy and continue to deny the rights of millions of Palestinians.

The harsh reality of this political moment is that we have two choices for the future we want to see in Israel/Palestine: apartheid or democracy.

The good news is that ordinary Palestinians and their allies organized for decades to counter the forces that support Israeli policies of displacement and discrimination. According to a recent poll released by the Brookings Institution, a majority of Democrats (60 percent) and almost half of all Americans (46 percent) support "imposing some economic sanctions or taking more serious action on Israeli settlements." The global grass-roots movement to apply nonviolent pressure on the Israeli government and corporations profiting from Israel's abuses of Palestinian rights through boycott, divestment and sanctions gives Israel incentive to change. And it gives all of us regular citizens a way to push not only Israel, but also our own government towards positive change.

Each night of Hanukkah, the light grew brighter, one candle at a time, until the entire menorah was full of light. So it is with working diligently together for justice - the light builds as more and more people join the fight for dignity and equality. Palestinians will be free, and there will be peace in the Holy Land one day. It is up to all of us. We'll be there in the streets, in Congress, on campuses and in houses of worship, and we'll launch and support boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns until Palestinian human rights and a truly lasting peace are realized.


Rabbi Alissa Wise lives in Philadelphia and is deputy director at Jewish Voice for Peace, a national grass-roots organization inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for justice, equality and human rights.