A recent guest column in the Chapel Hill News, prompted by the visit to Chapel Hill Town Council of an Israeli legislative delegation, concluded with an acknowledgment that there are Jewish groups both the United States and Israel which are committed to bringing about peace and justice for Palestinians. Unfortunately, the tortured path the columnist took to arrive at that conclusion is a lesson in how not to advance those goals.
In blogging on this, I’m not interested in refuting the piece point-by-point (I’m sure others will), but in making two observations about the worldview that informs the thinking of the columnist (a beloved North Carolina politician and a giant in several progressive causes).
First, the author fails to acknowledge any complexity in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. A common error I’ve noticed when speaking to people to my left on this issue is to place all of the blame on Israel. After rightly identifying the power gradient as favoring Israel (of this there is no doubt), they leap to make the mistake of equating less power with no power.
Why is this a problem? Because, robbed of all agency, Palestinians (as they exist in the minds of these observers) bear no responsibility for their actions. The consequences of this line of reasoning are a double-standard that is, frankly, insulting to the Palestinian people. In this case the columnist writes that “Palestinians have only stones, and now knives, to express their frustration and anger.” Excusing the premeditated murder of civilians as a mere “expression of frustration and anger” is itself inexcusable.
The second error in this column and others like it is no less disturbing. In explaining why Israel ought to be held to a higher standard than other nations (whose legislative delegations might visit and learn from the Chapel Hill Town Council without facing protest), the columnist suggests that it may be “because of our close ties to those we love in Israel and our high expectations for them because of their own horrendous suffering in the Holocaust.” I am sure I am not the only Jew who read those words and shook, or wept.
To be clear: many Israeli Jews, like Jews more generally, do draw upon their experience or their ancestors’ as victims and survivors of brutality to cultivate empathy with the Other. Indeed, we are commanded to do so: “Know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Others, informed by the deep trauma of the Holocaust, learn a lesson that goes something like “the world doesn’t have our backs, so we’d better take care of ourselves in the face of those who seek our destruction.” I think most Jews have probably internalized both of those lessons, and live with the tension and dissonance it creates.
It is easy to exalt the former lesson and critique the latter from outside, comfortably perched in a liberal, academic milieu. It is also victim-blaming of the first degree, and many of the people who engage in it would find it an intolerable position if they saw it applied to other historically oppressed groups. To hold Israel to higher moral standard precisely because of the way her people were brutalized is every bit as shameful as holding the Palestinian people to a lower one.
When a just peace is established between the people of Israel and Palestine, it will not be because of columns like these, but in spite of them.