Supporting Israelis, Palestinians, and peace

Earlier this week, a friend confessed that, when he first met me, he assumed me to be conservative because of my pro-Israel opinions. The revelation startled me, but in truth it should not have come as a surprise. Unfortunately, the association between Israel advocacy and conservatism has plagued the Zionist community for many years now, and not without reason. Those among us who espouse radical right-wing views tend (to say nothing of their insensitivity and ignorance) to hurt the pro-Israel cause, especially on liberal university campuses such as that of Brown. Nevertheless, there are also many pro-Israel activists who are rational, critically thinking, and liberal. I proudly consider myself to be one such activist.

I would like, therefore, to clarify some of my own opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the hope that my thoughts can shed some light on one popular approach to contemporary Zionism. I, like many contemporary Zionists, believe very firmly that the Palestinian people should have a state, which should be recognized by the international community and should be supported by Western countries, Israel, and the Arab world. I believe that Palestinian culture, economy, infrastructure, and government should have the chance to develop without the restrictions that exist today. I believe that, in the long term, the present status quo is unsustainable. I also believe that Israel has a right to secure borders, and that, as is the case with any sovereign nation, it has a responsibility to defend its citizens. I certainly believe that Israel has a right to exist, and to thrive as the democratic and Jewish state that it is. I believe that Israel plays a crucial role in preventing larger problems in the Middle East, and that Israel’s demonization by Western media and the United Nations limits its capacity to do more to that end. I believe that Israel is essential as a homeland for and defender of the Jewish people, and as a beacon of liberal human rights and social justice values in an increasingly extremist region.

In short, I believe in peace. As Professor Ian Gonsher of Brown’s Engineering School often says, this conflict is not a “zero-sum game.” The success of one party is not necessary linked to the suffering of the other, nor should it be. We must conceive of success not as victory of one party over another, but as mutual prosperity through collaboration.

It is because of my firm belief in this need for a mutually beneficial peace, and not in spite of that belief, that I support Israel. Historically, Israel’s leaders have felt more able to take risks for peace when they have been confident in support from the United States; likewise, Israel’s adversaries have been far more willing to agree to Israeli peace offers under the same conditions. Egypt is, of course, the prime example. Prior to witnessing America’s extraordinary show of support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (when several Arab armies nearly succeeded in wiping Israel off the face of the earth before American aid turned the tide), Egypt was Israel’s greatest enemy. Following this display of support for Israel from America, Egypt expressed a willingness to work with Israel that was, until that point, unprecedented in Israeli-Arab relations. As a part of the subsequent peace deal, Israel gave up the Sinai Peninsula (about two-thirds of its total territory at the time), which required the dismantlement of settlements and, in some cases, the forcible removal of resisting Israeli settlers. In other words, many of the factors that are often labeled “obstacles to peace” today have been overcome before, with enough American support for Israel. Since the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 was signed, Israel and Egypt have both benefited enough from the ensuing peace that even the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, when it came to power in the midst of Egypt’s Arab Spring unrest, did not deem it worthwhile to violate the accord.

My experience of American anti-Israel movements, in contrast, is that they generally do view the conflict as a zero-sum game. Their passions generally lie in attacking Israel, using the Palestinian plight as a poorly reasoned justification for doing so, rather than on genuinely supporting the Palestinian people in the quest for statehood and sovereignty. This reality is today being manifested in what these movements are calling “anti-normalization,” a theory that holds that dialogue and critical thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is harmful. I have heard it invoked countless times by students since my arrival on campus a few weeks ago.

The “anti-normalization” premise is two-fold. The first point is that if activists focus too much energy on understanding the conflict, they will not have the willpower to act in more tangible ways as well (never mind the fact that misinformed actions are far more likely to do harm than good). The second point is that, because those advocating for “anti-normalization” are so confident that their way of seeing things is the only legitimate way, and that only Palestinians (and never Israelis) are victims of this conflict, any initiative that seeks to represent a side other than their own is giving voice to a perspective that deserves no voice, making such an initiative automatically “Zionist” and thus subjecting it to the labels that anti-Israel groups regularly (but falsely) lay upon the Zionist movement, such as “colonialism” or “apartheid.”

These claims of “normalization” provide anti-Israel groups with a way out of talking, thinking, and working toward peace. Many anti-Israel activists thus contrive a false scenario in which the only option, it would appear, is to take action to bypass the peace process by, for example, forcing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (without the peace deal and provisions that Israel needs to do so without recreating the situation in Gaza on a much larger scale that would put Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv easily within rocket range). They pretend that the only way to help the Palestinians it to force Israel into taking steps that would all but amount to national suicide, as though the conflict really were a “zero-sum game” and as though there were no potential for both Israelis and Palestinians to survive and prosper. Meanwhile, by hiding their fundamentally narrow-minded way of viewing the conflict behind a guise of liberalism (and a romantic image of radical leftism that appeals to many college students, me included), they bury the more moderate pro-peace campaigns that seek to truly pave the path to a Palestinian state. In this way, most anti-Israel groups, and the “anti-normalization” campaign, regularly attempt to delegitimize the peace process, perpetuating the conflict and, inevitably, both Israeli and Palestinian suffering. They value hating Israel far above their supposed mission of supporting the Palestinian people.

All of this is to say that many pro-Israel people do support peace, despite the unfortunate image that certain radicals give to the Zionist movement. It is anti-Israel groups that more often oppose peace and, in doing so, obstruct the path to Palestinian statehood.

I consider myself to be strongly pro-Israel, strongly pro-Palestinian, strongly liberal, and strongly pro-peace. I hope that my readers will understand this confluence of ideas, and will be more inclined to support both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and the peace process, as a result.

About the Author
Benjamin Gladstone is a junior at Brown University, where he is pursuing degrees in Middle East Studies and Judaic Studies and where he serves as president of Brown Students for Israel, the Brown University Coalition for Syria, and Students for Responsible Policies in Yemen. In addition to blogging with the Times of Israel, Benjamin is a Scribe Contributor at The Forward, and his work has been published in the Tower Magazine, the Jewish Advocate, the Brand Of Milk And Honey, the Hill, the Brown Daily Herald, the Brown Political Review, and the New York Times. He is a founder and editor of ProgressME, a student publication that highlights underrepresented voices on Southwest Asian issues.