on Israel and Palestine
April 30, 2002
Israel's incursion into Palestinian territory makes it more urgent than
ever to terminate US support for Israeli domination of the West Bank and
Gaza. Even many of Israel's long-time supporters now understand that,
to provide justice to Palestinians -- and also to salvage democracy and
morality within the Jewish State itself -- the thirty-five-year occupation
As we proceed, however, peace and justice activists confront three overlapping
First, we should know what we're talking about. Interactions at recent
rallies between demonstrators and counterdemonstrators make it clear that
we don't always do our homework. Like those who confront us, too often
we overgeneralize, present inadequate views of history, fail to acknowledge
the range of perspectives and motives on both sides. Sometimes we pass
along easily disproved or impossible-to-verify exaggerations. Repeatedly,
we confuse slogans for arguments.
One example is our tepid response to the Palestine Authority's instant
assertion that Israeli forces in Jenin massacred 500 Palestinians. The
plausible evidence is horrendous enough: some Israeli troops beat captured
Palestinians and used others as human shields; blocked ambulances on flimsy
pretexts; vandalized homes and offices; shot noncombatants, or humiliated
them to teach them a lesson; and imposed on innocent civilians massive
destruction and collective punishment. To all this and more, we object.
But disseminating dubious claims of a large-scale massacre hurts our
Similarly harmful is comparing Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany.
The extermination of millions of Jews and others -- systematic, totalistic,
bureaucratic, scientific -- may not be unique, but calling every atrocity
Nazi-like demonstrates either a weak grasp of history or a calculated
misuse of it.
Jews opposed to Israel's war crimes -- our numbers grow, despite the
mainstream media's determination to ignore us -- are often moved by the
welcome we receive from appreciative Palestinians; they should not have
had to wait so long for our presence. But many Jews won't march behind
banners that equate the Star of David and the Nazi swastika. If those
banners disappeared, along with the superficiality that inspires them,
there might be more of us.
A third example: We're appalled when some Israelis propose "transferring"
all Palestinians out of Occupied Territories. We should be equally appalled
when Hamas reiterates its intention to expel from Israel all who reject
the Islamic rule it intends to impose.
Our second challenge is to communicate more effectively with our opponents.
It's easy to list facts justifying our position. It's harder to respond
substantively to the other side's list, to struggle with their best arguments
rather than simply shrug off their worst. Applying principles evenhandedly,
we should be ready to respond when those on the other side ask, as they
always do, "What's your solution?"
Talking with those we oppose is difficult. Even when it works, it only
takes us so far, because mutual understanding doesn't solve every problem.
But mutual understanding can help identify differing interests and values.
Only then can we finally grapple with how to satisfy the legitimate needs
of ordinary people on both sides. Any solution must take into account
historic oppression and hostility, unequal access to power, and factors
as varied as the role of oil and corporate profit and the contentious
distinction between legitimate resistance to occupation and terrorist
attacks on uninvolved civilians.
Under the right circumstances, communication also reveals diversity.
When interaction humanizes both Jews and Arabs, it becomes harder to believe
dangerous stereotypes perpetuated by those who seek supremacy rather than
Our third challenge is to respond with more than lip service to the spread
of anti-Semitism. We rightly expect Jews of conscience to oppose Israeli
aggression, just as we oppose the US government's post-September 11th
assault on Muslim civil liberties. But we should also expect Palestinians
and their supporters to reject those who blame, not Israel, but "the
Some Arab governments continue to use inflammatory language and disseminate
anti-Semitic literature. Synagogue arsons, beatings, and other anti-Jewish
incidents escalate throughout Europe. Hate groups in the US use the Palestinian
cause to incite violence against Jews.
Despite claims to the contrary by mainstream Jewish organizations, every
criticism of Israeli policy is not generated by anti-Semitism. But let's
not make the opposite mistake. Sometimes the perception of Jew-hatred
is right on target.
So let's drop the slogans. Let's communicate more effectively. And let's
unite behind the understanding that justice and liberation, democracy
and safety, can only come about if they come to all of us, together.