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Joe Biden, East Jerusalem and a Religiously Divided Israel

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As has been widely reported in the news this week, during Vice President Biden's trip to Israel, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced plans to build 1600 new homes in East Jerusalem. This has been described by some as a slap in the face by the Israeli Government of the Obama Administration's attempt to restart peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, what many commentators have missed is that the row over settlements during Vice President Biden's trip to Israel is not between Israel and the U.S. Rather, it is between different segments in Israeli society and indicative of a deeper problem.

A small, but vocal, segment of Israeli Jews has asserted its view of Judaism - one in which the most important overriding concern is that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. This group of Israelis asserts its worldview while the majority of Israelis - secular and religious - have remained quiet in recent years. In the case of East Jerusalem, this plays out so that rather than negotiate the status of Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement, these Israelis who seek control over the entirety of the Land of Israel aim to enclose the Old City of Jerusalem by a Jewish buffer zone of Jewish enclaves between and within Palestinian neighborhoods. This will effectively prevent Jerusalem from ever being divided or from ever being claimed as a Palestinian capital.

Over the last few years, these Israeli Jews have manipulated Israeli law to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah with no reparations or alternate living situation provided. The pretense on which the families have been evicted is that these homes were owned and occupied by Jews prior to 1948. Jews were allowed to reclaim property they allegedly owned pre-1948, but Palestinians are not. Imagine the doors these handful of Israeli Jews have opened - now, unless Israeli courts practice blatant discrimination, Palestinians may have the opportunity to reclaim all the property they owned pre-1948 in Israel-proper!

Over the last year, Rabbis for Human Rights, and a few others, have stood with these Palestinian families as they live on the sidewalk across the street from their old homes in order to protect them from attacks by the Jewish Settlers who have moved into their old family homes. I recently returned from Jerusalem where, sadly, I saw this dynamic up close. There is some hope, however. Recently, a movement of young Israelis have taken up the cause of evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. At a recent rally in Sheikh Jarrah, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians joined together to express their opposition to home evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. We can only hope that this enthusiastic opposition to the philosophy that requires Jewish control over the entirety of the Land of Israel continues.

Rabbis for Human Rights-North America stands for another interpretation of Judaism. In our view, "every human being is created in the image of God" - b'tzelem elohim. This idea is central to Judaism and requires Jews to treat all human beings with the dignity that something created in the image of God deserves. When this concept is coupled with the duty "not to oppress the stranger, orphan or widow," the treatment of Palestinians in East Jerusalem can no longer be considered in line with Jewish values. It is because of my love and support for a Jewish State of Israel that I hope more Israelis will follow the lead of the young Israelis active in now in Sheikh Jarrah. The majority of Israelis who don't share the worldview of their fellow citizens seeking complete Jewish control of the Land of Israel must speak out. Only then will their political leaders reclaim control over the levers of government and prevent embarrassing and counter-productive announcements like the one during Vice-President Biden's trip.