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Finding a New Narrative

One of my favorite book titles, by writer and political activist Jim Hightower, is There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. This is a credo to which I generally adhere. I prefer a principled ideological stance based clearly on one’s values and analysis of the given situation than a nebulous striving to find “the center.” As it turns out, my values and analysis usually put me squarely in the progressive camp on most political issues.

Yet when it comes to Israel, and more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I do find myself in a kind of “middle.”  Not the political middle; if I were an Israeli citizen I’d be a partisan of some lefty party or other. As an American Jew, I’ve chosen to politically align myself with J Street, which in some ways is in the “middle”—between an increasingly right-leaning American Jewish establishment and the Palestinian solidarity politics of Jewish Voice for Peace. This not because I agree with every position that J Street takes, but because it’s been the one organization working for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a two-state solution which has been effective on two levels:  creating space for that position on Capitol Hill, and significantly widening the discourse within the American Jewish community when it comes to engaging with Israel.

The “middle” I identify with is a place in between two narrative frames that tend to dominate the discourse around Israel/Palestine, both within the American Jewish community and without. I’ve dubbed these the “existential narrative” and the “justice narrative.”  In broad strokes, they go something like this:

In the existential narrative, the survival and wellbeing of the State of Israel is coterminous with the survival and wellbeing of the Jewish people as a whole. Attacks on Israelwhether physical or ideological, whether economic or academic—are in essence attacks on the survival of Judaism and the Jews. In this narrative frame, the founding of the State of Israel is inextricably linked to the Holocaust and the two thousand years of anti-Semitism leading up to the Holocaust; Israel is both refuge and beacon of Jewish civilization. The State of Israel comes to represent the possibility of the Jewish people defining our own destiny and taking care of ourselves. “Never again” means “Never again to us.”  In this narrative, even as the successes of the state are admired, there is a persistent attachment to the experience of Jew as victim. No matter how strong the Israeli army or its arsenal (including nuclear weapons), ultimately Israel is a small, vulnerable democracy in a sea of Arab aggressors. The relevant categories are “Jew” and “other,” where “other”—in this case, Palestinians/Arabs—are our enemy. What Judaism demands, in this narrative, is a commitment to the continuity of the Jewish people even if that entails the suffering of others.

In the justice narrative, the history of the State of Israel is essentially the history of European colonialism, with the Palestinians paying the price of Europe’s depredations against the Jews.  The relevant categories are “oppressor” and “oppressed,” with the Jewish state (and its patron, the U.S.) clearly in the role of oppressor, and the Palestinians the oppressed. The very notion of a Jewish state is racist, in its blatant privileging of one ethnic group at the expense of the indigenous people of the land. There is no rationale for the continuing occupation of the Palestinian people beyond economic and political benefits accruing to the Jewish majority. And the occupation is no accident of history; there is a clear line of Israeli policy, beginning in 1948, intended to disenfranchise and ultimately destroy Palestinian society. For Jews who inhabit this narrative frame, “Never again” means “Never again to anyone.”  What Judaism demands is a commitment to Jewish values of justice and compassion, especially when those violating these values are fellow Jews.

In each narrative frame the actual people involved in the conflict tend to get reduced to ciphers: Jew vs. Arab, oppressor vs. oppressed. And of course it is impossible to talk across these frames.  The person inhabiting the existential narrative tends to feel that her very existence is threatened when Israel is criticized, and is befuddled at being accused of being immoral. The person inhabiting the justice narrative does not understand why he is called an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew, when all he is doing is calling for justice for an oppressed people. Dialogue or discussion becomes impossible, largely because the frames of reference are so completely divorced from each other.

The “middle” I inhabit is my ability to see both of these narrative frames from the outside, and at the same time to sympathize with parts of each. While I do not believe that Israel is in mortal danger on the military front, I can understand Jewish fears of anti-Semitism and the real traumas experienced by Israelis over the past six decades. I understand that people who endured the horrors of the Holocaust are inevitably going to re-enact some of those traumas on others when they achieve power. I also believe in the sincerity of the early Zionists in their dreams of a Jewish homeland; I do not believe that they were colonialists out to subdue a native population. I choose to believe that the noblest part of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the declaration that “The State of Israel….will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” is neither naive nor insincere, but the vision of what Israel can one day be.   

And as Tevye would say, on the other hand…I see quite clearly the intolerable situation that the founding of the State of Israel and many of its policies since has created for Palestinians both within the Green Line and in the occupied territories. The massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinian people since 1948 causes me to lay the bulk of responsibility for the current situation on a succession of Israeli governments, whatever the failings of Palestinian leadership. While I abhor violence in all forms, I can understand the grief, rage and despair that fuels Palestinian violence against Israelis. I am increasingly sensitive to the tensions inherent in trying to maintain Jewish dominance in Israel’s political realm while aspiring to be a true democracy. 

So, where does this “middle” position leave me?  What does it mean for the people of that land, both Israeli and Palestinian?  Most urgent, to my mind, is the need for a new narrative, one that helps us think beyond the categories of “Jew vs. Arab,”  “oppressor vs. oppressed”; one which will get us beyond the perpetual image of Jews and Palestinians as caricatures of victim or aggressor.  This project is urgent in North America because the increasing polarization between those who inhabit each of these narrative is tearing the American Jewish community apart.  We need not just respectful listening to those with whom we disagree, but an entirely new way to think about the issues, new frames of reference which will get us out of this polarized box in which we find ourselves.

Sitting outside of Israel, I am less qualified to say what the urgent project there is, although I do believe that the narrative of victimization and fear plays a not-insignificant role in keeping Israelis from making needed moves toward ending the occupation.  This past summer, as part of the first RRA mission to Israel, I had the privilege to meet Palestinian peace activist Ali Abu Awwad.  Ali has moved himself out of a narrative of fear and anger, and something he said to us has stayed with me:  “You cannot make change if you are a victim.”  To hear these words from a Palestinian man who has lost so much—his family became refugees in 1948; his brother was killed during the first Intifadah; he himself was shot and jailed for five years—was enough to show me that there is another way, but it will demand a transformation in both Israeli and Palestinian hearts and minds: A willingness to shed the status of victim, to move beyond fear, to be both truthful about the reality of the situation while having the audacity to believe that things can be different.

I am not a Palestinian solidarity activist, and I am not a true-blue Zionist in the ways that some may define that term. I do not believe that Jewish survival or the flourishing of Jewish culture can be established on top of the suffering of others.  We may have to jettison some aspects of what we once thought a “Jewish state” might be in order to accommodate some portion of the demands of the Palestinian people, who have already lost as much as we have gained.  Ultimately, however the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, Israel must become a state of its citizens, fulfilling the promise of its Declaration of Independence. The shape and form of Israeli culture and its connections to Judaism—and beyond Judaism and Jews—will continue to evolve, and may go in directions that we cannot yet imagine.

Yet at the same time I adamantly affirm that we Jews have the right, just as all people do, to seek our own self-determination, and to enhance our own security and wellbeing. I simply believe that the way to do that is not through building higher walls and bigger bombs, but through becoming pioneers once again, and showing the world that peaceful coexistence with the “other” is not an idle dream, but rather something that can be brought to be, im tirtzu.

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