Yitzchak Blau

12 falsehoods about the Israeli-Arab conflict

Militaristic trends in the Religious Zionist world trouble me enough to have written multiple articles both in Hebrew and English attempting to counter them. I have critiqued RZ attitudes to war and peace, to civilian casualties, to the religious thought of R. Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and to desecration of God’s name. Moving from religion to politics, my wife and I made aliyah in 1997 and voted in many subsequent Israeli elections. My voting record includes no parties to the right of Likud, but does incorporate Labor and Yesh Atid. Thus, it can hardly be said that I am a card-carrying right-winger.

Nevertheless, I find prevalent attitudes to Israel on the Jewish left profoundly troubling.  To convey the problem, I will list 12 sentiments popular in liberal circles and explain their falsity.

  • The settlements are the major obstacle to peace. A cursory glance at the history of the Arab Israeli conflict reveals the foolishness of such an assertion.  The Arab world rejected the partition plan in 1947.  The three Nos of Khartoum meant that the Arab world turned down a full return of the land Israel conquered in 1967 in exchange for peace.  Since then, the Palestinians have rejected various peace offers that give them sovereignty over more than 90 percent of the territories.   Whether or not the settlements are a good idea, the main obstacle to peace is that the Palestinians will not accept a Jewish state on any part of the land of Israel.
  • Israel must withdraw from the territories immediately. It would certainly be better if we did not have to exert control over another population but withdrawals, whether of the negotiated or unilateral variety, lead directly to more Israeli deaths. In the two and a half years after the Oslo accords in 1993, close to 150 Israelis died in a series of suicide bombings.  The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 led to Hamas taking over in Gaza and their ability to shoot rockets in to Israel from a much closer distance.  It is easy to say Israel must withdraw when one ignores the ensuing Israeli death toll.
  • Israel resembles 20th-century colonialism.  France could withdraw from Algeria and England could leave India without endangering themselves in the slightest. The Algerians were not threatening Paris or Strasbourg.   In the case of Israel, ceding territory means more lethal attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
  • We can rely on the international community regarding security concernsIn 1967, Egypt’s Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and simply kicked out the United Nations force meant to ensure that the Straits remained open.  Many anticipated that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which involved removing more than 9,000 Israelis from their homes, would generate ongoing international good will but it completely failed to do so.  Given the track record, Israel has little reason to rely on other countries or the UN.       
  • The blockade of Gaza is immoral. If Hamas would dedicate their resources into schools, businesses, and hospitals rather than military goals (note their expensive and extensive network of tunnels intended to enable infiltrating Israel), the blockade would immediately be eased. Furthermore, critics usually leave out Egypt’s involvement in the blockade.
  • The international community can be trusted as impartial evaluators of the conflict. The United Nations Human Rights Council was founded in 2006.  Since then, it has passed 45 resolutions condemning Israel which is almost half of the country specific resolutions passed altogether.  The 2001 conference against racism in Durban singled out Israel for intensive censure.  Reasonable people would have to conclude that the world has some obsession with criticizing Israel.
  • Pointing to Israel’s relatively good track record on gay rights is a form of pinkwashing covering up Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Evaluation of a country should incorporate many aspects of behavior.  Tel Aviv is a haven for LGBT people whereas homosexuals in Iran are subject to imprisonment and even execution.  In Israel, women have been Prime Minister, President of the Supreme Court, Minister of Education, Minister of Justice, and Mister of the Interior while Saudi Arabia just granted women permission to drive in 2018.  Gideon Levy and Amira Hass have castigated Israel for years in Ha’aretz, the country’s most respected paper.  Contrast this with the Palestinian authority which recently beat critic Nizar BInat to death.  Even if we think Israel mistreats the Palestinians, how could it be that these other differences play no role in progressive discourse?
  • Israel has no right to complain that other countries do far worse because that is morally irrelevant. What would happen if your child went to a school where everyone else was allowed to break the rules but your child was consistently punished for doing so?  Would you be sanguine with the principal saying that other’s wrongdoing does not excuse your child?  Moreover, this mode of functioning should influence us to question the validity of the criticism.  Those exclusively focused on expressing negativity towards one country are likely not evaluating from an objective ethical standpoint.  For example, where are the university groups calling for divestment from China for persecuting the Uyghurs or from Venezuela for its abysmal human rights record?
  • The only viable option now is the one-state solution. Many of us care passionately about Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state and the one state solution will erase both essential aspects of the state.  A growing Arab majority will erode the Jewish aspect and no Arab country has yet succeeded in establishing a democracy.  This is not due to anything inherent in Arab character, but simply the current cultural reality.
  • The Palestinian Authority is ready to make real concessions for peace. Let us first note that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Authority, wrote a doctoral thesis which is a form of Holocaust denial, a fact that does not fill one with confidence about his ability to come to terms with a Jewish state. Furthermore, no Palestinian leader has ever spoken about relinquishing the right of return. Keep in mind that in no other international conflict have refuges been kept in camps for decades instead of being resettled. Nor is there another conflict where the great-grandchildren of refuges receive refugee status. Since the entry of so many Palestinians to Israel would mean the end of the Jewish state, no Israeli government will ever agree to such an arrangement.  If so, there is little basis for dreaming of a final status agreement right now.
  • Israeli intransigence on the Temple Mount is a major source of tension. After Israel conquered the Mount in 1967, it allowed the Waqf, Islamic religious authorities, to remain in charge of the site and Islamic prayer continues unimpeded.  Israeli law actually prohibits Jews from praying on the Mount.  Contrast this with the period of time between 1948 and 1967 when the Jordanians did not allow Jews to pray at the Wailing Wall.
  • Israel is guilty of genocide. The term genocide applies to the Nazis attempting to wipe out the entirety of the Jewish people and the Turks annihilating millions of Armenians.  Comparison to the actions of Israel does not begin on any level.  The Israeli military warns Palestinian civilians before striking but, due to Hamas situating itself among civilians, ends up killing some civilians as a form of collateral damage when retaliating against Hamas forces.  To refer to this as genocide is obscene, yet the Yale student council, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, actor Mark Ruffalo, and the Movement for Black Lives have all done so.

All of the above does not mean that Israel is flawless; indeed, there are deeply troubling trends in Israeli society.  If some fans at one soccer stadium chant “Death to Arabs,” that is certainly one stadium too many.  Israelis must acknowledge that Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have legitimate complaints against the Jewish state.  At the same time, the Arab world should admit its role in generating and perpetuating the conflict.

Where does this leave an ethically sensitive Jewish group?  On the one hand, every society needs to engage in self-criticism and Israel is no different.  On the other hand, the incredibly one-sided criticism of Israel in segments of the Western world should make a critic hesitant to contribute to that distortion.  For a Jewish group engaged in internal conversations, criticism of Israel is crucial.  Sadly, there are Jewish voices incapable of acknowledging any Palestinian claims and they need to encounter another view. However, those playing on a more universal stage must temper their criticism with an approach that restores balance to the discourse.  Someone attending a university whose faculty or students portray Israel as the Satan should grow somewhat more circumspect about enumerating flaws of the Jewish state,   Those groups that criticize Israel without ever praising it, criticizing the Palestinians, or putting Israel’s actions in context, add fuel to a corrupt fire.  This point applies to groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, and T’ruah and to individuals such as Peter Beinart and Rabbi Jill Jacobs.  Their incessant criticism of Israel is not the stuff of moral greatness; quite the contrary, it reflects profound moral failure.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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