A Dark Moment for ‘Liberal’ Zionism

Guest contribution by Chase M.


Imagine, for a brief moment, that Israel treated the settlements in and around Hebron the same way it treats the Gaza Strip. After all, Kiryat Arba, like Gaza, has its share of dangerous, gun-toting extremists mingling amidst the civilian population. On a single day in 1994, the Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein mowed down twenty-nine civilians in Hebron during what became known as the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre; this is equal to the total number of fatalities to date from Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks since they commenced in 2001. So what would a Gaza policy imposed on Hebron look like?

First, a fence would be built around the settlements – not to keep Palestinians out, as with the current separation fence, but to keep settlers in. Near the fence, inside the settlements, a free-fire “buffer zone” would be unilaterally declared by the IDF, cutting right through residential neighborhoods and farmland. Armed IDF units patrolling the perimeter of the fence would be authorized to shoot at any Jewish settlers caught inside the buffer zone. Unmanned aerial drones carrying AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles would occasionally conduct sorties over the city, destroying any buildings that the IDF suspects contain weapons caches or assassinating high-profile figures who organize violence against the city’s Palestinian residents. Collateral damage would be unavoidable when operations are conducted in urban terrain.

Civilian traffic in and out of the settlements would grind to a standstill. Exports would be completely prohibited, on the grounds that any cash inflow into the settlements might be used to purchase weapons. Import of “dual-use” goods like gasoline – which can be used to make Molotov Cocktails – would be banned outright. Bureaucratic encumbrances and arbitrary border closures would make it impossible for residents to import enough food and other basic items to meet their needs. Residents of Jewish Hebron would not be allowed to leave and see their families in Israel except in the most extraordinary circumstances, and even then only after long delays. Any humanitarian aid convoy trying to break the siege could be met with lethal force.

I am not writing this to illustrate the brutality of the Israeli siege on Gaza, nor the unacceptability of using attrition tactics against civilians as part of a counterterrorism policy, both of which are already well-known and have been extensively covered elsewhere on this blog. Rather, I am trying to frame the issue through this counterfactual in order to demonstrate the gross double-standard that Israel employs when it comes to security and defense issues. The battle against the Qassam rockets – which I support in principle – has been made so total that the lives, liberties and welfare of Palestinians is taken to be expendable in the struggle. And at the same time, the Israeli government so shudders at the idea of repeating the 2005 Gaza disengagement, that the violence endemic to the settler enterprise is often overlooked. At the root of this shameful hypocrisy is a failure to humanize the other side, to recognize that their desires and fears are as real as one’s own.

It is in this context that I placed a lot of personal faith in J Street when I attended their national conference in Washington, DC in February. I was confident that this organization could lobby forcefully for Palestinian statehood and against the occupation, the settlements, and the siege. At the same time, as an organization that emphasized its overwhelming Jewish majority, J Street – I hoped – could present a different face for the American Jewish community: one that did not take its marching orders from pro-Israel hawks, and one that pro-Palestinian activists could view as allies rather than adversaries. The essential “thesis” of the organization, if you will, is that Palestinian welfare and Israeli security are by their nature complementary rather than exclusionary – a conviction that I will always hold true.

If the organization’s agenda sounds vague and ambiguous, that’s because it is. It became very apparent from the opening day of the convention that J Street is still struggling to find its voice and sharpen its message. On the one hand, there is something to be said for “big tent” politics. While there are many other groups out there, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, with very specific policy platforms that I can more or less get behind, ideological purism can become a liability; political power comes from being able to build enough of a support base to effect real change. At the same time, I worry that J Street may have pitched its tent too big, making unacceptable concessions in its bid to attract broad support and membership. It has endorsed, for example, current levels of American aid to Israel, despite the fact that the United States can and must condition these gifts on Israel’s observance of international law and basic human rights.

What bothered me most about the rhetoric at the conference was not what kind of policies were being advocated, but rather the logic underwriting them. Many of the panelists, speakers and attendees argued against the occupation from an exclusively pro-Israeli point of view. The siege on Gaza was bad, it was claimed, because it encourages terrorism against Israel; not because it terrorizes Gazans. The settlements were bad because they rob the Israeli government of money; not because they rob Palestinians of land.

The darkest moment of the conference occurred during a panel of five Israeli MKs. It was clear that these politicians – two from Labor, three from Kadima – were presented as representatives of the “peace camp” of the Knesset, exponents of the kind of policies J Street supported. (What is disappointing is that, in some sense, this was accurate: these individuals were roundly criticized in the Knesset for even showing up to a J Street event, and even as I write this there is an ongoing Knesset investigation into J Street’s activities reminiscent of a McCarthyite witch hunt). Since the MKs had mentioned Gaza in their talk, someone from the audience asked the panelists what it would take for Israel to end the siege. Kadima MK Nachman Shai’s answer was stern and insistent: The siege on Gaza would never be let up until Gilad Shalit is returned from capture. He went on about the treachery of Shalit’s abduction, and the need to hold Hamas accountable by punishing the Strip.

It was truly disturbing to listen to a representative of the Israeli government, on public record, advocate a policy of collective punishment and condemn an entire population to privation in order to compel a government to release one prisoner of war.

Then something even more disturbing happened. People clapped.

The video above displays what happened after the panel ended. A brave young woman from Gaza caught up with Shai and attempted to point out the error of his statement. I would encourage you to watch it for yourself; while I can paraphrase what she said, I can’t possibly convey the emotion she put in her words, stemming from years of personal experience living under siege. I couldn’t convey the intensity of a confrontation between a victim of occupation, and her occupier embodied right in front of her eyes. I was inspired by her firm attempt to understand the Israeli point of view, even by attending a declared “pro-Israel” conference, despite everything that happened to her. Meanwhile she made every effort to teach Shai what his policies are doing to innocent civilians like her, only to be answered with the silent nods of a politician who is clearly unmoved by her plight.

To respect and humanize the other side, while remaining uncompromising in your own principles: that is what I expected of J Street. That young woman met and exceeded my expectation; the MK failed it.

I had the pleasure of meeting this woman in the lobby of my hotel that evening. She, a few other students and I struck up a conversation about various aspects of the conference, which soon evolved into a thorough debate on fundamental issues such as the Right of Return, the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and the possibility of a single binational Palestinian state. Every aspect of this tortured conflict was subjected to maximum scrutiny. As the hours passed, the conversation attracted the attention and input of other young J Street members milling in and out of the lobby, until roughly a dozen of us were gathered, representing a broad spectrum of opinions. By the time we had finished our investigation into the issues, we had changed one another’s minds to the point where all of our previous disagreements melted away. It was already the wee hours of the morning, but each one of us emerged transformed and enlightened by the effort. We knew that a 3 A.M. debate wouldn’t change anything, but it still felt as though we had solved the conflict.

At that point a middle-aged woman, who had been patiently sitting on the sidelines, came up to us. She told us that she had spent a great deal of time in Palestine and interacted extensively with the people there. She then went on to say that listening to us work through and “solve” all of the various facets of the conflict had moved and inspired her like nothing she had seen before, and that she was once again hopeful that the bloodshed might end one day. I was nearly moved to tears.

Chase M. is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying Mathematics and Political Science. He welcomes feedback addressed to cmecha (at) uchicago (dot) edu.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the blog Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.

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