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Challenging Ourselves
on Israel and Palestine

Dennis Fox

April 30, 2002

Israel's incursion into Palestinian territory makes it more urgent than ever to terminate US support for Israeli domination of the West Bank and Gaza. Even many of Israel's long-time supporters now understand that, to provide justice to Palestinians -- and also to salvage democracy and morality within the Jewish State itself -- the thirty-five-year occupation must end.

As we proceed, however, peace and justice activists confront three overlapping challenges.

First, we should know what we're talking about. Interactions at recent rallies between demonstrators and counterdemonstrators make it clear that we don't always do our homework. Like those who confront us, too often we overgeneralize, present inadequate views of history, fail to acknowledge the range of perspectives and motives on both sides. Sometimes we pass along easily disproved or impossible-to-verify exaggerations. Repeatedly, we confuse slogans for arguments.

One example is our tepid response to the Palestine Authority's instant assertion that Israeli forces in Jenin massacred 500 Palestinians. The plausible evidence is horrendous enough: some Israeli troops beat captured Palestinians and used others as human shields; blocked ambulances on flimsy pretexts; vandalized homes and offices; shot noncombatants, or humiliated them to teach them a lesson; and imposed on innocent civilians massive destruction and collective punishment. To all this and more, we object.

But disseminating dubious claims of a large-scale massacre hurts our credibility.

Similarly harmful is comparing Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany. The extermination of millions of Jews and others -- systematic, totalistic, bureaucratic, scientific -- may not be unique, but calling every atrocity Nazi-like demonstrates either a weak grasp of history or a calculated misuse of it.

Jews opposed to Israel's war crimes -- our numbers grow, despite the mainstream media's determination to ignore us -- are often moved by the welcome we receive from appreciative Palestinians; they should not have had to wait so long for our presence. But many Jews won't march behind banners that equate the Star of David and the Nazi swastika. If those banners disappeared, along with the superficiality that inspires them, there might be more of us.

A third example: We're appalled when some Israelis propose "transferring" all Palestinians out of Occupied Territories. We should be equally appalled when Hamas reiterates its intention to expel from Israel all who reject the Islamic rule it intends to impose.

Our second challenge is to communicate more effectively with our opponents. It's easy to list facts justifying our position. It's harder to respond substantively to the other side's list, to struggle with their best arguments rather than simply shrug off their worst. Applying principles evenhandedly, we should be ready to respond when those on the other side ask, as they always do, "What's your solution?"

Talking with those we oppose is difficult. Even when it works, it only takes us so far, because mutual understanding doesn't solve every problem.

But mutual understanding can help identify differing interests and values. Only then can we finally grapple with how to satisfy the legitimate needs of ordinary people on both sides. Any solution must take into account historic oppression and hostility, unequal access to power, and factors as varied as the role of oil and corporate profit and the contentious distinction between legitimate resistance to occupation and terrorist attacks on uninvolved civilians.

Under the right circumstances, communication also reveals diversity. When interaction humanizes both Jews and Arabs, it becomes harder to believe dangerous stereotypes perpetuated by those who seek supremacy rather than resolution.

Our third challenge is to respond with more than lip service to the spread of anti-Semitism. We rightly expect Jews of conscience to oppose Israeli aggression, just as we oppose the US government's post-September 11th assault on Muslim civil liberties. But we should also expect Palestinians and their supporters to reject those who blame, not Israel, but "the Jews."

Some Arab governments continue to use inflammatory language and disseminate anti-Semitic literature. Synagogue arsons, beatings, and other anti-Jewish incidents escalate throughout Europe. Hate groups in the US use the Palestinian cause to incite violence against Jews.

Despite claims to the contrary by mainstream Jewish organizations, every criticism of Israeli policy is not generated by anti-Semitism. But let's not make the opposite mistake. Sometimes the perception of Jew-hatred is right on target.

So let's drop the slogans. Let's communicate more effectively. And let's unite behind the understanding that justice and liberation, democracy and safety, can only come about if they come to all of us, together.

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