It’s Time for Some Israel Real Talk.

Last week, the storied New York LGBT Center refused award-winning queer writer and activist Sarah Schulman a chance to read from her new book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. In doing so, the organization cited the Center’s “moratorium” on using the center to "organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” in place since early 2011 purportedly to maintain the Center as a "safe space" for both Jews and Arabs. On Monday, they relaxed the moratorium, though it remains unclear whether Schulman will be allowed to read. Quasi-reversals notwithstanding, the existence of the moratorium in the first place is the height of hypocrisy—one would think that a queer organization of all places would understand, as the ACT UP slogan goes, that silence equals death.

Is there any hotter third rail in U.S. politics than an unflattering opinion of Israel’s policy on Palestine? Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is still being haunted by one he let slip years ago, and last fall’s foreign-policy debate found Obama and Romney so eager to avoid even the appearance of nuance that they could do nothing but one-up each other over who loved the state more passionately, like Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney in a bizarre-world version of “The Girl is Mine.” Brooklyn College is still trying to weather a firestorm over a panel it held on February 7 that included speakers who support the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement.

It’s also true that, within some quarters of the left, the slightest criticism of the Palestinian leadership or suggestion of compromise with the Israelis will get you called a right-wing racist stooge. 

The recent and dramatic reversal of fortune of the National Rifle Association can teach us something about how to deal with hypocrisy on Israel. Gun control has transformed, almost overnight, from something “We Just Don’t Talk About” into something most right-thinking citizens—and even many politicians—agree we must. What changed, in large part, was that the horror of the Sandy Hook killings somehow pierced what sociologists call our “pluralistic ignorance”—a dynamic in which most of us privately reject a cultural norm, but none of us speak up because we erroneously assume that everyone else accepts it. In other words: Once we were shocked out of our complacency by Sandy Hook, we discovered that most of the country wants gun restrictions, and a conversation about the specifics became possible.

It’s time to make that shift on Israel, though given the number of children who have already been killed in the conflict, it’s hard to imagine what would be shocking enough to get us there. The difference, of course, is that they aren’t “our” children—not rich white American kids in a “safe neighborhood.” The other difference is that in the Middle East, it's as if the U.S. government bought Adam Lanza all the weapons he could ever want.

In truth, piercing the haze of pluralistic ignorance doesn’t require a crisis. It just requires that, one at a time, we become brave enough to say what we think, even if we fear there’ll be backlash. Perhaps we could start by rejecting the idea that criticizing Israel, or even trying to influence Israel's policy decisions, is always an attempt to "delegitimize" the state. Was South Africa delegitimized by action against apartheid? I'd argue that it's a much more legitimate state now that it's abandoned that oppressive system, much as Israel would be if it reversed course on its ever-growing occupation of Palestinian land. (That's not just my opinion. Six living former leaders of Shin Bet—the Israeli secret service—say the same thing in much greater detail in the recent documentary The Gatekeepers. Are all six of them out to delegitimize Israel, too?)

Nor is calling for action on Israel's military policies “hate speech” or “anti-Semitism.” There are racists on all sides of the conflict who like to cloak their bigotry in a patriotic flag, but those of us who understand logic know that hardly makes everyone with a stance on the issue a hate-monger.

I love Israel. As an American Jew, the dream of Israel has held me in thrall since I was a small child. The day I wept at the Wailing Wall was one of the most transcendent and emotional of my life. But loving someone doesn’t mean helping them do whatever destructive thing they want. Call that enabling or co-dependence, but it’s not love. I love Israel like I’d love a drunk friend who wants their car keys. 

Maybe you don’t love Israel, or think I don’t love it enough. But as Americans whose tax dollars fund the Israeli military, I care that you have an opinion about what it’s doing in our name, and that you are free to express that opinion in public.

I’ll go first. I think that boycott, divestment and sanctions can and should be used as tactics to force Israel to end the occupation, but I think they should be targeted at the systems that support the occupation—many Israelis want and work for peace, and a blanket boycott hurts them, too. I believe that there are no good actors currently in power: Hamas, Fatah, and Likud all derive their power from the conflict, and all of them benefit from maintaining fear. I believe it’s important not to confuse a people with their current leaders. I believe that trying to come to agreement about who’s suffered more in the past keeps us from building a better future. I believe that “both sides” have committed atrocities, but that the current balance of power is so lopsided that the word “apartheid” is appropriate. (I didn’t believe that last part until I saw it with my own eyes.) I believe that most people in both Israel and Palestine want peace, and that therefore, peace is possible if people who will actually benefit from peace can be seated at the negotiation table. I believe that any treaty or two-state solution, even if it held for real, would only be the beginning of building peace in the region, and that a profound and complex reconciliation process would be urgently called for. I believe that none of this will happen if American thinkers like Sarah Schulman—and like you and me—are barred from expressing our own beliefs in own communities, and being exposed to the beliefs of others.

See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Disagree with me or don’t: Now it’s your turn.

Comments

I've been reading about Hezbollah this week (the book, A Privilege to Die). Hezb has spun a strange alchemy -- differing strange alchemies to appeal to different personalities actually -- that each attract followers by producing one end result (even if ultimately self-destructive in its carrying out): it restores their self-esteem. Who have Hezb's followers -- and most of the Middle East been losing their self-respect to?

Change of scene:
Scratch a Jew who accuses anyone who criticizes Israel as an "anti-Semite" and you will likely find a Jew who disses Arab Spring ("uncivilized bums") and similarly reviles Palestinians as human beings.

The latter observation perhaps introducing a little guilt into the dialog it may be possible to point out that it is in Israeli's self-interest to start treating their neighbors with the kind of respect they would like to be treated with -- stop acting like fascist animals themselves and start acting like a civilized people.

Where would that lead next? Don't know; just a motive equation that crossed my mind this week.

ddrew2u - thank you, thank you for not calling the Isrealis Nazi's. I always hate that.

Fascist is a much better term. It's a word that must have more uses around the globe, even here at home, as the world unwinds. The question is, is even Fascism too severe?

Though that sort of consistency does run their government, and represent them here in the US, and pervades broad swaths of their citizenry, it serves to remember that there are also some level heads there, refusniks even, and in any case a fair portion of liberal or 'even' Jews. Reason may yet prevail. BTW - Not to conflate Judaism with Israel nationalism (or Zionism?), I specified Jews in this last to separate them from Israeli Muslims.

The day is near (or here) when there are more Muslims than Jews, in Israel, even if you make permanent the ethnic cleansing that created them. I think it's fair to include the state ghettos Gaza and West Bank in that measure.

And when that point is reached, what of democracy? It's out and you have straight... Fascism.

I'm deeply sorry to say these things. A non-Jew, I've nevertheless felt close to Jews, for history, and particularly for their unitarian view, shared by Muslims, and Unitarians and other western sects. And the history! I love it, though bloody, hey, that was antiquity. But the state of Israel today is a flat out looser. They simply don't know how to govern. Like so many post colonial Arab nations. It takes time. In the mean time they're destroying people - families and children - we're all children.

Let's say it's not about fault. Just get them to leave their Arab people, citizens, subjects, or slaves, alone! I think intervention is the only way, given the state of that government. For global civil rights.

Oh - and the right solution will, maybe not include, but eventually allow, full right of return.

Sorry; been away for a couple of days.

Full right of return to the West Bank -- not sure how many would want to under the occupation but they should have the right -- might make a great teaching issue. 400,000 Palestinians living with minimal to no rights in next-door Lebanon should at least be able to move back and forth.

Making a stink about what to most people would seem a harmless right of return could enlighten them about why the occupation really exists: to corral 4,000,000 Palestinians into a super controlled police state so they cannot resist 400,000 Israelis moving into their land. Obviously wont admit add more potential resisters. Just another possible "sales angle."

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