Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (BTvS), the “Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace” wishes to promote dialogue among American Jews about US policy towards Israel.
National Advocacy Chair Diane Balser has published a manifesto called “‘Let’s Talk!’ Wrestling with the Conversation about Israel“.
There are almost as many points along the political spectrum about Israel as there are Jews. Most (but certainly not all) of these represent positions that are pro-Israel, although they may have very disparate areas of emphasis and promote entirely different strategies. BTvS claims to be in this part of the spectrum, but there is much in Balser’s manifesto that I found disturbing, and which brings this claim into question.
Balser thinks that the US government needs to take a more active part in “bringing the parties to the table” to negotiate a two-state solution, and that American Jews could play a major role in making this happen if they would not “line up uniformly behind whatever approach the Israeli government might adopt”. So right away we get the idea that at least part of the problem is that the Israeli government is taking the wrong approach, and we need to change that. But there’s a problem in making this dialogue happen:
In some circles in the American Jewish world, the position has put forward that any criticism of Israeli policy leads to, or is by-definition, anti-Semitic – what a conversation stopper! [my emphasis]
Talk about straw men! I guarantee that there are no such “circles”. However, there is a real sense in which a certain kind of criticism of Israel can only be an expression of antisemitism, and it doesn’t matter if the speaker is Jewish. The fact that Balser takes the same line as Mearsheimer & Walt, Alexander Cockburn, and other truly antisemitic critics of Israel who wish to blur the distinction between reasonable criticism of policy and prejudice is not encouraging.
Balser provides a quick summary of the “conversation” about the nature of the state of Israel and its relationship to the Palestinians:
Before the establishment of Israel, in the early days of Zionism, there was major debate in the Jewish world about the essence of Zionism and the very notion of a Jewish state. Opposition to Zionism came from Orthodox, Reform, and leftist circles, for widely varying reasons. Fierce debate raged among Zionists about the founding ideals and values of the new movement: Should the state be based on the revolutionary values of social justice, or those of a regular nation-state that would normalize Jewish life? Moreover, from the beginning there was always a debate, albeit among a minority, about how to develop a cooperative relationship with the Arab population of Eretz Yisrael.
Yes, there were such debates, although the dichotomy between a state “based on the revolutionary values of social justice” and a “regular state” is false; many would have preferred an enlightened, democratic, just state that was not ‘regular’ but nevertheless not ‘revolutionary’ either. And, importantly, although there was a debate about the relationship with the Arabs, it was in the context of continuous murders, riots, pogroms, and depredations committed by those Arabs.
The fact of the occupation raised new questions, however, creating tension and debate over the growth of religious nationalist sentiment. The ideology of “Greater Israel” — the idea that Israel should settle the lands it had so recently conquered in order to claim them in perpetuity for the Jewish people — appeared alongside the hope that Israel could now forge peace with its neighbors. There were always small numbers of Israelis who expressed sincere unease over their country’s occupation of another people, and since at least the 1980s, growing numbers have fought for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Again Balser leaves out the context. With the exception of Jerusalem and some areas that had been under Jewish control in 1948 (Gush Etzion), Israel wished to trade conquered territory for peace and did not allow large-scale settlement construction until the 1970’s, when efforts to even begin negotiations with the Arab nations failed. The “Greater Israel” movement always represented a small minority in Israel, and Israel was quite prepared to uproot settlements and give up significant strategic advantage for peace, if it could be obtained — the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt is an example. Many — not a small number — of Israelis were uneasy about occupying the territories — there just wasn’t an alternative.
The sad truth is that the present policies of both the American and Israeli governments have done little but deepen Israel’s isolation. The continued refusal to consider negotiations with either the Palestinians or key Middle Eastern governments, the continued efforts to starve the Palestinian people, the refusal to engage creatively with the voices on all sides calling for a negotiated solution — none of this will actually solve Israel’s problems or give the Israeli people the peace and security they long for.
Balser mentions the failure of Oslo, Hamas control of the Palestinian Authority, and the Second Lebanon war, but only as an explanation for American Jews turning away from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, not as legitimate obstacles to negotiations. She doesn’t mention, but ought to, the terrorist war that began in 2000, the kidnappings, suicide bombings, Qassams, and everything else that has made it impossible to find a partner on the Palestinian side.
“Key Middle Eastern governments” for their part, have proposed that Israel accept without any changes the Arab League Initiative, which offers some form of “normal relations” (it’s not clear) in return for a full withdrawl to the 1967 lines and a ‘solution’ to the refugee problem that can only be the end of Israel. Could it be that the real obstacles to peace lie not in Israeli policy but in Arab belligerence?
Balser leaves no doubt that she wants the results of the “conversation” that she wishes to have be that the United States ‘engages’ in the conflict — that is, puts pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Arabs. But Israel has consistently made concessions and withdrawals and has received no peace in return, only an escalation of war. Further concessions without a corresponding change in Arab behavior — and there’s no reason to expect it — could be disastrous.
The problem with the BTvS argument is that it lacks context. It starts and ends with the occupation without taking into account the reasons for it. It calls for negotiations without considering the reasons for the failure of previous negotiations, withdrawals without considering the consequences of previous withdrawals. It mentions Israel’s “refusal to negotiate” — should she negotiate with Hamas, an explicitly antisemitic organization whose stated goal is to destroy her? What about the Arab League’s take-it-or-leave-it ‘peace’ initiative? Who is refusing to negotiate here?
As a pro-Israel program — even a left-wing pro-Israel program — BTvS’s position cannot possibly make sense. This implies that BTvS is either living in an alternate universe, or their actual goals are not pro-Israel at all. You decide.