Talking to Palestinians Who Won’t Talk Back
A rejoinder to Peter Beinart
When I was an undergraduate, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance invited the Palestine Solidarity Committee to the movies–specifically Boston’s Jewish and Palestine Film Festivals. It was a creative concept for a coexistence event. The response from the PSC, however, was less inspired. The organization explained that while PJA was welcome to join them at the Palestine Film Festival, and that some PSC members might be interested in attending the Jewish one, under no circumstances could the fact that Palestinians accompanied PJA to the Jewish Film Festival be advertised. PSC would not officially co-sponsor such an outing. In other words, the Jewish community was welcome to offer its empathy and legitimacy to the Palestinian perspective, but the Palestinian community would not reciprocate. The event did not take place.
This was not an isolated incident. As hostilities raged in Gaza in early 2009, PJA, Harvard Students for Israel, the Society of Arab Students, and the Harvard Islamic Society organized a peace vigil with a simple email: “Join us as we mourn the loss of human life in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. We pray that one day we will be able to truly co-exist in peace, security, and health.” Candles were held aloft while both Jewish and Islamic prayers for peace were movingly recited in the cold evening air. The only organization that boycotted the gathering was the Palestine Solidarity Committee. Some months later, one of their board members published an op-ed arguing that Israel’s ambassador and former Harvard professor Michael Oren should be barred from campus.
I was reminded of these stories, and many others, when reading Peter Beinart’s latest article in the New York Review of Books, “American Jewish Cocoon.” In it, Beinart rightly calls out American Jews for historically failing to engage with their Palestinian counterparts. “For the most part, Palestinians do not speak in American synagogues or write in the Jewish press.” As a consequence, he says, “the organized American Jewish community [is] a closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control. And the result is that American Jewish leaders, even those who harbor no animosity toward Palestinians, know little about the reality of their lives.”
This is all true, which is why you should read and consider Beinart’s eloquent essay in full. But it is not the whole truth–and those seeking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to understand why. Because as it turns out, more and more Jews are reaching out to Palestinians, only to find that they no longer have anyone to talk to. As one officer for OneVoice, the grassroots peace-building movement, has observed, where once it was difficult to get Jews into a room with Palestinians, now it has become difficult to find a Palestinian who will share the stage with a Zionist Jew.
On Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to share a pre-Rosh Hashana toast with the over 30 members of the Knesset’s two-state solution caucus. Abbas had invited the Jewish lawmakers to Ramallah to reciprocate their hosting him at the Knesset on July 31–only the second time a Palestinian flag was unfurled at the Israeli parliament. But on Monday, he cancelled the toast, reportedly “because he came under pressure from the anti-normalization movement in Ramallah.” This, too, was not an isolated incident.
For its August issue, Forbes ran a cover story entitled “Peace Through Profits? Inside the Secret Tech Ventures that are Reshaping the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian World.” In the piece, investigative journalist Richard Behar detailed how Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs have been quietly working together on high-tech projects, effectively forging the economic infrastructure for coexistence. Its optimism was rare and refreshing. It was also short-lived. This past Wednesday, Behar published a follow-up about his story’s reception. “Virtually every Israeli who contacted me reacted positively,” he wrote. “But the vast majority of Palestinians who were featured by Forbes reacted with disappointment, upset, and sometimes fear or fury… Some worry that the story will harm their businesses by sparking retaliation from Arab extremists. One says he’s already seeing such a backlash.” A Palestinian CEO even asked Behar to take down the article, adding, “You should have run it by us first. The first thing we would have told you is move the word ‘peace’ out of the article.”
These examples are just from the last week. Innumerable others–from boycotts of mixed Israeli-Palestinian soccer teams, to crusades against the Israeli-Palestinian orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, to successful shuttering of coexistence concerts by threats of violence–can easily be adduced. The anti-normalization movement–which advocates total boycott of all institutions and organizations that do not openly disavow Zionism, and works to exact a social, political, and economic price from those who breach it–grows every day. A representative manifesto, signed by Palestinian student unions in the occupied territories and around the world, explicitly condemns the work of “organizations like Seeds of Peace, One Voice, NIR School, IPCRI, Panorama, and others specifically target Palestinian youth to engage them in dialog with Israelis.”
Beinart is aware of anti-normalization’s perils, but he devotes only two of his essay’s 46 paragraphs to it. Given his target audience–American Jews–this focus on one side’s sins is understandable. But it has the effect of indicting Jews in the pages of the NYRB for a lamentable situation that is not entirely their fault, while casting Palestinian isolationism as a mere footnote to American Jewry’s malaise. Moreover, such a narrow frame does not merely elide Palestinians; it also brackets out the many younger members of the Jewish community who have gone to great lengths to interact with their Palestinian counterparts–only to be rebuffed by the acolytes of anti-normalization.
“I recently spoke to a group of Jewish high school students who are being trained to become advocates for Israel when they go to college,” writes Beinart. “They were smart, earnest, passionate. When I asked if any had read a book by a Palestinian, barely any raised their hands.” Open up the New York Times, however, and one will find a very different story. “Several years ago, six teenagers at the SAR yeshiva high school in Riverdale came to the principal with a request,” reported the Times in 2009. “They wanted to study Arabic.” The principal said yes, and today there are over 40 students studying the language. “I feel like lots of people have misconceptions about Arabs and Palestinians,” one of those students told the Times, “and if I speak Arabic I can better understand the culture and understand what is really going on.”
SAR High School, which regularly sends graduates to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, is not alone. Ramaz, the elite Manhattan Modern Orthodox prep school, offers Arabic as well. “A small but growing number of Jewish day schools across the United States–including Modern Orthodox, Conservative and community schools,” The Forward noted in 2009, “have started to teach Arabic.” Why? A student from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland told The Forward, “One day I want an Arab to feel like a random American Jewish girl cares about him and his culture. I know that nothing I could possibly do could change the situation in the Middle East, but maybe if one Arab could meet a Jewish girl that cares, that could do something to tip the scale.” This phenomenon is not restricted to high school. At Harvard, it was a source of constant amusement that the university’s Arabic language classes were filled with American Jews. One was more likely to find students hawking Arabic textbooks on the Hillel listserv than a Jewish Study Bible.
University campuses are a particular source of concern for Beinart. He spends four paragraphs critiquing the Israel engagement guidelines of Hillel International, noting that they are “vague” and arguing that they tend to stifle conversation. “Those standards make it almost impossible for Jewish campus organizations to invite a Palestinian speaker,” he writes, adding “even moderate Palestinians like former prime minister Salam Fayyad, a favorite of America and Israel, support boycotting goods produced in the settlements,” and would therefore be unwelcome in Hillel. This was news to me, as I first learned about the idea of boycotting settlement goods at Harvard Hillel from Palestinian peace activist Aziz Abu Sarah. Indeed, in practice, the vagueness of Hillel’s non-binding guidelines has often given individual Hillel directors across the country the latitude to allow for a wide range of views. Which is why one prominent settlement boycott activist has become a fixture in campus Hillel houses: Peter Beinart.
In other words, for every anecdote of American Jewish isolation Beinart provides, one can easily find a countervailing instance of openness, particularly among young Jews. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their prospective Palestinian partners.
Who are the faces of Palestine on campus? As Beinart acknowledges in his piece, they are activists like Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, who not only vehemently opposes a two-state solution, but repeatedly claims that “Zionism is anti-Semitism,” and actively shames those who engage with Zionists. He personally shouted down former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the University of Chicago. And when Columbia University professor Katherine Franke–who supports Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state but not anti-normalization–dared to meet with J Street and other liberal Zionist activists in an effort to forge common ground, Abunimah’s site publicly criticized her.
Another prominent Palestinian intellectual on campus, Joseph Massad, associate professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, has made a career out of scholarship that attempts to equate Zionism with anti-Semitism, as well as link it with Nazism. And Omar Barghoutti, the master spokesperson for the BDS and anti-normalization movements, refuses to engage whatsoever with Zionists, and famously asserted that Israel “was Palestine, and there is no reason why it should not be renamed Palestine.” These individuals and their many disciples on campus work assiduously to undermine any prospect of Jewish Zionist-Palestinian rapprochement: they have shouted down Israel’s most dovish leader, Ehud Olmert, in multiple forums; assailed Ambassador Michael Oren and called for him to be banned from campus; and even disrupted Israeli cultural events abroad with no actual political component. For the advocates of anti-normalization, it is not enough to reject dialogue with Zionist groups–such conversation must be actively silenced.
Thus, the tragic irony of the rise of anti-normalization among Palestinians is that it coincides with the rise of a new generation of American Jews who are most open to dialogue. Unlike their elders, these young Jews didn’t grow up in the shadow of war and intifada. They’ve experienced Israel as a secure and powerful state, and so are themselves secure enough to reach out to their Palestinian interlocutors. But in a cruel twist of fate, even as many American Jews have finally emerged from their cocoon, they’ve found that there isn’t anyone outside who wants to talk to them. Where in the past, many Palestinians were eager to press their case, years of stagnation and occupation have empowered the rejectionists, who accept nothing less than the dissolution of Israel.
“When I was an undergrad student, there were many panels and debates between Israelis and Palestinians, or their surrogates,” recounts one longtime peace activist in Haaretz. “But today you can count on one hand the number of events where Israelis and Palestinians have joint public events.” While young American Jews are increasingly bringing a positive-sum outlook to their campus communities, their Palestinian counterparts have increasingly accepted a zero-sum approach. “As we in the Jewish community finally come out of our own internal Jewish conversation,” the activist laments, “we will face a Palestinian community that is only willing to speak to us about a one-state solution.”
Ultimately, then, the best metaphor for the sad saga of Jewish-Palestinian dialogue is not Beinart’s image of a cocoon. Rather, the two communities have been like ships passing in the night, each just missing the window of opportunity to see and reach the other. Admittedly, this is not as satisfying a narrative as an indictment of the American Jewish establishment, or a simple condemnation of Palestinian extremism. It doesn’t have heroes and villains, or a straightforward reckoning of right and wrong. But then, few things about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually do.
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