We are all shaped–our ideas, our opinions, our beliefs–by who we are. There is a power in acknowledging our identities, and a danger in being trapped by them.
Si nescis unde venias, nescis quo adeas: If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you are going.
I was born in Jerusalem, a city that is the heart of my people; the very sound of Hebrew gives me a sense of connectedness, of home. I was raised a connected Jew, and I see the world through the lens of a proud member of the Jewish people. On the other hand, if you know only where you come from, you cannot truly know the world.
I was born in Jerusalem, a city that is the heart of two peoples; I have studied Arabic for three years now, and although the language still rings foreign in my ears, I have experienced through the language moments of genuine understanding. I was raised a connected Jew, and therefore I am compelled to strive to understand what the world looks like through the lens of a proud member of the Palestinian people.
I am not objective, I am not unbiased, I am not neutral. I am pro-Israel because if I am not for myself, indeed who will be for me? However, I do not believe that my side is more right, per se, but rather I acknowledge that I am more on my side. This acknowledgment–that I am not more justified, but simply more me–allows me no choice but to be pro-peace.
For to deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian people, to refuse to recognize the familiarity of the Palestinians’ desire for an independent homeland, to assert that we are good and thus they are wicked is to choose blindness, to lie, to allow ourselves to be conquered by and made subservient to the very particularism that binds us.
I have found in J Street a way–not the way, but a way–to be true to who I am, and to simultaneously challenge defensive paradigms and remain open to the necessary struggle of understanding the side that is not mine.
Two months ago, a friend and I, in an effort to create a voice on campus that reflected the nuanced synthesis of self-acknowledgment and introspection that we found in J Street, began the process of creating J Street U Middlebury; last week, we held our first major event on campus. In a striking display of engagement and interest, more than 250 people (1/10 of the number of students at Middlebury) attended a campus-wide speech by American-Israeli historian, journalist and peace activist Gershom Gorenberg.
In his talk, Gorenberg proved to be an eloquent model of someone who sharply criticizes Israel without demonizing her, and who advocates for peace without simplifying or glossing over. He spoke on his recent book, “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements: 1967-1977,” which contradicts the commonly held conception that the Israeli left, which ruled until 1977, was essentially bullied into the settlement enterprise by the radical religious right of Gush Emunim. While the Gush Emunim movement indeed spearheaded the campaign to settle the territories conquered in 1967, Gorenberg contended that the ruling left, by choosing a policy of not choosing a distinct settlement policy, thus allowed the inertia of expansionism to prevail unabated, and were perhaps equally responsible for the settlement dilemma. 43 years later, this settlement dilemma stands today as one of the major obstacles to peace and human rights, and is arguably the largest threat to Israeli democracy and to the Jewish state.
There are two important conclusions, inter alia, that I feel should be drawn from Gorenberg’s findings. First, that the penchant for implicating our “fanatics,” the religious radicals, as bearing the sole responsibility for the state of affairs today is simply inaccurate. Clearly their ideology is immensely problematic, but there is more blame to go around Israeli society than we on the Zionist left are generally comfortable admitting. The next conclusion is connected to the first, and is difficult for me to grapple with even as I recognize its importance: in short, it is a reminder of the danger of simplification. It is tempting to view settlement in the Occupied Territories after 1967 as a monolithic sort of “badness.” In 1948, one could assert, the Jews were fighting to secure their borders, whereas in 1967 they moved beyond the defensive.
But it is not that simple. In 1967, like in 1948, the Israeli Jews were attacked from all sides by Arab armies who truly would have liked to wipe the Zionist entity off of the geopolitical map. In both cases the Jews were victorious, and then some, expanding borders beyond what they were prior to hostilities. In both cases, there was what Gorenberg called a settlers’ “ethic of breaking the rules” and settling the land in defiance of restrictive authority. What then is the major difference between 1948 and 1967? Simply this: In 1967, the majority of the Arabs stayed put.
Such a conclusion necessarily does one of two things: either it humanizes the settlers of 1967, casting them in the 1948-light of largely defensive patriots (albeit severely lacking in terms of empathy for the Palestinians) or it muddies the concept of 1948’s purity, affirming that had the majority of Arabs not left during that war, the currently existent tension between the desire for a Jewish state, a democracy, and control of the entire land would have arose as soon as the Jewish State was born.
Either way, it is a bitter pill to swallow for any pro-Israel/anti-Occupationist. That said, it is one that we must swallow, for we cannot move into the future without a true reckoning with the past. We who seek peace must allow ourselves to hear voices such as Gorenberg’s and we must be open to self-criticism, no matter how painful such a process often is.