Imagine that a well-known American journalist publishes a book entitled, “Saving Israel.” His thesis: Israel must hold on to Judea and Samaria. He notes that Israel is the only country in the world dedicated to providing a safe haven for Jews and the only true democracy in the Middle East. He points out that Arabs living in Judea and Samaria, or “Palestinians,” are among the most prosperous in the Middle East. He further argues that to give up the land that others refer to as the “West Bank” would abolish critical strategic depth and, besides, there is no one to negotiate with on the other side.
Now imagine that Jewish newspapers and organizations quickly condemn this writer on four levels. First, he is naïve and ill-informed, they say. Jews are safer in many countries in the world than in Israel, and the majority of the Jews in the diaspora appear to have no interest in immigrating to Israel anyway. Second, whereas Israel has repeatedly stated that it is ready to negotiate and even to accept a two-state solution, the growth of settlements in the contested region has continued almost unabated for 40 years. Third, the book is completely lacking in balance we are told. Nowhere does the author comment on Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes, Israeli incursions into Lebanon and Gaza, or the flaunting of international law or of the great majority of world opinion. And fourth, we are told that those of us who live in the United States have no right to impose our opinions on Israelis — they must decide for themselves. These commentators go on to describe the economic and political cost of the occupation to Israel, as well as the friction it is creating between Israel and much of the developed world.
Sound familiar? No, not really. Accusations of naiveté, lack of balance, and the inappropriateness of imposing our opinions on Israel are limited to those attacking the liberal side of the argument — the side of the Beinarts and of J Street. Supporters of the positions of the current Israeli government are given a free ride. Why is this?
We Jews are among the most liberal citizens of the United States. We have long been at the forefront of progressive movements in areas of civil rights and social programs for the underserved. When there is a catastrophe in New Orleans, Haiti or Japan, we line up to give our blood and send our money. And when we perceive injustice in China, Syria, Eastern Europe or South Africa we speak out. We protest, sign petitions, and contribute funds. No one says, “Wait — you don’t know the whole story, you have not been even-handed, you cannot make decisions for others!”
Yet, when the issues involve Israel, we circle the wagons and allow no criticism.
This behavior may be understandable. We have suffered greatly as a people over many centuries. More than once trust we had in others proved to be misplaced, whereas our allegiance to each other has allowed us to survive. Understandable, but wrongheaded. To adopt two sets of principles — one for Israel and one for the rest of the world — gives the lie to both. But even more importantly, if we as Jews cannot consider — publically — that the Israeli government policy of continued occupation and extending settlements in the West Bank may in fact be endangering the very values and homeland we seek to protect, we are doing Israel and world Jewry a grave disservice.
There is no question that Palestinians have played a role in the impasse that Israel now faces. Many have proclaimed a wish to destroy Israel, suicide bombers and missiles have been sent into Israel, innocent Israelis have been killed, opportunities for negotiation have been rejected. But this side of the equation is expressed regularly by major Jewish organizations in editorials in Jewish newspapers. Indeed, it is the standard focus of all our mainstream media.
Now it is time for us all to be honest, to admit that Israeli wrongdoing is a central part of the equation. Moreover, it is time to recognize that our unwillingness to protest the unjust policies of the Israeli government has made us all accomplices in a process that will eventually lead to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. When we do our shopping, we can make a conscious effort to buy products made within the internationally recognized borders of Israel (the “green line”) and avoid products for the seder table produced in the settlements.
This simple choice, if adopted by many of us in the Jewish community, will begin to send a clear message to the Israeli government: We wish to save Israel — not the settlements and not the Occupation.
(Michael Zigmond is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a founder of the Middle East Peace Forum. He and his wife, Naomi, have resided in Squirrel Hill for 40 years and have a daughter who lives with her family on a kibbutz in Israel.)