Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is the newest superstar of the American left. Last month, during a Democratic Party primary election for a seat in the United Stated House of Representatives from New York, she toppled longtime incumbent Joe Crowley.
Ocasio Cortez has made no secret of her support for the Palestinian cause and her antipathy toward Israel. She accused Israel of committing a “massacre” against Palestinians in Gaza and railed against the “occupation” of Palestine. When pressed, however, during an interview on the television show “Firing Line”, she fumbled through her answers. Despite having a degree in international relations, she showed no depth of understanding of the Middle East situation. Visibly uncomfortable, she admitted she “..is not the expert on geopolitics in this area.”
Her performance satisfied nobody. Moderates and Israel supporters were appalled by her previous willingness to speak in such harsh language about a subject she now admits to know little. Leftists and Palestinian supporters were aghast that she seemed to be backtracking. Some went so far as to say the reason they voted for her was because of her strong condemnation of Israel.
Words matter. Language matters.
President Trump found that out in Helsinki. The President has gotten much mileage out of his twitter blasts in which he reduces his opponents to silly caricatures like “Crooked Hilary” or “Low Energy Jeb”. He learned the hard way that has its limits. Vladimir Putin doesn’t care about Trump’s twitter fascination. When the lights were on and the whole world was watching, the President appeared completely out of his depth. The twitter master was unable to formulate the proper words to both try to reset relations with Russia yet simultaneously not throw his intelligence community under the bus. He failed. His tweets now make him look like he is running the Presidency of a carnival huckster.
For Ocasio Cortez, the contrast was just as jarring, albeit with much less intensity. Subsequently during the “Firing Line” interview she said “I come from the South Bronx. I come from a Puerto Rican background. Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night.”
That’s understandable. Given that, however, why was she so willing to make such accusatory comments against Israel? Is it possible there is some justification for Israel’s actions? Her performance gave the appearance of someone adroit simply at reading cue cards prepared by her staff. When forced to think for herself she had nothing to say.
In fact Ms. Ocasio Cortez, you are partly correct. There is a military occupation going on in the West Bank – to varying degrees in different designated “areas”. There is no occupation of Gaza, where the “massacre” took place. There is a partial blockade there, but Israel cannot isolate Gaza as it does not control Gaza’s southern border. Egypt does.
Elected representatives can’t be experts on all subjects. It’s not too much to ask, however, that should Ms. Ocasio Cortez win the House seat, she’ll attain some degree of circumspection. Far too often in the Israeli-Palestinian context, that doesn’t happen.
This phenomenon to over simplify in not the sole province of the left. Supporters of Israel, and especially from the nationalist camp,can be just as guilty.
They also get themselves into trouble when they make broad generalizations they can’t back up. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that there is a military occupation in the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, to buttress the point about the importance of language) simply is not looking. It’s one thing to explore the reasons for the military occupation. It’s another to turn a blind eye to it.
Rightists have their own pithy slogans. One line guaranteed to win applause at AIPAC meetings is to claim support for Jerusalem as the “Eternal, Undivided Capital of Israel.” It’s a nice saying, but is it what most Israelis – and most Jews – really want? Even though my normal political orientation is center-right and I totally support President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, hearing that slogan leaves me cold.
The borders of Jerusalem have changed over time. Whole neighborhoods that were not previously within the municipality have been incorporated for varying reasons. Were a true peace deal with the Palestinians actually within reach, do most Israelis want to reject it so they can keep Silwan? The Old City certainly has religious and historical significance, but that’s not true about the entire current municipality. Jewish history occurred over the entire region from the River to the Sea. If Israel is willing to part with Hebron and Shechem (Nablus) for the sake of true peace, should a slogan stand in the way of making a compromise over Jerusalem?
In the age of Trump, Hilary, Bibi and Abu Mazen, with all sides defining down complex issues into nonsense slogans (“Abolish ICE!; “Lock her up!”; “No justice no peace!”), moving ourselves and the world forward rests on avoiding such simplicity. I see the military occupation, abhor it, don’t deny its existence but simultaneously understand the reasons for it. I fear as much those who refuse to recognize this for what it is, and for the damage it causes to the psyches of both Israelis and Palestinians, as I fear those who say Israel should withdraw unilaterally to the June 4, 1967 lines.
The more we open our eyes to things as they truly are, and the more we resist the temptation to follow a certain political expediency that leads us to reduce to “buzzwords” things we don’t fully comprehend, the better off we’ll be.