Anti-Semitism, ghost stories, and advocacy on Israel/Palestine

There's a lesson to take away from the fact that the co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement has been exposed as as trafficking in anti-Semitism

For a long time, each side of the Israel/Palestine divide has been telling ghost stories about the other side — tales of fear and threat as admonitions of what would happen should the other side “win.” But sometimes these warnings come true. And when they do, the opportunity to reassess the nature and motivation behind these fictions should be seized.

Greta Berlin, the co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement, has been exposed, in my view, as trafficking in anti-Semitism. Avi Mayer has chronicled the entire saga (here and here), and I am convinced that the “myth” of anti-Semitism on the far left — that the Jews and by extension the Jewish state are singled out for criticism and attack because they are Jews and Israel — has been proven true. I haven’t seen any other possible explanation for Berlin’s actions over time, while the rhetoric some have used to defend her and the continued remarks about Jews and Israel by others on her side just reinforce this conclusion.

But the affair has also shown that the far left is not a monolith. And this, too, deserves acknowledgment and an accounting of. Ali Abunimah has written a denunciation of Berlin, while Naomi Klein has resigned from the board of the Free Gaza Movement. It simply makes no sense, and is factually inaccurate, to tar them all with the exact same material.

Ghost stories are more than warnings — they are exaggerations of people and their behavior. And for years each side has been accusing, delegitimizing, and caricaturing the other side. When Larry Derfner and Emily Hauser examined Berlin’s explanations and found them plausible, they were denounced as facilitating the same toxic anti-Semitism and called all sorts of unpleasant names.

Greta Berlin
Greta Berlin

The process plays out on the other side as well, where the right is demonized and made monolithic. I’ve seen Jeffrey Goldberg referred to as all sorts of nasty things, all connected to his “role” as a representative of right-wing American Jews verging on Israel-firstism. He has also been “found” to share with Spencer Ackerman a (sinister) focus on Israel’s well-being. How Ackerman can be accused of verging on rightist Israel-firstism is simply beyond me.

More to the point, Goldberg has just used the occasion of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute to — for the umpteenth time — publicly call out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the settlement enterprise. It’s simply and patently false to imply that Goldberg holds the same views as the Jewish Defense League or US Congressman Joe Walsh.

As these distinctions have become obvious, those of us interested in the study, discussion, and efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should take the opportunity to hold a more civil and constructive conversation. It’s obvious we won’t agree on everything. But denigrating and calling one another names is only making it harder to compromise; and the conflict will certainly never be solved without compromise.

One way to move to this end — and I’m not saying it will be easy or that it’ll happen quickly — is to conceive of Israelis and Palestinians as having three sets of rights. At the first level, we can all agree that certain rights accrue to all individuals regardless of their religion or ethnicity: the right to be safe and secure, and to have basic human needs met — the necessary caloric intake of food, shelter, clothing, protection of one’s body and mind from violence and abuse. If you can’t agree to that, you are beyond the pale and don’t deserve to be part of the discussion.

The next level is composed of communal rights; for example, the right to practice one’s own cultural traditions without interference, to pass those traditions on to younger generations, and to not be swallowed up by a hegemonic culture. Agreement is trickier here. Within Israel, there is a legitimate dispute over how much autonomy the non-Jewish population should have while still maintaining Israel as a Jewish state, while others argue over the nature of an equal balance between the Jewish and Palestinian communities. Disagreement over the group rights of Jews and Arabs in the West Bank is even deeper and more convoluted.

The most difficult level to consider is national rights — essentially, the notion that a given group deserves its own state. For some there is no compromise: the principle of self-determination and equality means either both Jews and Palestinians get their own state, or neither does. But even here there is room to talk. And through discussion over the first two levels of rights, we will come to know and feel more comfortable with each other, enabling a more serious and civil conversation at this level.

And at a minimum, a more civil discussion should be one of the priorities of the conversation.

About the Author
Brent Sasley is Assistant Professor in Political Science, at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Israel and Middle East politics, and works on the politics of Jewish identity