As violent conflict flares up once again between Israel and Palestine, so has the debate over this issue. Few subjects are as radioactive as the Middle East conflict. Tribal, religious, ideological, or partisan allegiances drive people to shockingly emotional positions on the polarized extremes. Nuance becomes the first casualty. Charity, humanity, and perspective soon follow. As with many issues whose surrounding discourse becomes unduly toxic, I find myself more interested in the discourse than the issue itself, like a train wreck I can’t pull my eyes away from. I intend to address both here.
First Thing’s First
Here is the first rule of the Israel/Palestine debate: take the opinions of everyone who is dogmatically, unconditionally pro-Israel or pro-Palestine — those who think the other side is always at fault and that their side can do no wrong — and throw them right in the garbage. It is important to know what people think, of course. But those who are unable or unwilling to see the other side of things are not to be taken seriously. You’d be surprised how much sanity this alone restores to the issue. In any continuous, 70 plus year conflict, there will be more than enough blame to go around. Those who can only find fault with one party should be dismissed.
On "Who Started it"
This origin story of the Israel/Palestine conflict is not only the least interesting, but also the least relevant. The big picture perspective is one in which a close examination of who started it way back when, or who wronged whom is a rabbit-hole of blame and grievance that advances us no closer to any solution.
History is replete with conquest, occupation, subjugation, colonialism, and war. The land today called Israel has at various times been ruled, conquered, occupied, owned, or controlled by the British, the Ottomans, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, and others. People have been killed, occupied, expelled, ethnically cleansed, and forcibly brought to the land now called Israel from time immemorial. It is curious to stop retracing the dominoes at the founding of modern Israel, as though 1948 was this Big Bang-like event before which any concept of cause and effect does not apply.
Why such fervent bloodshed and animosity should roil around a tiny patch of desert the size of New Jersey — and practically the only part of the Middle East bereft of oil — is a testament to the powers of religious imbecility. The notion that the fictional bully of the Old Testament decided to start doling out parcels of land belongs on the same shelf as the tooth fairy. Equally so for notions that Allah or the prophet Muhammad claimed such land forever as rightfully belonging to Islam. I don’t care which imaginary friend promised what to whom in the days when the most pressing societal concerns were curbing the scourge of idol worship, settling livestock disputes, and the proper way to treat one's slaves and female chattel.
Israel and Palestine as Societies
One factor worth considering are the attributes and differences between Israel and Palestine as societies. They share a few things in common. Geography, a bit of cultural overlap, and the mixing of religion and state. The similarities end there.
Democracy. While both are democracies on paper, Palestinian elections are neither free nor fair. Israel’s democracy, though more robust than its regional neighbors, isn’t up to snuff to Western standards either. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index rates Israel as a “flawed democracy” and the Palestinian territories as an “authoritarian regime.” A significant democratic gap still exists between the two societies, but there is cause for concern. The longer Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power, surviving corruption scandal after corruption scandal, the more Israeli liberal democracy seems to be degrading.
Freedom of Expression. The human rights organization Article 19’s 2019-20 Global Expression Report scores Israel’s freedom of expression at 67/100 (“less restricted”), and Palestine’s as 29/100 (“highly restricted”). The details tell a more complicated story. Article 19 estimates that 44 percent of the restrictions of free expression in the Palestinian territories are the result of Israeli actions, 29 percent due to violations from the Palestinian authorities, and 27 percent from actions taken by social media companies.
Press Freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranks Israel 86th and Palestine 132nd out of 180 countries and territories.
LGBT Rights. The UCLA school of law’s William Institute, in their 2017 Social Acceptance of LGBT People report ranked Israel 45th of the 174 countries and regions they looked at. Palestine was 124th, sadly not uncommon for Muslim majority regions where LGBTQ people are routinely oppressed.
Women’s Rights. The United Nations Human Development Report ranks Israel 19th in women’s empowerment out of the 189 countries and territories included. Palestine comes in at 115th.
The Middle East has a shoddy record of protecting the rights of dissidents, women, sexual minorities, and minority faith communities. Israel tends to fall short of the standard we in the West aspire to, but the difference between Israel and its neighbors, including Palestine, are stark. Where else in the Middle East can there be a gay pride parade? Indeed, where else in the Middle East can one be openly LGBTQ, or atheist, or merely non-Muslim without significant risk from their governments or community? Ask the Zoroastrians and Yazidis — if you can find any. Where else in the Middle East could a Jew serve in parliament as Muslims do in Israel? Where else in the Middle East could quadrants of major cities be designated to minority faith communities? Where else in the Middle East can one live free from the sadistic constraints of state-sanctioned morality police, or from draconian punishments, sometimes for imaginary or victimless crimes?
To be clear, Israel is no model society, but from the standpoint of economic development, innovation, and human rights, it shines against the relative murk of the region. The data paints a clear picture of Israel as a middling to above-average society from a human rights standpoint, and the Palestinian territories as being quite poor on this front, in pattern with the Middle East more generally. This doesn’t tell us everything or even most of what we need to know about the Middle East conflict, but it is pertinent information.
The Vicious Cycle
While this conflict has spanned many decades, the level of hostility ebbs and flows. There is almost never anything that can be described as true peace, but neither are Israel and Palestine (or other Middle East states) continuously at war. Each time war or violence erupts, due to some dispute, controversy, incident, provocation, incursion, or attack from one side, the cycle begins again. Each party retaliates, escalates, and wages their own propaganda campaign. Ideologues, partisans, zealots, and opportunists on both sides of the conflict, and on both sides of the issue around the world wind up the same old debate.
Each side reliably takes certain actions that pour fuel onto this fire. Israel expands their settlements into Palestinian territory, tightens their grip on the occupied territories, and commits impositions on Palestinians that have been widely considered human rights violations. Palestinian militants launch attacks targeting Israeli civilians, and then hide among their own civilians, banking on Israel holding to a higher code of martial conduct than themselves. These attacks are widely condemned as terrorism. While Israel nearly always retaliates, and often with greater force than the preceding Palestinian attacks, they do show restraint. If Israel wanted to wipe Palestine off the map, or wipe out Palestinians, or for that matter wipe out several of its neighboring states, it has the capability to do so. What would Palestine do if they possessed these capabilities? Given the rampant levels of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment endemic to the region, plus the fact the Hamas’s original charter contains overt anti-Semitism, calls for jihad against Israel and the Jews, as well as the obliteration of Israel that some consider incitement to genocide, we get an idea. We know from history how minority faith communities are treated in the Middle East. If Palestine and its allies laid down their arms against Israel for good, it may not solve everything, nor end the Israeli occupation, but it would end the violence. If Israel disbanded its military, it would not exist a year from now, and many of its citizens would be refugees, captives, or dead.
I believe that Israel has a right to exist. All countries and peoples have a right to defend themselves. Even if I thought Israel shouldn’t exist, it would still be unreasonable to expect any country to let itself be destroyed. There have been horrible wrongs committed on both sides. There is justification, or at least understandable explanation, for hostility, violence, and aggression from both sides. And thus the cycle continues.
A Path to Peace
It would be presumptuous of me to claim to have the solution to the 70 year quandary of Israel/Palestine where so many have failed over the decades. The mostly commonly proposed answer has been a two-state solution, where Israel would be divided into two completely separate, autonomous countries existing side by side. This seems the best outcome to hope for. Sadly, the prospect of achieving it seems remote verging on naïve at this point.
The necessary first step to any real chance of peace must come from leadership. The current government of Israel as run by the conservative Likud party and the hawkish prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has no incentive to push for peace. Netanyahu is a war-time leader, an Israeli Dick Cheney. Conflict feeds the narratives that fuel his political career. The current Palestinian government is run in part by Hamas, a militant Islamic fundamentalist organization with a history of terroristic ties and behavior. This is not the leading cast of any story with a happy ending. Until more moderate, liberal parties gain control of their respective sides, the path to peace will be all but invisible. Any activist or political operator looking to improve the Middle East conflict should focus their efforts on getting more liberal leaders into power on both sides.
The Toxic Wasteland of Israel/Palestine Discourse
Discourse on this issue was never exactly a picnic, but in recent years it has become downright excruciating. Reasonable, good faith conversation has become almost impossible. Here are some of the common mistakes that crop up.
Criticizing Israel Does Not Equal Anti-Semitism. Nor, for that matter, does criticizing the political movement Zionism. Countries and ideas are not the same as peoples, and must always be fair game for criticism. While it is true that some anti-Semites use "zionist" as a codeword for Jews, and that many anti-Semites also hate Israel, it should not be a knee-jerk reaction to assume bigotry in any given case unless evidence of bigotry is demonstrated. One can be both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, and one can be just the former, or just the latter. This is a common attitude among Jews, themselves overwhelmingly pro-Israel, to consistently confuse criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and to regard any critic as an anti-Semite solely on those grounds. This is dishonest and unfair — a cudgel indiscriminately swung to shut people up and stifle legitimate criticism.
Israel and Jews are Not One in the Same. Some people conflate Israel (or Zionism) with Judaism or Jews for just the opposite reason. Some do this to push a narrative that the misdeeds committed by Israel against Palestine (disregarding Palestinian misdeeds, naturally) are the fault not of the Israeli government, but of Jews as a people, and that every Jew in the world bears some responsibility for this, and should in some way have to answer for it. There is a disturbing trend of Muslim right wingers and Western far-leftists aligning ideologically here. The vitriolic dislike of Israel, blended with the inability or unwillingness to separate Israel from Jews, with the final ingredients of critical race theory and intersectionality result in a toxic brew indeed.
Hyperbolic Name-Calling. Many harsh critics of Israel get so carried away with their views that they become almost deranged, lashing out with exaggerated charges and vicious name-calling toward any who disagree. One can abhor Israel’s actions, settlements, and occupation. There can be legitimate discussion over terms like war crimes, human rights violations, or even apartheid. But to call Israel’s actions genocide, or a holocaust, and to liken Israel to the Nazis, as many do — that is ludicrous and beyond the pale.
The political climate has gotten so nasty that even expressing uncontroversial moderate opinions within earshot of leftist circles — any view outside of spittle-flecked denunciations of Israel shrieked at the top of one’s lungs — precipitates blistering calumnies and abusive dog-piling. This unhinged behavior is one reason why so many people just check out from the issue and resolve not to touch it with a ten foot pole.
What we must never lose sight of is that countries and governments are different from peoples. One can be anti-Israeli government but pro-Israeli people, and anti-Palestinian authorities but pro-Palestinian people. Indeed, given what a quagmire the Middle East conflict is, I find this the only view I can endorse.