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5 ways to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without sounding like an antisemite

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Eric Shapiro

Sunday, May 23, 2021

5 ways to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without sounding like an antisemite

With the Israeli Army and Hamas having reached an exhale-inducing ceasefire after 11 intense days of fighting, I’d like to take a moment to extend some pointers on discussing this inflammatory situation without sounding like (i.e., being) a full-blown anti-Semite. I’m fearful at the moment that in America’s simplistic, hyperbolic cultural environment, Jews are in danger of becoming the new white people — a very real danger when you consider the fact that 92% of American Jews (myself included) identify as white.


What I mean is, Jews are in peril, due to the actions and positions of the Israeli government, of being widely viewed as oppressors, the same way white people have come to be viewed here in America. The danger of laying historical grievances at the feet of white people is that it risks radicalizing them and validating white supremacy. And the danger of laying similar grievances at the feet of Jews is that the last time that became the popular thing to do, it led to one of the worst atrocities in human history.

None of the above is meant to pivot attention away from the undignified and horrific plight of the Palestinians. As Bernie Sanders, a Jew, wrote in The New York Times a week ago, “Palestinian lives matter.” The meaning, lest anyone has still yet to catch on, is that whereas the status quo for decades has hinged on Westerners being blind to the Palestinian people’s struggles, a new dawn of progressivism is rising, and its light is shining on Palestinians’ basic humanity — the same way it is on Black people’s basic humanity in the U.S.


Needless to say (and the paragraphs above bear this out), discussing this topic is a minefield. Virtually no one (myself much included) is an expert. But we have a historically oppressed and nation-less people in a nation, Israel, with a government that oppresses others. How to criticize the oppressors without denigrating Israelis’ right to statehood? How to stand up for Palestinian rights without veering into the hazards of antisemitism? I offer these 5 tips:


1. Knock yourself out criticizing the Israeli government. Just don’t blame everything they do on the Israeli people.

The recent Israel-Palestine conflict erupted due to an issue in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in Jerusalem. Palestinian families there faced eviction at the hands of the Israeli legal system, which is weighted and devised, in this if not every other instance, to deprive Palestinians of property rights. To be sure, the Israeli government is a source of oppression to the Palestinian people, as evidenced by its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade on Gaza. Moreover, over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes upon the formation of Israel in 1948. But to place blame or even responsibility for the systemic and moral failures of Israel on the Israeli citizenry is as ethically grounded and politically productive as blaming common New Yorkers for 9/11. Israelis vary greatly in terms of political affiliation and prioritization. Israelis have as much power, as individuals, to affect systemic change as Americans or any other citizens do. And anyone who demands that common Israelis launch into extremism against their own government as an expedient solution to Palestinian ills has to be equally willing to take on their own government directly (and, uh, we know you’re not).


2. Stand up full-throatedly for the Palestinian people. But don’t go getting too sentimental about their leaders…

The Palestinian people have been oppressed, shunned, marginalized, knocked down, robbed of dignity, evicted, racially profiled, incarcerated, and even slaughtered. The world remains blind to these facts at its own peril. But it’s also blind, and morally inane, to lend too much perceptual dignity to Hamas, which responded to the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah by indiscriminately firing 3,100 rockets into Israel, targeting anyone and everyone there, igniting unbearable terror, and inciting the escalation into all-out war (13 Israelis and 230 Palestinians died). On a broader note, whereas Israel has historically functioned amid warfare as a conventional state in pursuit of peace (see: Israel’s radical withdrawal from Gaza under Ariel Sharon in 2005), Hamas has stated openly its intent to destroy Israel. In a conflict where one side (its failings and oppressive brutalities being acknowledged) has sought conciliation and the other side has sought destruction, it’s difficult to root for, let alone trust, the other side. Add to this that Hamas is not only anti-Jewish, but anti-gay, anti-Christian, and oppressive toward women, and one needn’t burden oneself with the task of glorifying them.


3. Understand that Jewishness is not only a religion.

I wrote “Jewishness” above rather than “Judaism” because Jews are not united only by the Jewish religion. Jews are a culture, Jews are a people, Jews are a race. Whereas it’s easy to give oneself a pass for criticizing people on the strict basis of their religion (the way it’s currently fashionable to do with Scientologists, as one example), that’s not what you’re doing when you’re criticizing Jews for being Jewish. You’re not going after the Torah; you’re going after a specific kind of human. And you cannot in this instance separate the faith from the culture or the race. Jews aren’t trying to be cute, clever, or exceptional in bearing these distinctions; we’ve simply been around since before the categories we fit into became categories. And since there’s so few of us on the planet, there’s a will among Jews to remain bound and connected irregardless of how our faith may divide us. Therefore, one who attacks Jews as a collective isn’t absolved of malintention on the basis of having attacked a mere religion. It’s far more complicated.


4. Steer clear of questioning Israel’s right to exist.

Israel exists as a reaction to the Holocaust. Israel exists as an acknowledgment of the fact that before it existed, Jews did not find themselves entirely safe in any nation on Earth (the United States sadly included). Jews are aware of the irony of safety eluding them even in the nation that they call their own. But that in no way means Jews should pack up camp and leave. Think about it: amid what other global conflict does one nation’s very right to exist come into question? Our country has invaded Iraq and Afghanistan within this century, and at no point before, during, or (we pray, in Afghanistan’s case) after these endeavors did I hear anyone say, “Man! You know what would really solve this whole thing? If there just wasn’t an Iraq!” Heck, I’m friends with no end of progressives who despise and routinely criticize the United States, but the most extreme among them would sooner see their states secede from the Union than lobby for the erasure of the entire country. Why? Because at root, that’s a dehumanizing and hateful idea. The same way wishing for an end to Israel is antisemitic.


5. Blame nothing whatsoever on American Jews.

American Jews are a diverse group: white, Black, left, right, Democrat, Republican, so on. Never veer into presumptions about how any given one of us might feel about Israel, let alone presumptions about those feelings being simple. Never presume anything about American Jews other than our reverence for inquiry, examination, philosophy, debate, and humor. In the past week, the most pro-Israel American Jew I know argued the pro-Palestinian case more beautifully than any pro-Palestinian non-Jew I’ve encountered. Jewish people are not logged into a hive mind, and to perceive mindless simplicity in others is to merely confess to the mindless simplicity of yourself. And to take things further by punishing American Jews with random acts of hatred and violence due to the sad state of affairs in the Middle East is to display an ignorance so profound as to sink the world.