Civil society: Toward Israeli-Palestinian peace

When did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict become nothing more than a conversation? Over the past two weeks, the Yale Daily News has published three op-eds purportedly about the conflict, yet not one is actually about Israel or Palestine.

Instead, each is a dizzying attempt to dictate how one should talk about Israel. Yishai Schwartz attempted to explain the difference between “legitimate criticism” and “unfair attack[s]” on Israel, however, his entire piece centers on the nebulous theme of identifying “productive conversation” and “discourse.” Here, the reality of the situation has become secondary to a self-centered conversation about conversation.

Similarly, Rabbi Shmully Hecht responded to a J Street event hosting Peter Beinart, who argues that Jewish youth are disillusioned by Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. Hecht accuses J Street of “represent[ing] its anti-Israel sentiment as pro-Israel activism,” engaging in a secondary conversation about what truly counts as “pro-Israel” without any discussion of the facts on the ground.

Ellen Degnan and Shai Kamin of J Street and Yale Friends of Israel fell into the same trap, responding that those who attended the Beinart event were “pro-Israel,” “friends of Israel,” people with “love for the Jewish State,” who speak “out of true love and concern” in “a nuanced discussion of American support of Israel.

Each person’s credibility is measured not by the accuracy of their claims or the moral authority of their perspective, but by their expression of “love for Israel.”

Set aside the question of whether these writers can unilaterally declare the meaning of the words “productive” or “legitimate.” Our campus is engaged in a conversation about the “legitimate” way to speak about Israel and Palestine, but the substance of this meta-conversation neglects a real understanding of either. Rather, it is dangerously premised on the idea that entry into a “legitimate” conversation about Israel is reserved for people who identify as “pro-Israel.” The implication is that a “legitimate” conversation aims to grow Israel’s power, with no room for dissent or a discussion of Israel’s behavior and the rights of its victims.

Such a discussion obscures the real issues at hand: Israel’s violations of international law vis-à-vis the Palestinians. This discourse necessarily eclipses the very existence of the Palestinians, not to mention the continual violation of their rights—ranging from a history of expropriation, to the details of a life circumscribed by ongoing siege and occupation, to Israeli war crimes and human rights violations documented by the United Nations and international organizations.

Though these issues strike the heart of the matter, they are not evident here. Hecht makes absolutely no reference to the Palestinian reality; Kamin and Degnan refer ambiguously to “Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians” and their “plight,” but do not elaborate; and Schwartz euphemistically refers to the “disruptions” Israeli security brings to Palestinian life. Nowhere is the magnitude of Israeli violence and dispossession, and the resistance they have provoked, adequately addressed. This erasure of the Palestinian struggle for freedom is precisely the problem, one that the discourse of “legitimate conversation” only exacerbates.

What we need at a time when traditional institutions and discourses like those of the interminable peace process have failed are not greater limits on our speech, as Schwartz, Kamin, Degnan, and Hecht suggest, but greater freedom to identify the problems and imagine new solutions.

Growing numbers of people of all faiths around the world have recognized that traditional methods will not overcome Israeli obstacles to the realization of Palestinians’ rights. Activists, students, human rights workers, and intellectuals have formed a growing civil society movement aimed at pressuring Israel through boycott and divestment initiatives until Israel complies with international law and recognizes the rights of Palestinians.

This is a very different and more promising way of looking at the Palestinian-Israeli equation. Whereas the traditional paradigm of “war,” “peace,” and “conflict” requires us to put our faith in politicians in vain, as Israel, with unrelenting American financial and diplomatic support, continues to expand settlements under the guise of the peace process, the new initiative recognizes that ordinary citizens can and must play a meaningful role in ending Israeli injustice. In the old paradigm, talking about the real issues—like segregation, settlement expansion, denial of the rights of refugees, war crimes—is considered to be incitement in and of itself, a “threat” to the peace process, just as the Israeli government characterized Judge Goldstone’s report on Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza in 2009. In the new paradigm, acknowledging such horrors is the necessary first step in identifying the core, structural problems that must be resolved.

This new form of civic activism has unsettled long-held ideas about Israel, but for progress to be made, these ideas must be abandoned. The question of a Jewish state must give way to the question of a democratic state. The logic of separation and segregation, which has opened the door to egregious ideas like “population transfer” and the violence of the separation wall, must be supplanted by the logic of egalitarianism. New forms of coexistence and cooperation that are based on a mutual struggle for justice, not against it, must displace politicians’ monopoly on the conflict and its resolution.

In other words, we must escape the tunnel vision of the Oslo process and its infirm discourses about “legitimate” criticisms to see, on the horizon, the very peace that has eluded the establishment for decades. To get there, all we must do is follow the path of justice.

11 Responses

  1. Matthew Alan Taylor says:

    Well said Yaman! Great skewering of the ridiculous, self-absorbed debated about having a debate. One little addition… “To get there, all we must do is follow the path of justice.” Also, *equality*. That’s I think the only viable and real path forward: true equality between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s both a promotion of rights for Palestinians, and an assurance to Israelis that no one wants to deprive them of safety.

  2. Yaman says:

    For reference, here are the three other op-ed’s referred to above:

    Yishai Schwartz, “Defining Legitimate Dialogue,”

    Rabbi Shmully Hecht, A Critique of the Anti-Israel Establishment,

    Shai Kamin and Ellen Degnan, Criticism is Good Zionism,

  3. Sammi says:

    Well said Yaman. Peace and prosperity will never be achieved through wars, oppression or human rights violation. In order for the area to achieve peace, they have to recognize the rights of all human kind, regardless of their religious preference or back ground, to live side by side with no discrimination. The issue of the Palestinians and Israelis is just parallel to the black/white and civil right movements w was in America. You can not segregate and oppress, then expect peace and tranquility.

  4. Skeptic says:

    Wow, Yaman. This op-ed is really bad. I hope you are not actually a fan of the one-state solution like it seems you are in this article. Do you really think the promotion of democracy allows us to spill as much blood as we want (as will surely happen in this one-state solution)? If so you must really have loved the Iraq war. Also, besides for the Hecht piece (which was ridiculous), the other two were not about limits on our speech at all (especially the JStreet one). In fact, in saying that we can only talk about this situation in terms of ‘Israeli’s human rights abuses and violations of international law,’ you are effectively silencing the debate as well, putting “limits on our speech.” I guess people can only discuss Israel and Palestine on your terms, huh?

  5. Yaman says:

    Skeptic, that’s a little much. Can you explain where I stated that “the promotion of democracy allows us to spill as much blood as we want”? Even though I didn’t talk about the one-state solution, I do think people should. What I talked about was whether we should aspire for Israel to be a Jewish state or a democratic state, which holds equally true whether we are talking about a two or one-state solution. They are separate issues after all. In any case, I suppose by necessary implication you think a more democratic perspective is undesirable here. On the other hand, I don’t think a democratic state where Jews and Arabs and others live as equal citizens in safety is a bad idea. I am not sure why you find that idea fearful. I emphasized civil society precisely because I don’t believe bloodshed will lead to a resolution of the conflict, let alone to “democracy.” Your assertion that a one-state solution “requires” bloodshed is not obviously true, and certainly any such notion is not the one I support.

    As for the other two articles, again, care to point to where I claim that “we can only talk about this situation in terms of” Israel’s actions, as you allege? I wrote that in the three articles, Israeli actions, which form the basis of the conflict along with Palestinian opposition to them, disappear or are minimized. Instead, deciding what a “legitimate” or “unfair” criticism is becomes the primary issue of concern. Notice that between the three articles, the only issue that the writers explicitly disagree about are those labels; we can estimate that they implicitly disagree about *something* — but it’s ludicrous that that something, that substantive disagreement, is totally backgrounded, almost less important to deciding whether they are “pro-Israel” disagreements or not. Far be it from me to dictate, like the other authors, the terms on which one should talk about Israel. But it’s a little bit like ignoring the elephant in the room if you think that Israel’s actions are not an important part of a conversation that aims to (a) understand the situation and (b) figure out what to do about it. I certainly don’t mind if some would prefer to continue in pointless discussions like those cited above, but let’s not mistake that conversation for an actual debate on the issues.

    I don’t think this is always unconscious. Take a look at these talking points distributed by a pro-Israel student group at UC Berkeley. Most importantly: “AVOID a debate on the Middle East.” Well, what then? “Instead, focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community.” Striking.

    I’m more than happy to discuss the ideas you mentioned at length, but please, no hyperbole and misrepresentation.

  6. Peace & Justice for All says:

    A strong well written article! It’s funny how any criticism to the State of Israel results in an “anti-semite” or “anti-Israel” accusation. Nobody is attacking the jewish people but come on…anyone can see the crimes the state of Israel commits against the Palestinians are atrocious.

  7. Optimistic says:

    Skeptic, you are very interesting, you present facts the way you want it them to be presented and not necessarily the way they meant to be. Another word, you are a good candidate to work for a media outlet that is “fair and balanced” like Fox news. My advice to you is to work for them, if you already have not started doing so yet.
    I am not sure where in Yaman’s article he ever mentioned anything about spilling blood, and further more, you actually even go a step further to make him “in love with the Iraqi war”…..very interesting and misguided interpretation of the article.
    Personally, I believe a one state solution that is based on equal human rights for all is the most logical and true solution to the conflict, otherwise, there will always be tit for tat actions and the issue of Jerusalem if not other land, will never be solved.
    If Israel is truly a democracy, then they would truly adopt a one state solution and, then, their actions would be speaking louder than their media outlets and their puppets voices.

  8. Skeptic says:

    The point about the Iraq war was merely meant as an example of the failure of forcing democracy on a population. I don’t, in fact, think that Yaman supported the war (I certainly didn’t/don’t, so I don’t know what’s with the whole fox news bit). Saying everyone should de-emphasize the Jewish part and emphasize the democracy part is a clear euphemism for the one state solution (which, by the way, strips both Israeli and Palestinian populaces of their democratic rights, since both have expressed majority support of the two-state solution). And Yaman, with respect to the spilling of blood, I was referring to a de facto reality. A one state solution will lead to a civil war. I really think you are overly idealistic if you do not think this.

    Also, please provide quotes (prescriptive, not descriptive like “they love israel”) that show that the other authors–besides Hecht–dictate what the discourse can be. It seems that they merely discuss the discourse of the pro-Israel community, which clearly does not include you. According to them, one cannot say “X” and still claim to be pro-Israel. That’s totally different than saying that one can’t say it. It seems that you were responding to some op-eds that weren’t really addressed to you, unless you somehow want to be in the pro-Israel camp.

  9. Yaman says:

    Skeptic, I would rather connect on this issue via e-mail. You can find my contact information in the Yale directory. Even though we could continue discussing the ideas alone, I think it is important to develop a direct personal connection.

  10. […] November 12th, 2010 by yaman | Posted in Asides | Source: […]

  11. Wulf Joules says:

    The best solution for the Arabs in West Bank and Gaza is two fold: 1. Jordan should absorb the “Palestinians” in the West Bank, 2. Egypt should absorb the “Palestinians” in Gaza. All of Jerusalem should go to Israel with it being the internationally recognize capital of the Jewish state of Israel. Free trade, and technological innovation/job creation should be shared, upon peaceful relations with neighboring Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. A middle eastern economic development zone to harness the ingenuity and untapped potential of the population in that area.

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