Why American Jews Need to Talk About Palestine

I’m not supposed to talk about Palestine.

And I could ignore it, if I wanted to. There’s plenty else to discuss. We’ve had a great week of weather in Chicago. There’s still a pandemic going on. 10% of the world’s California condor population has taken over an elderly woman’s house.

Yet something has been bothering me for a long time about the way Palestine and Palestinians often are — and are not — discussed when I read Jewish media, something that is being exposed more starkly than ever by the latest outbreak of war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, and the events that precipitated it. I feel, and many other American Jews feel, that it’s no longer possible to stay silent.

Growing up, I learned about the importance of Israel, how it was necessary to sustain the life of the Jewish people, and how the existing Zionist movement — the drive for a Jewish state — took on unstoppable momentum in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which firmly convinced large numbers of Jews that without our own nation, we would never be safe. And I learned, and continue to learn, a great deal about the Holocaust itself. I value that education; it has guided my morality and made me who I am.

However, this education was not comprehensive. It largely left out the contemporary and historical politics of Zionism, and as such, did not teach me much about Zionism itself. And it taught me nothing about the experience of the Palestinians in 1948 — that in a matter of weeks, 700,000 people fled or were expelled from their homes. The Jewish story was the only story I learned; in my world, that was simply the water we swam in. Out here in the wider world, it turns out that there are other stories and other views, and I was not well-positioned to understand what animates the forces that oppose Israel and Zionism, beyond a simplistic and disingenuous good/evil dichotomy.

To get it out of the way: I currently consider myself neither Zionist, post-Zionist, nor anti-Zionist. It sometimes feels as though I was born into Zionism by virtue of being born Jewish. But Judaism is an ethnicity and a religion, and Zionism is a political project that I didn’t get a chance to opt into based on any merits. That’s different from being against it, and one form of Zionism that increasingly appeals to me is the idea of a Jewish home in Israel, as articulated masterfully by Peter Beinart. Mostly, I’m still in the mode of trying to step back and take an honest look at what this choice entails, and if it’s a choice I need to make at all.

Because honestly, I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with ideology of any kind. Picking sides doesn’t really interest me; the only side I want to be on is the side of justice. What does interest me is understanding the forces that are currently, and always have been, preventing Jews and Palestinians — and all peoples — from living their lives in peace.

These forces are powerful. Learning about the Holocaust was foundational for me because it showed me that we as humans can never take peace or justice for granted. If it happened to the Jews — less than 80 years ago, within some of our lifetimes — then there is no reason it couldn’t happen to us again. And if it can happen to us, it can (and does) happen to others.

For me, “never again” was never just about the Jews — and this is how I’ve ended up with a deep ambivalence toward Zionism.

When it comes to any action, whether taken by a person, a group of people, an institution, or a government, there is a difference between intention and impact. One’s intentions can be good, but it is the impact of one’s actions that is most important.

The desire for a Jewish state comes from the desire to banish the forces of Jewish oppression. This is a supreme and righteous intention; nobody should be forced to live in constant fear for their safety. Even before the Holocaust, it was reasonable to believe that for Jews to achieve this, it would have to achieved on sovereign Jewish territory. And there were plenty of reasons why it made some sense for Israel to be that territory (though there were other contenders).

That’s one side of the ledger; the other side is impact. The way that Zionism has been carried out has resulted in the oppression of another people, the Palestinians, who were already living in the chosen territory. This is the part that I had to learn for myself as an adult, the part that is considered controversial—and in my view, unjustifiably so.

It is often said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is immensely complex. And yes, the history is full of twists and turns and competing narratives. However, I believe that this aspect of it, the most important aspect, is very simple.

Here I have to mention that my backing for this claim is by no means comprehensive, even with respect to what I know, let alone with respect to what I don’t know, which is plenty. Nor am I attempting to solve the conflict, or identify conclusively who is responsible for what. I’m a hopeless history nerd, and I’d love nothing more than to dive in deep. But the history is a distraction from the point that needs making in this moment. All I’m doing is laying some breadcrumbs down behind me as I go, on the off chance that it helps someone else find their way.

I also know that when it comes to this topic, for every argument there is always a ready counterargument. In fact, that’s why I am not waiting to write this until I am 100% sure about everything. That day may never come. Instead, I welcome disagreement and pushback, not from a desire to convince anyone of anything, but because that is how I learn best. I’ve seen what happens when people and institutions shy away from difficult and uncomfortable subjects, and I’m determined not to repeat that pattern.

The specific problem with tracing the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the thing that makes it such a mess to wade into and such a distraction from the question of Palestinian oppression, is that everything you look at is a retaliation for something that came before. As Trevor Noah said, depending on where you draw your frame around the story, you will see an entirely different picture.

At some point, you have to toss out the history and reckon with the facts on the ground.

It is a fact that Israel exists, and its people deserve to not have to live in fear from rocket attacks. They deserve justice for these attacks, not simply revenge.

It is a fact that the Palestinians in Gaza should also not have to fear for their lives from bombings, when there is nowhere in the territory for them to go that they know is safe, and when they are not allowed to leave it. They also deserve justice. And medical care, and clean water, and reliable electricity…

It is a fact that the Palestinians who live in the West Bank, which is de-facto controlled by Israel and contains growing Jewish settlements that most experts consider a violation of international law, “lack citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives.”

It is a fact that the looming expulsions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, a key trigger of the current violence, are occurring in the context of a serious inequality written into Israeli law: that Jews who fled or were expelled from East Jerusalem in 1948 can sue to reclaim their land, but Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel at the same time cannot.

And it is a fact that as the land that would become part of the promised and long-worked-for Palestinian state is settled by Jews (and perhaps annexed by Israel), Palestinians veer closer to becoming a permanently occupied refugee people.

In the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I believe that; and as a member of a people who have suffered an extreme amount of injustice throughout their history, this goes doubly for us. Justice for Jews — the ability to be safe and to live our lives free from fear — has been a tenuous thing, when it has existed at all.

Even if I didn’t oppose the injustice perpetrated against Palestinians on its face — which I do — I would oppose it on the grounds of my Judaism. Not only do we know firsthand the horrors of oppression, we have built the call for justice into the core of our religious and cultural value system, in the commandments to repair the world, to love the stranger as ourselves, and to regard the sanctity of life as paramount. By turning our backs on these values in an effort to secure safety for ourselves, it will be a hollow safety, and it will always be precarious. If we American Jews refuse to look injustice in the eye when it appears anywhere, even — especially — when it appears close to home, there can be no safety from it for us.

Supporting justice for Palestinians is not a rejection of the existence of the state of Israel, or even of its existence as a state that is a home for the Jewish people. It merely asserts that the existence of this state, and the safety of the Jews who live there, does not in any way require a denial of Palestinians’ basic human rights.

We have to find another way.

Pirkei Avot 2:16. Source: Jewish Boston

If you’d like to hear more from me, I’m conducting weekly five-minute journeys down the twisting railways of my mind. Via email, of course: https://buttondown.email/aaronjacobwolfson