On Israel, Palestine, Problematic Democracy, and the Alignment of the Modern Academic Social Justice Community with the Free Palestine Movement

I keep getting asked how I feel about Israel and Palestine. Here we go.

There are three questions that inform my opinion (which, disclaimer, is more of a critique of everyone else’s opinions):

  • What is the minimum guaranteed responsibility of a democracy towards those who live within its borders?
  • Who has the right to self-defense and when?
  • How does the way we identify in a conflict - e.g. #IStandwithIsrael vs. #IStandWithPalestine - reconstruct the reality of that conflict? 

On #IStandWithIsrael 

The primary problematic in Israel’s rationalization of its actions is the double standard it employs with regards to those within its borders. Israel simultaneously thrives on its status as a first-world democracy, validated by its tight-knit ties to the US, and yet is more than flexible with its responsibilities as a democracy. The percent of the voting age population in Israel that can legally vote in Israeli elections is extremely low:

7,659,000 people living in Israeli territory have voting rights, while 2,128,115 people have no voting rights. Altogether, one in every 4.5 people is denied political representation; this one person is almost always Palestinian. If Gaza is included, the number of unrepresented climbs to 3,820,372, or roughly one in every three people.

To be clear - these individuals are not Israeli citizens, and do not seek affiliation with Israel. While Israel has no responsibility towards those who are not citizens, it still exercises governmental force and maintains a clear monopoly on the legitimate use of force over these lands and people.

Israel controls the central banks, the currency, mobility, and borders. During summer 2012, I traveled through West Bank on Israeli-only superhighways and IDF operated checkpoints, and I witnessed Palestinian economic devastation as a result of restricted movement and commerce. My safe passage was guaranteed by my Jewish name and Israeli passport stamp, and I received medical attention for a wound infection in East Jerusalem, entry to which is more often than not denied to Palestinians vis-à-vis permit and checkpoint restrictions. Medical attention, education, and centers of religious and cultural life, available only in urban hubs like Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and East Jerusalem, are largely denied to Palestinians to the West and South.

Israel also controls water distribution in the West Bank, issues (and too often withholds) housing, construction, and other permits, and has the right to search and seizure of individuals and their property. Israel continues its creation of - supposedly unauthorized - settlements in the West Bank. No country can profess to be a democracy - certainly not a liberal democracy - while exerting authority over those who do not get to be a part of the two most basic aspects of democratic society: contestation and participation. Palestinians do not have the privileges and protections of Israeli citizenship, yet Israel exerts authority over their lands and their lives.

Areas A, B, and C in West Bank. From Rabbi Brant Rosen.

Israel, like any other sovereign state, has the right and responsibility to respond with force to security concerns. It is undeniable that Hamas has presented a security threat to Israel, both in its actions and its charter - which states:

The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. - Article 7 of the Universality of the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Really fascinating side note and shimmering tu quoque: Article 20 of the Hamas charter states: 

In their Nazi treatment, the Jews made no exception for women or children. Their policy of striking fear in the heart is meant for all. They attack people where their breadwinning is concerned, extorting their money and threatening their honor. They deal with people as if they were the worst war criminals. Deportation from the homeland is a kind of murder.

Israel bore a terrible cost in human lives during the second intifada, and has every right to respond to terroristic attacks on their civilian population. However, it is not correct to categorize every Israeli action as a response to a security threat. Many Israeli actions, be they overt or tacit (i.e. settlements: officially unauthorized but occur regularly without retribution), particularly, increasing outposts in West Bank, have no logical connection to state security. It is my belief that these actions or allowed actions, including limiting the land that Palestinians can live and develop on (despite being categorized as Area C - land that is supposedly allocated as part of future Palestine), expose Israel to greater threat by provoking insurgency, within and outside of the Green Line. While many conservative arguments revolve around the potential insecurity that certain two state solutions would yield for Israel, it’s more likely that Israeli settlements instigate greater threat of terrorist attacks.

There is also a double standard in the pro-Israel/US government treatment of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. On March 12, Hillary Clinton spoke to the United Nations Security Council regarding these conflicts. Speaking to violence in Syria, Clinton stated,

Now the United States believes firmly in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all member-states, but we do not believe that sovereignty demands that this council stand silent when governments massacre their own people, threatening regional peace and security in the process. And we reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government’s military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defense.

Her statement tolerates (and seems to encourage) resistance and reasonable self-defense from Syrian civilians against their government. But with regards to Palestinians, Clinton struck a very different tone: 

President Obama and I have been consistent in our belief that the Palestinian people—like their Arab neighbors, Israelis, and all people—deserve dignity, liberty, and the right to decide their own futures... And we know from decades in the diplomatic trenches that the only way to get there is through a negotiated peace—one that cannot be dictated from outside and one we will continue to pursue through every productive avenue... And let me also condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel which continued over the weekend. We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these attacks.

US and Israel’s aggressive insistence on Israel’s right to self-defense, alongside its consistent condemnation of Palestinian resistance, is unflattering when compared to our support of self-defense and resistance against oppressive governments with which the US is not allied.

On #IStandWithPalestine

Equally problematic is the alignment between modern progressivism/the liberal academic social justice community and the free Palestine movement. There can be no mistake that Hamas is a despicable organization that uses terrorist tactics and offers the lives of innocent Palestinians as fodder for its propaganda. 

Rhetoric of victimhood and oppression, that constructs Israel as the western oppressor and all Palestinians as the victim of cultural and political subjugation, simplifies and abstracts beyond any useful meaning. First, Hamas is equally, if not more, culpable for demonstrating an obvious lack of regard for the value of Palestinians lives - evident by the use of child labor to construct tunnels and using UN peace zones like schools and food distribution sites to hide weapons (Qualification: I am deliberately excluding any claim of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields. However, it would be willfully ignorant to believe that Hamas does not understand, and therefore employ, the effect that media coverage of the murder of Palestinians has on popular sympathy. Equally, while it's reasonable to believe that the IDF does give warning before firing on an area, it's unreasonable to assume that Gazans, in particular, have anywhere to go. Density is extreme, mobility is limited, there are no bomb shelters, warning sirens, or refugee camps). 

Constructing a narrative of Israeli oppression while ignoring the blatant oppression, disregard for the lives of innocents, and clear violations of human rights from Hamas, negates any and all good intent to alleviate the pain inflicted on those people. A true humanitarian assessment has the responsibility of highlighting the value of human lives and exposing their suffering. It seems that the liberal academic social justice community has aligned with Palestinian civilians with every good intention to do just this: expose their very real maltreatment and torment. However, constructing a narrative that obligates Israel to all of this suffering, oppression, and violence, simultaneously perpetuates the cycle of misunderstanding and liberates Hamas of their reprehensible culpability.

Of course, it’s not textured enough to say that Hamas is purely evil and dastardly. While I intuitively feel that way, I also don’t profess to understand the responsibility or even possibility of government in conditions like Palestine. It’s also a poor indicator of our media and education that Hamas is so regularly referred to as a terrorist organization without any nuance. For one, terrorism is a political strategy and an act, not a person or group (although yes, Hamas obviously employs terrorism). The only thing that ever makes any violence not terrorism is political legitimacy, which Israel has and Hamas does not. This difference is not just semantic. 

Individuals and world leaders alike have raced to assail Hamas as terrorist, barbaric, savage, primitive, and to rhetorically lump Hamas in a melting pot of other Middle Eastern FTOs, to the aim of solidifying the Israeli, Jewish, and Western moral high-ground. Netanyahu called Hamas and ISIS leadership, "branches of the same tree." A really smart HuffPo piece by Joshua Fattal states,

With these words [connecting ISIS's beheading of James Foley to Hamas's attacks on Israel], Netanyahu indicated that he intends to ignore Hamas's nationalist motivations completely, and view their actions solely in the context of a stark and age-old binary between good and evil. The result is a tragic universalizing not only of the war between Israel and Hamas, but also potentially of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict as a whole.

Fattal goes on to describe how these simplifications and dichotomies - terrorists vs. respected nations, savages vs. the civilized - dangerously blur the meaningful differences between the global jihad that ISIS and other FTOs have declared and launched primarily against the US, and the localized, nationalistic attacks from Hamas against Israelis. Abstracting Hamas to the cloud of global terrorism and jihad renders negotiations unlikely, dehumanizes the Palestinians whose motivations are primarily geographic and nationalistic, and entices the US to engage in a conflict for which to do so is morally and practically inappropriate.

To start to bring this home, I’m also irked by the statistic that seems to have grabbed hold through trendy infographics attached to gory videos (many which may actually come from Syria), citing the disproportionate number of Israeli deaths compared to Palestinian deaths. First, it implies that proportionality or raw number of deaths is any indication of justness in a conflict. It is tragic that Palestinians have been killed. It is tragic that Israelis have been killed. An imbalance of power is indisputable, as Jewish Voice for Peace (a pro peace and anti Jewish-occupation non-profit) reminds us

This is an assault by one of the most advanced militaries in the world with the full backing, and weaponry, of the U.S., the sole world super power. By every measure, including fatalities, fatalities of civilians, injuries, and destruction of infrastructure, the disproportionate impact on Gaza is clear.

The asymmetry of power argument unreasonably implies that Israel would be more just in its cause if Israelis were armed, supported and dying proportionally to Palestinians.

Second, Israel cannot be at fault for investing in and employing its Iron Dome (which, by the way, also protects a few Palestinians). Hamas, however, can and should be at fault for diverting resources away from local defense and towards undeniable evils like child labor to construct tunnels. The only legitimate complaint with regards to the numbers of fatalities at the hand of the IDF would be if there was a reason to believe Israel failed to use all possible minimization procedures to protect Palestinian non-combatants: a separate issue, one that I clearly find convincing (as I stated, I take issue with the magnitude of Israel’s response to its own security concerns). Moreover, Hamas’s willingness to use Palestinians as human shields and otherwise expose them to danger by deliberately storing arms in civilian locations exposes the reality of these disproportionate figures. A final comment on the fixation on numbers: the meaningful disparity in death tolls is between Israel, Gaza, and Syria. The number of Israeli deaths in double digits, deaths in Gaza are just under 2000, and Syria is pushing 200,000.

On Racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism:

I regularly get criticized for pointing out that anti-Semitism exists, so I’d like a quick second to clarify my intentions. I only feel the need to remind the world that anti-Semitism exists, because, to me, it’s the less obvious evil. What I mean is, racism and Islamophobia are so painfully obvious and clear and abundant and everywhere. Sometimes, especially in New York City and in academia/intellectual circles, anti-Semitism is less obvious, because Jews and Israelis have more representation in those circles than they do globally. People who feel that Jewish insecurity (the perception of anti-Semitism or threats against Israel) is silly for any number of reasons, probably falls into these categories:

  1. Lives in America, because Jews in America experience meaningful religious freedoms and protections
  2. More specifically, lives in NYC or some other liberal city, because Jewish and Israeli and Zionist sentiment are very well represented, Jews have extremely strong and visible communities and ties to social and political institutions, and as a result of these strong ties are often very successful (read: privileged, if you’d like) re: education, income, etc.
  3. Was educated at elite institutions: same as above.
  4. Has a lot of media sources that are Jewish and Israeli sympathetic, which probably comes with the territory above 

In sum, when I point out that anti-Semitism exists, which it does, it’s an attempt to rationalize the insecurity that Jews, in Israel, America, and everywhere else feel and talk about, although is may be less immediately evident then racism and Islamophobia. Hamas is evidence that extreme anti-Semitism exists. Europe is evidence that extreme anti-Semitism exists. Dialogues that insinuate that Jews and Israelis perpetuate discrimination without experiencing it are categorically false, and are informed by limited exposure to a very specific and privileged Jewish community.

On the note of Jewish privilege, it is also relevant to point out that Jews too experience racism. While most American Jews are white or Ashkenazic (more Western and European ancestry), a majority of Jews in Israel (and a high percentage around the world) are Saphardic/Mizrachim (more Eastern or Arab ancestry) and non-white.  

On #IStandWithIsrael and #IStandWithPalestine

The real issue is that these inherently divisive agendas: #PrayforIsrael vs. #PrayforPalestine, #FreeIsrael vs. #FreeGaza, #IStandWithIsrael vs. #BoycottIsrael, are not just describing the conflict, they are perpetuating it. How we define ourselves and our opinions does not just inform the information we put out; it determines the information that we receive. Gilad Lotan brilliantly traces how in this conflict, social media preferences - expressed through links viewed, likes, comments, shares, and other interactions - teach our sources of information about what type of information we’d like to receive - personalizing - in Lotan’s words - our propaganda, and bolstering our information silos. He says,

A healthy democracy is contingent on having a healthy media ecosystem. As builders of these online networked spaces, how do we make sure we are optimizing not only for traffic and engagement, but also an informed public?
The underlying algorithmics powering this recommendation engine help reinforce our values and bake more of the same voices into our information streams.

While I can't come down on either side (except, again Hamas), I can distrust anyone who isn’t frustrated by the lack of nuanced dialogue and analysis, and who doesn’t actively seek a balanced and democratic media environment. I am equally dubious of anyone who identifies as pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, because logically and statistically, they are most likely limiting their own information sources, which is different from regular old bias. It’s bias on algorithmic steroids.

Tl;dr:

I believe in a two-state solution. I adamantly and urgently support a free and independent Palestine, with land returned in the West Bank accounting for the past decade of illicit settlements. I am in favor of a more liberally democratic and independent Jewish state of Israel, with a right to self-defense and alliance with the United States. I believe that Israel currently fails to provide a sufficient democratic standard of protections and privileges to those within its borders over whom it exerts deterministic control. I do not in any way support Hamas, and I do not believe that Israel or global Judaism can ever be secure so long as they exist and are supported by other groups in the Middle East.

Hamas is part or most of the problem, but they must be a part of the solution. Cease-fires brokered by an Egypt military dictatorship and Israel are inherently threatening to Hamas, and I'm inclined to agree with Noam Chomsky that the U.S. is the only actor that can alter the cease-fire cycle:

Well, for Israel, with U.S. backing, the current situation is a kind of a win-win situation. If Hamas agrees to extend the ceasefire, Israel can continue with its regular policies, which I described before: taking over what they want in the West Bank, separating it from Gaza, keeping the diet and so on. If Hamas doesn’t accept the ceasefire, Netanyahu can make another speech like the one you—the cynical speech you quoted earlier. The only thing that can break this is if the U.S. changes its policies, as has happened in other cases. I mentioned two: South Africa, Timor. There’s others. And that’s decisive. If there’s going to be a change, it will crucially depend on a change in U.S. policy here.

The timeliness of the disintegration of Syria provides the frightening opportunity for the incubation and catalysis of extremist and anti-Semitic thought and action. The lack of nuanced dialogue and analysis on both sides of the debate, particularly from otherwise progressive and critical thinking American students, is disappointing, matched by a willful ignorance among U.S. policy-makers. Israel is winning a combat war; Hamas is winning a rhetorical war; Palestinian non-combatants are losing.


These are all my thoughts. They are all a work in progress. I made my best effort to cite and reference where it was due. Email me for further information about my sources, evidence, opinions, anything I missed (of which there is plenty, I'm sure), etc. I'm always happy to be argued with and fact-checked.