January 29, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
By Belle Etra Yoeli
I work for an organization often identified as part of the American Jewish mainstream – sometimes dubbed the “Jewish establishment” – whose position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been fiercely attacked, even defamed, and I’m sick of it.
Self-styled “progressive” organizations, such as IfNotNow (INN) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), have been patting themselves on the back for “breaking the silence” about the occupation.
I’d like to set the record straight.
Jewish “establishment” groups are fully aware of the occupation. What distinguishes them from others is that they take into account the historical background for the situation on the ground, and therefore understand that Israel is not solely to blame.
The mainstream organizations have been around the block. Their experience over many decades provides a strong sense of history and nuance – two critical elements that are often missing from the Israel-Palestine conversation.
Unfortunately, uninformed people like Michelle Alexander, Tamika Mallory, and Michelle Goldberg, and organizations like INN and JVP, are time and again given platforms to explain this conflict, which they do without providing context, as if they know better. They do not.
Here are two typical examples:
Many charge that the separation barrier and checkpoints in the West Bank represent oppression and apartheid. But those making these charges conveniently forget that neither of these systems appeared out of thin air, but in fact came about for a reason.
My relatives in Israel fondly recall interacting peacefully with Palestinians while shopping in the West Bank and spending time on the beaches of Gaza, neither of which they can do anymore. Why? Because Israel hates Palestinians and wants to take away their rights?
No. The barrier and checkpoints became necessary after waves of terrorism, particularly after the Second Intifada, which included daily suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis. Israel, like any other country, must take steps to protect its citizens. If American residents of Niagara Falls were blown up by Canadian suicide bombers, would we expect anything less of the United States? Would we have our government sit idly by?
Yes, walls, fences, and checkpoints inconvenience and disrupt the lives of West Bank Palestinians. But if you were the Israeli government at the time, can you honestly say that your cost-benefit analysis would have produced a different outcome? And are the threats of terror any less real today?
Our Second example, the blockade on Gaza, is even more clear-cut. Gaza has been violently taken over by Hamas, a terrorist organization whose goal is to destroy Israel.
Yes, Israel controls the flow of goods in and out of Gaza, including dozens of trucks filled with humanitarian aid every day. By the way, Egypt also controls a border with Gaza – a fact that is repeatedly left out of the conversation. To say that Israel is responsible for the “open-air prison” and the deteriorating conditions in Gaza is intellectually dishonest. Where is Hamas in this picture? It is hardly an innocent bystander.
As both examples show, like everything else in this conflict, context matters.
None of this is said in order to belittle Palestinians, deny their rights, or downplay the serious challenges they face. In fact, my organization, like most of the Jewish mainstream, has long called for a negotiated two-state solution whereby Palestinians, like Israelis, have the right to self-determination and can live freely in their own state.
Of course, there is no consensus on what exactly the two-state solution should look like. But we all share a deep desire, rooted in the Jewish commitment to social justice, to reach a better outcome for all sides.
The situation on the ground is by no means perfect, and the Jewish establishment knows this. But rather than blame only Israel for the status quo, we continue to insist on nuance and a historical perspective.
Israel has often tried to make peace with the Palestinians but has been repeatedly rebuffed. And often, those rejected peace proposals were followed by terrorist attacks.
While many Palestinians suffer, their past and present leaders share the blame. Their antisemitism, their policies that reward terrorism, and their overall failures of leadership add up to a picture much more complicated than the simple charge that “Israel is the oppressor.”
Rather than blame one party, which only breeds resentment, concerned individuals and organizations have a responsibility to address this conflict with the complexity it merits.
If “progressives” demand that Jewish organizations recognize and understand the grievances of Palestinians, then Palestinian supporters and activists must similarly appreciate the Israeli perspective and the concerns of the Jewish community.
The writer is chief of staff to American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris.