Over the past week, I’ve read some very good pieces about what is going on in Israel. And I’ve read some not very good ones. On Facebook, I’ve ran the gamut from engaging in a productive discussion that moved someone half an inch away from his steadfast position on behalf of a side to sharing instances of Jews and Arabs coming together in Israel to regrettably leaving a discussion group meant to bring Jews and Muslims together after being made to feel that its unity was predicated on subscribing to an opinion which pretty much dismissed Hamas’s culpability.
For me, the sticking point is actually always the same. That is, that people pick a side instead of picking a cause.
The cause is what we should all want: peaceful coexistence. Self-determination for Israelis and for Palestinians ensconced in safety and security. Mutual recognition of each other’s right to live in the land. If ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the primary and shared goal, then both sides would prioritize ensuring all actions aligned with their vision. They would work together.
But instead of picking a cause, people pick sides.
One problem with picking a side is that it paints a binary picture. Good vs bad. Right vs. wrong. Oppressor vs. victim.
And the problem with that kind of black and white picture is that is not real or representative of the Truth (or even of “little t truths” as a professor I once had used to say).
Much like photos, videos and even first-hand accounts we see on social media which selectively present a moment in time from a single perspective, the black and white picture omits context and detail. No single story is the only story. Everything is far more complex, no matter how much people prefer to reduce everything down to good guy-bad guy.
Perhaps more importantly, clinging to this black and white picture ignores flaws on one side while magnifying them on the other. It prevents discussion in favor of laying blame. And it leads nowhere. (Perhaps that is why it was also so refreshing – and shocking – to read Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland’s May 16 briefing to the UN’s Security Council in which he not only factually recounted all the awful loss and destruction all around but also stated unequivocally that Hamas is breaking international law by shooting rockets from civilian areas into civilian areas. This was a first. The UN is not known for holding Palestinians accountable and as a result of the one-sided picture it often paints, lost credibility with Israel supporters long ago.)
But the blindness that comes from picking a side is not unique to any one side.
Let me ask you, when was the last time you heard defenders of Israel bring themselves to admit the harsh human price paid in both the West Bank and Gaza by Palestinians because Israel controls and limits their ability to move? Have you heard supporters admit Israel’s complacency when it comes to pursuing a solution, their absence of desire to move away from the status quo that has lingered for decades?
And on the other hand, when was the last time you saw proponents of the Palestinian cause acknowledge how the PA and Hamas have done nothing to advance peace, but instead sabotage it? Have you heard supporters acknowledge how Palestinian leaders’ oppressive tactics actually suppress voices and harm Palestinian lives?
It is much easier to blame the other side. Keeps things simple. The problem with simplicity is there are no answers in it, no way forward.
This week I read an op-ed by Arash Azizi, an Iranian member of the Democratic Socialists of America. My jaw dropped. It was the first time I’d seen someone so far left calling out others on his “side,” precisely because their positions harm rather than help the cause. Azizi notes that the progressive left in the United States does nothing to build solidarity with progressives in Israel. “It’s something of a bitter irony that these tactics aim to delegitimize anything and everything Israeli while also ignoring Palestinian politics, but then claim to be charting a path to a one-state solution. If all cultural and political voices of Israel are boycotted, who exactly do these campaigners hope to build this one-state with?” he asks, “Their progressive friends in Brooklyn?” (It is worth reading the entire op-ed.)
What I like about his piece is that he is thoughtful. I too try to take a thoughtful approach, one that defines an end goal and looks to map out how to get there. I wish others did this more.
But it is so much simpler to make noise, come up with a slogan, create a meme and drown out other voices.
Back in 2018 I pointed out the folly of pushing only Israel to “end the occupation,” without addressing the obstacles put forth by the Palestinian leadership. In 2019, I wrote about how conflating pro-Palestinian positions with anti-Israel stances not only demonizes the country but slams the door on dialogue, a precursor to negotiation. How much better it would be for the Palestinian people if activists were to redirect their energy from shouting down speakers to instead working with peacebuilding and reconciliation groups? That year, I also wrote about how the issue isn’t peace plans. They exist in abundance. But as long as the people sitting down at the negotiating table do not demonstrate good faith efforts to indicate they actually want to reach a solution, nothing can move forward.
Both Palestinians and Israelis must prove they want to be trustworthy partners for peace.
Israel’s right-wing government’s approach over the last decade plus has made that incredibly difficult. How can you trust a negotiating partner’s motive while discussing allocating land when settlement building is taking place?
The Palestinian Authority is also problematic. How can you trust a negotiating partner whose school curricula is built on textbooks which erase Israel or whose monetary payments to families of terrorists acts as rewards – and incentives?
Well, if Israel and the PA make building trust challenging, Hamas makes it an impossibility.
Year in and year out, Hamas is building up an arsenal of weapons designed for one purpose: to terrorize and kill Israel’s citizens. As if that isn’t impossible enough, with its stranglehold over Gaza, Hamas also negates the PA’s ability to speak on behalf of all Palestinians. Hamas has created an impossible situation for working towards peace.
While Israel is the favorite target, I’ve long said Hamas holds Gazans’ lives hostage, and the truth is there is no simple black and white answer regarding the electricity and water crises either. Incredible to believe, but Hamas’s relationship to Gazans is only the tip of the iceberg, as I now understand from Haviv Rettig Gur’s excellent – and terrifying – analysis. Those who dismiss Hamas’s activity because “hey, they’ve been shooting rockets for years,” or, more commonly perhaps, because “hey, it’s all Bibi’s fault, it’s all to advance his political purposes,” must also acknowledge the games Hamas is playing within Palestinian politics, and beyond that, the larger dynamic — and existential threat – that Hamas poses to all.
When Israeli police escalated tensions during Ramadan on the Temple Mount, Hamas could’ve issued a statement or made a threat. Instead they chose to start launching missiles. As Andrew Boxerman points out, they saw this as an “opportunity to retake center stage.” This was their choice. And to brush it off in attempt to keep to the oppressor vs victim narrative is not just willfully simplistic but also morally repugnant. As Fred Maroun points out, the world’s silence on what Hamas is doing speaks volumes about how little Israeli lives matter. “So, who causes the terrorists to attack Israel? We do…We pull the trigger by giving the terrorists incentives to attack Israel. By demonizing Israel while not making the terrorists suffer any consequences for their actions…We pull the trigger by blaming Israel for giving the terrorists reasons to attack, as if attacking defenseless civilians was the correct way to resolve grievances.” (Italics added for emphasis.)
In another piece, Maroun plaintively asks the world, “what is any of us doing to prevent [Hamas’s] attacks from occurring again and again and again?” The voices we hear are few. Rettig Gur noted that some Arab Israeli citizens have taken to social media to protest Hamas. And the UAE has stated Hamas is hurting Gaza’s citizens. Will others who want Palestinians to be the masters of their own fate also add their voices to the call?
Why is this important? Because as long as the Palestinian leadership is not held accountable for the obstacles they place in the path to peace, nothing will change. Nothing.
None of this is to say that Israel has a lot of soul searching to do.
The violence that spread within the country between Arabs and Jews, especially in cities which seemed to be models of coexistence, speak to discontent that cannot be ignored. But beyond Hamas fomenting angry young men, there is no denying that discriminatory laws exist – over 65 of them in fact, according to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. More than half of those were adopted since 2000.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute writes that the absence of a partner has allowed Israel to drop the topic of peace. “But why have we removed all discourse about our moral responsibilities towards the Palestinians from these agendas?” he asks. He also knows that the canned response is not satisfactory. ”’We offered and they said no’ is the accepted narrative, and consequently all suffering they may experience is their own responsibility. Released from any responsibility, we are exempt from blame.’” While I prefer the word “responsibility” to “blame,” it doesn’t matter. He is right. There is no excuse for Israel not to take responsibility for its failure to improve the situation; instead it chose to let it languish or make it worse.
Author Yossi Klein Halevi also addresses the issue, “Maintaining Israel’s moral high ground requires ensuring equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens and keeping open the possibility of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.” How? In the face of the absence of a partner for peace, this means not letting right wing agendas – such as pursuing Jewish land claims – add fuel to the fire.
What can be done?
When it comes to leadership, it is tricky. In the last few years, Israel has made a national past-time of holding elections, but so many parties are so disillusioned about not having anyone to speak with that the peace process isn’t even part of party platforms. But it has been in the past and could again, I believe. For this, I think politicians in each party need to take the lead.
Trickier — and this is the piece that needs addressing by all those who want a better future for Palestinians — is how do you get to Palestinian elections which include a place for peace-promoting parties? Abbas was elected to a four-year term back in 2005. Hamas won legislative elections in 2007 and then took over the Strip later that year. Neither party wants to give up power. They were supposed to have elections this year – which Abbas postponed indefinitely, some say because he knew Fatah would lose to Hamas. What happened this past week or two cements that — Hamas has gone up in popularity. So, how should pro-Palestinian supporters get the Palestinians to elections and how can voices who want peace be encouraged to participate if they are being silenced now? As I wrote recently, the Generation for Democratic Renewal would be a good start. If grassroots is suppressed, then world pressure to allow democratic voices to emerge and complete must play a part.
Seeing peace-driven parties rise to political power will take time. So, if we cannot change leadership, then we must go around it. At the grassroots level, I’ve been thinking about two things in the peacebuilding world.
The first is the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) and the United States’ $250 million investment into peacebuilding. ALLMEP’s member groups reads like a who’s who of groups which do the work on the ground. I am hopeful that accountability and an overall plan will allow all Israelis and Palestinians see the fruits of this project in a real and significant way, growing support and reaching more people. Every person touched by a coexistence activity shares that story with others. Don’t discount the trickle effect.
Another potential I would love to see is Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor with its epilogue of Palestinian replies translated into Hebrew. I want him and Prof Mohammed Dajani Daoudi promote a national dialogue. I believe in the strength of the book and the conversations it can push people to have. Recognizing that each people is indigenous, each has an identity, each has a place in the land lays the groundwork for working out how to make it happen.
A third way to push getting past today’s roadblocks is perhaps to harness the Middle Eastern countries who’ve signed peace agreements with Israel. Let them take a more hands on approach and facilitate conferences or whatever is needed to get dialogue to happen.
What we don’t need
The desire to simplify and demonize Israel while holding Hamas unaccountable expresses itself in ways that are dangerous for Jews everywhere. At a protest in Berlin, violence broke out between protesters and police and an Israeli reporter was attacked. At a protest in Toronto, Jews were beaten and in Montreal, rocks were thrown at Israel supporters. In London, a pro-Palestinian convoy drove through with a passenger yelling through a loudspeaker, “F**k the Jews, rape their daughters.” In other European cities, clashes with police and tear gas came into play. Elsewhere protests were more peaceful. But all of them had one thing in common – taking sides. Pro one, anti the other.
Only in Israel were there joint protests for peace. Because there, they understand that it is better to pick a cause than to pick a side.