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The American Jewish Cocoon

Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
The separation wall at Aida refugee camp on the West Bank; photograph by Josef Koudelka from Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscape, 2008–2012, which collects his panoramic images from East Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other sites along the separation wall. The book will be published by Aperture in October.

There are anti-Semites in the BDS movement, something my blog, Open Zion, has aggressively exposed. More generally, the movement is based on a dangerous and inaccurate analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa, an analogy that leads many BDS activists to oppose the two-state solution in favor of a single “secular, binational” state that would, in reality, probably mean civil war between Jews and Palestinians. But what American Jewish leaders like Foxman don’t understand about BDS is that what fuels it is often interactions with Palestinians living under Israeli control. American Jewish leaders don’t understand the power of such interactions because they rarely have them themselves.

When mainline Protestant delegations visit Israel, for instance, they are far more likely than their Jewish counterparts to visit Palestinians in the West Bank. Indeed, many Christian organizations maintain offices across the Green Line, something most American Jewish groups do not. That gives them an appreciation of Palestinian suffering that American Jews generally lack. Asked about the United Methodist Church’s proposal to end investments in companies that help Israel control the West Bank (a proposal the Methodists ultimately voted down), Mark Harrison, director of the church’s Peace with Justice Program, explains, “What we saw on the ground is what pushed us in this direction.”

Similarly, it was appeals from Palestinian academics—some of whom he had met on a trip to Birzeit University near Ramallah—that led Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist, to decline to attend a conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres in May. The BDS movement is growing not only because Israel is often judged by an unfair double standard but because of interactions between Palestinians and people around the world who are sympathetic to their cause. The American Jewish community is hamstrung in its ability to respond by its own lack of experience with Palestinian life under Israeli control.

If this isolation from Palestinians were confined to American Jewry, it would be bad enough. But to a striking degree, the same insularity characterizes debate about Israel in Washington. In part that’s because of the weakness of Palestinian and Arab-American groups. And in part it’s because of the effectiveness of the American Jewish establishment. Since 2000, according to the website LegiStorm, members of Congress and their staffs have visited Israel more than one thousand times. That’s almost twice the number of visits to any other foreign country. Roughly three quarters of those trips were sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), AIPAC’s nonprofit arm. And many of the rest were sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, local Jewish Community Relations Councils, local Jewish Federations, and other mainstream Jewish groups. During the summer of 2011 alone, AIEF took 20 percent of House members—and almost half the Republican freshman class—to the Jewish state. Since 2000, the foundation has taken House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer or his staffers to Israel nine times and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor or his staffers eight times.

These trips, whose cost can exceed $10,000 and often include congressional spouses, are extremely popular. They’re also influential, leaving what Hoyer has called an “indelible impression” on legislators. Unfortunately, they largely replicate the cocoon that the American Jewish establishment provides its own members. Members of Congress may see more Christian holy sites than your average synagogue or Birthright trip, but they don’t see many more Palestinians. An AIEF trip this spring for eight House members and staffers who serve on foreign policy–related committees was typical. Virtually the entire itinerary consisted of meetings with Israeli politicians, security officials, businessmen, and journalists, as well as trips to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, and the Western Wall. The delegation spent one morning of its almost week-long trip in Ramallah, where it met Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. But the Americans didn’t stay in the West Bank long enough to learn anything about Palestinian life.

Last summer, when I asked a member of Congress about his AIEF-sponsored trip in 2007, he told me, “When we went into Ramallah to meet Fayyad, they put the city under curfew. We drove in an armed convoy. We didn’t drive through Qalandiya checkpoint [through which Palestinians, with some difficulty, often pass in order to travel between Ramallah and Jerusalem], didn’t see garbage, shanties. We saw almost no actual people.” He added, “Most members [of Congress] don’t know that Palestinians live under a different legal system.”

That’s not to say members of Congress don’t learn anything on their Israel trips. They learn why Jews feel so connected to Israel and why they worry so much about its security. And for the most part, they learn to see Palestinians the way the American Jewish establishment does: as a faceless, frightening, undifferentiated mass. As one “pro-Israel” activist told The New York Times last year, “We call it the Jewish Disneyland trip.”

The American Jewish community does not bear all the blame for its lack of interaction with Palestinians. In recent years, sadly, Palestinian activists have led a growing “anti-normalization” campaign that rejects any relations with Jewish Israelis, or Israel’s supporters abroad, who do not—in the words of one statement by Palestinian youth groups—“explicitly aim to resist Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid.” Guided by this principle, some Palestinian organizations have shunned Seeds of Peace, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian teens in a camp in Maine, and One Voice, which tries to mobilize Palestinians and Israelis to support the two-state solution. Last year, the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at the University of California, San Diego, even declared “dialogue and collaboration with J Street U counterproductive” because the student wing of the liberal American Jewish group did not support divestment from Israel.

One can understand Palestinians’ reluctance to participate in events that make them appear to consent to an unjust occupation. But that is very different from boycotting events that offer them the opportunity to describe that injustice to American Jews who may be genuinely unfamiliar with it. The former endorses the status quo; the latter challenges it. As the Palestinian blogger Aziz Abu Sarah has noted, characterizing conversations in which Palestinians discuss life under Israeli control as “normalization” is perverse since for both Israeli and American Jews, hearing “about life in Palestinian cities is not normal.” And it makes no sense to demand that American Jews endorse all aspects of the Palestinian agenda before—or even after—the dialogue begins. Jews have the right to their own opinions. But those opinions will be better informed, and more humane, if they encounter Palestinian opinions too.

To say that American Jews need to hear from Palestinians is not to say that doing so will turn them into doves. To the contrary, in some ways a truly open conversation with Palestinians may be more discomforting to American Jews like myself who are committed to the two-state solution than to those skeptical of it. American Jewish liberals generally believe in the legitimacy of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism. Many hope, therefore, that if they endorse the basic justness of the Palestinian bid for self-determination, Palestinians will endorse the justness of Zionism.

That’s highly unlikely. Virtually every Palestinian I’ve ever met considers Zionism to be colonialist, imperialist, and racist. When liberal American Jews think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they think about Isaac and Ishmael: brothers reared in the same land, each needing territory their progeny can call home. Palestinians are more likely to think about South Africa: a phalanx of European invaders, fired by religious and nationalistic zeal, dominating the indigenous population.

Because they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between rival but equally legitimate nationalisms, American Jewish liberals often suggest that the real problem began in 1967, when Israel became greedy and began to seize the land on which Palestinians could build a state. Palestinians, by contrast, often refocus attention on 1948, when roughly 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes in Israel’s war of independence, which Palestinians call the Nakba—“catastrophe.”

In my own interactions with Palestinians, I have been repeatedly struck by the central place they assign the Nakba in Palestinian identity, and by their deep insistence that those Palestinians whom the Nakba made refugees, and their descendants, have the right to return to their ancestral homes.2 In many ways, this focus on 1948 is more challenging to Jewish doves—who envision Palestinians abandoning a large-scale right of return in exchange for a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem—than for Jewish hawks who assume Palestinians will do no such thing.

This is not to say that encounters with Palestinians lead inevitably to the conclusion that Israel has no “partner” for a two-state solution. Palestinians don’t need to believe in Zionism’s legitimacy to make a pragmatic decision that because Israel isn’t going away, they’re better off accepting a state on 22 percent of British mandatory Palestine than waging a struggle for all of it that they can’t win. It may also be possible to distinguish the profound Palestinian belief in the “right” of refugee return from practical solutions about how to compensate and resettle people whose original villages and homes have long ceased to exist.

According to J.J. Goldberg in The Forward, Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 wanted Israel to accept 150,000 refugees, far more than Ehud Olmert desired but not enough to significantly erode the demographic character of Israel, with its six million Jews. Recent polling by James Zogby suggests that most Arab Israelis would accept a two-state deal in which most refugees do not return to Israel. According to the poll, most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan would oppose such a deal. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are closely split. If there were ample compensation, more Palestinians would likely be open to a two-state solution that would not include mass refugee return. In any case, given that most Palestinians believe Israel will never leave the West Bank, it’s almost impossible to predict how they’d react to what they consider a wildly hypothetical outcome.

If talking to Palestinians will not necessarily push American Jews in a particular policy direction, why is it so important? Two reasons. The first is that ignorance is dangerous. I recently spoke to a group of Jewish high school students who are being trained to become advocates for Israel when they go to college. They were smart, earnest, passionate. When I asked if any had read a book by a Palestinian, barely any raised their hands. Even from the perspective of narrow Jewish and Zionist self-interest, that’s folly. How effectively can you defend Israel’s legitimacy if you don’t even understand the arguments against it?

But the students are simply reflecting their elders. Last year a prominent pro-Israel commentator asked me whether Ali Abunimah was the name of a real Palestinian or the pen name of a left-wing Jew. Abunimah (the real name of a real Palestinian) is probably the most prominent BDS activist in America. He has 37,000 followers on Twitter, more than the commentator who asked the question or most other pro-Israel Jewish writers. I’m not a fan of Abunimah’s politics, but he clearly knows far more about what establishment American Jews think than they know about what he thinks.

  1. 2

    Among other evidence of expulsion, the Israeli historian Benny Morris told Haaretz :

    In the months of April–May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-state defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.

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