I am a Jewish American: What I was not taught

October 7 marked the single largest loss of Jewish lives worldwide since the Holocaust; Hamas’ actions were frightening in their brutality against civilians, for which there is not nor could ever be justification. It also marked the beginning of a personal journey to understand both the forces that could lead people to commit such heinous atrocities, and to also seek to better understand the historical context within which this violence and hatred has developed and persisted. That journey led me to an unexpected conclusion: My secular Jewish American education – forged in Hebrew school and around the dinner table during countless holiday meals – failed to provide a balanced picture of the story of Israel, the consequences of its creation, and the ongoing struggles it faces. I believe that many others, if they are genuinely open-minded to learn and challenge long-held assumptions, will come to a similar conclusion. And doing so is critical to forge a better tomorrow. Indeed, as Maya Angelou said, “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

For many Jews, Israel represents the last best hope for the Jewish people who, throughout history, have been the victim of social and political isolation, violence, and forced expulsion from the countries where Jews had lived for millenia. Until the formation of Israel in 1948, we were a “people without a land” – in exile from our historic homeland. 

When I was taught the story of Israel, however, I did not learn that the land that was to become Israel was not “a land without a people” as the saying goes. To secure a Jewish nation for the historically dispossessed Jewish people, roughly 600,000 Arabs were exiled to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Gaza Strip (many on the promise of neighboring Arab states for their prompt return following the intended destruction of the infant State of Israel, but many by force). 

I was taught that the native Arabs and surrounding Arab nations uniformly rejected a partition plan and engaged in war to seek to eradicate the just-forming Israeli state. But I was not taught that the expulsion of native Arabs from their land was both a catastrophic byproduct of Arab resistance to what was perceived as an unfair division of the land based on population densities of Jews and native Arabs at the time, but also welcomed and acknowledged by Israel’s founders as an inevitable component of Zionism. As Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion said in 1937 (11 years before the establishment of the State of Israel): “The compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something we never had . . . I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it.” This sentiment is indefensible. The forced transfer of an indigenous population is immoral and illegal, and a violation of human rights. These dangerous ideas mirrored the sentiment from the Mufti of Jerusalem who promised Hitler that after the Nazi victory in World War II, he would create an Arab Auschwitz in the West Bank.

In 1967, Israel undertook successful military action to preempt a planned invasion by its Arab neighbors that intended to “push all of the Jews into the sea” in the words of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  But I was not taught that because of that conflict, hundreds of thousands of additional Palestinian civilians were displaced by force. While it is indeed true that civilian suffering is an inevitable byproduct of war, it is undeniably tragic nonetheless. Both then and now, actions that target civilians using the cover of total war for their perpetration are reprehensible and a violation of international law.

I was also not taught that in the decades since the 1967 war, the Israeli government has built Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, first at a trickle, and then since about 2009 in far greater numbers strategically placed to isolate Palestinian villages from one another, drive yet more Palestinians from their land, and undermine the prospects of a two-state solution. Nor had I understood the difficulties for the creation of a Palestinian state given facts on the ground, including for example unabated settlement activity after the Oslo Accords, which greatly weakened the Palestinian Authority and created a leadership vacuum to be filled by more extremist forces, including of course Hamas, as well as vast distrust between the two peoples. 

Until recently, therefore, I had not wrestled with the reality that more than 5 million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem have varying combinations of no legal status, no country to call their home, and no ability to participate meaningfully in self-determination. While the causes are varied, and to a large extent result from a history of failed Palestinian leadership and abandonment and exploitation by surrounding Arab nations, Israel too has played a significant role, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I was not taught to see that side of the picture.

None of this changes the truths that I was taught, however. Israel is a miracle. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust and in only a few short generations, Israel has become one of the most progressive and technologically advanced countries on the planet, and serves as a safe haven for the Jewish people, helping to ensure that the atrocities of the Holocaust will never happen again. Its survival is widely viewed by Jews worldwide as both imperative and non negotiable.

Trying to find a viable long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most complicated and politically charged geopolitical challenges of our generation. It will require real concessions and compromise on both sides, new Israeli and Palestinian leadership, and a final agreement that addresses complicated moral, practical, and strategic questions. But a necessary precursor to any such peace agreement (or at least a first step on the road to productive dialogue) is mutual and sincere willingness to acknowledge the roles each side has played in the creation of catastrophic human suffering and loss. The tragedy of this conflict is that two peoples both claim the same land as their national home, despite the reality that there is sufficient land and resources for all involved to live in peace and with dignity.

As Jewish Americans, we can continue to support the Jewish state while acknowledging the wrongs visited upon the Palestinians that are inescapably part of the story of the State of Israel, just as it is critically important that patriotic Americans acknowledge the sordid and painful aspects of the story of this nation, with its original sin of enslavement of human beings and the genocide of indigenous peoples. Ignoring history has long been viewed as the best means for repeating it. In other words, to turn the page on the past, we must have the courage to acknowledge it.

For the Palestinians, it would mean a rejection of violent ideologies that have long demonized Jews, called for the wholesale eradication of the Jewish State, and sanctioned violence and terrorism against Israeli civilians. These impulses are a sickening yet predictable byproduct of a people that feel unseen, unheard, and wronged by history and the international community. But regardless, leaders who preach extremism and violence on both sides are not viable partners in any serious effort to establish a better future for the Palestinians and Israelis alike. 

On the Israeli side, it would mean acknowledging the injustices perpetrated on the Palestinians in the formation, establishment, and growth of Israel as a nation, and a rejection of extremist ideologies that continue to seek to deprive the Palestinians of their lives, dignity, and an independent state of their own alongside Israel, with security for both. 

Until recently, I had not seriously grappled with the contradiction between the belief in the dream of Israel as a democratic nation that abides by core liberal Jewish values of ethics and morality as directed by the Torah and thousands of years of religious teachings, and actions of the Israeli government both in the past and now that deprive Palestinians under occupation in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, of their rights. And it has also been painful to observe an unwillingness of many of my family and friends to engage with these issues in an effort at deeper understanding. Many of them remain closed minded, continuing to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black and white terms of clear right and wrong – Israel always right and the Palestinians always wrong. But for those who love Israel, it is imperative to demand that it acknowledge and learn from both its successes and failures, so that it can grow to live up to its ideals. Indeed, I believe that doing so — truly understanding the history (the good and bad) — is in the long-term best interest of Israel.

Seeking the truth, rather than hiding from it, is consistent with the Jewish tradition and a necessary component of any meaningful effort to find lasting peace and self determination for both Israelis and Palestinians in this land that both peoples call their home. As the Jewish tradition teaches, “Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” I urge my fellow Jewish Americans (and Israelis alike) to join me on this journey as a first step toward lasting security, peace, and dignity for all.

About the Author
DJ Rosenthal is a Fellow with the National Security Institute at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University and previously served as Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama White House and as Senior Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice.
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