Something special is happening to the discourse about Palestine and Israel in the United States. New spaces are opening up where none existed before. For instance, some Palestinians, Israelis and Jews are talking openly about a one-state solution to the heretofore-intractable conflict. A greater number of Jewish people talk about being post-, or anti-Zionist and they’re talking about it within their communities. On the Palestinian side, more people are coming to the realization that there will never be a Palestinian state – although Palestinian elites have been slow to publicly admit the reality. A number of factors have contributed to the changing and splintering of the conversation, most notably, amongst Jewish groups in the United States.
First, there was the London Review of Books article published by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in 2006. The article aroused so much interest and controversy that it was lengthened and adapted into a book. It prompted a new discussion highlighted by the question of whether Israel’s foreign policy interests were necessarily the same as America’s foreign policy interests. The discussion took on new relevance as Israel destroyed southern Lebanon and American troops faced escalating violence in nearby Iraq. Today, few American policy advisers would insist that it is in America’s best interest to attack Iran, or to permit an Israeli attack on Iran.
President Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, went a long way towards introducing the reality of apartheid to an American audience. He was publically vilified for accurately describing a situation that most Americans are instinctively against; the ethnic separation of two peoples, with one subjugating and dominating another to enhance its control of resources and maintain its racial privilege. Neocolonialism would have been an apt description as well. Zionists sharply condemned the use of the word “Apartheid” because of the psychological linkage it created between Zionist Israel and Apartheid South Africa. This despite the fact that Zionist Israel and Apartheid South Africa share many characteristics, including an institutionalized preference for one race over another.
The rise of the blogosphere, and the proliferation of blogs such as this one, has further encouraged the splintering I mentioned earlier. A reader who is vexed by President Carter’s use of the word Apartheid to describe the actions of Zionist Israel need only probe superficially to gain access to a wide range of media, both for and against the characterization. Through viewing videos posted on YouTube, reading first-hand accounts by members of her community on their blogs, and participating actively in near real-time discussions about articles through blog response boards, the reader can gain a more accurate picture of reality than what has been narrowly presented by the various interests that impact the editorial decisions of many news editors around the country. The democratization of access to information has revealed the uncomfortable reality of Palestine to any American willing to look. That brutal reality presented itself most recently through the January Massacre in the Gaza Strip. Despite scant reporting and a near blackout of images of the carnage in American newspapers, readers saw the reality. Blogs like this one did the legwork.
Yet, despite all the progress made in recent years, I remain frustrated by one dominant discursive characteristic. That is the tendency of Jewish commentators to speak about the conflict through a Jewish lens. On its face, this criticism appears absurd. It’s natural for Jews who have identified with Israel for most of their lives to question Israel’s actions, and its very existence, through the identity that enamored them of Israel in the first place. Many of Israel’s Jewish critics are so critical precisely because of their love for Israel, or at least the Jewish people. However, it is this tendency that gives rise to a myopic view of the situation.
Jewish people who are critical of Israel are right to question what Israel means to them as Jews. “Not in my name” is a solid basis for taking issue with the often-criminal behavior of the Zionist Israeli government. But it is not enough to eventually heal the rift between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. A purely Jewish focus on a more-than-Jewish problem causes many leftist Jews to take a paternalistic view of Palestinians. Rather than equals whose inalienable rights form the crux of the case against Zionism, the Palestinians are the clay of Jewish humanism, waiting to be fully actualized by thoughtful and reflective Jewish hands. Instead of insisting that Palestinians are human beings whose existence is the repudiation of Zionism, some Jews on the left argue that Zionism violates Jewish ethics. I am not suggesting that the two streams of thought are mutually exclusive, only that the focus on one may inhibit the realization of the other.
While I believe that the soul searching is positive, I want to emphasize to the Jewish community that the crisis at hand is not one of Jewish humanist values versus Jewish nationalism. While that is a very real struggle for the Jewish people, it must be remembered that the real struggle in Palestine/Israel is for the rights of the individual irrespective of creed or communal identification in the face of ethnocentric chauvinism. The focus ought to be shifted from “Where have we gone as Jews” to “What is happening to other human beings in Israel/Palestine?” Frankly, human beings are suffering at the hands of Zionists while well-meaning Jews engage in handwringing over Jewish identity and what that means in the context of Zionism. There is a right time to reflect on that question, but the more pressing issue is the humanitarian one. There is nothing ambiguous about the fact that all people are created equally and ought to be treated equally under the law.
Ahmed Moor is a 25-year-old Palestinian-American from the Rafah refugee camp. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he now lives in Beirut.