It was journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, as moderator of a recent program at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, who mused in jest that news items about Palestinian casualties might ideally be prefaced as follows: “Partially as a result of the Palestinian Arab refusal to accept the UN partition plan of 1947, X Palestinians were killed today….”
That is the historical context for the armed conflict between the sovereign State of Israel and Palestinian Arabs. This conflict was renewed with the violent reaction to the failed Camp David talks in the summer of 2000. I know that this is a simplification of a complex history; I do not exonerate Jewish parties and Israeli governments of responsibility for bad deeds, bad decisions and even instances of bad faith — but it’s still essentially true. And it’s this context of the Al-Aksa Intifada of the early 2000s that has led to the construction of the security barrier and the huge increase in number and perniciousness of checkpoints in the West Bank. It’s this context that our guest, Hana Barag of Machsom Watch, missed making absolutely clear when she spoke of the humanitarian issues raised by checkpoints.
I believe that the case for Israel is morally strengthened if this matter of context is remembered more often. Blu Greenberg – a writer and Orthodox feminist activist who spoke at the “Is It 1938, Again?” conference on the state of world Jewry at Queens College of the City University of New York, April 22-23 – spoke about context (mentioning the need to counter “half truths”) in the “war of narratives” that Israel is currently losing. Unfortunately, however, Ms. Greenberg’s notion of truth and half truth is very conventional, giving Israel far more credit than it deserves in the pursuit of peace — a quest that Israel has made inconsistently, incompetently, and sometimes even insincerely. There’s plenty of blame to go around for all sides in this sorry history and this makes me and my Meretz colleagues almost alone among a world full of both supporters and detractors of Israel who agree only that the “other side” is at fault.
Where Blu Greenberg was entirely correct, however, is in recounting how an Egyptian-American feminist colleague traveling with her some years back insisted that Israel was at fault for all of the wars. When Greenberg countered this argument, her companion retreated to insisting that Israel was guilty simply for being there. Mind you, Israel really doesn’t need the other side to grant it the ‘right to exist’; what it absolutely requires, however, is that the other side stop disputing its existence. It’s sad that the conflict is still in part about something so basic.
At Queens College on April 22, I again caught up with Prof. Michael Walzer, the political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ who is also a member of the Meretz USA advisory board. He raised hackles and hecklers, even with his measured words, for speaking of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians as part of the initial problem. I happen to agree. I audibly raised hackles myself (but anonymously) with a written question, read from the podium, in which I suggested that since most checkpoints are well within the West Bank and not along the border with Israel, the checkpoints are more “punitive” than “protective.” Most American Jews are ill prepared to concede such hard truths.
I will say more in another posting about this event, including more on Michael Walzer and Prof. Moshe Halbertal, Alan Dershowitz and others.