August 8, 2014
Chasm on the Left: Blame Israel vs. Blame Both
by Myriam Miedzian
IT'S THAT TIME AGAIN when I am careful not to utter the words "Israel, Palestinians, Gaza" to a certain number of my leftwing friends and acquaintances. We agree on just about everything going as far back as the Vietnam war, which we all vehemently opposed — as we did the Iraq war. We supported equal rights for blacks, women, and gays, rooted for single-payer, universal healthcare, support living wages for all Americans and access to college education for all, etc.
So why are we so at odds when it comes to this one issue? Well, we do agree on one thing — we all reject AIPAC's "Israel Can Do No Wrong" perspective.
But that still leave us with a chasm. On one side there is the Blame Israel (B.I.) group — represented by Jewish Voice for Peace and Code Pink, among others — and on the other side the Blame Both (B.B.) group, represented by Americans for Peace Now and J Street, among others.
Like most categorizations, this one simplifies — the lines are not always entirely clear cut; there are disagreements within each group and people on the fringes of both. Nevertheless the rift is striking. Frustrated by it, I have spent hours visiting websites on both sides, gone back to key books — Noam Chomsky, Benny Morris, etc. — and gleaned key, underlying, opposing assumptions, perspectives, interpretations, and historical understandings from these documents. I have also relied on lectures and conferences I have attended, as well as conversations with friends and acquaintances.
What follows is first an outline of some divisive underlying issues, and then links to a few of the books, articles, and blogs which have influenced my understanding of what divides the two groups.
But before going any further, I want to put my cards on the table — I support Americans for Peace Now and I have written in support of J Street.
The following represent a few of the underlying issues that divide the two groups:
Views Palestinian leaders as trustworthy, does not take seriously charters and past statements by leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah stating the destruction of Israel as their goal, trusts that Hamas leader are sincere when they state that they now are willing to accept the existence of Israel. They view these organizations as consisting of freedom fighters for the rights of Palestinians — akin to black South Africans or Algerian Muslims fighting for their freedom — so that once Palestinians get what is due to them, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza or a binational state, there will be no threat to Israel. The present Gaza crisis provides an example of Israel's brutal aggression and indifference to innocent Palestinian lives.
Is vehemently opposed to the ever-increasing number of settlements in the West Bank, extremely critical of the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and deeply concerned about the increased strength and power of rightwing parties and groups in Israel. They support a two-state solution, but do not dismiss concerns about the security threat that a Palestinian state would represent. They view Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, take their covenants vowing the destruction of the state of Israel seriously, and do not trust statements to the contrary by Hamas leaders who refuse to change their covenants. While critical of some of Israel's actions in the 2014 conflict with Gaza, which have led to large number of civilian deaths, they believe that Hamas provoked the conflict by attacking Israel with missiles, and is therefore also responsible for these deaths. They take seriously Israel's contention that Hamas places its military targets among civilians so that large number of civilian deaths will be met with worldwide sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause. Hamas tunnels are viewed as a serious threat to Israel's security.
Focuses on the grave injustices done to the Palestinians and encourages Christian clergy, college students, academic and other professional groups, unions, celebrities, and others around the world to demonstrate in support of Palestinians in times of crisis, such as the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflagration, and more generally to support the Palestinian-initiated Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS). They do not view their actions as encouraging anti-Semitism, and dismiss the concern with it as conflating anti-Israeli utterances and demonstrations with anti-Semitism. Jewish Voice for Peace has expressed regret about the few among demonstrators and activists who have exhibited anti-Semitic behavior. To the best of my knowledge, other groups have not commented.
Believes that this unique focus on Israel and the Palestinians gives the highly misleading and dangerous impression that Israel, among all nations, is guilty of particularly inhumane, violent conduct, when, in fact, far worse actions have been and continue to be taken by governments of other countries, including Syria, Russia, China, and the U.S. They believe that this focus encourages anti-Semitism.
CREATION OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL; THE NAKBA
The creation of the state of Israel led to what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba — the Catastrophe. Jewish Europeans began to immigrate to Palestine in the late 19th century. By 1947 there were approximately 610,000 Jews living in Palestine and 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs. Between 400,000-500,000 Palestinians and approximately 500,000 Jews were living on land partitioned for the Jewish state. Approximately 10,000 Jews and between 725,000-818,000 Arabs were living on land partitioned for the Arab state.
As a form of reparation to Jews after the Holocaust, in 1947, the United Nations Assembly Resolution 181 — supported by the U.S. and the Soviet Union — awarded Jews 52 percent of Palestine, leaving 45 percent to the Arabs. Bethlehem (3 percent) would be under international control. Because of Israel's 1947-48 policy of ethnic cleansing, which involved the destruction of numerous Arab towns and the killing of its inhabitants, only 156,000 Palestinian Arabs remained in Israel and became Israeli citizens, but a far larger number, around 700,000, eventually fled and became refugees. Right from the start, a grave injustice was committed against the Arab population. In 1948, the U.N.'s Resolution 194, proclaimed the right of return of these refugees. Israel failed to abide by the proclamation, so that more than sixty years later, Palestinian refugees continue to be deprived of their homeland. As part of an effort to correct this injustice, this group supports the Palestinian-led call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), with demands that include the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in the UN resolution.
Starting in 1947, when the U.N. voted to partition the Palestinian territories, and continuing into 1948, after Israel was proclaimed an independent state, acts of violence were committed against Palestinian Arabs. Israeli violence played a major role in Arabs fleeing from what became Israel. But simultaneously, starting in 1947, Palestinian Arabs committed violence against the Jewish population. The attack on Israel by Palestinian Arab forces and the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria started on May 15, 1948, when the state of Israel came into existence. The Arab military had encouraged Palestinians to leave their homes to facilitate the attack. Refugees were told that they would soon return home after the war against Israel had been won. After ten months of fighting, Israel won the war.
The 156,000 Palestinians who chose to stay in Israel have grown to approximately 1,690,000 by 2014. The 700,000 Palestinians refugees have grown to 4,950,000, of which approximately 30-50,000 are people who fled in 1948.
While some in this group support paying indemnification to the descendants of the refugees, they are opposed to BDS's right of return years after sixty-six years, and to the rest of BDS demands.
INHUMANE TREATMENT OF WEST BANK AND GAZA PALESTINIANS
Condemns home demolitions, ill-treatment of detainees, roadblocks, excessive use of violence against protestors, and other forms of inhumane treatment of Palestinians since the 1967 war, and demands an immediate end to the Israeli occupation.
Condemns the inhumane treatment of Palestinians — home demolitions, excessive use of violence against protestors etc. — but does not view the Palestinians as innocent. In 1967, when the Palestinians had for nineteen years occupied the West Bank and Gaza, they joined the Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians to once again attack Israel with the intent of taking back the part of the Palestinian territory granted to Israel in 1948. Israel won that war, and as a result came to occupy the West Bank and Gaza. So while Israel is at fault for mistreatment and for allowing settlements to be built, which have made it much harder to negotiate a peace settlement and return the West Bank to the Palestinians, the Palestinians are at fault for attacking Israel. This attack led them to lose the territory that they have ever since demanded be returned to them.
THE 2000 CAMP DAVID SUMMIT
Blames Israel for the failure of the Summit. It views the 2002 Intifada as a reaction to Israel's unwillingness to honestly negotiate a settlement, followed by Ariel Sharon's September 2000 provocative visit to the Temple Mount. The terrorist acts committed against Israeli civilians are abhorrent, but the major focus is on the fact that Palestinian terrorism provided Sharon with the excuse he needed to execute Operation Defensive Shield, in which thousands of Palestinians were arrested and government buildings and the West bank infrastructure was destroyed.
Some blame the Palestinians and Arafat for walking out on the Summit. Some conclude that both Barak and Arafat share blame. They deplore the Second Intifada, which left close to 900 Israeli civilians killed and approximately 5,600 injured — most of the casualties due to suicide bombings. Fear of terrorism led to the creation of a wall — which ended up including unnecessary and unjust incursions into Palestinian territory — to protect Israelis from terrorism; and moved a significant percentage of the Israeli population to a much more hawkish position.
ABSOLUTISM VS. RELATIVISM
As may already be apparent from some of the above distinctions, fundamental differences in perspective between the two groups often grow out of the fact that the B.I. group takes an absolutist position while the B.B. group take a relativistic position. A few examples: While the B.I. group focuses uniquely on the injustice done to the Palestinians by the creation of the state of Israel, and subsequent unjust and violent acts by Israel, the B.B. group agrees that the creation of Israel caused Palestinians to suffer injustice and violence, but points out that Israel should not be singled out as exceptionally evil — In fact, Israel is exceptional in that it is a national state created by an international organization, not by warfare. The case of the U.S. serves as an example: just about fifty years before the creation of Israel, the U.S., with the help of the Marines, deposed Queen Lili'uokalani and took over the country of Hawaii. About fifty years before conquering Hawaii, the U.S. waged the Mexican war which resulted in California, New Mexico, and Texas being part of the U.S.And then there are the Native Americans…
Turning to the present, the B.I. group focuses exclusively on Israel's acts of violence against Palestinians. The B.B. group, while highly critical of excessive violence used by Israelis, views it in the context of other worldwide atrocities. For example, over 150,000 Syrians have been killed by President Bashar Hafez-al-Assad military and by rebel groups. The U.N. estimates that approximately 2.5 million Syrians have fled their country and become refugees.
Discrimination by Israel against its Arab population of Israel is acknowledged and deeply condemned by the B.B. group. But Arabs are Israeli citizens, are represented in the Israeli government, have access to education; there are no laws prohibiting their employment. On the other hand, 300,000 Palestinians have been living in Lebanon for more than sixty years. Despite some minor improvements in their condition in recent years, Palestinians still cannot become citizens of Lebanon, are barred from practicing a host of professions, may not own property, and are not entitled to state education or healthcare.
Beside the disagreements outlined above, there are differences in what is considered important. B.B. people sometimes point to facts which tend to differentiate Israel from colonial powers and put a more benign face on the country. They are not considered relevant by the B.I. people, and in some cases not completely accurate. They include:
There never was a Palestinian nation; the Palestinian territory was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century until post-WWI, when it became a British mandate which ended in 1948.
The British in 1921, decided to give approximately 75 percent of their Palestinian mandate to a Hashemite prince. Initially called Transjordan, this territory is now the country of Jordan. If one includes Jordan as Palestine, then Israel was given approximately 14 percent of the total territory of Palestine.
While they have constituted a minority of the total population, there have always been Jews living in what is now Israel, some since the exodus 2,000 years ago.
After the creation of the state of Israel, over 800,000 Jews were driven out of the Arab countries where some had been living for thousands of year — since the Babylonian exile, in the case of the Iraqi Jews.
In Israel the rights of women and gay people are respected to a degree unheard of in surrounding Muslim countries, where women are often under the complete control of their fathers, husbands, or brothers, and homosexuality is banned.
Israel is providing medical care to Syrians wounded in their civil war.
BOOKS, ARTICLES, AND BLOGS
Noam Chomsky, one of the leading voices of the American left, and Israeli Ilan Pappe, now a professor at the University of Exeter in the U.K. represent the B.I. group.
Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians
Brief excerpt: "1948 marked the worst chapter in Jewish history… Jews did in Israel what Jews had not done anywhere else in the previous two thousand years… Jews massacred, destroyed, and raped in that year… five hundred Palestinian villages and eleven urban neighborhoods were destroyed, seven hundred thousand Palestinians were expelled, and several thousand were massacred… The ethnic cleansing operation, beginning in December 1947, continued well into the 1950's. Villages were surrounded on three flanks, and the fourth one was left open for flight and evacuation… In some cases the tactic did not work, and many villagers remained in their house — it was then that the massacres took place… Urban Palestine was torn apart and crushed… The Palestinian neighborhood in mixed towns were wrecked, apart from a few quarters that were left empty waiting to be populated later by incoming Jewish immigrants from Arab countries."
Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and writer, professor of history in the Middle East Studies department of Ben-Gurion University. Initially condemned by conservative Israelis and hailed by the B.I. group as the first Israeli historian to research and make public the 1947-48 Israeli acts of violence against Palestinians, he is now reviled by the left as an Islamophobic hawk. His research and writings have had considerable influence on the B.B. group.
Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001
Brief excerpt: "On September 16, 1947, the [Arab] League decided to establish an Arab Liberation Army composed of Palestinians and volunteers from the Arab states… On the morning of November 30th a band of Arabs ambushed a bus near Kfar Syrkin, killing five Jews and wounding several others. Twenty five minutes later they let loose at a second bus, killing two more people…
Much of the fighting in the first months took place in and on the edges of mixed cities — Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv,-Jaffa, and Haifa — in most cases initiated by by the Arabs." "Deir Yassin is remembered not as a military operation but rather for the atrocities committed… Whole families were riddled with bullets… men, women, and children were mowed down… Recent Arab and Jewish investigations… suggest that the… number of Arab dead was 100-110… The affair had an immediate and brutal aftermath… Arab militants… attacked a ten vehicle convoy of mostly unarmed lecturers, nurses, and doctors on their way to the Hadassah Hospital… The shooting continued for more than six hours,the Arabs eventually dousing the armored buses with gasoline and setting them alight… more than seventy Jews had died. Deir Yassin… had been avenged."
The Camp David Summit contains articles by Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans, many involved in the negotiations, who provide differing understandings of why the summit did not achieve its goal of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Camp David Summit — What Went Wrong, edited by Shimon Shamir and Bruce Maddu-Weitzman.
Documents, Articles, Blogs:
Hamas Covenant: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/hamas-charter-1637794876
Blog about Gaza by Donna Nevel, member of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace:
Article about Gaza by Michael Walzer, member of the board of Americans for Peace Now (APN):
Amnesty International on human rights violations mostly by Israelis, some by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas:
Jewish Voice for Peace commentary on the Second Intifada:
This Jewish Currents blog by psychoanalyst, poet, and playwright, Merle Molofsky captures the viewpoint of those who think that Israel is being unfairly and dangerously singled out as an evil country:
Antisemitism in Europe:
Israel provides medical care for Syrians injured in their civil war:
Status of Palestinians in Lebanon:
Former philosophy professor Myriam Miedzian , is the author of Boys Will Be Boys, and writes frequently on social and political issues. Her website is: