The Bigger Picture in Israel/Palestine

Most of the news stories I see about Israel and Palestine focus on recent events.

For example, in the latest violence, 213 Palestinians in Gaza are dead (including 61 children) plus another 16 in the West Bank — compared to about 10 Israelis (including two children). President Biden has “expressed support for a cease-fire” but so far peace talks have stalled.

However, one needs to look at the bigger picture to contextualize the immediate details.

The story I heard at my synagogue growing up is that Israel is the Jews’ historic homeland. Following a diaspora and a few millennia of persecution, Jews pursued an impossible dream of reclaiming their homeland — and they successfully did so in 1948.

The high points of my religious education included a lot of persecution (Jews were killed during the Crusades, the Black Death, the Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and the Holocaust) and the Jewish side of the story of Israel’s founding. In this telling, Jews are the heroic underdogs who finally have a land of their own where they are free from persecution.

That history of persecution is painful and true. But we talked less about the persecution the Israeli state itself has carried out.

The traditional Zionist version of the story skates over the fact that when large numbers of Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 20th century, Palestinians already lived there. We never discussed Palestinians’ rights in Sunday school. Instead, our lessons gave the general impressions that Palestinians were all terrorists who did not deserve rights.

That falsehood broke down in five minutes the first time I met a Palestinian on a family trip to Israel at age 18. He was just some guy, trying to live his life, and the Israeli state made it difficult to impossible.

Since then, far more evidence has accumulated to undercut the story I learned as a child. In academia, I’ve met both Israelis and Palestinians who are critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — and virtually none who are supportive.

A search for academic literature using the terms “Palestine” and “settler colonialism” yields 167 results. Search instead for “Palestine” and “apartheid” and you get 93 results. The articles have titles like “Ethnic cleansing and the formation of settler colonial geographies.”

But these aren’t just academic conceits. Leading human rights groups now give dire warnings about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Amnesty International warns that the latest violence may constitute war crimes, while Human Rights Watch says Israel’s occupation amounts to an apartheid system.

Israel routinely bulldozes Palestinians’ homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while blockaded Gaza has been called “the world’s largest open-air prison, where the prison guard is Israel.” In that light, Palestinian anger becomes more understandable.

While that doesn’t justify Hamas firing its crude rockets indiscriminately into Israeli cities, it’s dishonest to portray the events of the past few weeks as a “war” with two equal sides. One side is a modern, advanced military, heavily supported by the U.S. The other is a stateless and occupied population.

One last piece of context concerns Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His party just failed to secure a governing majority and he’s facing corruption charges. Many believe Netanyahu is escalating violence with Palestinians in order to save his own hide politically.

That’s despicable. For many people with a Jewish upbringing, the key lesson we learn is to stand with the vulnerable and persecuted. In Israel-Palestine today, that means supporting Palestinians’ rights to peace, justice, and self-determination.

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.