Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The Perfect Firestorm: What Triggered this Crisis Moment?

The conflict pitting Palestinians against Israelis is operating on various fronts. The scenes are taking place on the streets and in the towns of Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza, as armies, mobs and terrorists play out their respective roles.

But the public relations battle is being waged thousands of miles beyond the State of Israel on Twitter, Facebook, and in the halls of governments, here we find this secondary conflict being carried out over history, ideas and public opinion.

As with past such conflicts, the case for Israel evokes significant responses in many quarters. While we hear support for Israel, we are also introduced to the voices of hate and anger, producing in its wake a fundamental misrepresentation of the Jewish State. In the aftermath of each of these military campaigns, we see an inversion of the truth and a dramatic reapportioning of blame. In the immediate term, it appears to be about winning public opinion. In the end,  it must be about finding a secure and viable outcome involving the lives of people competing for identity, land and security.

Unpacking Historical Distortion:

  • Reducing the Complexities of the Israel-Palestinian Saga: Such effort to minimize this story complicates the outcome! We are reminded that terrorist groups, including Hamas, seek to frame such a geo-political contest pitting “the good guys” (the victims) against the “bad ones” (the occupiers). If we must remind ourselves that Hamas’ charter calls for Jihad against the Jewish State, leading to its complete liberation and destruction.[1]
  • The Need to Retell the Story: Information on the ground makes a difference! Conflicts, such as this, are not only about the immediate events, as this moment represents a composite of many factors, both current and past, involving religious sites, neighborhood property rights, and historic grievances. There is the long held story that both sides maintain, and then there are the present realities; both need to be addressed as part of any outcome.
  • Social Media as an Arbitrator of Truth and Facts: This secondary front is being waged around public opinion and much of that is driven on various websites, twitter accounts and Facebook pages. There is an uncomfortable messiness when one reads these pages of distortions and misrepresentations. The very worst anti-Semitic tropes have filled these sites and over the course of these unfolding battles-on-line, Israel becomes a lightning rod for fueling such angry expressions.
  • Playing their Parts: With regularly, selective global religious associations, various human rights organizations, and international bodies immediately move to take up the Palestinian cause, defining this story as a human rights campaign, labeling Israel as an occupier or denouncing the IDF for its excessive military actions. The rhetoric remains the same as they repeat a distilled list of abuses, yet the results on the ground speak to a different set of political outcomes. What Israel’s opponents forget is that the events on the ground are always changing, and with each successive encounter there are new facts and changing realities. Complexity demands more than political rhetoric.
  • Intersectionality Enters the Middle East: Some Progressive voices move to apply to every conflict and condition the same standards. Minorities on the streets of American cities or Palestinians situated in Gaza are bundled together, experiencing in the minds of these activists, a common victimhood. Jews, and here Israelis in particular, are out of luck because they are defined as “white” people, even if many are in fact brown and black. The imagery introduced by the far left is about imposing racial identity as the political measure. In reality, each situation has its defining roots, historical reckonings, and independent grievances, yet for these activists one collective story neatly frames all of these settings.

The Seeds of this Particular Conflict Did Not Begin this Week!

  • Sheikh Jarrah: The unresolved legal issues surrounding Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, has in some measure been a trigger point for the violence we have observed. The status of the eight Arab families remains in doubt in part triggering a broader unresolved issues over Jerusalem. This story was set in place beginning in 1948!
  • Ethnic Tensions: For weeks, …tensions had been rising in Jerusalem, the center of the conflict. In April, far-right Jews marched through the city center, chanting “Death to Arabs,” and mobs of both Jews and Arabs attacked each other.[2] Against the backdrop of Ramadan and in keeping with the presence of Jerusalem Day, the seeds were being planted for a new round of conflict. The events over several weeks served to lay the seeds for this moment.
  • The Absence of the PA (Palestinian Authority): In its inability to act and to serve, the Palestinian Authority has seeded its political position to Hamas. In turn, this terrorist entity is yet again making its claim that it ought to be seen as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people. This moment is as much a contest over who should represent Palestinian interests as it is over land. In the absence of a governing Palestinian body, a political vacuum has emerged, opening the door for such violence. 
  • Israel in Political Transition: At this moment, Israel is also without a government, as each faction seeks to find its voice in shaping a new governing coalition. Yet, in this time frame, a type of political malaise has fallen over the country, as everyone waits for a government to be formed or new elections to be called!

 What is Different about this Conflict?

  • The Perfect Storm: An unresolved court case, an undecided electorate, and the absence of Palestinian leadership are but three “triggers” giving rise to the current political tension. Multiple sparks ignited this moment, adding to its complexity and tragedy.
  • Israeli Police, Tested as Never Before: The Israeli street has become part of the current storyline and suddenly attention is drawn to Israel’s police force. In some measure, these forces are being asked to perform not only their traditional safety and security roles but are being called upon to provide additional responses to a changing and uncertain environment of tension.
  • The Israeli Street as the New Battleground: What may be different and unsettling for us is to see Israel’s mixed towns as the new centers of violence. When a conflict remains unresolved, extremist elements fill the political and social vacuum and such is the case here. The presence of Lehava (“Flame”) a Jewish far-right organization, opposing assimilation and coexistence with Arabs, would join with other neo-nationalist activists on the streets of Israel, creating havoc, attacking Arabs.

Correspondingly, radicalized young Israeli Arabs would take to the streets especially in cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, including Lod, Haifa, Acre, and Jaffa. The urban battleground would represent a new frontline in this conflict!

Stepping Back: Six Reflections

  • Each firestorm contains its unique ingredients, just as it also holds the historic ties to the deeper, more entrenched crisis.
  • With each act in this unresolved tragedy, there are both moments that intensify the overall conflict but also provide opportunities to open new doors to understanding and engagement.
  • All conflicts are not the same! Through their political rhetoric, outside actors often dismiss historic complexities while seeking to arbitrarily place blame and impose fixed outcomes. Introducing American binary racial elements into this Middle Eastern conflict creates only divisive outcomes.
  • Seeding the stage to Islamic radicals and extreme Jewish nationalists will not provide a recipe for resolution.
  • The players to this drama may ultimately determine that death, violence and trauma will not lead to a satisfactory resolution. But a collective solution requires multiple actors, each willing to make concessions, with all being prepared to take risks!
  • In a vacuum of having constructive and committed leaders prepared to search for alternative options, we are likely to see the continuation of these flashpoints of conflict.

 

[1] https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/12/world/middleeast/israeli-palestinian-conflict-gaza-hamas.html

[3] https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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