Israel Advocates vs. BDS Clubs: How Extremist Voices on Both Sides Are Hijacking the Dialogue on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

The Israel-Palestine conflict is easily one of the most complex and nuanced issues in a region that’s not exactly known for its simplicity. The numerous religious, historical and political intricacies that plague the situation are enough to make anyone want to run for the hills and bury their heads in the sand. However, for the handful of curious and concerned bystanders, there are few places to turn to in order to get truly educated in a way that respects both your own intelligence as well as the level of depth the conflict deserves.

The truth is, in order to truly grasp the conflict and the narratives shaping both peoples, one would have to invest months reading about the history of Zionism, the British mandate period, the various partition plans, the wars, the refugee crises, the settlement enterprise, the (failed) peace process, the terrorism, the evolution of Israeli and Palestinian political factions, and so much more.

Don’t have the time or energy to invest in this endeavor? Worry not! Organizations on and off campus can’t wait to do all that “tough thinking” for you and feed you digestible sound bites that lack any kind of nuance and largely paint the situation as black and white.

While I won’t be identifying these organizations by name, I trust that the reader will have no difficulty spotting them.

Let’s begin with the organizations that identify themselves as “pro-Palestine.” Despite how they label themselves, a more accurate definition of these groups would be “anti-Israel.” These groups masquerade their hatred of Israel under the guise of Palestinian human rights – a subject they don’t seem to care too much about unless Israel is the one violating them.

According to Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, as of February 2017, 3443 Palestinians have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war, with 1164 Palestinians held in Syrian government prisons. Unfortunately, the wholesale oppression of Palestinian civilians doesn’t end in Syria. There’s also the issue of Palestinian rights violated by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, with Amnesty International publishing a report, documenting 398 allegations of Palestinians being tortured in prisons in the West Bank and Gaza in 2016. Moreover, in Gaza, Hamas has used child labour to dig terror tunnels into Israel, has thrown their political rivals off of rooftops and stores their weapons in schools and hospitals, essentially using their civilian population as human shields. Ask yourself, when was the last time these “pro-Palestinian” organizations have stood up for these Palestinian victims?

While these groups often call for Israel to end the Palestinian refugee crisis caused by the 1948 & 1967 wars, they seem to have no problem with Syria and Lebanon keeping Palestinians in refugee camps indefinitely and without any semblance of equal rights for the last 50+ years, with Jordan being the only Arab country to fully integrate Palestinian refugees (and even there, there are some human rights issues).

These “pro-Palestinian” organizations openly embrace BDS (the boycott, divestment & sanctions movement) that puts the entire onus of the conflict on Israel’s shoulders and attempts to single out Israel and only Israel as a country worthy of global pressure through the intellectually lazy assertion that Israel is an apartheid state. Furthermore, BDS seeks to delegitimize Israel as a country and destroy the state itself through the establishment of a binational state, denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination.

What BDS proponents don’t realize is that forcing an end to the occupation without negotiating any form of a peace deal will not solve the Israel-Palestine conflict because the occupation isn’t the largest obstacle to peace, Palestinian rejectionism and violence is. There was no occupation in 1948 or 1967 and yet, war broke out – and who can forget the marvellously well-received unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005? For those of you who need a reminder, Hamas sends their regards.

Indeed, many of the activists involved in these organizations often state that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist. How interesting that they don’t seem to have a problem with Pakistan existing, even though it’s a state that was partitioned on religious lines that resulted in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands and to this day is a hotbed of terror and extremism, has nuclear weapons and isn’t even close to a democracy in ANY of its territory.

The values of these groups become all the more clear through their embrace of Palestinian terrorism. It is immensely rare to find any condemnation of terror attacks (or the Palestinian Authority’s policy of rewarding terrorists) and they often legitimize the voices of convicted murderers. They notably stood in solidarity with Marwan Barghouti – one of the leaders of the Second Intifada and a convicted terrorist – during his hunger strike as well as invited Rasmea Odeh – a convicted murderer of two Israeli civilians in 1969 and past member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – to be a guest speaker at their events.

While these groups often portray themselves as human rights defenders, their hatred of Israel shines through their movie nights and disingenuous poster displays. In the eyes of these people, the State of Israel is responsible for all the world’s woes and the Palestinian leadership has never made any errors and therefore bears zero responsibility for the situation plaguing their people. Indeed, they’ll jump through hoops to get people to believe that Israel is a “European colonial state” and that they’re committing “genocide” but people deserve better than loaded buzzwords.

I want to be very clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with critiquing Israel or standing up for the rights of the Palestinian people (I do both), but the way these groups conduct themselves and the way they brainwash people into taking hardline, extremist positions that infantilize Palestinians and portray Israel as the world’s worst human rights abuser should be called out for what it is: blind hatred.

While my language towards these “Pro-Palestine” organizations is harsh, I assure you that I’m not about to let the Israel advocacy organizations off the hook.

While the creation of these organizations was largely a response to the aforementioned anti-Israel groups, their modus operandi is just as disingenuous.

Israel advocacy groups often view themselves as Israel’s lawyers and PR reps simultaneously, doing virtually everything they can to “spread the gospel” of why you shouldn’t hate Israel. They’ll attest to Israel’s “impressive” record with LGBT rights (a record far more impressive 10 years ago) as well as the fact that Israel had a female prime minister in the early 1970s to appeal to campus progressives. They’ll use fancy buzzwords like “start up nation” to describe the massive number of tech starts ups in Tel Aviv and speak about Israeli innovations ranging from drip irrigation to the cherry tomato. And who could hate a country with such beautiful beaches?

The problem that these organizations don’t seem to realize is that while Israel may have a slight PR problem, they have a much larger policy problem. You’re not going to be able to sell people on a 50 year long civilian occupation by offering them drinks from your SodaStream or showing them pictures of women in hijabs sitting next to bearded Hassidic men on Jerusalem buses to illustrate diversity. Indeed, it would seem that their plan to sell people on Israel is to pretend that a major aspect of what Israel is – the occupation of the West Bank and the settlement enterprise that has resulted in over 450,000 settlers living in the West Bank under different sets of laws than their Palestinian neighbours – doesn’t exist.

It becomes instantly clear that these organizations don’t even have a semblance of respect for people’s basic intelligence. Virtually no one is going to be OK with a settlement enterprise that has made the lives of over 2.5 million Palestinians unnecessarily miserable.

When pressed, these organizations will say “settlements are a complicated issue…” but that’s not true. Settlements are a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention and an obstacle to peace that threatens Israel’s viability as a democracy; a concept that virtually every country and international body has come to terms with except for the Israeli government itself. The same goes with the collective punishment policies enforced by the Israeli government in the Occupied Territories, ranging from punitive home demolitions to mass work and travel permit confiscation.

But forget settlements and collective punishment, don’t even expect them to use the word “occupation.” While members of these organizations will say they want peace, in their minds that just means an end to Palestinian terrorism and a continuation of the status quo. They simply haven’t come to terms with the fact that Israel can’t maintain all the territory it holds, be a Jewish State AND be a democracy; it has to choose two. So like much of the real issues, they’ll ignore it and show you feel-good pamphlets instead.

Speaking of which, if you go to their tables, you’ll often find a plethora of brochures. The most disingenuous one is their “diversity” pamphlet which tokenizes Israeli minorities. Their favorite group to show off? Israel’s Bedouin population. What’s so sick about this is that while they’re busy using Bedouins as props to sell Israel’s diversity to the masses, Israel is largely abusing their Bedouin population on the ground. For instance, Ha’aretz has widely reported on the numerous Bedouins in the Negev who have been randomly stripped of their citizenship, rendering them stateless. Additionally, several months ago, the Bedouin village of Um Al-Hiran in the Negev was razed, despite mass protest from its residents as well as Ayman Odeh (the head of Israel’s Joint Arab List party in the Knesset). It would seem that for these organizations, Israel’s Bedouins are useful when it comes to spreading a message to progressive Millennials but short of that, are expendable.

While these organizations acknowledge that Israel isn’t above reproach, the most right-leaning of them don’t believe in “providing fuel to their enemies” by issuing any form of formal condemnation, even on issues that are entirely unjustifiable. This hardline position ultimately results in members being caught between a rock and a hard place when challenged.

Don’t believe me? Go up to them and ask them if they’ll condemn Lehi as a terrorist organization. Lehi was a militant group headed by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that engaged in acts of violence against British troops and Arab civilians in Mandatory Palestine. When you ask them about it, you can almost watch the gears in their heads turn as they scramble for a way to respond. If they say “yes, they’re a terrorist organization,” they’d be labelling a deceased Israeli prime minister as a terrorist (the ultimate criticism)! However, if they say “no, they were freedom fighters,” they’ve opened the door to Palestinian guerrilla groups like the PFLP as being labelled as such. After all, if Jewish armed resistance groups fighting British occupation are freedom fighters, than surely Palestinian armed resistance groups fighting an even more entrenched and belligerent Israeli occupation are freedom fighters as well!

Spoiler alert, both Lehi and the PFLP are wretched terrorist organizations with sickening amounts of blood on their hands; but don’t expect that kind of response from advocacy groups. There is no intellectual honesty when it comes to organizations whose sole raison d’être revolves around doing mental acrobatics to make you ignore major problems plaguing Israeli society in order to avoid having real conversations.

If you ask about the Palestinian refugee crisis, they’ll counter with the Jewish refugee crisis from Arab countries. If you ask them why Israel keeps building more settlements, they’ll counter with “why can Arabs live in Israel but Jews can’t live in Palestine?” If you ask them why Palestinians can’t vote in the elections of the country that governs their lives, they’ll counter with “they can vote in PA elections.” The issue with these answers is that they’re avoiding the questions through straw man arguments and non-answers. They won’t answer your questions head on because they know that whatever answer they give will be unsatisfactory. And just like that, advocacy groups have embraced a culture of half truths and intentional ignorance.

I want to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with defending Israel from unfair accusations and standing up for Zionism, the Jewish people’s right to self-determination (I do both), but the way these groups conduct themselves and the way they brainwash people into taking hardline, extremist positions that dehumanize Palestinians and portray Israel as the greatest thing since sliced bread should be called out for what it is: disingenuous oversimplification.

Both these Israel advocacy and “pro-Palestine” groups are creating an army of extremists through indoctrinating well-intentioned people with oversimplified talking points that paint the situation as black and white when, now more than ever, it requires nuance and intellectual honesty. For a topic that is already so divisive, we don’t need organizations using their power to further divide people. We need to encourage genuine and respectful conversations. There’s no reason why this topic has to be so vitriolic.

People often forget that Israelis and Palestinians are real people, with families and individual aspirations, not some statistic we read about in a textbook. Virtually no other topic elicits such strong reactions from people, and I don’t believe that the corrosive dialogue is helping. We don’t need to bring the sectarian strife of the Middle East into our communities in North America, we need respect and mutual understanding. But unfortunately, the groups I’ve dedicated this article to are ensuring that the Israel-Palestine conflict remains poisonous. Since they root for “their team” over justice and the whole truth, you should simply ignore them; they’re not worth the space they occupy.

So what should you do if you want to cut through the propaganda? There’s no better way to understand the conflict than to visit Israel itself. You’ll quickly realize that it’s a country like no other, a country that has more to it than what’s portrayed in the news or university lectures. Spend a significant amount of time there, travelling from top to bottom, speaking with every person you come across. Venture beyond the Green Line to settlements and Palestinian cities all over the West Bank. See the good, the bad and the ugly – and there’s plenty of each. Or more accurately, do what these organizations don’t want you to do: see Israel for what it really is…fascinating, vexatious and complex

About the Author
Michael Aarenau lives in Montreal, Quebec. He has a Bachelor's of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University and is currently pursuing a law degree at McGill University. Michael is passionate about human rights, international affairs and justice. For cheeky insights in 280 characters or less, follow him on twitter @MAarenau
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