ISRAEL-PALESTINE — As the Middle Eastern sun shone down on our backs, we were relieved to find a brief moment of shade along the edge of the dirt path leading us into the Wadi Khureitun canyon. If we had followed this path to its end from our base in the Israeli settlement of Tekoa, we would have reached the Dead Sea. We were trekking through a territory marred by violence; one where almost two decades earlier Koby Mandell, the teenage son of a nearby settler, was murdered in a terror attack during the Second Intifada. As I listened to Rabbi Shaul Judelman, co-director of the grassroots Palestinian-Israel network and conflict resolution organization Roots, share a vision of peaceful coexistence between Israel and Palestine — for him, two states with one homeland — I struggled to reconcile his words with the divisive rhetoric I had heard over the last few days. Between Israeli condemnations of Palestinians as breeding a culture of violence and Palestinians’ resentment of the oppressive conditions of life under Israeli military occupation, talk of peace seemed utterly quixotic.
At once illuminating and exhausting, my experience going on Birthright, a free trip to Israel for foreign Jews sponsored in part by the Israeli government, and Trekstension, a follow-up trip and geopolitical exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict run by Harvard Hillel, showed me how deeply conflicting narratives can simultaneously hold powerful truths. Growing up in the United States, I had always heard about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black-and-white terms. You either supported Palestine or Israel. You either wanted a two-state or a one-state solution. You either stood on the side of justice or you stood with the oppressor. On the ground in the region, however, I found that such a binary narrative failed to capture the complexity of this value-based conflict and of prospects for peace. Yet what struck me most was not the reality of such complexity but its absence in many of our conversations on campus — an absence we must remedy if we value informed and meaningful dialogue.
Understanding the Nuance
Religion, ethnicity, and geopolitics are only a few of the many lenses we apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet none of these lenses can provide a full picture on their own. On the ground, identity and ideology are intertwined. Religion and ethnicity color struggles for autonomy and statehood on both sides.
Just as it is all too easy to pick one lens, it is all too easy to pick one side and craft a story of victimhood. One might view the Palestinians as an oppressed people and demonize Israel, the controlling power. Or, one might view the Jews as a historically oppressed people who, now finally possessing their own state, yet again face threats of displacement and even elimination. Yet the victim-villain narrative simply does not apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians and Israelis alike have committed egregious acts of violence against one another and disseminated hatred, obstructing conflict resolution. By the same token, both have experienced incredible loss and view their very existence as under threat. So long as each side is portrayed only as a villain incapable of engaging in dialogue or as a victim seeking dramatic measures of justice, rather than as one of two peoples with legitimate but overlapping historical and cultural territorial claims entitled to a fair division, the prospects for peace seem dim.
In addition to discarding the victim-villain narrative, it is crucial to recognize that deep divisions exist within both sides of the conflict. Neither Israelis or Palestinians are an ideologically, culturally, religiously or ethnically homogenous group. Within Israel, for instance, the exemption of the ultra-Orthodox from mandatory military service remains a source of societal tension. This group’s conservative social values also contrast many views of the majority secular population. Palestine also contains religious and ideological diversity, as well as divergent political powers. There are Palestinians with full Israeli citizenship or residency, ones who live under military occupation in territories run by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and others in the Gaza Strip controlled by the terrorist organization Hamas.
Blinded by the Binary
This past April, Harvard College’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee staged their annual Israeli Apartheid Week. As part of an international movement supporting boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, IAW stirred controversy on campus. Harvard Hillel members spoke out against the week’s events, with Zionist students condemning its “disregard for veracity and truth.” The drama highlighted the lack of open dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here at Harvard. While stimulating some new interest in the conflict, it did not provide opportunities for the greater campus community to build the solidarity and understanding across religious, ethnic, and ideological lines that advance real prospects for peace.
As a student outside the PSC and Harvard Hillel circles, the week seemed to solidify a binary narrative, reducing debate to one question: Are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine? It is a question I, as someone with Jewish heritage, received numerous times from well-meaning curious friends. The sense that a person’s position on the conflict can be reduced to support for the existence of a single state not only inherently negates the reality that both Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians have deep historical and cultural ties to the land but dissuades us from exploring more nuanced perspectives. It also reinforces the problematic notion that one’s personal religious or ethnic identity must define one’s attitude toward the conflict. Certainly, a Jewish student can support the existence of a democratic Jewish state and condemn the actions of Israel’s right-wing Netanyahu administration for posing obstacles to peace, just as a Palestinian student can support the liberation of occupied Palestine without supporting the terrorist organization Hamas or the obliteration of Israel. Holding individuals accountable for the perspectives of the conflict’s stereotypical players because of their personal identity can only stifle, rather than invite, dialogue.
Finding Our Voices
While some view foreigners as unentitled to engage with the conflict, our voices as American Jews and Palestinians, as well as concerned democratic citizens, have a vital role to play. Distance allows for objectivity, which is needed in a value-laden conflict. And with U.S. foreign policy shaping the situation, we have a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable for furthering rather than obstructing peace.
We must also realize that we can share a belief in peace while differing on how to achieve it. Branding Israel as an apartheid state has catalyzed calls for change, but it has also fueled divisions among many who legitimately support peace and a free Palestine yet find the label misleading. Apartheid is a powerful term that should be used appropriately. From checkpoints to segregated roads, it is clear that occupied Palestine represents an Israeli apartheid state — no other term quite captures this system of segregation. While the existence of Palestinians with full Israeli citizenship and residency in Israel proper does not negate this reality, it also speaks to the complexity of the conflict and its notable differences from that of apartheid South Africa. Unlike South Africa, the system in place does not reflect a campaign for racial supremacy. Rather, it reflects a campaign by one indigenous people to maintain control of land claimed by another, with Israel holding the dominant regional power and raising serious ethical questions in how it exercises that power. And while it is true that claims of anti-Semitism can sometimes suppress due criticism of Israel, it is also true that the BDS movement has been co-opted by anti-Semitic groups.
As I stared into the abyss of the Wadi nearing my trip’s end, I knew that irrespective of physical distance I could never think about Israel-Palestine in the same way again. The binary narrative ignored the human side of the story — how the conflict is only a part, even if an overwhelming one, of the everyday lives Israelis and Palestinians alike already strive to lead peacefully. Just as there are no clear answers to the conflict, there are no clear answers as to how to foster a full and meaningful dialogue on campus. Yet there are clear steps for where to begin. Student groups across the ideological spectrum can co-host events offering diverse perspectives. There and in our own conversations, we can push ourselves to challenge and transcend the binary. We can seek to explore Israeli and Palestinian narratives when we travel and share our insights. Perhaps most importantly, we can recognize that confusion is an invaluable part of the process. Real dialogue requires asking tough questions. Otherwise, it is all the more difficult to take meaningful action for a world where two states with one homeland can find peace.
Images Credits: Ilana Cohen