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The American Jewish Cocoon

Moshe Milner/Israeli Government Press Office
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Steny Hoyer and other Democrats from the US House of Representatives, Jerusalem, August 6, 2013

Speak to American Jews long enough about Israel and you begin to notice something. The conversation may begin with Israel, but it rarely ends there. It usually ends with “them.”

Express concern about Israeli subsidies for West Bank settlements and you’ll be told that the settlements don’t matter because “they” won’t accept Israel within any borders. Cite the recent warning by former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin that “over the past 10–15 years Israel has become more and more racist” and you’ll be told that whatever Israel’s imperfections, it is “they” who teach their children to hate and kill. Mention that former prime minister Ehud Olmert has called Mahmoud Abbas a partner for peace and you’ll be told that what “they” say in Arabic is different from what they say in English.

This spring I watched the documentary The Gatekeepers—in which six former heads of Shin Bet sharply criticize Israeli policy in the West Bank—with a mostly Jewish audience in New York. Afterward a man acknowledged that it was an interesting film. Then he asked why “they” don’t criticize their side like Israelis do.

I used to try, clumsily, to answer the assertions about Palestinians that so often consume the American Jewish conversation about Israel. But increasingly I give a terser reply: “Ask them.” That usually ends the conversation because in mainstream American Jewish circles, asking Palestinians to respond to the endless assertions that American Jews make about them is extremely rare. For the most part, Palestinians do not speak in American synagogues or write in the Jewish press. The organization Birthright, which since 1999 has taken almost 350,000 young Diaspora Jews—mostly Americans—to visit Israel, does not venture to Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank. Of the more than two hundred advertised speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference, two were Palestinians. By American Jewish standards, that’s high. The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum earlier this year, which advertised sixty-four speakers, did not include a single Palestinian.

Ask American Jewish organizations why they so rarely invite Palestinian speakers and you’ll likely be told that they have nothing against Palestinians per se. They just can’t give a platform to Israel’s enemies. In 2010, Hillel, the organization that oversees Jewish life on America’s college campuses, issued guidelines urging local chapters not to host speakers who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

Those standards make it almost impossible for Jewish campus organizations to invite a Palestinian speaker. First, “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard” is so vague that it could bar virtually any Palestinian (or, for that matter, non-Palestinian) critic of Israeli policy. Even supporting a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines would violate the “secure” borders standard, according to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Second, even moderate Palestinians like former prime minister Salam Fayyad, a favorite of America and Israel, support boycotting goods produced in the settlements. Third, the deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament, Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli citizen, has publicly proposed turning Israel from a Jewish state into one with no religious identity. He presides over sessions of the Knesset but, according to Hillel’s guidelines, couldn’t address an American Jewish group on a college campus.

Guidelines like Hillel’s—which codify the de facto restrictions that exist in many establishment American Jewish groups—make the organized American Jewish community a closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control. And the result is that American Jewish leaders, even those who harbor no animosity toward Palestinians, know little about the reality of their lives.

In 2010, for instance, an interviewer asked Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, about nonviolent Palestinian protesters convicted by military courts in the West Bank. It was an important question. While Jewish settlers are Israeli citizens and therefore enjoy the due process afforded by Israel’s civilian courts, West Bank Palestinians are noncitizens and thus fall under the jurisdiction of military courts in which, according to a 2011 investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, more than 99 percent of cases end in conviction. Foxman, who leads an organization that according to its website “defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all,” replied, “I’m not an expert on the judicial system and I don’t intend to be.”

That same year, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel bought ads in major American newspapers in which he declared that in Jerusalem, “for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines.” Sadly, that statement is false. Compared to many of the regimes that ruled Jerusalem in the past, Israel is, indeed, tolerant. But a few months after Wiesel’s ad appeared, the State Department’s Religious Freedom Report noted that

the government of Israel continued to apply travel restrictions…that significantly impeded freedom of access to places of worship in the West Bank and Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians.

It also noted that “Israel’s permitting regime generally restricted most West Bank Muslims from accessing the Haram al-Sharif,” Jerusalem’s foremost Islamic holy site.

It’s a good bet that Foxman and Wiesel have each traveled to Israel dozens of times. They’ve likely known every Israeli prime minister in recent memory. They’ve probably even repeatedly met Palestinian leaders.

Moreover, during their careers, each has issued eloquent calls for human rights. Yet judging by their statements, they don’t know the degree to which Palestinians are denied those rights in the West Bank. They are unfamiliar with the realities of ordinary Palestinian life because they live inside the cocoon the organized American Jewish community has built for itself. Their statements reflect a truth that one particularly honest American Jewish leader acknowledged after meeting with West Bank Palestinians on a trip organized by the indispensable nonprofit group Encounter. “After one day of your trip, I felt like I had never been to Israel before,” admitted the Jewish leader, “and I am considered a professional Israel expert who travels to Israel several times a year.”

Unfortunately, such revelations are rare. There’s not much data on American Jewish knowledge of—as opposed to attitudes about—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what there is suggests that Foxman and Wiesel are typical. In 1989, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen asked American Jews if “Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis generally go to the same schools.” Only one third of respondents knew the answer was no. In a 2012 poll by the Arab American Institute, two thirds of American Jews said they wanted Jerusalem to remain Israel’s undivided capital. But when asked about Ras al-Amud and Silwan, two of the Palestinian neighborhoods that would be divided from the rest of Jerusalem to create a Palestinian capital, between two thirds and three quarters of American Jews either said they were unimportant or admitted to not knowing where they were.

If one consequence of this isolation from Palestinians is a lack of information, the other is a lack of empathy. Because most American Jewish leaders have never seen someone denied the right to visit a family member because they lack the right permit, or visited a military court, or seen a Palestinian village scheduled for demolition because it lacks building permits that are almost impossible for Palestinians to get, it is easy for them to minimize the human toll of living, for forty-six years, without the basic rights that your Jewish neighbors take for granted. In much of the West Bank, for example, it is illegal for ten or more Palestinians to assemble for any “political” purpose without a military permit.

A booklet prepared by the Los Angeles–based pro-Israel group Stand With Us declares that “every city in the West Bank has a pool or recreation complex and Ramallah has more than ten”—alongside a photo of Palestinian children splashing in a water park. Readers would never know that, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, West Bank Palestinians consume only seventy-three liters of water per day, less than the hundred-liter minimum recommended by the World Health Organization, and less than one third as much as their Israeli counterparts.

At least Stand With Us only minimizes Palestinian suffering. At times, American Jews actively mock it. In 2002, during the brutal second intifada, then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz told a large pro-Israel rally on the National Mall in Washington that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well” as Israelis. By the time Wolfowitz spoke, according to Defense of Children International, the intifada had already claimed the lives of more than two hundred Palestinian children. Yet when Wolfowitz mentioned Palestinian suffering, some in the crowd began to boo.

This lack of familiarity with Palestinian life also inclines many in the organized American Jewish world to assume that Palestinian anger toward Israel must be a product solely of Palestinian pathology. Rare is the American Jewish discussion of Israel that does not include some reference to the textbooks and television programs that “teach Palestinians to hate.” These charges have some merit. Palestinian schools and media do traffic in anti-Semitism and promote violence. Still, what’s often glaringly absent from the American Jewish discussion of Palestinian hatred is any recognition that some of it might stem not from what Palestinians read or hear about the Jewish state, but from the way they interact with it in their daily lives.

Palestinian anger does not justify Palestinian violence. It certainly does not justify the grotesque attacks on Israeli civilians committed by Hamas and other terrorist groups. But as Israel’s own top security officials have noted, stopping Palestinian terrorism requires understanding it. And attributing it entirely to textbooks and television programs, as American Jewish groups often do, doesn’t accomplish that.

A database of Palestinian suicide bombers, compiled by former Radford University economist Basel Saleh, found that “personal grievances [against Israel] have a considerable weight in motivating attacks.” In 2003, in these pages, Avishai Margalit, a leading Israeli philosopher, made a similar point, noting that “the main motivating force for the suicide bombers seems to be the desire for spectacular revenge.”1 Eyad El Sarraj, founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, in 2002 pointed out that “the people who are committing the suicide bombings are the children of the first intifada—people who witnessed so much trauma as children.”

By walling themselves off from Palestinians, American Jews fail to understand the very behavior they seek to prevent. This intellectual isolation also keeps the American Jewish mainstream from comprehending another phenomenon it deeply fears: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The American Jewish establishment generally attributes the support for BDS among various academic, professional, and Christian organizations to resurgent anti-Semitism. “Sixty years after the Holocaust,” declared Foxman in 2009, “we are watching one layer after another of the constraints against anti-Semitism, which arose as a result of the murder of six million, being peeled away.” In this anti-Semitic resurgence, the BDS movement, which Foxman has declared “at its very core is anti-Semitic,” is exhibit A.

  1. 1

    The Suicide Bombers,” The New York Review, January 16, 2003. 

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