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.