Stephen Stills’ iconic 1966 song about polarization and fear, “For What It’s Worth,” could have been written today about the divide over Israel and Palestine from campuses across the country, to the campaign trail and Capitol Hill. Stills sang: “There’s battle lines being drawn; Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
Responding to a situation unraveling out of control, he pleaded for people to pause and reflect – in short, for cooler heads to prevail. “It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”
Echoing those lines, David Lehrer – the executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, Moroccan and other international college students have studied since 1996 – says the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should not be turned into a sports event where people choose a team to root for.
“We do not need people to be pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian,” he emphasizes – “We need people to be pro-solution.”
Huda Abuarquob, the regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, adds: “The international community should stop being for or against this party over the other. The polarization over Israel and Palestine is only deepening the intractability of this conflict. They should instead be for the people of Palestine and Israel who seek a just solution to this conflict.”
Too often, political activists line up to support one side.
In the asymmetry of the conflict when examined from the perspective of raw power, Israelis have a strong advantage, which leads to greater attention focused on their actions. On which ALLMEP executive director Joel Braunold notes that while there may be an asymmetry of power, there is a symmetry of distrust. When it comes to psychological terrorism, each has inflicted on the other, both sides have what to answer for.
With that imbalance of power in Israel’s favor – as well as the all too frequent use of, and abuse of that power in ways that are frustrating, cruel, dehumanizing and too frequently lethal for Palestinians – that spotlight on Israel and its actions is justified.
However, this does not mean Palestinians should get a free pass for their own serious shortcomings. With all of the outcry against Israeli policy, there is a palpable deafness by those who call themselves pro-Palestinian, when it comes to suffering Palestinians experience at the hands of their own.
The point here is not to say there is a moral equivalence to Israeli and Palestinian actions. There is, however, a morality that calls out and says that if one really cares about Palestinians, one is obligated to also speak out when Palestinians are failed by their own political leaders and institutions. That failure to speak out looks like support is limited to Palestine, but not to Palestinians.
Why is that a problem? For one, Palestinians endure too much through the abuses of, and infighting between, Fatah and Hamas. In addition, since 2008 tens of millions of dollars have been siphoned off by Palestinian government officials.
In Gaza this is more disturbing, with its 52% unemployment rate; where people lucky enough to have work make only 25 cents an hour. At the same time, Hamas builds a mosque for more than $2 million in a poor neighborhood rather than use that money to improve the quality of life of its citizens. In a sinister practice, it offers families $100 for individuals to dangerously storm the Gaza fence with Israel. This says nothing of its outrageous use of human shields and hospitals to protect its soldiers and its too often indiscriminate bombing of Israel.
In the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas is in the 14th year of a four-year term of office with no formal end in sight, while Hamas has turned Gaza into a religious police state. This only scratches the surface of internal Palestinian self-abuse by its leaders and institutions. Again, this is not to let Israel off the hook for its egregious acts and policies. Even with that caveat, those who place themselves in the pro-Palestinian camp and who remain silent on these issues do a great disservice to a people they purport to protect.
That outlook results in political action that might feel good but is shallow, with no real grasp of the people one claims to support. In that light, such an approach comes close to Natan Sharansky’s three Ds of delegitimization, demonization and double standard when it comes to Israel. For example, since 1950, the brutal Chinese occupation of Tibet has led to the deaths of one million Tibetans, and Tibet is considered one of the 12 most repressed countries because of Chinese policies. Yet China gets a free pass from the world!
From its creation in June 2006 through June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted 135 resolutions criticizing countries: More than 50% were against Israel. Strikingly, there were zero against China, Iraq, Pakistan, Zimbabwe or Russia, all serious human rights abusers! The record of the UN General Assembly is even worse. From 2012 through 2015, it adopted 97 resolutions criticizing countries: 86% were against Israel.
While one can and should criticize Israeli policies, it is not the cause of 50% and 86% of humanity’s mistreatments. Delegitimization, demonization and a double standard toward Israel are not only glaringly wrong, they are also dangerous. The singling out of the Jewish state, as we see with increasing frequency, has created a growing hatred and deadly violence toward Jews wherever they may live.
This disproportionate focus on Israel also manifests itself in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has the legitimate goal of ending the Israeli occupation and other pertinent issues, but is blind to its effectiveness. This says nothing of the voices within BDS that oppose “a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”
As with people who support Palestine yet take a very surface approach, BDS supporters show a shallow understanding of the efficacy of their actions. That is to say, the Israelis they need to convince to change their political perspective when it comes to Palestinians ending the occupation are those Israelis who are suspicious of how the world treats Israel in the first place.
The approach of BDS toward Israel can appear myopic to some when seen within the worldwide context of an uber focus on Israel, when so many other issues that also need attention are overlooked by too many voices in the world community.
This only plays into the hands of those Israelis who say the rest of the world cannot be trusted. That is the exact Israeli constituency that needs to be convinced that a different policy is required vis-a-vis the Palestinians. As a tactic BDS backfires, as it only sways those Israelis to think the opposite and will not help the Palestinian cause to end the occupation and create a Palestinian state.
“Maintaining the world is no small matter and requires no less energy than creating it,” wrote Yale Prof. Robert Cover.
If a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to be achieved, political activists and politicians need to shed their pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli stances and focus on a different vision. As the stakes become more acute with each passing day, we require a paradigm shift – including on Capitol Hill, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and those who would like to call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.
The writer, a rabbi, teaches conflict resolution at Bennington College.