For many years, now decades, I have been silent as a Jew about Israel’s relationship to, and treatment of, the Palestinian people and my place as an American Jew in that equation. Recently, I looked back at the Jews who I have known personally, as friends and acquaintances, and examined how their views about Palestinians and Israel have affected me and deepened my silence.
Following the lightning-fast victory of Israel over Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the resulting improvement in relations between Egypt and Israel after the Camp David Accords in 1978, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip appeared solidified. The seeming invincibility of Israel in both the 1967 and 1973 wars led, I believe, to a false perception of invincibility and self-righteousness among many Jews took hold. No longer would Jews be victims, as during the Holocaust, but they would meet any challenge and react with force whenever and wherever a threat appeared. It portrayed Jews as strong as reflected in Israel’s treatment of its neighboring states, and in particular in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The government of Israel was showing the world how rapid and lethal a response could be to attacks, such as suicide bombings, against the people of Israel. Jews would never again be viewed as weak and subject to vicious mass attacks and attempted genocide as symbolized by the Holocaust. The stereotype of Jews as weak would be destroyed forever! The development of a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons is perhaps a reflection of the interplay between these historic and psychological factors. Who is more impervious to an outside threat than a state that possesses the ultimate power of weapons of mass destruction?
Jews in the U.S. were expected to accept their roles as supporters of whatever policy Israel adopted. Those Jews who wavered would be open to the most vicious attacks. Perhaps no one better typifies this phenomenon than Professor Norman G. Finkelstein, who lost his bid for tenure at DePaul University in May 2008, after a campaign of vicious attacks aimed at silencing his scholarly criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and the industry that had grown up, primarily in the U.S., to profit from the horror of the Holocaust. His books, among them The Holocaust Industry (2000) and Beyond Chutzpah (2005) have drawn stinging attacks. Among his most vehement detractors is Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard.
The power of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. is partially explained by studying the monetary might behind that influence. The most powerful of these organizations is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which in the 2004 alone had a $33 million budget with a staff of 140.
James David reports in his article “A Passionate Attachment to Israel,” that the Israel lobby had contributed $41 million to congressional and presidential candidates over the past 54 years (2002). University of San Francisco Professor Stephen Zunes states, in the article “The Strategic Functions of U.S. Aid to Israel,” that “more than $1.5 billion in private U.S. funds…go to Israel annually.”
The emergence of the image of Israel as invincible, and any criticism of Israel by Jews viewed as self-loathing and self-hating, is paralleled by the growth of the religious right in the U.S., which sees Israel as part of the biblical prediction of the final war (Armageddon) fought in the Middle East as reflected in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Indeed, the religious Right and Jews are strange bedfellows! Amid all of the rhetoric of moral support Israel would continue to benefit greatly from the largess of the U.S., receiving one-third of total U.S. foreign aid despite the fact that per capita income among Israelis is among the highest in the world. Such is the payoff for occupying the position as acting as an agent for the projection of raw military might in the Middle East by the U.S.
The antithesis of the Jews who were invincible was the self-hating Jew, again, usually any Jew who dared to criticize Israel’s policies toward the people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This phenomenon is remarkable for its sheer chutzpah in that the highest values of Jewish life, both religious and secular, are the tolerance and acceptance of others, the universal value of life, the championing of the downtrodden, the belief in fair play, and the search for peace and justice. These values are at the very root of the Jewish peoples’ struggle for survival and irresistible search for knowledge over many millennia. The most bellicose attacks are reserved for Jews who are scholars, artists and intellectuals.
One footnote to the attempt to paint U.S. Jews as universally supporting Israel, and Israel’s handling of the Palestinian issue, was the incessant propaganda campaigns in the media to portray the Palestinian people and their leadership as both totally undemocratic and hostile to the many attempts brokered by Washington to bring peace to the region. In fact, the most recent attempt to create an autonomous Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, during the Clinton administration, wrongly attributed its failure to the leadership of the Palestinians, when the actual territory of a supposed Palestinian state never materialized as part of the negotiations. The so-called “Two State Solution” never existed on paper. Meanwhile, Jewish settlements in the West Bank grew, as does the wall to block off needed access of the people of the West Bank to Israel. Attacks and counterattacks continue.
Most Jews in the U.S. favor an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, when questioned further by pollsters, they say that the prospect for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people is dim. I looked at opinion polls of Jews in the U.S. and Israel and their attitudes toward this issue.
Just prior to the Second Intifada, a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times among Israelis and American Jews showed a minority (44%) of Israeli Jews support the two-state concept compared to 68% of Jews in the U.S. Polls conducted by the American Jewish Committee from 2001 through 2006 indicated that a relatively consistent 54% of American Jews favored the establishment of a Palestinian state.
I examined the relationships I’ve had with several friends and acquaintances to try to learn if the figures cited above are reflected in the opinions of real people. What I found was very disappointing!
I’ve known Robert for twenty-five years. He was a well-regarded and liberal professor. He had become a favorite of students during the Vietnam War because of his strong antiwar stance. I recall one student I had in class for an undergraduate course who had had Robert in a single course as an undergraduate. The student railed at Robert’s liberalism. Robert and I usually spoke several mornings following our workouts at a local community center. During one session I was shocked to hear Robert referring to Israel as “Eretz Israel,”meaning the biblical land of Palestine referred to in the Old Testament. He had always been critical of my criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians, but claiming the biblical homeland as solely Jewish was difficult to accept from a person who was otherwise thoughtful and articulate in discussing foreign affairs, and who had been a staunch antiwar spokesperson.
I’ve known Sheila and Paul since taking a graduate course Paul taught. Our families have socialized for years. They are both Orthodox Jews. Paul never served in the military, a position I had no problem with having been a resister during the Vietnam War. Years after our families had grown, and Sheila and Paul’s oldest son had begun college, I was dumbfounded to find a picture of Paul and his son in a local newspaper. They both wore uniforms of the Israel Defense Forces, and the caption beneath their picture stated that they were involved in a summer program to aid the IDF by performing work on an Israeli military base so that soldiers could be freed from those duties.
Rebecca and Philip have been friends for four years. Philip’s father served in the Israeli army during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Rebecca holds both an Israeli and U.S. passport, her family having immigrated to Israel after the Holocaust. Recently, while I was visiting with Philip, Rebecca arrived at their house, exiting her car with arms flailing. She could hardly contain her anger. “I just heard a report on National Public Radio. Those monsters are going to allow Al-Jazeera to be broadcast in Vermont. I can’t believe they’ll allow that propaganda on the radio!” What Rebecca was referring to was the decision of one media outlet in one area of Vermont to broadcast Al Jazeera, a news service in the Middle East that has produced a separate English-language counterpart in the U.S.
Philip seethes with anger and animosity toward Palestinians. I cannot bring the subject up when we speak. One wall of their home is covered with pictures and news stories of his father’s exploits during the 1948 war. During the Vietnam War Philip was deferred from the draft because of his employment in the defense industry.
I have known Richard and Diane most of my life. Both of their children have taken part in the March of the Living, a remembrance of the Holocaust and its victims that passes many World War II concentration camps. Both children have traveled in Israel as part of the Birthright Israel program that conducts free tours of Israel for Jews from other countries. Richard is the son of Holocaust survivors. His voice turns to a growl when discussing Palestinians. One of his often-repeated statements is, “You can’t trust an Arab.” It is impossible to engage him in a meaningful debate or discussion about a Palestinian state. I realize that there is a definite psychological impact being a close relative of a Holocaust survivor; however, what I can’t understand is the absence of compassion as a result of the terror that was done to Jews in Nazi Germany.
I also know liberal Jews. They are strongly in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state; some also favor reparations for Palestinians who left, or were driven from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. More typical however, of the people I come in contact with is the man who works out in the gym of a community center. One day I overheard him talking to another person in the gym in support of the wall being constructed between Israel and the West Bank. When I interject, “Don’t you think that building a wall is somewhat reminiscent of the wall constructed around the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II?” He yells, “I can’t believe that a Jew would say such a thing! Are you a maniac? Do you want to harm Israel?”
Israel has not fared well in either the General Assembly or the Security Council of the United Nations, although Israel can depend on U.S. support in the latter. More than half of the resolutions dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict have either criticized or opposed Israel. In the General Assembly, away from the veto power of the U.S., 429 resolutions relating to Israel have been passed, of which 321 condemned Israel (1967-1989). Resolutions passed relating to Israel involve what is called the “Pacific Settlement of Disputes,” and are not enforceable.
Figures showing the number of deaths resulting from the Second Intifada, the uprising against Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, showed 4,269 Palestinians killed between 2000 and 2006, while 1,017 Israelis were killed during the same period (Other estimates indicate that the number of Palestinian deaths have been far higher). These figures reflect the military superiority of the IDF and their backing, both politically and with military hardware, from the U.S.
In examining my own beliefs as a secular Jew I read Judaism in a Secular Age: A Anthology of Secular Humanistic Thought (1995). I wanted to assess the thinking of Jewish scholars, artists and writers over the past several hundred years to attempt to learn about early attitudes toward the establishment of a Jewish state and its relationship to the people of Palestine. What I found was a generally liberal view of live and let live in relationship to Palestinians who had coexisted with Jews in Palestine prior to the founding of Israel. Consistent with the Jewish secular tradition, I found openness to the high value placed on tolerance of the differences of others.
Over the past decade I have had two interactions with one of the most prominent Jewish organizations in the U.S., the Anti-Defamation League. In 2001 I went to the group after a neighbor threatened me by saying, “Hitler should have killed all the Jews,” because of his reaction to letters against war that were published in the local press. In 2007 I again approached the group after the paper The Truth At Last was left on my driveway. The “paper” contained both racist and anti-Semitic articles. In both cases my impression of the group was that their only concern was to collect data on anti-Semitic incidents.
I think writing this piece has been a kind of purging for my years of silence regarding Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As Israeli settlements expand in the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip continues, I can no longer remain silent.
HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer.