In Israel debate, don’t let extremes drown out moderate center

In recent years, it has become almost impossible to have a calm, rational conversation about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Partly this is because the subject has always been freighted with strong emotions for all sides. Making it worse, the subject has been turned into a symbol or stand-in for a myriad of other political battles.

Both political extremes in the United States have sought to weaponize the issue for their own purposes. The Republican Party, under the sway of evangelical Christians, has strongly identified itself with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli settler movement who seek to annex all or part of the occupied West Bank, who for their part have eagerly welcomed the embrace.

For this ideological camp, anyone who dares contradict Netanyahu is labeled as anti-Israel – and increasingly anti-Semitic. The true anti-Semitism of white supremacists and neo-Nazis is accordingly ignored or brushed off as marginal and not an actual threat to the lives of actual Jews. President Trump is among those cynically weaponizing and exploiting the issue to try to embarrass Democrats, energize his base voters and score political points.  

On the far left, a similar dynamic is underway. For some in this camp, the whole notion of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people was at best a mistake, the consequence of which has been to perpetrate an enormous historical on the Palestinians. Opposition to the entire existence of the state of Israel — rather than just to the policies of the Israeli government — becomes just another item on a laundry list of left-wing causes. Rather than focusing on the specific details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the best ways to solve it, this camp views the issue purely through other ideological and political lenses which often do not fully apply or undermine the prospects for real progress.

The rubber meets the road for both groups when the subject of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is raised. For the far right, those who support BDS are Jew-haters. They need to be silenced, criminalized, denied platforms and penalized through congressional legislation and state and local laws. For the far-left, opposition to BDS is deemed as shorthand for support of the occupation, the settlement movement, the denial of Palestinians civil rights.

There is another, better way to discuss this issue and advocate for change – an approach that rejects overly simplistic ideological frameworks and drills down on the actual details, root causes and possible solutions of the conflict. First of all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be considered on its merits and not as a stand-in for other issues. Facts still matter. Rational debate and pragmatic, proactive solutions can still prevail against polarization and extremism.

Millions of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans and American Jews reject the false dichotomies that are all-too prevalent in the Israel debate. Instead, we believe that: — The creation of the state of Israel was and remains a necessity for the survival of the Jewish people, which needed and still requires one place in the world that will provide a safe haven. The persistence and strengthening of anti-Semitism in the world reinforces that point. National survival and self-determination are basic rights which a people does not lose simply because it may have a leader or government which pursues destructive or self-destructive policies.

— Israel will only secure its safety, cement its legitimacy and preserve its democracy by bringing an end to its conflict with the Palestinian people and its rule over millions of Palestinians in the occupied territory. The only way to do that in a manner that gives both nations what they need to thrive is through a two-state solution, with an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security. Israel’s occupation is a gross injustice that is corrupting Israel from within, eating away at its own democracy and endangering its security and long-term future.

— One may support BDS without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel, and oppose it without being pro-occupation or anti-Palestinian. BDS is ultimately a counter-productive movement which only empowers the Israeli right and helps them justify and promote a narrative in which the entire world is against them. There is also an element of double standard in singling out Israel for such treatment in a world full of aggressive, authoritarian and repressive regimes. However, the constitutional rights of BDS supporters must be fully protected and defended. Instead of being suppressed or attacked, BDS supporters should be engaged in open discussion and debate.

It is always hard to be caught in the middle of fierce, and vitriolic debates about Israel, especially in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of today. It is hard for the large majority in the moderate middle to be heard when those all around us are speaking so loudly — and drawing so much attention. It is hard to argue nuance in an age of extremist certainties. But this has always been the case. Those of us who continue to believe in a two-state solution and a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians need to persist and redouble our efforts to promote our own point of view and pursue our own vision — because to quit means ceding the arena to those who would happily rip each other, and the rest of us, apart.

In the Biblical Book of Kings, God tells the prophet Elijah is told to emerge from his refuge and stand on a mountain to hear the divine word. He sees a mighty wind —  but God is not in the wind. After the wind there is an earthquake and then a huge fire- — but God is not in them either. Finally, he hears “a still, small voice.” Our challenge today is to make our voices heard over the earthquakes and fires of modern political extremism. We must confidently speak our truth — and be heard.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.
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