Anti-Occupation Advocacy: An Alternative to Unilateralism

Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has won another term as Prime Minister, any change in the status quo of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems unlikely. The entrenchment of the occupation will likely continue under a coalition led by parties that ran shamelessly bigoted campaigned and explicitly rejecting both bi-national and two-state solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It goes without saying that advocates of a fair and negotiated solution to the conflict need to pause and reflect on what we can do to end the occupation. An increasing number of people are calling for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel (the BDS Movement). In my last post, I wrote why I oppose such resolutions. Here, I’ll try to sketch out alternatives.

Firstly, we need to recognize our allies in Israel and realistically judge their abilities. Despite the rhetoric regarding a rightward shift in Israel’s electoral system, the fact remains that Netanyahu’s gains came at the expense of other right-wing parties. The blocks remain fairly static. The left-center has 49 seats, as opposed to last election in which they had 48. The right wing has remained unchanged from the last election, with 43 seats. As disappointing as the results of this election are, they’re hardly cataclysmic. A pro-peace constituency remains in Israel; the question is only one of mobilization.

It’s been said that Israeli MP and former Chief Negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat could finalize a peace treaty in two weeks if given the chance. We need to make sure they get that chance. If Sheldon Adelson can pour money into the campaigns of his preferred candidates, there’s no reason that we can’t do the same for ours. Grassroots organizations (e.g. New Israel Fund) are doing important work creating forums for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.  As coexistence is a requisite for peace, we need to find ways of supporting these initiatives, financially and otherwise.

Furthermore, we need to fight against the demonization and de-legitimization of Israel. Such campaigns only serve to convince Israelis that they have nothing to gain by engaging with the world. Israel’s past is brutal, but it’s a pale shadow compared to that of America or Britain. Israel’s closet certainly has skeletons; it does not have smallpox blankets. Double standards in our treatment of Israel are not only unethical, they vindicate a sentiment common in the Jewish world that criticism of Israel is not motivated by concern for Palestinians, but out of an enduring gentile opposition to Jewish strength, sovereignty, and safety. We must be anti-occupation, but we cannot be anti-Israel.

Despite my skepticism of the goals and tactics of the BDS Movement, their tools are useful for undermining the anti-peace (and therefore pro-war) factions of Israel’s government. Israeli politicians who have rejected the peace process should be subject to sanctions. The settlements built beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders are by definition antithetical to peace, and should be boycotted in order to weaken and isolate that enterprise.

However, it is not enough to just withdraw support from these institutions; we need to turn them into a burden on Israel. Ultimatums have worked in the past and should be used again. For every dollar Israel spends on the settlements, we should advocate for the deduction of one dollar from US aid to Israel. It has become clear that drastic actaion is needed to convince the Israeli government to listen to the advice from over a hundred senior intelligence agents and high-ranking police and military officers from across Israel’s political spectrum (including six Shin Bet chiefs, three Mossad chiefs, and six IDF Chiefs of Staff) that Israel must end the occupation, or the occupation will end Israel.

The linchpin upon which all this depends is that these actions be bilateral. The standard we apply to Israel must be applied to Palestine as well. Pro-war forces, even from within supposedly moderate factions, must not be tolerated. While the effect of Abbas’s incitement is exaggerated, that’s no excuse for it to be tolerated. Calls for and praises of attacks against Israeli civilians must stop if there is to be peace.

As disheartening as the election was, it does not mark the death of Israel’s left. Only our abandonment of Israel’s pro-peace forces can do that. Only a negotiated peace will end the conflict. You make peace by building bridges, not by burning them.

Why Stanford Was Wrong to Pass Divestment

In February 2015, the Stanford University Undergraduate Senate passed a resolution forwarded by Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine (SOOP). The resolution, explicitly separated from the Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, called on Stanford to divest from certain companies seen as implicit in Israel’s human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine. Although the resolution had previously failed, it was later resubmitted for a midnight vote, this time successfully. Despite the fact that the occupation of Palestine represents a massive, indefensible, and ongoing human rights violation, this was the wrong thing to do.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has been devastating to Palestinians and brutal for Israelis. Given that American military aid accounts for approximately 20% of Israel’s defense budget and that the US plays a key role defending Israel in the political arena, it is clear that we are already involved in the conflict. As such, we have a responsibility to do something to end the occupation. However, doing something does not mean doing just anything.

The resolution passed by Stanford was predicated on a naïve understanding of the conflict and a blithe disregard for history. There is no doubt that Israel, as the more powerful entity, should be the primary focus of our attention if we are to end the conflict. However, the Palestinians, and the Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank, have played no small role in perpetuating the conflict. While the West Bank led by the PLO government has proven itself a willing partner for peace, it’s not clear if the Hamas-led government in Gaza is willing to negotiate. Furthermore, it’s not clear whether either government is capable of preventing the myriad of smaller groups from carrying out attacks. Hamas has had many problems preventing Islamic Jihad from attacking Israel in violations of truces. The PLO has had more success due to its cooperation with Israel and the US, but still, attacks have taken place. By choosing to act unilaterally to punish only one side rather than acting to enable peacemakers on all sides, such resolutions only contribute to the perpetuation of the conflict, rather than its resolution.

Past divestment resolutions have failed to encourage the Israeli government to withdraw from the occupied territories. Instead, they have strengthened Israel’s pro-occupation parties by seemingly confirming those parties’ narrative, which hinges on the assumption that the world will never accept Jewish sovereignty and that Israel will always face a level of public scrutiny far beyond that of other countries engaged in similarly criminal behavior. It bears note that there have been no serious calls to end US military aid to Egypt, an authoritarian country receiving military aid in amounts second only to Israel, or to divest from Turkey, a NATO ally currently illegally occupying northern Cyprus. Rather than encouraging the Israeli population to challenge the political status quo by calling for withdrawal from the occupied territories, past divestment resolutions have resulted in the Israeli public rallying around their seemingly vindicated supporters of occupation. The decision of the American Studies Association to boycott all Israeli universities was lauded in Israel’s right-wing press while the peace movement was reeling, seemingly abandoned. The only result was that the pro-settlement government that had been weakened by the surprising 2013 election was reinvigorated.

I hope that anti-occupation advocacy at Stanford continues. I would like to see better resolutions put forward. Instead of acting unilaterally, improved resolutions should attempt to recognize and enable the peacemakers on both sides while undermining the pro-war factions. For Israel, this would likely mean divesting from Israeli businesses located in the occupied territories while investing in Israel proper. It may involve coordinating with and supporting non-violent resistance to the occupation in Palestine. Most importantly, it must seek bilateral engagement; it takes two sides to make peace.

Instead of trying to dictate the terms of an agreement, anti-occupation advocacy should seek to create in environment favorable to negotiated solution, while allowing the Israelis and Palestinians to find their own terms. We can’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; only the Israelis and Palestinians can do that. Our role, as outsiders, is to bring them both to the table. Our job, as outsiders, is to build bridges, not burn them.

On the Death of Klinghoffer

As a slave laborer of the Germans in Lviv, Ukraine, Simon Wiesenthal once faced an ethical predicament extraordinary even by the standard of the Holocaust. A nurse from a nearby military hospital asked him to visit a fatally wounded member of the SS so the man might ask forgiveness for his role in massacring the Jews of a small village. Specifically, the man sought absolution for murdering a small child. Wiesenthal chose not to fulfill the dying man’s request. Rather, he sat in silence for some minutes, then left to rejoin his labor detachment.

Years later, Wiesenthal related this story as the starting point for a symposium on the limits of forgiveness titled The Sunflower. The discussion revolved around whether he was right or wrong to have denied the dying SS man’s request. Alan Berger, a highly regarded Holocaust scholar who took part in the discussion, argued that Wiesenthal was right to do as he did. By seeking a Jew, any Jew, as a source for forgiveness, the SS man still failed to see the Jews as human beings, as individuals, seeing Jews rather as an indistinguishable mass in which one was interchangeable for another.

This anecdote bears well on the discussion of The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera with music by John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman. The opera, based on the 1985 hijacking of the MS Achille Lauro (in which Palestinian terrorists seized control of a Mediterranean cruise ship and murdered the wheelchair-bound 69-year-old stroke survivor Leon Klinghoffer), opened recently at the Metropolitan Opera of New York to a great deal of controversy. Critics charged that the opus posits moral equivalency between the murderers and their victim, that it refuses to condemn the act of murder, that it glorifies terrorism, and that it humanizes the terrorists. This criticism is unfounded. While the opera could go further in distinguishing the murderers from their victim, it does not equate them. The opera does not condemn the murder of the old man, but neither does it glorify the act of terrorism; at no point in the libretto does the opera portray the murder of the unarmed man in a wheelchair as anything but an evil act. Recognizing the humanity of an evil person does not excuse that person’s evil; rather, it confirms it. The terrorists were human; we don’t hold chimpanzees morally accountable for brutal actions.

The opera attempts to create a dialogue between the Palestinian narrative, voiced by the terrorists, and the Israeli narrative, voiced by Leon Klinghoffer. The narratives can and should be placed in discussion, and art is a natural arena for this dialogue. However, by placing the Israeli narrative in the mouth of the American Jew, the opera strips Klinghoffer of his humanity and the right to be an individual. Goodman forces Klinghoffer to speak for the experience of Israeli “children in the Promised Land” learning “to sleep underground because of [Palestinian] shelling” and of “old men at the Wailing Wall get[ing] a knife in the back,” despite the fact that Klinghoffer was from New York. In the opera, Klinghoffer ceases to be a Jew and becomes simply “Jew,” compelled to speak for the history of a country of which he was not a citizen, and in which he had no part. In The Death of Klinghoffer, one Jew becomes interchangeable for another by virtue of their Semitism.

I have no doubt that the opera’s creators never intended this; I think much anti-Semitism, like much bigotry, is unconscious. This doesn’t mean that it’s not still bigotry. I think it’s likely that it never occurred to the composers to regard Klinghoffer beyond his Jewishness or to examine the man he was. The fault of the play is that, while it labors to recognize the humanity of the terrorists, it fails to do the same for the wheelchair-bound man whom they murdered.

Genocide, Apartheid, and BDS: The Harm in the Lies

One of the things I miss most about Orthodox Judaism is the arguing. Our religion devoted incredible attention to the minutest ritual and theological details, granting even the smallest issues sacred significance. Seemingly immaterial questions were endowed with cosmic importance. The result was invigorating. I hoped to find it again in college and graduate school. Often, I instead found an impotent discourse devitalized by a cult of tolerance too quick to agree to disagree. One of the things I’ve come to enjoy about discussing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is that people still care enough about it to argue. It injects a rare bit of heat into an otherwise tepid culture of debate often so terrified of offending or overreaching that timidity is preferred to passion.

What scares me, though, is how easily zeal turns to exaggeration, disjointing the debate from the Middle Eastern reality. Accusations of genocide, apartheid, and mass murder shift the debate from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a fictional conflict extant only in the imaginations of some activists. Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza (and elsewhere). But contrary to the delusions of some, Israel has not committed genocide, nor attempted to. Refugee camps are not death camps, and the two must not be equated. When the accusation of “genocide” is falsely applied, it cheapens the term and degrades the victims of real genocides. It equates the mass murder of one group to the expulsion and occupation of another. Gaza is hell, but it’s no Warsaw Ghetto. Gaza has no Treblinka at the end of the tracks. Indeed, Gaza has no tracks. As hard as it sometimes is to believe, the people of Palestine do have a future. The Jews of the German Ghettos did not. One of the closest things to a bright spot I’ve seen in the conflict is that while civilians have been killed repeatedly, ethnic cleansing has taken the form of expulsion rather than extermination. It’s a small comfort, but in a war that’s been waged for a century, not a negligible one

There’s another problem with the dishonest rhetoric used in discussion of the conflict. Wrong comparisons lead to the wrong conclusions. The Occupation of Palestine certainly isn’t genocide, and it isn’t South African Apartheid either. I won’t get into the debate regarding whether the Occupation is better or worse than Apartheid; that is its own conversation. I will say that they are different system born of different causes, carried out for different reasons, and in need of different solutions.

This is one thing the BDS movement fails to understand. By seeing the Occupation as Apartheid, it logically follows that it will be solved by the same mechanism: an international boycott applying cultural, social, and economic pressure in order to force change on the regime. But Israel is not South Africa. When the American Studies Association, in a moment of hubris, decided to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the Israeli right-wing gloated with satisfaction. Their narrative that “the world will always hate the Jews” seemed vindicated. The nation rallied around the flag, reinvigorating a right wing which had barely won the previous election. The ASA’s resolution certainly had an effect, but the opposite of what they had hoped.

The right pressure can open doors, the wrong pressure can close them ever more firmly. As human beings, we have a responsibility to fight for human rights. As an American, I have a responsibility to demand that the countries America supports (all of them — not only Israel) act in an ethical fashion. As a Zionist Jew, I have a particular responsibility to fight for the soul of the state existing in my people’s name. I also have a responsibility to refrain from causing harm. I have a responsibility to conduct research and to take seriously its conclusions, including poll data suggesting that BDS harms the peace movement by making Israelis reluctant to negotiate.

The peace movement can’t win the fight against the occupation by treating it like an earlier and unrelated struggle (how often have we mocked generals for doing so?). Instead, we will win this fight by empowering the peacemakers on both sides and undermining warmongers. There certainly are individuals we should boycott and companies to divest from; I have no qualms boycotting the settlements and Moshe Feiglin. There are others we need to invest in: Ha’Aretz, B’Tselem, and many others need our support. The way to forge a just peace is by building bridges, not burning them. There is no alternative.

Let’s talk about Zionism

When one criticizes the actions of Israel, there are two responses one inevitably hears.  The first is that you are an anti-Semite.  The second is that you are an anti-Zionist.

The first, I won’t dignify with a response.  The second deserves one.  Any discussion of anti-Zionism follows must first grapple with a different question, that of what Zionism is.  It’s an important question that people have died over, and it deserves attention.  There are many strands within Zionism, which often seem to contradict one another.  Jabotinsky was a fascist.  Borokhov was a socialist. Rav Kook was a theocrat.  These don’t easily exist under the same title.  I would answer thus.  I believe that the existence of a Jewish home in the land we call Zion has ensured the future of the Jewish people.  I believe the Jewish people are entitle to a future.  Therefore, I am a Zionist.

Being a Zionist does not mean that I apologize for the state of Israel.  I won’t turn a blind eye to Israel’s wrongs; I certainly won’t glorify them.  I wish the past had happened differently.  I wish the Jews had never been driven from the land.  I wish they’d never been driven back.  I wish our return had been one of coexistence and respect with the local population.  I wish I could undo all the wrongs that have been done.  I wish I could could yell back in time and tell Ben Gurion he was doing it wrong.  But I can’t.

The truth is, I look at the world the Zionists were operating in, and they were right.  A Jewish state had to come into existence.  For the better part of a century Jews had been massacred.  Countries opened their doors to Jewish immigrants, only to shut them once Jews actually started immigrating.  Jews who survived Auschwitz went home and were promptly lynched.  States untouched by the war refused to accept the refugees.  A nation the world refused to make space for made space for itself.  They were right to pursue the creation of a Jewish state by any means necessary.

I look at the world the Palestinians were operating in, and they were right.  The Jewish people were suffering.  The inhabitants of Palestine were not at fault.  They were innocents, minding their own lives when the survivors of others’ persecutions washed up on their shores.  They were told to surrender half their land to other’s victims; they said no.  They were right to say no.  They refused to be the victims’ victims.  Defeated by their enemies and betrayed by their allies, they lost everything.

When I look at the history of the conflict, at Jews and Palestinians, accidental enemies, fighting for their survival, I am unqualified to pass judgement.  I would, metaphorically, describe the conflict as a starving person stealing someone else’s last slice of bread.  Is it right?  Is it wrong?  Can an American in northern California judge?  I’m not saying that judgements can’t be made.  There are specific actions that we have a responsibility to speak out for or against.  But the narratives as a whole are a different matter.

I love Israel.  But loving doesn’t mean unconditional support.  It doesn’t mean being dishonest with oneself.  It means speaking out for a tenable future.  It means fighting for a negotiated peace.  It means recognizing that the Palestinians are human beings entitled to human rights.  It means recognizing that Jews are human beings, imbued with human faults.  It means being willing to speak out, to reach out, for the sake of creating a sustainable future.

We can’t fix the past.  We can fix the future.  It requires both sides to reconsider their own narratives and to recognize that their heroes are often the other’s villains.  It means hard decisions about holy sites and refugee rights.  I won’t presume to dictate how peace will be made.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be ended by the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The last thing the region needs is outsiders carrying out their utopian plans.  But as a Zionist Jew and a Human Being who believes in a responsibility to protect human rights, I will insist that peace be made.  I know it’s distasteful to make peace with people you’ve been at war with for decades.  But if we don’t make peace with our enemies, who do we make it with?

Statements that need no qualification

1) Hamas’s intentional targeting of Israeli civilians is wrong and unjustifiable.

2) Israel’s use of collective punishment is wrong and unjustifiable.

3) Hamas’s actions are intentionally putting Palestinian civilians in danger which is wrong and unjustifiable.

4)Israel is not taking necessary steps to prevent civilian losses.

5) The Palestinians have a right to an independent state.

6) The Israelis have a right to an independent state.

7) Everyone has the right to not live in fear of being killed.

Any questions?

On willful naïveté, unfair criticisms, and shameless oversimplification

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensifies, otherwise astute individuals trade incisive commentary for pandering to the lowest common denominator.  People flock toward their respective sides, seeing only their own righteousness and only the evil of their  opponents.  It’s as though people want to reduce the conflict to a depraved mad-lib: the (Israelis/Palestinians) are (innocents/heroes) fighting against a (faceless/monstrous) enemy made of (Nazis/murderers/terrorists) who deserve to be (bombed/shot/whatever it is that’s happening to them because we don’t want to think about the details).  I won’t argue against taking sides and I won’t pretend that these sides don’t exist.  Personal relationships, ideological and political loyalties, and ethno-religious identities are real.  We should stand with whichever side we belong to, but that’s no excuse for not speaking out against the barrage of vilification or the unwillingness to criticize our own side that are dominating the conflict.

We have a responsibility not to let our loyalty to one particular group limit us from seeing the other side as well.  It’s a concept that most people I’ve spoken to claim to adhere to, but rarely put into practice.  It’s the insistence on rendering our understanding of the conflict as an undemanding narrative, in which everything is reduced to a juvenile conception of black and white morality, of us-versus-them, that enables this conflict to continue.  It’s this willful delusion that encourages the continued dehumanization of the other while perpetuating of the facade of innocence for one’s own side, two things which need to stop in order to enable the compromise needed for a negotiated end to the conflict.

 It’s quite simple, really.  If you express solidarity with the Palestinian cause, yet refuse to denounce the reek of anti-Semitism emanating from within the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, or if you are a Zionist who refuses to criticize the ugly tide of racism rising in our own circles, this message applies to you.  If the tears you shed for Palestinians living through a full-blown military assault blind you to the reality of the Israelis who for years have been living one 30-second sprint from death,  or if you express sympathy for Israelis being forced to sleep in bomb shelters yet justify the Palestinians blown to pieces because they happened to live near a member of Hamas, then you are the problem.  It’s those whom I’ve described above who are the enemies of peace and, quite frankly, of humanity.

I know that not everyone who identifies with one side or the other in the conflict is guilty of these maneuvers.  I know that not all Zionists are racists and that not all those who express sympathy with Palestine do so out of anti-Semitism.  As a Zionist who expresses sympathy with the Palestinians and is neither a racist nor an anti-Semite, I think such unfounded accusations insult the memory those who have suffered at the hands of the real racists and the real anti-Semites.  But let’s not delude ourselves.  If we fail to denounce the moral failings of our side, then we acquiesce to them.  MP Ayelet Shaked of the Israeli Parliament recently called for killing the mothers of Palestinian terrorists.  Pro-Palestinian activists are trending #Hitlerwasright.  Failure to speak out without qualification against either is to say that you don’t find something unqualifiedly wrong in that which they say.  Silence means that you accept these calls as legitimate expressions of your movement.  Unwillingness to acknowledge the human rights of the other side is to spit in the face of the concept.