Maximum Mutual Misunderstanding: American Jews and Palestinians

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September 5, 2013; New York Review of Books


In the wake of the March on Washington, with its amazing mix of participants of different races and ethnicities, one has to be taken by the message that hatred of a group of people for the actions of individual members of that group cannot be justified. In the American Jewish community, unfortunately, there is a strain of virulent antagonism toward Palestinians as a people—as a nationality—reinforced by the lack of contact and interaction with Palestinians.

A fellow at the New America Foundation and a professor at the City University of New York, Peter Beinart explores in an upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books some of the issues and practices that build walls of misperception and mistrust toward Palestinians, even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry works with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to develop a two-nation path toward a lasting peace. Beinart suggests that part of the problem is lack of exposure to Palestinians, noting that of the more than 200 speakers at the 2013 policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, only two were Palestinians, and of 64 speakers at the 2013 conference of the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum, there were no Palestinians on the agenda. The Jewish campus organization Hillel has rules that exclude speakers who it believes deny Israel’s right to have “secure and recognized borders” or “support boycott of [sic] divestment from or sanctions against” Israel. That means that Palestinians who support a boycott of goods manufactured in Israel’s West Bank settlements, whose existence is deemed by many to violate international law and covenants, can’t get through the Hillel screen, and even Arab Israelis such as Ahmad Tibi, the deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, cannot pass the Hillel standards because he believes that Israel should have no specific religious identity.

Beinart writes that the problem is in part American Jews’ lack of information about and, as a corollary, lack of empathy for Palestinians. He acknowledges that there is clear anti-Semitism in much of the school curriculum for young Palestinians and in the Palestinian media, and he condemns (and has condemned strongly in the past) “the grotesque attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas and other terrorist groups,” but he adds, confirming the opinion of Israeli security officials, that “stopping Palestinian terrorism requires understanding it.” He suggests that it is important to understand the grievances of Palestinians rather than “attributing [Palestinian violence]…entirely to textbooks and television programs, as American Jewish groups often do.”

“By walling themselves off from Palestinians, American Jews fail to understand the very behavior they seek to prevent,” Beinart writes. “This intellectual isolation also keeps the American Jewish mainstream from comprehending another phenomenon it deeply fears: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.” [The NPQ Newswire has covered the BDS movement here and here].

Again, Beinart criticizes anti-Semitism in the BDS movement, but suggests that what really fuels the BDS movement are the interactions of Palestinians and Israelis living under the control of the Israeli military, particularly around the West Bank settlements. Because many Christian organizations maintain offices in the West Bank and visit Palestinian villages, which many American Jewish leaders do not, it leads some of them to see the BDS movement in a different light and, as in the case of the Methodist Church, inspires a willingness to consider divestment in companies whose policies “help Israel control the West Bank.”

To be sure, there is a dynamic within the Palestinian community in the U.S. that is also resistant to normalized contacts between Jews and Palestinians. For example, the University of California, San Diego chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine declared “dialogue and collaboration with J Street U counterproductive,” even though J Street U supports a two-state solution and considers itself pro-Palestinian and pro-human rights.

In the end, Beinart concludes “ignorance is dangerous.” It is not that Jews will give up their Zionist dream as a result of contact with Palestinians or that Palestinians will forget the “the Nakba” as a generator of their stateless condition, but American Jews’ walling themselves off from seeing Palestinians as something other than a nation of killers, in the words of Sheldon Adelson, the Republican financier and Las Vegas casino magnate, or as “animals,” according to another prominent Jewish leader cited by Beinart, makes the search for mutual understanding nearly impossible.—Rick Cohen