on Israel and Palestine
The Shame of the Pro-Palestinian Left
May 14, 2002
"Let's move back," my wife insisted when she saw the nearby
banner: "Israel is a Terrorist State!" We were at the April
20 Boston march opposing Israel's incursion into the West Bank. So drop
back we did, dragging our friends with us to wait for an empty space we
could put between us and the discomforting anti-Israel sign.
That same day, at the bigger protest in Washington, an acquaintance of
mine had a similar problem. A woman walking into a bathroom asked his
wife to hold her protest sign for a minute. "Israel is Nazi"
is what it said. His wife wasn't happy, either.
There was a lot of unhappiness that day, and not only for Jews like me.
I've long expected World War III to start in Jerusalem, sparked by those
on both sides for whom God's command makes compromise impossible. On CNN
I listen to Israeli settlers describe in Brooklyn accents why they won't
move from their God-promised West Bank hilltop; if a peace treaty is signed,
they'll fight Israeli soldiers sent to remove them. Then I read an interview
with a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, who says the group will sabotage any peace
that fails to transform the Jewish state into an Islamic one.
Both extremes are part of the problem. Yet too many activists on the
American left, in their zeal to remedy the Palestinians' plight, don't
apply principles evenhandedly. I see three overlapping challenges facing
the developing movement for Middle East peace and justice:
First, we need to know what we're talking about, and many of us
don't. Like those who defend every Israeli action, too often we over-generalize,
present inadequate views of history, fail to acknowledge the range of
perspectives and motives on both sides. Sometimes we pass along unfounded
exaggerations. Repeatedly, we confuse slogans for arguments.
One example was our credulous response last month to the Palestine
Authority's assertion that Israeli forces in Jenin massacred 500 Palestinians.
Yes, Israel has massacred civilians in the past, in actions Ariel Sharon
sometimes organized or allowed -- but that doesn't mean it happened this
time. Yes, Israel's rejection of an inquiry allows the claim to persist
-- but that doesn't make it true.
Both sides have hid or manufactured evidence. But the plausible facts,
presented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, journalists, and
eyewitnesses, are horrendous enough without resorting to unfounded claims
of a massacre. Israeli troops beat captured Palestinians; exposed noncombatants
to injury and death by forcing them to guide soldiers into danger; blocked
ambulances on flimsy pretexts; vandalized homes and offices; shot civilians,
or humiliated them to teach them a lesson; and imposed massive destruction
and collective punishment, destroying the civil institutions needed to
run a society. To all this and more, our movement rightly objects.
But there is no evidence of a large-scale intentional massacre, and to
claim there is hurts our credibility. Roughly 50 people were killed, another
49 are missing, according to the U.N. That's not 500. In fact, floating
the claim of a massacre early and often diminished international outrage
over the possible war crimes Israel did commit in Jenin. We shot
ourselves in the foot, folks.
A related need is to rein in our rhetoric. It's not just incendiary
to compare Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany, it's inaccurate and
unfair. The Nazis' extermination of millions of Jews and other "undesirables"
-- systematic, totalistic, bureaucratic, scientific -- is in many ways
unparalleled in human history. The point is not to say Jews have suffered
most, because that's a pointless debate: Many groups have a claim on the
world's shame and sympathy. Yet calling Israeli atrocities Nazi-like demonstrates
either a weak grasp of history or a calculated misuse of it. Certainly,
like many governments, Israel has committed unjustifiable acts: occupation,
massacre, torture, and more. But calling someone a Nazi implies something
further: implementing a comprehensive plan to annihilate an entire class
of people. That's why the accusation is so devastating, and untrue.
And while more Jews have rallied to the anti-occupation cause over the
last month, I believe their numbers are dampened by distaste for banners
that use an equal sign to connect the star of David and the Nazi swastika,
or proclaim that "Sharon is Hitler." Those banners, and the
superficiality that inspires them, are calculated to offend, not communicate,
and they hinder the movement for Palestinian rights.
Our second challenge is to respond with more than lip service to anti-Jewish
hatred and scapegoating. We rightly expect Jews of conscience to oppose
Israeli aggression, just as we oppose the US government's assault on Muslim
civil liberties and racist attacks on individual Arabs. But we should also
expect Palestinians and their supporters to reject those who blame, not
Israel, but "the Jews." We're appalled when some Israelis propose
to "transfer" all Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza,
a policy that would render accurate the charge of genocidal ethnic cleansing.
We should be equally appalled when Hamas reiterates yet again its intention
to expel from Israel all who reject Islamic rule.
Some Arab governments continue to use inflammatory language and disseminate
the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other hate literature. Again this
spring, Arab media repeated the ancient libel that Jews use non-Jewish
blood to bake matzoh. Although Palestinian schools have removed some older
textbooks with anti-Jewish slurs, in much of the Arab world antipathy
to Jews is commonly expressed and sometimes officially endorsed.
In Europe, reactions to Israel's West Bank actions include synagogue
arsons, tombstone desecrations, and beatings. A member of the British
House of Lords says 'The Jews have been asking for it and now, thank God,
we can say what we think at last.'' Spray-painted in France, repeatedly:
''Jews to the gas chambers." In Holland, chants: ''Sieg Heil,'' and
''Jews into the sea." Hate groups in the US, too, now use the Palestinian
cause to justify Jew-hatred.
That so many Muslims believe Jews working in the World Trade Center had
advance knowledge of September's terrorist assault is a problem to address,
not ignore. That some supporters of Palestine won't distinguish between
legitimate opposition to military occupation and illegitimate suicide
bombings and other attacks on civilians -- attacks endorsed by Islamic
clerics, politicians, even openly by Yasser Arafat's wife and less openly
by Arafat himself -- feeds the mainstream perception that the left's interest
in peace and justice is tainted.
Of course, despite Israel's assertions to the contrary, anti-Semitism
and Jewish self-hatred do not motivate every criticism of Israeli policy.
Claims that Israeli forces in the West Bank did nothing wrong repel even
many of Israel's supporters, including 450 army reservists refusing to
serve in Occupied Territory. Jewish-American newspapers like the Forward
and the Jewish Advocate now report in reasonable, even respectful, tones
the growth of Jewish opposition groups. Even some Jews wonder, often uneasily,
whether the fundamental Zionist beliefs that led to Israel's creation
made the present instability inevitable. None of this makes one an anti-Semite
or a traitor. But let's not make the opposite mistake. Sometimes the perception
of anti-Semitism is right on target.
Our third challenge is to communicate more effectively with our opponents.
Because both good and bad arguments for any stance almost always exist,
it's easy to list facts justifying our position and exposing the other
side's outrageous deeds. 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. We should be ready to respond effectively and honestly
when those on the other side ask, "What's your solution?"
The gulf is vast. Some blame the underlying conflict on European Jews
who arrived more than a century ago and soon displaced Palestinians. Others
blame Arabs who resisted Jewish efforts to escape European anti-Semitism.
Fundamentally different perspectives shape the way both sides interpret
Those differences even make it hard to agree which historic facts are
really factual. Was Ehud Barak's Camp David offer to Yasser Arafat generous,
or simply a guarantee of continued Palestinian dependence? Let's go even
further back: What did Britain intend in 1917 when it issued the Balfour
Declaration? Did Israeli officials intentionally drive out the Palestinians
in the 1948 war, or was their flight a largely unplanned result of the
fear and destruction inherent in conflict? The position of many who support
Israel--that Arab governments enticed most Palestinians to leave--has
been thoroughly discredited by historians across the political spectrum;
its frequent repetition reminds us that even demonstrably erroneous assumptions
persist when they serve other purposes. The claim by many Middle-East
Muslims that the Israeli Mossad attacked the World Trade Center last September
may attain similar status. Facts are slippery. Myths persist.
Even when talking works, it only takes us so far, because mutual understanding
doesn't solve every problem. But talk is crucial if we're to clarify differences
in interpretations, access to power, ultimate goals. Only then can we
grapple with how to satisfy the needs of ordinary people on both sides.
Under the right circumstances, communication also reveals diversity. When
interaction humanizes both Jews and Arabs, it becomes harder to believe
stereotypes perpetuated by those who seek supremacy rather than resolution.
Today I'm trying to feel encouraged. Even many of Israel's long-time
supporters now understand that, to provide justice to Palestinians --
and to salvage democracy and morality within the Jewish State itself --
the thirty-five-year occupation must end. Two weeks ago, to further that
goal, American Jewish critics of Israel founded the national Covenant
of Justice and Peace, building on the work of older groups around
the country. On the other side, a recent
call by Palestinian human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab and Nonviolence
International director Mubarak Awad to transform the Palestinian armed
struggle into militant non-violent resistance is attracting growing attention.
So let's remember that justice and liberation, democracy and safety,
can only come about if they come to all of us, together. Let's not deplore
only one side's racism; or propose remedies that discount one side's valid
needs; or accept the argument that one side has the right to kill uninvolved
civilians. Recognition that Israel's occupation oppresses Palestinians
is central. But the justice-based left must seek analyses and solutions
built on general principles, and reject those that make new forms of oppression
Dennis Fox is on leave from the University of Illinois at Springfield,
where he's associate professor of legal studies and psychology. He lives
in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he's working with others to create
a dialogue among people with conflicting views on the Middle East.
Fox co-founded the Radical Psychology Network
and co-edited Critical Psychology: An
Introduction (1997, Sage).
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