Last Wednesday night, an American who had emigrated to Israel, served in the Israeli Defense Forces press office and is now a military correspondent for the Times of Israel, gave a speech at a New York synagogue titled, “The West Bank without spin.” I went to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to hear the talk with extreme prejudice. An hour and a half later I left the synagogue sensing that I had heard that rare thing, a reasonable Israeli.
Here are some of the things that Judah Ari Gross said:
–The West Bank is an “ugly thing.” The rule of law is skewed against Palestinians. The rate of convictions for Palestinians accused in military courts is 99.7 percent. The opposite is the case for Israelis accused of crimes against Palestinians.The Israeli national police who investigate those cases are “terrible.”
The Israel national police that operate out of the West Bank are– terrible. I’m sorry to say, but they’re not very good at their job. In between 2013 and 2014, there were 150 complaints filed by Palestinians against Israelis for attacking their cars, or setting fires to their fields, or doing any number of antagonistic acts. Two of those 150 between those two years resulted in any kind of indictment. They’ve also been caught a number of times ruining investigations by having shoddy police work.
–The Israeli army spokespeople are “terrified” of international media reporting on the West Bank.
It’s a tough sell, honestly. It’s a tough sell… The IDF has a ridiculous spokesperson’s unit, it is massive, they have people everywhere. But at this point the IDF is terrified of foreign media so they lock down a lot, and they don’t explain themselves because they’re scared of being taken out of context and not being presented properly which is understandable but doesn’t work well for their benefit when they actually have something to say.
–Israeli soldiers finish their service “crazy.”
Generally speaking Israelis coming out of the army are a little crazy… They come out crazy, and so they clean their head as they say in Israel.
The veterans go off to South America or Southeast Asia and “just do drugs for about six months” so as to come back and be productive members of society.
–An army of unsophisticated 18- and 19-year-olds is in no position to police Palestinian society. The soldiers think they are there to defend Israel and so have no responsibility for Palestinian lives. Gross was clearly referring to, among others, Elor Azaria, who was 18 when he killed Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif, 21, lying on the street in Hebron last March, a case that has rocked the political leadership of Israel.
–The strongest leftists in Israel are the people who command those soldiers:
Israeli commanders and officers and generals, a lot of them when they get out of the army go into leftwing political groups. Which sort of gives you some indication of where a lot of them stand on the issues.
–The solutions to this mess are two: the two-state solution and the one-state. “To be perfectly frank neither of those has much traction at that point,” Gross said. “More and more people are seeing the status quo maintaining itself.” Many Palestinians, seeing the turmoil in the surrounding region and the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, would accept Israeli sovereignty if they only had rights in the society at last.
–The two state solution is being pushed by “Israel’s left wing,” Yesh Atid and the Zionist Union camp. But they’ve made no progress. Moving 41 families from the settlement of Amona is a huge ordeal for Israeli society, as Gross described it—and he left us to imagine what would be involved trying to create a viable Palestinian state by removing thousands of settlers outside the “settler blocs.”
–The one state solution has several varieties. There is Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s idea of annexing Area C on “an interim basis,” but that is disingenuous because it is not interim, it is his endgame, with unequal status for Palestinians and Jews, and Palestinian population centers dealt out of Israel.
“There are other people that say regardless of whether or not Israel is Jewish, it should just be a one state solution, call it a day, and what will be will be. These people are more to the left.
“There are other people exploring a canton system, where there is one overall country but broken up into two different states, one Jewish, one Palestinian.
So a New York synagogue offers a more open discussion of the reasonableness of the one-state solution than our press or politicians. “Call it a day and what will be will be.”
Gross’s manner was disarming. He has a rambling informal slightly shlumpfy attitude. Tan jeans desert boots, a yarmulke. He studied journalism but when he moved to Israel was determined not to write about the conflict because there was too much competition for that beat and he wanted to write about food and become the Israeli Michael Pollan. But the military beat was thrust upon him; and his absence of ambition or zeal is becoming.
I sensed that he is post-Zionist and personally supports a one-state outcome with equal rights. Notwithstanding boners I’ve left out about how great the IDF is, Gross’s entire talk was aimed at the idea that people should just get along and Palestinians must have dignity and rights and the only people you should trust are the people who are trying to build something together in the country. He told a touching story. An Israeli mother was driving in the dark on the winding roads of the West Bank when she came to a Palestinian car blocking the road and freaked out. Someone was about to descend from the hills and kill her children in the back seat. She did a rapid three point turn and drove fast back to Otniel, a settlement she had visited. The Palestinian car followed her. Her heart raced. She flew to the guard house and guards came out with guns and the Palestinian car stopped. A Palestinian man got out and said in broken Hebrew that he had gotten lost on the road and was trying to find his way home. The settlers gave him directions. In the end there are just people, trying to live together, Gross said, many are decent, some are idiots.
Gross was honest about the fact that you can’t have a Let’s-just-all-get-along solution to this situation without addressing the terrible power imbalance. I hope he gets a wider hearing in synagogues, though, because he could change the minds that need to be changed, American Jewish ones.