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Joining the Expanding Middle

Dennis Fox

July 2002

I've never hung out in the political center before, so maybe I'm just a little oversensitive to getting trashed from both ends of the Middle East divide. Still, I expected it. To many on the extremes there is no center -- you're either for us, 100 percent, or you're against us, 100 percent, even if you think you aren't. I realized this more personally than academically when I first criticized Israel in print after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres. Even then, applying general principles that recognized valid needs on both sides was proof to many that I had joined the enemy.

It's embarrassing to admit that, after first editorializing against Israeli policy two decades ago, I stopped. There were plenty of other political challenges more closely related to my academic work. I was disaffected from mainstream Jewish life. And I wasn't eager to expose my own views to friends and relatives here and in Israel who, I knew, would react with anger and pain.

Then last February, a month before Israel's incursion into the West Bank,I used one of my biweekly community-newspaper columns to support Amer Jubran, a Palestinian protestor who was arrested last year on apparently bogus charges at Boston's Israel Independence Day Celebration. I wrote about "an uncomfortable truth: from the beginning, Zionism's focus on Jewish survival blinded it to the equally legitimate rights of Arabs who, inconveniently, already lived on the land." In later columns I suggested we create a local forum to facilitate an open exchange of views, to ease public discussion of Israel in my heavily Jewish and heavily liberal town. My columns drew long, angry letters to the editor raising the specter of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred. I was called a self-righteous sellout, ignorant of history, willing to destroy Israel and endanger the Jewish people. The proposed discussion forum was denounced as a front for anti-Israel propaganda.

I also received email from people who appreciated my public stance -- from other Jews critical of Israel who introduced me to the Boston-based Jewish group Visions of Peace with Justice, from Amer Jubran's supporters who movingly described their despair over the Palestinians' plight, from non-Jewish political friends who seemed relieved they could now discuss with me this sensitive issue they had always avoided. Cautious but compelled, I began to attend local demonstrations, half a dozen over the next couple of months. At a big pro-Israel rally at Faneuil Hall I joined 150 mostly Jewish counter-protestors; we tried to ignore the antagonism directed our way from the Zionist crowd. At another demonstration against the Occupation, I felt welcomed by Palestinians and at ease among Jews-Against-the-Occupation signs. Then I saw signs equating Israel with Nazi Germany -- not too many, but hard to disregard. When the speakers at the microphone condemned Israeli actions, there was loud applause; when they denounced suicide bombings, the applause was dampened, and I saw a few barely hidden smirks. Subsequent protests yielded similar experiences.

Finally, based on my experience of being in the middle, I wrote an essay addressed to others on the left who support Palestinian rights, published on the web in Common Dreams and Beyond Mainstream and in an expanded version in Salon. I offered three cautions:

  • those of us on the left should know what we're talking about (we shouldn't blindly repeat allegations of a 500-person massacre at Jenin or make inaccurate comparisons to the Holocaust);
  • we should respond with more than lip service to anti-Semitism where it exists within the left itself, the Arab world, and elsewhere;
  • and we should avoid oversimplification and communicate more openly and effectively with Israel's supporters.

The justice-based left, I said, "must seek analyses and solutions built on general principles, and reject those that make new forms of oppression inevitable."

I heard the usual responses: from the pro-Israel side accusations that I was a self-hating traitor who understood nothing of history or the Arabs' uncivilized mind; from the pro-Palestinian side explanations justifying comparing Israel to Nazi Germany or minimizing the importance of anti-Semitism. What soon struck me was the similarity on both sides: Even if your criticism is valid, they instructed equally, don't make it public. Our side is in danger. Exposing our excesses helps the enemy and hurts the public relations battle over U.S. Middle East policy. Whose side are you on, anyway?

Then things got worse. In his column for Counterpunch and The Nation and now spreading in two versions virus-like throughout the Internet, Alexander Cockburn called me an apologist for Ariel Sharon and ethnic cleansing. Cockburn wrote: "Over the past 20 years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring just how badly Israel is behaving. There's a brisk uptick in the number of articles here accusing 'the left' of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt varying strategies." Isolating selected quotes and ignoring almost everything I actually wrote, Cockburn used my words to label me and my comrades in the middle reflexive Israel supporters who condemn all criticism as anti-Semitic.

Readers of my Salon piece or my response to Cockburn know that his distortions detract from, rather than strengthen, his point about misusing the anti-Semitism charge. Although Cockburn's twisting of my words beyond recognition concerns primarily me, his blasting of anyone who doesn't toe his line is emulated by too many on both extremes who believe justice is a zero-sum game.

The good news is that, despite this lashing from the extremes, the middle is expanding. Last Sunday, I again marched against the occupation with other Jewish activists; the larger pro-Palestinian crowd again welcomed us, and this time I was glad to see the rhetoric and banners less inflammatory than a month or two earlier. Reaching the Boston Common's Israel Independence Day Celebration, I joined others inside who were leafleting about Israeli peace and justice groups; although some in the surrounding crowd were hostile and the formal speeches disappointed as always, many took leaflets, stayed to talk, and offered support.

The broad center, it thus seems to me, comprises people with dramatically different, even conflicting, perspectives and allegiances. It includes Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists. It includes Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, religiously motivated and secular. It includes people whose primary motive is preserving a secure Jewish state, those primarily seeking a state of Palestine, even some whose ideal is one secular democratic state. But regardless of political self-definition and ultimate goal, what unites this middle is a mutual understanding: only principles that secure the legitimate needs of ordinary people on both sides of the Green Line can lead to a workable moral solution. Anything else will fail to ensure justice for all, and will probably ensure safety for none.

As those of us in the middle pursue our various goals, we can at least use this mutual understanding to build bridges among ourselves. We can reject those who seek total dominance or an ethnically cleansed Jewish or Islamic state. We can encourage not just the Israeli refusenik and peace movements but also Palestinians urging nonviolent resistance and other Arabs who have criticized the dissemination of anti-Jewish hatred. By strengthening our center, perhaps we can make less relevant those who insist on methods and solutions that magnify existing injustice or merely shift it from one side to the other.

Doing so means confronting difficult choices. Too many groups in the center spend inordinate time refining every last detail of their positions. Some refuse to meet with groups whose position varies even slightly on a range of delicate issues -- for example, whether or not to advocate a suspension of U.S. military aid to Israel, or accept the Palestinians' right of return, or join the growing boycott against Israeli products. Others water down their public statements so much they become too general to be meaningful or get tossed aside in boredom.

As I see it, instead of creating one litmus test after another, the middle should begin with what we have in common: a commitment to working with one another. Our middle may be muddled, but it contains the elements we need to develop realistic justice-based solutions. Rather than emulate those on the purer-than-thou ends, we should establish a framework for ongoing discussion and political advocacy.

Throughout that process we can seek to persuade others, while we remain open to what they say in return. Yes, the conflicting assumptions and goals with which we begin complicate our efforts. They cause misunderstanding and discomfort. Yet these assumptions and goals mirror those of the parties in the Middle East. If we expect Israelis and Palestinians to work with their adversaries and create a stable, just peace, we should try to do the same.

The key measure is not how far from our own position others stand today but whether they break with those on the extremes. Refusing to work with groups that are willing to work with us compounds a risk we cannot afford -- that one end or the other, rather than the multifaceted middle, will generate the energy and resources to create a solution of its own

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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Publication History

  • Tikkun Magazine September/October 2002 [contains other articles on same thing]

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