I’ve been forced to think a lot these days about Israel and Palestine, who are and will be permanent neighbors. Especially as a Jew, a progressive, a human being, I do so with a very heavy heart. Both sides and their supporters are responsible, even if not equally so, and both sides and their supporters are acting irresponsibly. Both sides have legitimate concerns (e.g., independence, safety, justice), but use illegitimate methods (e.g., dehumanizing the other, violence against civilians, collective punishments). So while I strenuously oppose the violent and brutal methods of both sides, I’m entirely sympathetic to the legitimate concerns, fears, and grievances of both sides. Both countries deserve to live in peace, both sides deserve to have their children grow up safely and happily, both countries deserve to be free, both countries are losing key people due to brain drain, both populations deserve to be active participants in their collective destiny rather than subjugated by their authoritarian power-hungry leaders.
The Israeli occupation and military incursions are illegal and immoral, not to mention counterproductive ultimately. (As terrible as it is, though, it is not a holocaust or genocide. The Israeli army is physically capable of doing so and if it were so inclined would be killing much more than hundreds of Palestinians a year.) The vitriolic and virulent anti-Jewish (not just anti-Israeli) speech and actions of the Palestinians are frightening, dangerous, and deadly. (See www.memri.org for English translations of the Arabic media.) I think it’s true that Yasser Arafat is encouraging Palestinian violence against civilians (e.g., he still refers to suicide/homicide bombers as “martyrs” not murderers and he at least nominally directs the Al-Aqsa Brigade), yet he doesn’t necessarily have the power or the legitimacy to fully stop it. I think it’s true that Ariel Sharon is a war criminal and instead of being in jail where he belongs is on a new war path. Each side is all too effective at provoking and demonizing the other. As usual, the people suffer. As historical and religious cousins, in addition to being neighbors, Jews and Muslims need to find ways to discuss, debate, and disagree, even hate each other, without descending to violent attacks against each other.
Both sides are engaging in terrorism, and Israel’s is being materially and ideologically supported by the US (with billions of dollars in aid and full diplomatic support) while Palestine’s is being materially supported by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar (which provide tens of thousands of dollars to the usually impoverished families of the suicide bombers) and ideologically supported by most of the Muslim countries (which incessantly extol the Palestinian cause and demonize “the Jews” in order to distract from their own authoritarian and corrupt systems). Both sides are not only inflicting damage on the other side, but also on themselves. Both sides are killing children, the other side’s as well as their own. As we should know, the means do not justify the ends, the means create the ends. I sincerely believe that Israel should end the occupation, dismantle the settlements, remunerate refugees, and treat Israeli Arabs equally and fairly, etc., which is the just thing to do. This would alleviate many of the problems, but it would not end all the violence to say the least. Palestine also has responsibilities, including the condemning and stemming of violence. The other Muslim nations also have responsibilities, not least of which should be financially building Palestine rather than verbally attacking Jews and worse. Further, Hamas wants all of Israel and Palestine to be an Islamic country ruled by Islamic law presumably similar to a Taliban-like or Iranian-style clerical fascist dictatorship. It should also be noted that even before Israel was a state, during WW2, some top Palestinian leaders sought to ally with Hitler to pursue a final solution against Jews. Their dream/nightmare continues unabated.
Some have asserted that the issue of Jewish historic suffering is “entirely irrelevant to the present day circumstances”. However, it is relevant and important because Jews have been blamed, threatened, maligned, attacked, ghettoized, bombed, and killed for thousands of years, all over the world, continuing into the present and unfortunately very likely into the future, mostly by Christians but also by Muslims. Many Jews who are traditionally liberal and progressive often become right wing around these issues due to the legitimate historical, present, and future fears of deep and pervasive anti-Jewish hatred and violence. For many Jews, with the tragic history of multiple genocides (i.e., uncountable pogroms, The Inquisition, The Holocaust), and with so relatively few Jews in the world (i.e., only about 13 million in a world of over 6 billion people), any attack against Jews is seen in the context of group survival and continued ethnic existence. Let alone bullets and bombs, when Palestinians (almost exclusively men and boys) throw rocks, they are symbolically stoning the “infidels” (i.e., Jews and all other non-Muslims, in addition to gays, rape victims not rapists, women adulterers not male ones, et al.), symbolically enacting and exacting the death penalty, thereby playing on the realistic fears of Jews, secularists, and others.
I frankly don’t understand why so many people, especially those on the left, consider the suicide/homicide bombings against civilians understandable (aside from in a social scientific sense, even if not “excusable”), inevitable, or the like. Why would it be “inevitable” for Palestinians and not for African-Americans, South Africans under apartheid, Native Americans and other indigenous people, East Timorese, Tibetans, Romani, Basques, Dalit, Kurds, Northern Ireland’s Catholics, et al.? Like all others, Palestinians make choices, even if those choices are constrained by their culture, and it is unfair to rob them of their agency. There are always other alternatives.
As I have long believed and advocated, the Palestinians would be much more effective against the Israelis if they engaged in a relentless mass movement of non-violent civil disobedience (including marching into and around Jerusalem/al-Quds in the hundreds of thousands). The entire might of the Israeli army with all their US funding and weaponry would eventually be virtually powerless against this most potent weapon. US and world opinion would be more firmly in the Palestinian camp, as would many more Israelis. Furthermore, this would help build Palestinian civil society alongside the fight for a Palestinian state, instead of damaging the prospects for both. Israelis also need to increase their civil disobedience campaign to end the Occupation and to reduce the militarization of their society, ensuring their security through the positive peace of justice rather than repression and war. Likewise, Americans in particular, but others as well, need to pressure their government leaders.
As we have long been saying in the movement, if the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow. We need to lead them to peace with justice in Israel and Palestine.
Dan Brook teaches sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. His essays have appeared in various media from the American Journal of Economics and Sociology to Peace Review to Z Magazine. He can reached via Brook@california.com.