Part 2 here.
By now it should be clear that my abandonment of my ties to Israel, and my support for the liberation of Palestine, are not based on denial of my Jewish heritage or on anti-Semitism. This is a political issue, and a moral one. Jewish people cannot be - and should not be - expected to adhere to some kind of party line of political views. I am heartened that increasing numbers of Jewish people are making their own journeys away from unconditional support for Israel - away from nationalism and towards justice - and I'm frustrated and saddened that so many others are completely entrenched in their loyalties.
In this post, I try to address some of the issues many Jewish (and many non-Jewish) people raise when explaining their support for Israel, and their negative beliefs about the Palestinian cause. If you recognize yourself in this post, be assured that whatever conversation I may have had with you, I've had with many others, and I've read and heard many more.
Your response, from any point of view, is welcome, as long as it falls within my comment guidelines. And, as always, I do not wish to debate.
For many people, the biggest obstacle to support for the Palestinian cause is the use of violence by some portion of the Palestinian people. I want to try to unpack this.
• What is terrorism?
Most of us, when we hear about terrorism, feel sympathy and empathy for the victims, and feel only antipathy and alienation, or worse, towards the perpetrators. Most of us do not support groups that use violence, especially violence against civilians - people who, we feel, are innocent victims who have not wronged the other party in any way.
Palestinian violence is almost always characterized as terrorism, and therefore is almost always condemned. But what is terrorism?
Here's one definition, from Merriam-Webster:
The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.Even using this strict dictionary definition, many military actions - such as the US-led invasion of Iraq - qualify as terrorism.*
Which of these is terrorism?
A roadside bomb.
A bomb planted on a bus.
Bombs falling from jets.
House raids: doors blown off with explosives, male occupants rounded up and disappeared, home ransacked, family terrified; male occupants never seen again.
The destruction of homes, either by aerial bombing or by bulldozer.
Mass round-ups and imprisonments.
The widespread use of torture.
Imprisonment without charges, and without access to representation, defense, or a judicial system.
I maintain these are all terrorism.
Hiroshima was terrorism. Guernica was terrorism. Gaza was terrorism.
Colonialism is violent. Imperialism is violent. These are by definition brutal, repressive systems. A system that can only be maintained through violence will be resisted by violence.
Many of us recoil at the acts of a suicide bomber, but ignore or dismiss widespread destruction, imprisonment, and extra-judicial killing - although the latter is more lethal, exponentially so. Bombs on buses evoke a particular kind of horror. Should not indefinite detentions, torture, destruction, and murder of civilians by an army evoke horror, too?
• All people deserve autonomy and self-rule.
You may abhor Palestinian violence, but Palestinians have human rights.
Many people claim that if only the Palestinians would cease the use of violence, then Israel could and would allow them to live in peace. But Palestinians are not children. We cannot require them to behave - to be passive and compliant - before granting them the same rights and freedoms we take for granted for ourselves. They are human beings who must be free. You may disapprove of their methods, but that does not diminish their claim.
This may seem like a strange analogy, but some of the rhetoric I hear around this issue reminds me of society's judgements of women. The "good girl" who is raped is a victim, but the slut brought it on herself. A teenager who was raped deserves the right to choose abortion. A woman with multiple partners who never uses contraception doesn't.
Rights are rights. If some Palestinians don't appear to be "good victims", holding sit-ins and singing "We Shall Overcome," that doesn't make their rights any less urgent or less deserved. The Black Panthers were also part of the freedom struggle.
• There is no liberation without violence.
This, to use an overused phrase, is an inconvenient truth that many first-world people prefer to deny.
No unwilling colony, no occupied country, no oppressed people has ever achieved freedom without the use of violence. There have been nonviolent movements, of course. But no nonviolent movement was ever successful without the existence of some alternative organization that used violence and the threat of violence. In other words, nonviolence, when it succeeded, was never the only factor. The riveting nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have succeeded without Malcolm X's "by any means necessary". Gandhi's powerful methods of nonviolent resistance worked alongside many militant independence movements. Would Britain ever have sat at the negotiating table with Ireland had it not been for the IRA? (If you believe the answer is yes, ask yourself, Why would they?)
Nelson Mandela, now at the end of his life and justly celebrated the world over, has been transformed through celebrity into a man of peace. This sleight of hand omits Mandela's true role as a leader of the African National Congress, a group that engaged in armed resistance against the apartheid regime. Mandela's long imprisonment was not for his political beliefs; it was for acts of political violence. Mandela himself was instrumental in the ANC's adoption of armed struggle after nonviolent methods failed to move the white ruling class.
While in prison, Mandela never renounced violence. When South Africa offered to release Mandela from prison if he would sign a statement condemning terrorism, he refused, saying that armed resistance was legitimate when other channels of free political activity were no longer available.
One observer writes, "Mandela was more the Rory O'Brody than Gerry Adams of the ANC." The quote comes from an interesting blog post describing Mandela's role in the use of violence. The writer says:
This, I believe, is really the principle that articulates the natural law right to engage in armed struggle against oppression when other forms of resistance are no longer available. And, perhaps more importantly, to support publicly the rights of others to engage in armed struggle against state ideology which condemns all political violence as "terrorism", and therefore de-facto illegitimate. Thinking seriously and honestly about conflicts in the world today means not ignoring the potential legitimacy of armed struggle, and not white-washing revolutionary leaders in the past in order to put up their posters in public schools whilst no one is offended.• Imagine the situation reversed.
If we swap the Israelis' and Palestinians' positions - if your people were in Gaza, being held in the world's largest open-air prison - would you support the armed struggle? Would you understand it? Would you agree that a government has the right to force you to live behind a wall, to pass through checkpoints, to live under a surveillance state, in order to survive?
Under this imagined scenario, if your sympathies change, I suggest those sympathies are based not on morality or justice, but on nationalism.
• When can the use of violence be condoned?
I realize that many, maybe most, Western Jews - and many first-world people of any background - will never support the armed struggle of Palestinians against Israel. I wonder, though, if the same people condemn the use of violence in all resistance movements. Would they, I wonder, condemn or condone the use of violence by black South Africans under apartheid? By Native Americans as Andrew Jackson's armies rode in? In the Warsaw Ghetto uprising?
If you draw a moral distinction between these examples and Palestine, what is it? Are Palestinians less deserving of their freedom? Do Israelis deserve to be shielded from the human consequences of their government's policies?
Or does Jewishness trump all?
• To achieve a goal, people will use whatever means are available to them.
Israel seeks to expand its borders, and to control and subjugate the Palestinian people. To do so, it employs a powerful military and a brutal police state.
The Palestinian people seek to regain their occupied territory and expel their oppressors. What means are available to them?
To me there is a moral distinction between violence in the service of state repression and violence committed by people trying to resist and retaliate against state repression.
• To alleviate the effect, remove the cause.
The achieve certain political, economic, and military goals, the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
When some Iraqis fought back - physically resisting the invasion and occupation of their country - the US labelled them "insurgents", then used the presence of this "insurgency" to justify its continued presence.
To condemn Palestinians' violent resistance, but not to recognize and condemn the systemic, continued violence against, and persecution of, Palestinians by Israel can, at this point, only be an act of wilful blindness.
If one condemns the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors, and not the violence of the oppressor against the oppressed, one is siding with P.W. Botha, with George Wallace, with the Raj, with the Conquistadors. With Israel.
"Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East"
File this with George W. Bush bringing democracy to Iraq.
Was the United States a democracy when about 15% of the country's population - one-third of the population in the southern states - were owned as property? The US called itself a democracy before the emancipation of slavery. Was it?
Was apartheid South Africa a democracy?
Those who call Israel a democracy are either narrowly defining Israel to exclude the occupied territories, or parrotting something they have heard but not investigated, or believing propaganda disguised as news reports.
What's more, the Palestinian territories hold elections, too.
Here I can only urge you: please educate yourself. One place to start might be The Only Democracy in the Middle East?, a project of Jewish Voice for Peace.
If you wonder why you and I have such different views on this "democracy," you might be interested in Muzzlewatch, also from JVP.
For a perspective from a South African, you might want to read the series of wmtc posts that begins here: "is israel an apartheid state? a south african perspective, part 1".
"Palestinians and their supporters are anti-Semitic"
Many Jewish people believe that Arabs and others in solidarity with the Palestinian cause are anti-Semitic. They may have heard or read anti-Semitic statements, or they may be basing their feelings on assumptions.
Jewish friends have said to me, "Palestinians hate Jews. They are taught to." I'm not sure how they possess this information, where it comes from, or how much or little it represents reality. My own liberal, suburban, Jewish parents taught me to look down on Arabs, to see them as violent, lawless, ignorant, "backwards", dirty (yes, physically dirty). Is it possible that the idea of Arab children being taught to hate Jews is part of that same bigoted stereotype? Or do Arab families actually teach hatred towards Jews? Do Jewish families do the same, in reverse?
I personally have encountered no anti-Semitism in the pro-Palestinian movement; indeed, I have seen quite the opposite, a great multicultural solidarity in the struggle for justice. On the other hand, I hear casual Islamophobia on a regular basis both in person and online.
Of course, one can find a flood of anti-Semitism online without too much difficulty. And some Jew-haters use the Palestinian cause as cover for their own hatred.
So let's assume all this is true. Let's assume that at least some Palestinians are anti-Semitic and some Jews are anti-Arab or anti-Muslim. So what? It may be true, but it's irrelevant.
You may believe that the pro-Palestinian cause is rife with anti-Semitism. But what does that have to do with the Palestinian people's right to autonomy and self-determination?
Some Black people may hate all white people, but could that have been used as a moral justification for Jim Crow? If you read a Black South African's rant against his white oppressors, would that have caused you to support South African apartheid?
Human rights belong to all people, without exception. There are bigots everywhere. There are good people everywhere. If you've heard or read anti-Jewish rhetoric within the pro-Palestinian cause, would you really use that to justify the continued repression of millions of people?
An Israeli friend once said to me, "How long will we use real or imagined anti-Semitism to justify The Occupation?"
Israel's "right to exist"
One often hears the expression, "Israel has a right to defend itself" and "Israel must use violence or it will cease to exist." Many people claim that Israel must act aggressively to contain and neutralize the Palestinian people, or its existence will be threatened.
Every Israeli person and every Palestinian person has the right to exist.
People have an inherent right to exist.
Regimes do not.
The apartheid regime in South Africa no longer exists. Jim Crow no longer exists. The Raj no longer exists.
If the survival of your state - your state, not your people - depends on the subjugation of others, can you credibly plead self-defense? The survival of the Confederacy depended upon slavery. The survival of Afrikaan South Africa depended on apartheid.
The westward expansion of the early United States was predicated on genocide. Did the US have a right to that expansion? How can expansion be equated with survival?
How can this
be considered survival?
If Palestine is free, can Israel continue to exist? If Israel the state, acting in concert with all the people who live in its territory, can figure out a way to become a democratically ruled country, equally open to all people, equally governed by all people, granting the same inalienable rights to all people, regardless of origin or heritage, then it will continue to exist, as South Africa has done, as the US did after its Civil War.
But if by Israel's "right to exist," we mean its self-proclaimed right to be exclusively governed by, and grant exclusive rights to, one set of people but not another, based on hereditary, then no, it has no right to exist.
If you support Israel's right to maintain itself as a Jewish state, do you also support other exclusive states? An exclusively white state? An exclusively blond and blue-eyed state?
Here are two premises I think we would all support.
1. A government that can only maintain power through force and violence and repression is not a legitimate government.
2. All people have the right to be free.
Why should Israel be an exception?
"Without Israel, Jews cannot be safe, and there could be another Holocaust"
I'm very familiar with this argument, and I used to believe it. Under closer scrutiny, however, it fell apart.
The existence of a Jewish state cannot prevent anti-Semitism. Indeed, I would argue that it does just the opposite. The Jewish claim to special status and the insistence of a birthright, a claim we would view as illegitimate from any other people, is the perfect fodder for anti-Jewish feeling.
Recognizing that a certain degree of bigotry will always exist, our goal should be to prevent such bigotry from resulting in discrimination, persecution and, ultimately, genocide. But our goal cannot be merely to protect Jews. We must protect all people from discrimination, persecution, and genocide - or what are we?
What's more, continued segregation will only perpetuate bigotry, on both sides. In the US, we've seen that the key to dispelling bigotry and helping people recognize our common humanity has been integration. Integrated workplaces have probably done more to normalize (so-called) "race relations" in the US than anything else. (Of course, integrated workplaces would not have been possible without court-ordered desegregation of education and other civil rights legislation.) If we want to reduce both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, segregated nation-states should not be our goal. Until Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Arab and Christian, co-exist in one country, as equals, there will never be peace.
But is peaceful coexistence your goal? Perhaps you're less concerned with the prevention of another genocide than with the prevention of another Jewish genocide - not a holocaust, but only The Holocaust.
As Jews, do you really feel that your own safety and the safety of other Jewish people are more important, more valuable, than the safety of people who are not Jewish? Can you admit such a thing, even to yourself?
How much repression is your safety worth? How many deaths? How much oppression should be tolerated so that our people can have a "homeland"?
Why do I have more rights to live freely in Israel, a country I have never even visited, than someone whose family has lived there for generations?
If a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto calls for continued Palestinian resistance, if the child of two Holocaust survivors knows that Israel maintains an apartheid state and it must end, how can you continue to close your eyes?
How can you, as a Jew, tolerate this?
* * * *
The following is excerpted from a report by Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories.
Israel continues to annex Palestinian territory; Israel persists in demolishing Palestinians' homes and populating Palestine with Israeli citizens; Israel routinely detains Palestinians without charges; Israel maintains an policy of collectively punishing 1.75 million Palestinians through its imposition of a blockade on the Gaza Strip; and Israel prosecutes its occupation with impunity, refusing to accept the world’s calls to respect international law.I ask you again: as a Jew, and as a human being, how can you continue to support this?
The Israeli population registry confirms that around 650,000 Israelis had settled in the occupied Palestinian territory by the end of 2012. Just last week Israel took another step toward building the 3,000 additional settlements authorized by Prime Minister Netanyahu in November, even as Israeli leaders pay lip service to peace negotiations.
In the first three months of 2013, Israel demolished 204 Palestinian homes, and violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians is an everyday occurrence, with 146 incidents documented through April.
[According to the independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council, Israel is actively confiscating Palestinian water and land, having seized an additional 60,000 square meters of land near Nablus just this week.]
My new report reminds the Human Rights Council that a Security Council report raised these same concerns in 1979, but 34 years later Israel remains committed to ignoring international law and pursuing its own set of facts on the ground.
. . . since the occupation began 46 years ago, Israel has detained approximately 750,000 Palestinians, equaling nearly 20% of the entire Palestinian population. At the end of May Israel had 4,979 Palestinians, including 236 children, in its prisons. Another fact is that Israel constantly holds around 200 Palestinians in so-called administrative detention, which is a euphemism Israel uses for detention without charges.
[Turning to the situation in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Falk recalled that, in mid-June, Palestinians in Gaza will enter the seventh year of living under Israel's oppressive and illegal blockade.]
My report discusses my visit to Gaza last December, just after Israel's last major military operation. In short, Israel's blockade is suffocating Palestinians in Gaza, with an incredible 70% of the population dependent on international aid for survival and 90% of the water unfit for human consumption.
These violations deprive Palestinians of hope and make a mockery of revived peace negotiations.
* For some people, the word "unlawful" in the above definition is a sticking point. Internationally, the US's invasion and occupation of Iraq were and are unlawful. But the US makes its own laws. It invades countries at will, using whatever pretext or contrived incident is convenient, and using the media as its propaganda agent. For more on this pattern, please read Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer, an excellent and very accessible book.
** For a discussion on varying concepts of terrorism, including the concept of "state terrorism," try this article by John Sigler: "Palestine: Legitimate Armed Resistance vs. Terrorism".