How Not to Talk About the Israel-Palestine Conversation

Last week I read a piece in Tablet, “How to Talk About Israel and Palestine” by Carly Pildis. Having spent a good few years involved in this very issue (within largely American, college/university-based Jewish communities), I have what to say whenever anyone writes about it. 

I have a lot of disagreements with the piece, which I would mostly summarize as falling into two categories: presenting a simplified image of activists and ignoring the large power imbalance in the conflict. 

Here’s my own list (which I’ll limit to responses to what’s in Pildis’s article, though it’s not my exhaustive thoughts on the subject). 

 

1. Don’t make vague accusations of black-and-white thinking (particularly when your accused’s medium of communication is short on space)

Pildis:

Israel is a place, not a parable. It’s not a cartoon. It is neither a perfectly good nation nor an evil entity. It’s a country full of real people and their philosophies, politics, religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, and corresponding frictions.

I would be very happy if I never had to hear variations of “Israel isn’t perfectly good or completely evil” ever again. I have seen this in articles by Jewish leaders, hasbara how-to guides, and even a Yom Kippur sermon directed specifically at me.1 

From the language in the article, it seems that Pildis is addressing a certain strain of activists, both on the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine/anti-Occupation ends of the spectrum.

But very few people — even among activists — claim that either of these extremes is accurate. And yet it persists as a talking point, policing tone and sometimes content.

What I have heard is people level some harsh criticisms against Israel/the Israeli government,2 and then people get upset that they didn’t say anything nice about Israel to provide balance. Even if that would be completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. 

But it’s not just the non sequiturs. People have limited time (and in print, space) to explain the full depth of their opinion on a topic. Expecting an activist’s elevator pitch (or op-ed) to have your preferred level of nuance is usually unfair, especially if they’re coming from a different set of assumptions than you are. It might take hundreds of words to explain the complexity of the actual situation about which they’re advocating. 3

There are almost always real tradeoffs between length and nuance. No one expects a slogan on a protest sign to convey nuance. Tweets, social media posts, op-eds — these are all still relatively short-form media that are meant to stir conversation rather than be the final word. Read them with that in mind. 

2. View activists as a starting point for learning about unfamiliar issues — and then go to the experts for a deep dive

One of the most confusing aspects of Pildis’s article, which underpins almost the entire piece, is the assumption that people in this conversation are unreasonable and unwilling to engage with those too far outside their viewpoints. But there are plenty of thoughtful columnists and scholars out there with great intellectual contributions! It seems like Pildis is describing a certain type of activist, perhaps on social media. 

I understand that many people are turned off by activist rhetoric. But the activists, depending on their strategy, might not be out to convince you. Yes, really. They might be trying to rally their base, the people who already agree with them, rather than trying to convince you, on the fence (or on the other side of the fence.) Their time is not well-served by explaining every last detail of their position to you — they don’t see that as their role.4 

Having engaged in activism myself, while having a more thoughtful/careful personality (I certainly experienced some dissonance because of that!) — something I learned is that emotional appeals to your base of support are often the best strategy, especially when trying to accomplish something in a short amount of time. Times to do outreach are the slower times, when you’re not in the crunch time for a campaign. A consequence of this is that the crunch times are when you’re the most visible to the public…so the public might get an impression that you’re loud and unreasonable, because getting coffee with a curious person not yet 100% on board doesn’t make headlines.     

But even that outreach doesn’t usually involve political discussion of deep, substantive questions with people who already hold opposing viewpoints with any level of conviction. (Activist literature is typically targeted at people who aren’t engaged with the issue yet, who are low information but might be sympathetic.)

If you want to engage on a deeper intellectual level, you should go to the countless articulate thinkers who write articles/books, give lectures, and make podcasts that explain their perspectives at a slower pace, that patiently respond to counterarguments, that give more length and time for the details and nuance. 

3. Don’t accuse people of having a savior complex, or otherwise impugn motives — and remember that every side of an issue has advocates with a range of knowledge. 

[D]iaspora communities affected by the conflict are also real people, with real feelings, history, and family involved. They don’t owe you their  thoughts or feelings on a deeply personal and painful subject on demand to be dissected and debated by colleagues, friends, and acquaintances with no skin in the game.

Very few people who devote significant time to an issue truly have “no skin in the game.” 

Many American Jews were raised to view themselves as having plenty of skin in the game, and beyond that, the overwhelming majority of our shuls and communal institutions claim to support Israel in some way or another (and often do financially). 

I stay involved in the issue because I have dear friends who live in Israel-Palestine. Others have family there. Some American Jews have Israeli citizenship through one or both parents, and some Palestinian Americans are unable to visit their family members in Palestine because Israel will not let them in. All of these people have networks of friends and family who may or may not be Israeli or Palestinian themselves. Others, including Christians and Muslims, might feel a religious connection to the land and the people who live there. Gatekeeping on an issue — unless you have solid evidence of malicious intent — doesn’t help anyone.

Pildis opens the article by describing her friend, whom she met for coffee.

She is neither Jewish nor Palestinian; she’s never visited the region and speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic. Yet she is very passionate about this topic. She wanted to talk about ending the occupation, about human rights and about—in her words—saving Palestine. … I asked her a question: Had she ever actually met an Israeli? Had she ever met a Palestinian?  Embarrassed she replied, no, not once.

There are people who don’t have the same level of knowledge as you do, but still have strong opinions. While this can be annoying on a personal level, it’s important to remember that everyone getting involved in an issue starts somewhere. 5

People can come to the correct conclusions for the wrong reasons. That’s why you should always seek out multiple perspectives, finding the most knowledgeable and articulate advocates of different positions. It’s easy for me to laugh at the stupid hasbaraniks repeating their talking points. But I also cringe when an anti-Occupation activist says something blatantly incorrect, because I worry that someone will seize on it and make an example of them. 

Beyond the dividing line of actually living in Israel-Palestine (I say living in because lots of people have Israeli citizenship who haven’t lived in Israel in many years, or have never lived in Israel at all), the amount of gatekeeping that can be done on this issue is almost endless. While I might be curious as to why any random person might be interested in Israel-Palestine, I think the American government provides enough military assistance to Israel, and politicians talk about it enough, that any American has reason to hold an opinion regardless of why the topic interests them.    

4. People who support a single democratic state should be part of the conversation

She pushed some radical solutions, far outside the mainstream of pro-peace groups…

Pildis doesn’t specify what these “radical solutions” were, but assuming that her friend didn’t advocate for Israeli Jews going back to Europe or otherwise leaving Israel (that would be objectionable), I assume that she was referring to a single democratic state in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Even though political leaders still almost exclusively endorse two states, I don’t think it’s fair to characterize a single democratic state as radical. There is growing popular support among Palestinians,6 particularly the younger generation, for this arrangement. Why is a proposal with that level of support among a key demographic written off as radical? 

And for some reason, many in the pro-Israel camp seem to forget that there were prominent pre-state Zionists who supported a binational state, and while they were a minority, we don’t look back at them as “radicals” who rejected Jewish self-determination. Situations on the ground and feasibility of political arrangements change, and with a two-state agreement looking dead, no one should be categorically ruling out proposals that attempt to protect everyone’s basic civil and political rights, even if we think they might not work for any number of reasons. 

5. Don’t make the debate out to be more hostile than it is 

Muslim-Jewish relations and global Palestinian-Jewish relations are too often inflamed by saviorist, colonialist rhetoric which anoints one true narrative over the many tangled stories that make up the region. You must be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, and once you pick a side, you must prove your fevered devotion by never allowing for dialogue, nuance or any chance at peace. This happens because this zero-sum dynamic is not actually about Israel or Palestine or the region at all: It is about our own need for edification and glory. 

This rhetoric, making the Israel-Palestine conversation out to be irredeemably hostile (usually by focusing on the most charged/sensationalist situations), serves the interests of those trying to shut out more harshly critical views of Israel from Jewish institutions. 

I’m not saying this is intentional, but it has that effect. It’s easier to point fingers at more “controversial” activist speakers/groups, since there’s a pre-existing narrative that what they have to say will lack nuance or even be hostile towards well-meaning audience members. (If that’s the case, why should we spend money to invite them to speak?)

One of the most striking things about the Israel conversation within American Jewish communities, as I’ve experienced and heard from others repeatedly, is not only the misconceptions people have about [insert group outside the communal norms], but also the amount of fear that people have about engaging with others on this issue — even those within their own community. When we characterize exposure to challenging viewpoints as being inherently inflammatory, or participants in the debate as motivated by self-aggrandizement rather than genuine moral conviction, we only increase fear and avoidance among those who want to learn more, but worry that they will be attacked for asking certain questions.  

And while I don’t discount others’ experiences, in the context of asking panelists questions, I have personally felt like my good-faith questions have been met with good-faith answers. (People who are rude to audience members don’t tend to do well on the speaking circuit.) 

6. Sometimes affinity is affectedness

Some racial justice groups have expressed a feeling of kinship to the Palestinian cause. Some religious Christian groups express an affinity and a feeling of closeness with Israel. While building bridges with others is laudable, we should all be circumspect about tying affinity to affectedness.

Pildis gives examples of Christian evangelical solidarity with Israel and Black-Palestinian solidarity as examples where people should be careful about “tying affinity to affectedness.” 7

But this is a false equivalency: Christian evangelical support for Israel is primarily one-sided — evangelical Christians are supporting Israel (or the Israeli Right, often the settler movement specifically), but I’m not aware of a pattern of Israeli figures reciprocating by supporting evangelical-specific causes in the United States. The closest reciprocity is Netanyahu supporting Trump (maybe that counts for something, but that probably would be happening regardless.)

Evangelical Christian support for Israel is also not based on common issues facing evangelical Christians and Israelis. Evangelical Christians support Israel based on religious conviction, and Israelis…think that’s nice (if a little weird.)

Black-Palestinian solidarity is very different — it’s reciprocal (to the extent that it can be given that Palestinians often face greater travel restrictions in traveling to the US than vice versa) and based on similar issues that both communities face. Palestinians were communicating with black protesters in Ferguson about how to handle tear gas, since the Israeli army and American police officers were using the same types of tear gas canisters. It’s more than seeing yourself in other groups. It’s about sharing organizing strategies to combat similar challenges. 

Some of the article’s recommendations fell flat because they were based on certain political (centrist Zionist/pro-Israel) premises.

In the past, when trying to convince others of the utility of allowing a more diverse range of viewpoints in communal institutions, I’ve tried to avoid explicit political discussion — focusing on finding a common language with interlocutors who don’t necessarily share my own views on Israel. 

But I’m not sure this was always a good idea. Certain arguments in this article (that I’ve also seen elsewhere) advocate a sort of disengagement based on not living in Israel. But that doesn’t make sense if you see your own community and government as being implicated.

7. American Jewish anti-Occupation activists are here to stay. That’s because we believe that there is a power imbalance in the conflict in favor of Israel, Israel systematically oppresses Palestinians, and most American Jewish institutions are complicit. 

This is the biggest disconnect as I see it between people with whom I generally agree and people with whom I hit a wall and have to dial back and start discussing more fundamental issues. 

What happens when people don’t recognize this reality is that they write sentences like this:

Ultimately, it comes down to one very simple rule: Israelis and Palestinians need to solve the conflict.

[T]his conflict isn’t about us. 

For people in my political camp, the huge power differential between Israelis and Palestinians means that Israel and Palestine cannot just work things out between themselves. This isn’t a conflict that will be solved by more dialogue. (Dialogue is nice on a person-to-person level for those who want to experience it, but it will not solve the core issues.) International pressure might help. And in the United States, undoing the assumption that the Israeli government represents Jewish interests — helping our elected representatives understand that they won’t lose our vote if they vote for a bill condemning Israel’s child imprisonment practices, for example, is one step in that process.  

And this conflict is about us, at least to some extent — it’s about us as Americans, when our government enables Israeli policies that violate human rights. And it’s also about us as Jews, particularly if we interact with mainstream communal institutions (denominationally affiliated shuls, Hillels, federations) who fund projects in Israeli settlements, or at the very least promote hasbara talking points among our own communities. Many of us also feel implicated when the Israeli government claims to speak for us and represent us, even as we wish that were not the case. 

8. Don’t patronize Palestinians, and don’t call international activists patronizing for listening to them

[Palestinians] have agencies and form complex alliances and hold diverse opinions and don’t need some American academic, well meaning as she may be, to swoop in and save them from themselves.

But, nu, Palestinian civil society did ask that American academic to boycott Israeli institutions? I can only assume that Pildis is speaking about a hypothetical BDS-supporting professor. 

It’s quite striking how perverse this is. Not only is Pildis blatantly not listening to Palestinians, but she then implies that someone supporting a Palestinian-led movement has a white savior complex.

It’s almost like she should take her own advice:

[L]isten to the voices on the ground and come to their aid when asked, even if the ask doesn’t fit some overall grand narrative you have in your head.

Notes

  1. Yes, I asked, and yes, the rabbi confirmed that it was about me.
  2. I make the distinction here because I assume many people reading this do, and they feel that criticizing Israeli policies is legitimate but criticizing Israel’s “existence” is not. (At minimum, Israel’s existence is generally defined by having a Jewish demographic majority.) While I do not think those advocating for single democratic state are beyond the boundaries of reasonable debate, as I describe below, I note the distinction here because others see this divide as being essential to acknowledge.
  3. To take one issue on which many friends have worked on, I would be hard-pressed to explain the bureaucratic nightmare of Palestinians getting building permits in Area C of the West Bank within the space of a typical op-ed — but it’s a real issue that people need to understand.
  4. I do acknowledge that activists can sometimes be unreasonable by not explaining that, since I don’t think much of the general public understands. The proper way to respond to the inquisitive person who showed up to the rally is to recommend some books or journalists, not get upset at said person for asking what sounded like a loaded question.
  5. It seemed from the description that the woman in question had not yet begun actually engaging in activism, but rather was gathering a variety of perspectives — which sounds reasonable. It also sounds like she was deeply disturbed by reports of human rights abuses on the part of the Israeli government — also very understandable.
  6. According to a June 2019 poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, “31% support abandoning the two-state solution and demanding the establishment of one state for Palestinians and Israelis.”
  7. Pildis doesn’t specify evangelical Christians, but given that American Catholics are not so involved in the issue, and many mainline Protestant denominations are increasingly supporting Palestinian solidarity initiatives, I can only assume that’s what she means when talking about “Christian groups express[ing] an affinity and a feeling of closeness with Israel”.

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