The Palestinian Question: A Letter to American Jews

All Jewish-American politics is about the Holocaust. Widespread support for a Jewish state in Palestine dates to the mid 1940’s, when it became clear to Jewish-American leaders that Hitler was exterminating all the Jews under his control in Europe. Jewish communities in the United States were slow to react and they found little help from the Roosevelt Administration. Countering Hitler’s extermination program or supporting a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine was, for Roosevelt, secondary to overarching war goals.[1]

In 1943, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver gave a speech to delegates of the American Jewish Conference, who represented many areas of organized Jewish life. As Aaron Berman relates in his book on American Zionism, this speech proved to be a turning point for Jewish-American popular opinion concerning the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In his speech, Silver eloquently traces a history of Jewish oppression across Western and Eastern Europe culminating, he claims, in Hitler’s Final Solution. This narrative draws on Theodore Herzl’s account of anti-Semitism in his foundational text “The Jewish State,” published 1896. Herzl locates the cause of anti-Semitism in a persistent state of Jewish homelessness. Other nations hate the Jews because they are part of a people whose allegiance lies beyond any one country. To resolve the Jewish question, Herzl urges the creation of a Jewish national homeland, preferably in Palestine. With a majority of the world’s Jews concentrated in their own state, anti-Semitism will wither.[2]

Over 45 years passed between Herzl’s pamphlet and Silver’s speech. By the 1940’s many Jews were settled in Palestine, owned land, and were busy turning the Zionist idea into reality. Herzl’s narrative, born from European anti-Semitism, became a powerful tool in Silver’s hands. His speech urged American Jews to support Zionism as an answer to Hitler’s atrocities. European Jews might not live to see Israel, but its existence would bear witness to their fate and stand guard against the Hitlers of the future. When Silver finished, the audience stood and spontaneously sang “Hatikvah,” the Zionist anthem. The moment was symbolic but also a watershed in how American Jews thought about themselves in relation to Zionism. Silver’s speech linked three ideas: anti-Semitism’s roots in Jewish homelessness; the Holocaust as an expression of anti-Semitism; and Zionism as the eternal solution to anti-Semitism. From this point forward, American Jewish identity has been connected with the Holocaust through the prism of Israel.

This link is fundamentally ideological, but is has political and moral components. To be an American Jew today means axiomatically to support Israel. We train young Jewish-Americans to represent Israel in their high schools and college campuses. If someone critiques Israeli policy, Jews parry with statements about Israel’s right to exist. And if Israel’s right to exist is questioned, we are to end the conversation and label our opponent anti-Semitic. For those who doubt the narrowness of opinion the Jewish community tolerates on Israel, simply raise the issue of Palestinian self-determination at a Jewish function. You will be met with silence, indicative of the closed ranks American Jews have formed to defend their Zionist beliefs.

Young Jews, myself am among them, have started questioning Israel’s inviolable status. Lessons at Temple or Hebrew School on Jewish values are often the first tool in our arsenal. Defend the oppressed. Stand up for what’s right. Tirelessly educate yourself. It’s not long before young Jews discover that not everyone sees Israel as a victim. We learn that Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians, destroy their homes, and search them at checkpoints. We watch the periodic bombings of Gaza and tally up the deaths—always lopsided in favor of Israel. And we discover that most of the world is sharply critical of Israel. Taught to educate ourselves, we read Chomsky or Edward Said. Perhaps we take a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What we discover is the depth of US support for Israel: diplomatic cover; empty words about settlement construction in the Occupied Territories; Security Council vetoes at the United Nations; billions in annual military aid; US-brokered peace talks that never fail to fail. Beneath this governmental support, American Jewish life is organized around an unceasing and anxious affirmation of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The Taglit-Birthright program introduces a younger generation to Israel with the aim of establishing deep spiritual and emotional connections with the Holy Land.[3] Across the board, Jewish communal organizations stand by Israel and facilitate public relations campaigns on its behalf. A young Jew questioning her connection with Israel quickly learns that she is going against the grain. From all sides, Jewish communal life is structured to bring American Jews closer to Israel—building networks of social, political, and financial support for its continued existence.

Intellectually, a critique of Israel means identifying its role as an oppressor and colonizing force over Palestinians. It means replacing Israel’s narrative of itself as a benevolent democracy, attacked on all sides from anti-Semitic Arab neighbors, with a starker picture. Zionism has always cloaked itself in high ideals, from socialism to messianic salvation and, more recently, the language of secular democracy and universal human rights. But while these ideals operate historically, they do so only for a select few—the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. Palestinians are excluded from full participation. Zionism is premised on the erasure of Palestinian identity.

One could counter this narrative and assert that Israel has been continually invaded by its Arab neighbors. As a nation under siege, they are doing the best they can. Moreover, Israel faces a continual domestic threat from Hamas and other radical pro-Palestinian elements. How can Israel move ahead with a two-state solution when its negotiating partners do not even recognize its right to exist? In the choice between security and uncertain peace, security must win out. This stance underlies the dominant Israeli narrative that Palestinians are the chief obstacle to peace. Yet historically, the situation has been opposite. It was the Zionists who settled in Palestine, who bought Palestinian land from absentee landlords, who mounted terror campaigns against the indigenous, and who—under cover of United Nations sanction—ethnically cleansed all major Palestinian cities and villages within Israel’s 1948 borders.[4]  Yes, atrocities have flowed from both sides. But Zionism’s very logic sanctions Israel as the prime mover of violence.

If one accepts this truth, a wealth of counter-narratives to Zionism flower. These narratives trace the historical suffering of Palestinians and their communal efforts at resistance. A critique of Zionism leads many western scholars (such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, Judith Butler, and Angela Davis, among others) to support Palestinian self-emancipation. Their intellectual efforts dovetail with a pro-Palestinian political consciousness, culminating in support for various movements from Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions to active resistance of the Occupation. [5]

Most Jews, even if they are critical of Israel, do not arrive at a pro-Palestinian view so easily. Nationally, about one in five people support the Palestinians over Israel, a rise of five percentage points in five years. According to a Pew research report from 2013, around seven in ten Jews feel attached to Israel. The question of how many Jews hold pro-Palestinian sentiments was not even posed. Interpreting these results more closely sheds light on the paradoxical situation of American Jews with regard to Israel. Older Jews are more likely to see support for Israel as essential to their Jewish identity (53% for those 65 and older vs. 32% for Jews under age 30). More starkly, well over 75% of Jews 50 years and older feel attached to Israel; this figure drops to 60% for Jews under 30. The older or more observant an American Jew is, the more likely he or she is attached to Israel. Large portions of Jewish America, its young and secular constituents, feel less attachment to Israel.

This split over Israel has profound political implications. Less observant and younger Jews believe strongly in the prospects of a two-state solution. Yet this same population doubts that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about peace. So, young and secular Jews feel less attachment to Israel, are less protective the of the Israeli government, yet believe more fervently in a two-state solution than older observant Jews. Their disaffection with Israel does not translate into support for Palestinian causes (as it might for other Americans), but instead remains caught up in the chimera of a two-state solution. Instead of leveraging support for Palestinians in their communities, young and secular Jews double down on their commitment to maintaining the status quo: dead-ended negotiations for Palestinian statehood.

It is worth analyzing Jewish calls for a two-state solution. Again, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian narratives proliferate over who is to blame for generations of failed peace talks. Many saw the 1993 Oslo Accords as a roadmap for a two-state political settlement between Israel and Palestinians. Palestinians would be granted self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, the prerequisite for national self-determination. The accord lent legitimacy to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, long regarded as a terrorist group, setting the stage for future negotiations over borders, the status of East Jerusalem, and the all-important question of whether exiled Palestinians had the right to return to their former lands.[6] The second Intifada ended the Oslo agreement’s progress, freezing the West Bank into an unviable maze of settlements, non-Palestinian roads, and military checkpoints. Palestinians elected Hamas in 2006, prompting a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party. Israel’s response—in Gaza, where Hamas seized power—has been periodic brutal bombings, bulldozing of houses, and an illegal naval blockade that sabotages an already stagnant economy.[7]

From Israel’s perspective, Palestinian violence has been the major obstacle to negotiating a two-state settlement. Hamas promotes a violent Jihadist struggle against Israel, feeding Israel’s narrative of Arab violence, while Fatah is unable to secure Palestinian rights in the West Bank—playing second hand to Israel in exchange for a share of power. Thus, for Israel, a two-state solution is impossible because of security concerns and reluctance to cede valuable West Bank land. A Palestinian state would be a security threat (Israel is only six miles wide at its narrowest point) and a political disaster for the ultra-right, whose support is perennially needed in ruling government coalitions. Palestinians meanwhile view Israel as an occupying power with no interest in negotiations that would lead to a viable Palestinian state.

Looking beyond each narrative, there are structural factors preventing a peace process in the direction of two states. Most glaring is settlement construction in the West Bank. This amounts to a de facto and increasingly de jure annexation of the West Bank’s best arable land and water resources. Settlements are built strategically to chop off huge parts of a future Palestinian state for absorption into Israel. Strategic settlements built in the West Bank’s heart make it even less likely Israel will surrender the territory; it would be political suicide. Another structural factor is geography. The West Bank shares a border with Israel over a two hundred miles long. Jerusalem, Israel’s cultural and political heart, is also at the center of any future Palestinian state. These borders, if shared by two mistrustful countries, would not be viable for either one. Imagine the 160 mile demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Now imagine such a border fully encircling either North or South Korea. It is hard to envision a war not breaking out, just as it is nearly impossible to imagine peace if Israel encircled Palestine over a 200-mile demilitarized zone. Gaza is also a relevant factor. Its population is 1.8 million, larger than the population of Palestinians in the West Bank. Yet there is no contiguous link between these two territories. Again, imagine half the population of North Korea residing inside South Korea’s borders, or the reverse. Politics make a two-state solution difficult, but geography makes it all but impossible.

Finally, the question of Palestinian refugees looms over the two-state debate. These refugees number over 5 million (descendants are uniquely included) and reside in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring Arab countries. Palestinian refugees demand the right of return, which they interpret as a return to their original homes—vacated in 1948. Most Palestinian villages within Israel’s borders were destroyed or transformed. In other words, there is nowhere to return to. The success of a two-state solution depends on Palestinian refugees sacrificing their right of return for a right to Palestinian citizenship in a new state. Imagine Israelis having to sacrifice their right to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Masada, and the Western Wall in order to gain citizenship to the West Bank and Gaza. That is what we are talking about.

To sum up, the peace process is deadlocked over not only political but structural factors that make a two-state solution nearly inconceivable. But American Jewry does not accept this. For most of the world, support of a two-state solution follows from sympathy or solidarity with the Palestinians. It is because the Palestinian leadership wants a state that others follow suit. But American Jews think differently. For them, the two-state solution is a holy grail. It represents a solution to Israel’s structural weaknesses and a completion of the Zionist project. If Palestinians have a state, they will no longer be a demographic threat to Israel, or threaten Israel with violence. Israel will no longer be responsible for non-citizen Palestinian subjects in the West Bank. A complete separation between Palestinians and Jews, foreshadowed in the1947 UN Partition Plan, would finally manifest. The two-state solution serves uniquely for American Jews as a fantasy; it fulfills their wish for a Jewish state in Palestine. But beneath this fantasy lies an aporia. A two-state solution would entail national self-determination for Palestinians. Yet Israel will never permit them to militarize, due to security concerns. It would require refugees to sacrifice their right of return—akin to asking Jews to sacrifice their right to Israel. It would configure Palestine as a non-contiguous landmass that Israel surrounds—eaten away by settlements. Moreover, Israel would face a political catastrophe in disassembling settlements too far into the West Bank to be retained.

I am not trying to say that a two-state solution is impossible, or that a reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis is unthinkable. The point is to see how visions of a two-state solution function within American Jewish discourse. We cling to the two-state solution in order not to face a brutal fact: the truth of Israel’s overwhelming guilt regarding Palestinians’ fate. If Israel is in fact guilty of oppressing Palestinians on an existential scale, American Jews would have to do the hard work of constructing alternative political discourses—even identities—than those mainstream Zionism offers. What rights might Palestinians have over Israeli land? How will we stand up for Palestinians while still being Jews? What might we have to give up in order to achieve peace? These are the difficult questions that fixating on a two-state solution allows us to avoid.

Before concluding, let me dwell for a moment on the place of guilt in Jewish-American consciousness. As I said earlier, Jewish-American life is organized around the black hole of the Holocaust. The Holocaust reinforced our already powerful sense of victimhood. Jews, collectively and individually, have felt singled out as lesser than other peoples. Our misery over the centuries inculcated our self-image as historical victims—a vicious destiny we could not escape. Zionism promised to end this cycle, delivering Jews a nation-state where they could be safe and flourish. Many American Jews bought into Zionism’s vision before 1943, but it was the unspeakable and double-binding guilt of the Holocaust that solidified its dominance in Jewish-American life. Double because not only were European Jews been nearly exterminated (confirming our worst nightmares of persecution as history’s “guilty” party), American Jews were unable and unwilling to rescue them. Israel became (and remains) the ultimate fantasy of absolution. Israel exists, strong and vibrant, so that the Holocaust will not have been in vain. If only this were true. Nothing can redeem the horrors of the Holocaust. Zionism is not excepted from morality.

This is a lesson we refuse to learn. Jewish support for a two-state solution rests on the fantasy of its possibility—even inevitability. Just as, in the 1940’s, we hoped Israel could redeem the Nazi’s crimes and our own guilt, so now we pray a two-state solution will divest Zionism of its worst elements, allowing it to fulfill its ideological mission of Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal. Both fantasies belie Israel’s role as prime aggressor towards the Palestinians. We are blinded, in our attempt to redeem the Holocaust, to what cannot be redeemed in this epoch: the destruction of homes, murder of children, the ripping apart of an entire way of life. Our guilt over the Holocaust has erased from consciousness the idea that we might be the perpetrators of horrible crimes.[8]

American Jews must acknowledge that we are capable of inflicting violence on others. In some way, we must come to terms with our inability to save our Jewish brothers and sisters from the Nazis’ wrath. We could not have prevented the Holocaust, and we cannot guarantee such a horror will not befall us again. A painful truth.

Looking forward, American Jews will play a significant role in reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis—or could very well foreclose such a possibility. Continuing to believe in the inevitability of a two-state solution will, I think, only reinforce Israel’s prerogative to dominate Palestinians. But it is not reasonable, in my opinion, to call on Jewish Americans to join Palestinian causes in full solidarity. We must acknowledge our skin in the game: a commitment to Zionism, to a Jewish cultural, political, and spiritual renewal in Palestine. While Israel’s existence is currently incompatible with the aspirations of Palestinian self-determination, it might not always have to be so. It is difficult, but far easier than imagining a genuine two-state solution, to envision new strains of Israeli/American Zionism compatible with reconciliation and justice between Israelis and Palestinians. The challenge for American Jews, but also our prospect, will be to overcome the guilt we have vested in such narrow political channels dedicated to Israel’s material and political support. Only then may we shed the straitjacket of mainstream Zionism and embark on a richer political trajectory, more fully in line with our values as a people.

[1] See Aaron Berman, Nazism, the Jews, and American Zionism, 1933-1948 (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990), chapters four and five.

[2] Theodore Herzl, “The Jewish State” in The Zionist Idea, ed. Arthur Hertzberg (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970).

[3] See “About,” http://www.birthrightisrael.com/about-us-content?scroll=art_1.

[4] See Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleaning of Palestine, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006).

[5] Edward Said, as a Palestinian exiled in 1948, leveraged his personal history and identity when it came to resistance, in addition to his intellectual production. For others such as Chomsky and Butler (both Jewish), pro-Palestinian sentiments are part of a wider support for indigenous resistance against colonization and imperialism. While there is a spectrum of ways to support the Palestinian cause, my point is that these all involve, to some extent, accepting that Israel is the prime mover of violence.

[6] See “The Oslo Accords and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process,” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1993-2000/oslo.

[7] See Noam Chomsky, “Nightmare in Gaza,” https://chomsky.info/20140803-2/.

[8] This point is deeply connected to the psychoanalytic theory of trauma. The Holocaust functions as a trauma on the Jewish people. Our inability to mourn for its victims results in perpetual guilt. Israel promises to absolve us, but ends up replicating the Holocaust’s violence. Unless we learn to mourn the Holocaust, we will never leave the grip of violence.

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