Monday, June 7, 2010

What will ultimately be remembered?

Over the last several weeks, particularly since the flotilla incident and Peter Beinart's NY Review of Books essay on how American Jewish pro-Israel forces have become inimical to peace and out of touch with the younger secular liberal Jewish generation, it seems the conversation so desperately yearned for by Beinart and others on the nature and merit of American Jewish concern for Israel has begun to percolate.

I'll begin by referring to an interesting post in Tablet Magazine (which can be found at by a political science doctoral student at the University of Chicago, Daniel Luban. In it, Luban briefly describes his transition from a somewhat conservative (or not far left-leaning) view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he was young, to his current very left, very liberal approach to the whole thing (although his article is mostly about the futility of the current liberal Jewish position to be an effective mobilizing force for peace). He attributes his more conservative feelings to the days of Oslo; the days when Israel was desperately and actively seeking peace; the time Israel's champion of peace was murdered; the time when extremist Palestinian suicide bombings began killing Israeli civilians throughout the country. At that time, the American Jewish pro-Israel narrative still retained some of the allure of the 1967 Six Day War, when hungry wolves surrounded Israel, a young, lonely cub.

After the Camp David failure in 2000, it became increasingly apparent (at times appallingly so) that Israel was the regional hegemonic presence and, as Luban writes, that "the lion's share of power has been in the possession of one side, and the lion's share of suffering has been borne by the other." Not included in his article were some of the specific events that occurred after the breakdown. They include but are not limited to the construction of the security fence which, beyond security purposes, extends significantly beyond the Green Line '67 border into Palestinian territory, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, the frequently repeated declarations of an undivided Jerusalem, and the halting of negotiations in favor of unilateral action. Even though public opinion polls have shown that the majority of Israelis prefer negotiation with the Palestinians, Bar-Tal and Eldar in the Palestine-Israel Journal have written about the ensuing contradictory beliefs Israelis hold in a place between the ideal and the real.

Specifically, despite a majority supporting a two state solution, Israelis want to keep Jerusalem undivided. They want to connect the West Bank Settlement of Ma'ale Adumim to Jerusalem. They want to keep the security fence where it is, retain many of the West Bank settlements in close proximity to the Green Line, and the Jordan Rift Valley. Yet Israelis also believe that the main condition for a peace agreement with Palestinians is a return to the 1967 borders.

This brings me to the mainspring of Luban's realization: The most important function liberal Jews concerned about Israel should be pursuing is the ability to make moral arguments. Luban points out, "less frequently do we hear that the real value of the two-state solution would be in ending the misery and injustices of the occupation, or that the Gaza assault was bad, first and foremost, for the people of Gaza. Because they are afraid to make these arguments, because they are afraid to suggest that Israel's actions might be not merely imprudent but also immoral, the liberals have no good answers when the hardliners reply that the two-state solution imposes intolerable risks to Israeli security, or that the Gaza incursion was a successful response to the rocket fire into southern Israel."

And Luban is correct in his assessment. The moral high-ground to be claimed by American Jewish liberals and Israel's left, is time and again swiftly subdued by the narrative disseminated by the Israeli government, forwarded by the conservative and dominant pro-Israel American Jewish lobby. It seems everyone has forgotten, or simply never knew, about the complexities of the goings on beneath the surface. In an open letter in the Palestine-Israel Journal, Israeli social psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal describes some of them. They include numerous episodes of Israeli brutality towards the Palestinians during Israel's occupation of Gaza, the creation of Hamas by Israeli authorities to counterbalance the PLO, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza sans negotiation with the Palestinians, the intention of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza being to delegitimize Fatah and maintain control over the West Bank, and the fact that Israel broke its ceasefire with Hamas by killing six Palestinians on November 4, 2008. Furthermore, Bar-Tal and Eldar write, "the ascendance of Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority serves the goals of the present Israeli leadership. The obstructionist views of the Hamas government allows Israel to adopt a harsh policy line, ignore Abbas, pay lip service to the principle of negotiation, while carrying out a unilateral political program that will result in the continuation of violence."

In terms of public support by Diaspora Jews, and others, I think it is largely a question about what will be remembered; it is about the narrative imprint left on our minds. The memory and relevance of the Holocaust is drifting further away from my generation (shamefully), and we weren't around for '67 or the Egypt-Israeli peace in '79. We were just children during Oslo, and only began understanding the world at the outbreak of the second intifada. What we can remember is the Gaza war, the Second Lebanon War, settlement expansion and outspoken determination to keep Jerusalem undivided, and most recently, the flotilla intervention (which has provoked Israel to reconsider its hard-line stance on the blockade). What we remember is Gaza depicted as a "homogeneous terrorist entity" (Bar-Tal). We've witnessed a culture of conflict working overtime trying to influence our conscience to line up with them--to practice denying the reality of collective punishment directed at Palestinians (which only serves to bolster extremist positions and lines on both sides) over 40 years of occupation. People don't remember that Hezbollah ambushed and killed Israeli soldiers, provoking the Second Lebanon War. They do remember that Israel inflicted considerable damage to Lebanese infrastructure and killed many Lebanese civilians (over one thousand). They don't remember the rocket-fire from Gaza militants that over time killed tens of Israeli civilians and psychologically damaged hundreds. They remember the 1,100 Palestinian deaths that resulted in the Gaza war, which lasted three weeks. And they witness the ongoing siege. They will hardly remember Israeli soldiers being greeted by a violent mob aboard the aid boat. They will remember that Israeli soldiers killed 9 civilians.

I'm not suggesting that from now on we act only according to what we think will be remembered. But let's face it. Israel holds most of the cards in this conflict. Israel has been both immoral and moral at times, but it can afford to be moral all the time on the current issues surrounding the conflict. This is the fundamental issue here. Jewish history of the Holocaust, and the changed balance of power in the region since Arab armies tried and failed at destroying Israel in '48, '67, and '73, means we should do our best at holding ourselves to the highest values of peace and justice. Or, some might argue, it means we shouldn't give anyone an inch of Israeli territory, occupied or not. If the latter is the case, liberal Diaspora Jewish support will no longer exist, and another cycle of violence will come just around the corner. But if Israelis force their leaders to make concessions which will result in long-term peace and security, we will remember a time when Israelis and their leaders made tough, crucial decisions on moral and practical grounds. We will remember Israel capable of acknowledging the constructive potential of its own power.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Alex.
    I especially enjoyed your analysis of today's college generation which is unaware of the Holocaust, Israel's existential wars in '48, '67, '73 and Israel's desperate pursuit for peace in the 90's.
    We are only aware of the current reality; That Israel is powerful and its neighbours are impoverished. With this limited understanding our generations is developping a distorted view.
    This "David and Goliath" perception which does not help the peace process.