Paul Friedman
Paul Friedman

Israel is a blind spot for many progressives

One might assume that many progressives would naturally support Israel. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Israel is the only democracy. It protects freedom of speech, the right to peacefully protest, the right to vote, the right to a free press, and freedom of religion.

Israel is the closest to the United States when it comes to values in the Middle East. The LGBTQ community is protected, whereas they are persecuted throughout the rest of the Middle East. In Iran, they hang homosexuals publicly from cranes to deter anyone from choosing this lifestyle. Women’s rights are also protected in Israel. There are many Middle Eastern countries, where if a woman walks outside alone without a man or without a hijab covering her head, she will be stoned to death. For many years, the saying in Israel was that more Israeli women fly jets than women in Saudi Arabia drive cars. Minority rights is another progressive value that Israel protects better than any other Middle Eastern country.

Once you become an Israeli citizen you enjoy the same rights as any other Israeli citizen. In fact, 25% of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, much like how 28% of the population in the United States is non-Christian. The largest minority group in Israel is Israeli-Arabs, mostly Muslim but Christians as well. Israel’s Arab political party is the third-largest political party. In most of the Middle East, minority groups are heavily persecuted and marginalized as second-class citizens. If you don’t believe me speak to the Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq, the Bahai in Iran, Yazidis in Iraq, Christians in Egypt or Iraq, and ask them how they are treated. The Bahai were persecuted so badly many had to flee the Middle East entirely, until Israel offered to set up their world headquarters in Haifa, an offer the Bahai gratefully accepted.

Israel is perhaps the most environmentally friendly country in the entire world. The only country on Earth to increase its tree population every year and a leader in solar technology; all of the hot water in Israel is heated by solar power. Israel has also created desalination plants, which convert saltwater to freshwater. This technology was shared with the US and many African nations. Many of the policies that Bernie Sanders champions like socialized healthcare and education has been practiced in Israel for decades. Israel is also one of the first countries to provide humanitarian aid to nations after they experience a natural disaster. Just ask the people of Rwanda, Haiti, Nepal, and many others if they appreciate Israel sending doctors, medical teams, and supplies in their time of need. With all of these impressive democratic progressive credentials, not to mention that Israel is the closest and most reliable ally to the US in the Middle East, one might logically conclude that American progressives firmly support Israel for upholding the values they hold dear. Not so fast.

Recently, Israel fought its fourth war in Gaza against Hamas. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the EU. Hamas’ official Charter calls for the annihilation of Israel and the genocide of all Jews. There were tensions building up to the war, some of which was Israel’s own doing, but the fact remains that Hamas fired first over 4,000 rockets targeting Israel’s most populated cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, among others. The rockets halted life in Israel and sent 70% of Israel’s population running to bomb shelters. The only reason more Israelis didn’t die from the Hamas rockets was because of their high-tech missile defense system called the Iron Dome. Without it, the death toll for Israelis would have been substantial. In this situation, Israel did what any other country would do to protect its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, and returned fire on pinpoint military targets inside of Gaza.

Hamas deliberately stores and fires their weapons in heavily populated civilian areas so that when Israel returns fire, as any country would, they will end up killing innocent people including children. Hamas is committing a double war crime. The Rules of War state that you are not allowed to intentionally fire at civilians, which Hamas undoubtedly did. You are also not allowed to store or fire your weapons in heavily populated areas because you will be putting innocent people at risk. One might ask why would Hamas intentionally put their own people at risk? Hamas knows they can terrorize the Israeli populace with their rockets, but they can’t defeat Israel militarily. Thus they are engaged in a propaganda war. Hamas understands that the more innocent people Israel kills, the more the press and international opinion will turn against Israel. If the world turns against Israel, that will leave Israel isolated and vulnerable, placing Israel in a no-win position. Israel can either allow Hamas to fire rockets at Israeli civilians or return fire and end up killing innocent Palestinians. Israel followed all of the Rules of War set in the Geneva Convention. They are allowed to return fire, even in highly populated civilian areas, if there are legitimate military targets in such areas. How would Americans feel if life completely halted because Cuba decides to fire 4,000 rockets at America’s most populated cities? Can Americans imagine running to bomb shelters within 15 seconds to save themselves and their loved ones? Do you think the United States would show more restraint than Israel has shown in Gaza?

The Progressive Reaction

A number of progressive Democrats spoke out against Israel with public statements and attempted to introduce legislation both in the House and Senate, that would place conditions on military aid to Israel. Biden has already said that he’s not going to do that as that would cripple Israel’s ability to defend itself, but nonetheless progressives are continuing to push for legislation in order to change the conversation about American aid to Israel. Over the past two weeks, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Rashida Talib referred to Israel as an Apartheid State. AOC said Israel isn’t a democracy. Ilhan Omar equated Israeli self-defense to terrorism, which is ironic since Israel is defending itself from a terrorist organization, Hamas in Gaza. Other progressives, such as Jamal Bowman and Ayanna Pressley, pushed for America to pressure Israel to stop defending themselves or the US will take political action against them. Since Hamas fired the first one might think progressives should pressure the Palestinian leadership to halt their offensive, but that wasn’t the case. Using inflammatory rhetoric, such as referring to Israel as an apartheid state or equating Israeli self-defense with terrorism is inaccurate and these statements have real consequences for Jews in the United States.

Indeed, we have seen anti-Semitic crimes spike these past two weeks in the US in part because people feel emboldened by politicians who are demonizing Israel. Israel is not an apartheid state. Israeli-Arabs are allowed to join the military, government, police force, and any other field open to Israeli Jews. That was the exact opposite of South African Apartheid. Progressives make the case that Israel isn’t practicing apartheid against Israeli-Arabs, but against the Palestinians. People should be aware that Palestinians aren’t Israeli citizens and they don’t wish to be. Palestinians have their own governments in both the West Bank and Gaza. Furthermore, in past peace negotiations, the Palestinians have insisted that in any future Palestinian state no Jews will be allowed to live there. That sounds a lot more like apartheid than anything Israel is doing. People point to the separation barrier between Israel and Gaza and Israel and the West Bank without proper context. Israel built those barriers at the height of the second intifada, which killed over 1,000 Israelis from terrorist attacks and injured thousands more. Palestinian terrorist attacks killed Israeli Muslims and Christians as well as Jews. They blew up buses, malls, movie theaters, restaurants, etc. For national security purposes, Israel built the barriers to ensure the protection of their citizens and afterward terrorism dropped by 99%.

Due to intense public anti-Israel pressure from progressives, we are even beginning to see cracks among moderate Democrats, including those who have long supported Israel, such as Bob Menendez. Even Chuck Schumer was unusually quiet during the war, and normally he is one of Israel’s biggest defenders. This shows that even Israel’s strongest allies will adapt their positions if they feel the winds changing on Israel. The moderates are worried they will be primaried with more progressive voices and they are beginning to support more progressive policies including criticism toward Israel.

The Progressive Mindset Toward Israel

These things never just happen in a vacuum. It’s not like progressives suddenly woke up one day and said, “I think I am going to start speaking out against Israel.” To understand their mindset one has to look at history and how they currently think. After the Holocaust Israel was the progressive cause of the world. People were horrified after what happened to the Jews and when Israel finally declared their independence to establish a Jewish state, progressives came out in full force to support it. Back then everyone thought Israel would lose The War of Independence in 1948, and even if Israel somehow managed to win, they are such a small country, that the larger Arab states surrounding it would eventually eliminate Israel. Over the years, through hard work, personal sacrifice, innovative solutions, and a little help from their friends, Israel grew stronger and the Arab states grew weaker. The power dynamic was eventually flipped. This is crucial to understanding the progressive mindset because they tend to identify with the weak and suffering even if the weak and suffering are completely against progressive values.

In fact, many progressives choose to downplay or ignore the rampant misogyny and homophobia that exists within the Palestinian territories. Much of Palestinian suffering is due to their own leadership, which is corrupt and completely unwilling to negotiate a peace deal with Israel despite Israel offering land and money in exchange for peace with the Palestinians five different times. The leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, currently has a net worth of $100 million according to a close aide. His sons run a company called Falcon that controls the economy in the West Bank. Abbas is currently seeking a successor that will leave his sons economic empire intact. A former leader of Hamas in Gaza, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, has a net worth between 2-3 billion dollars. Another Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has an estimated net worth of 2-5 billion dollars. Current Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, has a net worth of 4 million. Nobody knows how all of these leaders acquired their wealth but it is widely assumed they kept a large portion of the billions of dollars they receive in international aid for themselves. Instead of building schools and hospitals in Gaza, Hamas leaders often keep international aid for themselves or choose to build a new military infrastructure for their next war with Israel. The Palestinians have rejected every peace offer Israel has ever made because their leadership doesn’t want to compromise. They would rather keep their people in a perpetual state of war than live side by side in peace next to a Jewish state.  This fact is lost on celebrities such as Trevor Noah and John Oliver, who criticize Israel for their disproportionate response because they feel Israel is much more powerful than Hamas, and therefore shouldn’t defend their people so strongly. I think former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said it best, “If we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.”

One of the other things that progressives tend to judge people on is race. While the majority of American Jews are Ashkenazi, descendants from Jews living in Europe, the majority of Israeli Jews are Mizrachi, descendants from the Middle East. The majority of American Jews tend to be white, while the majority of Israeli Jews are people of color. Why does this matter? Because many progressives accuse Israel of being a White-European colonizing state, which is a big historical error. Jews have lived continuously in Israel for thousands of years. They were constantly colonized by foreign powers throughout their history. During this time many Jews fled for their lives from these foreign empires, migrating to Europe, other parts of the Middle East, Africa, and later the Americas. However, these Jews always dreamed of a day when they could return to Israel and have freedom and independence in their homeland. This movement is referred to as Zionism. Many Kurds and Tibetans gain inspiration from Zionism and would like to establish their own independent states in their homelands to escape persecution. Even though many Jews left Israel, they wanted to rejoin the Jews who had stayed. It took 1,900 years but eventually, this dream was realized in 1948.

Progressives also tend to view things in terms of social-economic class. The greedy rich capitalists are exploiting the rights of the common worker. This idea is what opens some progressives to socialism and even communism. In this worldview, the rich are evil and the poor people are good. In terms of Israel, they see it as a rich country with a powerful military, and as one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are suffering and facing humanitarian crises. The Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza are supposed to handle these issues, but their governments are corrupt, and lack the will to address these problems. I think it is more important to judge people on their actions and character, rather than their race, but that’s not how all progressives view the conflict.

How did we get here?

After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was no longer seen as weak and powerless. They defeated several Arab countries and gained a lot of territory as a result. The mindset among progressives began to shift. Fast-forward to Barack Obama becoming the American president, whom I consider to be more moderate than progressive. Nevertheless, Obama was very critical of certain Israeli policies. Other US presidents were critical of Israeli policy but unlike other presidents, Obama chose to voice his criticism publicly. This emboldened other Democrats to publicly criticize Israeli policy. By itself not terrible, but this opened a door for more things to come. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also chose to interfere directly with American domestic politics when he made a speech before congress blasting the Iran deal the Obama administration was making at the time. Although I agree with Netanyahu’s position on this particular issue, it was a mistake for him to interfere directly with American politics because it began to make Israel a partisan issue in the US. Before that, Israel had for many years enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the US but that began to break during the Obama-Netanyahu years.

Jump ahead to the 2016 Democratic primary election between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. During the primary, it is customary for both Democrats and Republicans to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC stands for American Israel Public Affairs Committee and are responsible for ensuring a close relationship between the US and their ally Israel. Bernie decided not to attend the conference and instead attended the J-Street conference, which represents a more fringe sect of far-left Jews who are critical of Israeli policy. This move raised eyebrows among the Jewish community. Even non-Jewish candidates always attended AIPAC so for a major Jewish presidential candidate to skip that in favor of a conference that very few if any politicians attended was worrisome. In addition, Bernie was even more publicly critical of Israeli policy than Obama. Bernie stated, “In the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace to that region, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity. There comes a time when we pursue justice and peace that we will have to say Netanyahu is not right all the time.” While I agree that Netanyahu isn’t right all the time, Israel has attempted to make peace and the Palestinians continue to reject every offer made to them. Israel has always left the door open to negotiating with Palestinians, but there are no Palestinian leaders willing to walk through that door to negotiate.

In 1937, the British put together the Peel Commission Plan, which was the first offer to create two separate states, one for the Jews, and one for the Arabs. Jews reluctantly accepted the plan, while the Arabs outright rejected it. Next, came the UN Partition Plan in 1947, which offered to create a new two-state solution once the British left. Again, Jews accepted this plan and the Arabs outright rejected it. It was a plan that favored the Arabs more than Jews, but still, the Jews accepted it because they wanted peace. The Arabs figured they would declare war on the Jews and get all of the lands so they rejected it. In the Six Day War in 1967, Israel defeated several Arab countries and gained the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. After the war ended Israel immediately offered to give all the land back in exchange for peace. The Palestinians and Arab nations responded with “No peace. No Recognition. No negotiations.” In 1993, the Oslo Accords took place, which both Israel and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed. There was a series of steps that both sides agreed were to take place to reach peace.

However, shortly after they were signed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and Arafat refused to fulfill the requirements he agreed to during the Oslo Accords and it fell apart. In 2000, the Camp David Peace Summit took place between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, and US President Bill Clinton. During this Summit Israel offered the Palestinians 97% of the West Bank, 100 % of the Gaza Strip, part of East Jerusalem to become the future Palestinian capital, and 30 billion dollars for reparations. Arafat got up and left the Summit without a counter-offer, despite the leader of Saudi Arabia encouraging him to take the deal. Afterward, Clinton stated, “A summit’s purpose is to have discussions that are based on sincere intentions and you, the Palestinians, did not come to this summit with sincere intentions.” In 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to engage in peace talks. Israel offered 100% of the West Bank, Part of East Jerusalem, 100% of the Gaza Strip, and $30 billion in reparations. Abbas declined the offer. More recently, the Trump Peace Plan was put forward in 2020. Israel immediately accepted the plan, and the Palestinians outright rejected it, claiming it was too biased in favor of Israel. They refused to negotiate a new deal. Instead, Israel with the help of the US, made peace with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Israel has demonstrated that it is willing to make peace with Palestinians and made several offers to create a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Israel has signed six peace treaties with Arab governments in the Middle East. That is why it is bewildering that Sanders is putting the responsibility on Israel to make peace. Perhaps, he should be putting more pressure on the Palestinian leadership to negotiate peace with Israel. Israel is ready to negotiate whenever Palestinian leadership is ready. Israelis want peace. Even more troublesome, while Obama kept most of his public criticism to Jewish settlement building, Bernie took it one step further by discussing the way Israel and the US treat the Palestinian people. From there, his criticism toward Israel has only increased during the years. We all know Sanders ended up losing the primary to Hillary Clinton, but he created a real progressive movement and attracted millions of people to his cause.

After the democratic primary was over, I watched more and more progressives get elected to Congress. To my shock and disappointment, they were all anti-Israel. These new progressives were even bolder in their anti-Israel stance than Bernie, backing the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions) movement, whose leader says Israel has no right to exist. Fast forward to this most recent war between Israel and Hamas, it is no wonder these progressive politicians said hurtful and false statements about Israel, while some of them openly endorse a movement that seeks to end Israel’s existence. Even Bernie criticized progressives in the democratic party and asked them to calm down the inflammatory rhetoric. As I have always said to former students, it is one thing to criticize Israeli policy, it’s another thing to say Israel doesn’t have a right to exist or isn’t a democracy. This crosses a line into demonization. This past week representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Pocan, and Rashida Tlaib led the introduction of a House resolution opposing the sale of $735 million in American-made weapons to the Israeli government. Sanders introduced similar legislation in the Senate. They both failed to pass but for pro-Israel supporters, it is a troubling trend, to say the least.

Why the disproportionate focus on Israel?

Many Jews have long wondered why there is such an obsession with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After all, there are many other conflicts taking place in the world that are much larger and with more human rights violations. For example, China has put one million Uighurs Muslims in concentration camps. Myanmar is committing genocide and ethnically cleansing Rohingya Muslims from their country. In addition, the military in Myanmar just overthrew the democratically elected leader and has been arresting and shooting protestors on the street. In the current Syrian civil war, more Muslims have died than in the entire 100-year history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yemen has been engaged in conflict for the past seven years, with over 100,000 deaths and the worst humanitarian crises in the world, far worse than in Gaza. In Ethiopia, they are currently facing a civil war, where it is being reported that 5 million people urgently need assistance, 1-2 million people have been displaced from their homes, and thousands have fled to neighboring countries. There have been widespread reports of rape and ethnic cleansing in northern Ethiopia. With all of these other conflicts taking place with larger death tolls and human rights violations, why the disproportionate focus on Israel? Shouldn’t progressives at minimum pay an equal amount of attention to those conflicts as they do in Israel? Perhaps, it’s because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the world’s oldest conflicts, with fighting taking place on and off for the past 100 years. Or maybe it’s because Jerusalem is so important to three of the world’s largest faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and that’s why so many people feel invested in what happens there, despite many never visiting Israel or having any family or friends that live there. The media tends to focus much more on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than any other conflict in the world, which may be why people pay such close attention. Or it could be because Israel is a Western-style democracy, while the Palestinians have a more authoritarian regime, which means all governments around the world are interested to see how it shakes out. Whatever the reason, I think we can all agree the Palestinian-Israeli conflict tends to capture the hearts and minds of more people worldwide than all of these other conflicts combined.

Where do we go from here?

Most of the heavy criticism toward Israel comes from the far left flank of the party. Republicans and moderate Democrats like Biden are still overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Israel, for now, still enjoys majority bi-partisan support in the US government and among the American populace. I think it’s important now more than ever that pro-Israel Americans speak up and let their elected officials know how much you appreciate their support for Israel. If you haven’t been doing so now is the time to start. And if you have been speaking up speak louder and more frequently. Now is not the time to be lazy or cowardly, we need get to work. Educate yourselves so you can be in a position to educate others. The lone progressive who has given me hope and inspiration is Ritchie Torres, a representative from the Bronx. He recently said, “Israel is under siege not only from relentless rocket fire at the hands of Hamas but also from an endless propaganda war that has taken on a new intensity here in the United States and elsewhere… What is under siege is not only Israel.  What is under siege is the truth itself. Circulating on social media is a vicious lie — a lie that deceptively reframes the terrorism of Hamas as self-defense and deceptively reframes the self-defense of Israel as terrorism. Increasingly, we seem to live in an Orwellian universe where the truth no longer matters… Now is not the time to be silent. All of us, especially those holding elected office, have to be visible and vocal — fearless and forceful — in standing up for our greatest friend in the Middle East.”

About the Author
Paul Friedman received his Bachelor’s Degree in History and his Master’s Degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Kean University. He furthered his knowledge about Israel when he lived there from 2007-2008. He has worked for Jewish nonprofit organizations as an educator for the past seven years.
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