In the last few weeks I attended, along with several members of the Jewish community, a series of talks that was supposed to focus on a just peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. The series, “Steadfast Hope: Perspectives on Peace and Justice for Palestine and Israel,” organized in cooperation with the International Center for Peace and held in a local church, was initially presented as a discussion, a dialogue. Soon after arriving, though, I was shocked to find that instead of a dialogue, the series was nothing more than a means for spreading hateful propaganda. A focused anti-Israel series; a hate pill. A call for political and economic warfare covered in chocolate sweet talk.
As the organizers later admitted, “We are here to present our side of the truth,” not to find common ground and truly engage the challenges of peace-building between opposing parties. The organizers’ version of “the truth” was very simple, I might say childish: The Palestinians are all good, kind and peace-seeking people; they have no evident political ideologies, no history of political movements, leaders, and “military wings” that have been at war with the Jewish nation since well before 1967.
For the most part, these cardboard Palestinians do not act, they react; as such, they are innocent victims and nothing else. Not a word about terrorism after 1929, autocracy in Palestinian society, Islamic radicalism, brutal attacks on Israeli citizens, hate education in Palestinian schools, or anything else that might detract from this simplistic portrait. The wider Arab-Israeli conflict does not exist. All that matters is “the occupation.” Israel as a Jewish state is evil, a brutal entity, focused on doing bad: cutting down trees, demolishing houses; an evil entity that needs to be destroyed. At the very least, the speakers were clear that this evil state should be opposed and pressured into making unilateral concessions.
Nothing was demanded of Palestinians; they are responsible for nothing. Their weakness is a moral virtue and has nothing to do with their leaders’ choices or with widely shared fantasies of eradicating the Jewish state by peaceful or non-peaceful means. Some of the presenters were quite open in their opinion that Israel, as the nation-state of the Jews, should be abolished as a prerequisite for democracy, peace, and justice. “A state cannot be both Jewish and democratic, being Jewish and democratic is a contradiction,” claimed one of the organizers.
The fact that 80 percent of the six million Jews who live in Israel are secular Jews who experience their Jewishness as their nationality, their ethnicity, did not really bother any of the presenters. Denying those Israelis their human right of self-determination seems democratic to them.
Even if all Jews considered Jewish identity to be purely a matter of religion, this would still not be incompatible with democratic, Jewish statehood. There are at least 18 Christian countries in the world, some of which are clearly democratic: Denmark, Sweden, England, Spain and Greece come to mind. Where exactly is the contradiction? Also, if ethnic and religious states are antithetical to peace and justice, why aren’t the organizers of this series campaigning for the world to punish theocratic and violently oppressive Muslim regimes, such as that of Hamas? Why are these righteous activists not up in arms about the fact that Egypt is officially an Arab state, called the Arab Republic of Egypt, or that Turkey legally defines a citizen as an ethnic “Turk” (Kurds and others notwithstanding)? Why is all the venom reserved for Israel?
One part of the answer may be that for these activists, “Facts are the enemy of truth.” When a person embraces a dogmatic picture of reality, no fact may stand in the way. In a horrifying example, one of the organizers falsely accused the United States and Israel of collaborating in testing experimental weapons on Palestinian children.
The program also ignored the basic fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only part of the bigger Israeli-Arab conflict. “Why can’t we all live together, share the same resources, with no borders?” said one of the speakers. Sure, in a perfect world we might, but why not try it first in a region with less conflict, say U.S.-Mexico or U.S.-Canada? Even the EU preserves the sovereign borders of its member states, many of which define themselves in religious and ethnic terms.
After the talks at the church, I came home asking myself how can voices that promote the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, by demonizing it and by trumpeting hateful calls for exclusive boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against it, possibly claim to promote peace and justice in the Middle East? Above all, I asked myself, what boundaries may we as a society set to protect our democracy and our Jewish community from such hatred? Should we tolerate open, admitted racists in our community for the sake of democratic openness? Should we allow those who deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination a place at our table? How can we support criticism and open discussion and at the same time prevent the promotion of hatred and misinformation such as I experienced during these talks? Honestly, I don’t know. What is clear, however, is that finding a genuine, long-lasting solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, including the needs of the Palestinians, is extremely important. I am convinced that the vast majority of people who are now within our communal tent are fully committed to this goal. And there can be no real solution for the conflict without recognizing the basic right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s Israeli shaliach (emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.