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.