Viewpoint: The Beinart view I

Put yourselves in Palestinian shoes.

In his Jerusalem speech on March 21, US President Barack Obama included this striking passage: “Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes.”
Obama’s call is not an easy one to answer either for Israelis or American Jews. We tend to see the world through an “us versus them” prism – and who can blame us after so many decades of war, terrorism and terrible loss? Yet, Obama’s call is also necessary. There is another point of view, another narrative, and we need to understand it and even to empathize with it. Peter Beinart, in his September New York Review of Books article, has done us all an immense service by drawing attention to this crucial truth.
One example reinforces the point. Visitors to the official Englishlanguage website of the Israel Defense Forces will find a section headlined, “What happened to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?” The text, accompanied by photographs, reads, “Despite what you may hear from the media, Gaza is not an ‘open-air prison.’ This summer, Gazans are out in force, enjoying themselves in beautiful beaches and hotels, and doing their shopping in pristine grocery stores and markets heaving with fresh produce. ” Although this is a patently one-sided and distorted picture, I cannot count the number of times that, traveling around the United States, addressing synagogues and community centers, I have heard the phrase, “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” It’s a comforting mantra for American Jews. It makes us feel a whole lot better.
It’s our “Get out of jail free” card and absolves us of responsibility.
We can satisfy ourselves with the comforting IDF account – or we can dig a bit deeper. A quick Internet search will find a 2009 article in the British medical journal The Lancet reporting that the incidence of stunted growth among Palestinian children is increasing.
Stunting is caused by chronic malnutrition and affects cognitive development and physical health. It poses a serious threat to normal childhood development and may cause severe health problems for children in the future.
One can also easily access on the Internet a 2008 document drawn up by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) with input from the Israeli Health Ministry that was made public under an Israeli court order. It calculates the minimum number of calories necessary to keep Gaza residents just barely above malnutrition levels so that food deliveries could be precisely targeted to that level. The number came to 2,297 calories per person and the calculations were based on “a model formulated by the Ministry of Health ... according to average Israeli consumption,” though the figures were then “adjusted to culture and experience” in Gaza.
The truth is complicated and we need to see the situation from all sides. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are suffering – not all of them equally all the time – but there is suffering and we cannot pretend it does not exist.
When we talk about Israeli settlements, some of us may view them as an embodiment of God’s will, while others may see them as a violation of international law. But try to see them through Palestinian eyes every day, towering over them on almost every ridge line in the West Bank, a constant reminder of what they have lost and what they still have to lose.
For many American Jews, it’s much harder and more painful to acknowledge that Israel is not perfect than it is to admit that our own country, the US, falls short of our ideals in many ways. After all, we live here, vote here, pay taxes here, get sick and hopefully get healed here, get stuck in traffic jams here, grow old and die here. We can’t deny reality at home. But we can allow faraway Israel to continue to exist in our minds as a country full of tough but tender pioneers making the desert bloom and whiz kids inventing neat new IPhone apps. It’s such a comforting dream, such a wonderful illusion.
If we are to help make a better Israel, we really need to wake up and face reality.
Alan Elsner is Communications Director of the left-leaning Jewish American advocacy group J Street.