Imagine you live in the Gaza strip. Your grandparents fled from their homes in 1948, and they have taught you all your life that this was a grave injustice — the only injustice. You live in downtrodden Gaza City with your extended family in a one-room apartment, getting food and water only when Israeli politics allow. One day, your crazy uncle shoots rockets into Israel, and Israel decides to respond. The IDF blankets your neighborhood with signs telling you to leave. Go to the UN building down the street, they say; you’ll be safe there. From the UN building, you watch your home and all of your belongings burn to the ground. The next morning at the market, you hear the sound of Israeli planes overhead and run back to the UN building — only to find today, it is the one being firebombed…
I can already hear the self-proclaimed “supporters of Israel” getting ready for a fight — but take a second, especially if you count yourself in that crowd, to ask yourself why that is. Not a word of that paragraph mentioned anything factually contentious; rather, it’s a description of the kind of humanitarian disaster that inevitably results when Israel retaliates to a rocket attack with strikes in civilian areas. It is as true as it is tragic — no matter what provoked it.
In this climate, merely stating the facts of Palestinian suffering implies in many minds a hatred for Israel or, worse, anti-Semitism.
Of course, the practice of splitting sympathies down the middle is not unique to the supporters of Israel. When Barack Obama made the simple, innocuous statement that “if somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that,” the Left went nuts. He was going to be Bush-lite, they screamed, a puppet of the Israeli military.
Not even close. He was saying something eminently reasonable, something that would be entirely uncontroversial in any other context. Yes, if rockets were being shot at my family, I would want to do something about it, too. Think about it: that shouldn’t be a point of contention, either — that’s basic humanity. Unfortunately, that is often what’s lost in the cacophony surrounding the Israel question, which seems to be dominated by voices on either side that care frighteningly little for the humanity of their opponents.
Contrary to most of those screeching voices, I’m no longer interested in where to place the ultimate blame, because I don’t think we can answer that question. Is it the Palestinians’ fault for allowing Hamas to thrive and for stalling the peace process and for breeding virulent hatred in their youth? Is it the Israelis’ fault for responding disproportionately or for ghettoizing an entire population or for the migrations of 1948? Each side can claim its actions are reactive to some transgression by the other, and the cycle of blame can spiral downward forever.
In a court system, it makes sense to resolve conflicts by determining fault and handing out settlements accordingly. Typically, there is one party that has clearly been the major transgressor, and punishing that party is the only appropriate response. But in this situation, where the cycle of violence and blame has no reasonable start or end point and certainly no sole transgressor, that model proves woefully inadequate.
To start, we can move past the place where describing the misery of a people invokes cynicism rather than sympathy; past the place where scoring points in a global PR war takes precedence over sober and balanced reflection on a complex topic. Dismissing the suffering of entire populations because it hurts your immediate image in the media is morally disastrous, and it doesn’t help anyone in the long run.
Pointing accusatory fingers here will never result in peace. Someone, at some point, has to turn the other cheek and reverse the escalation of violence. Time and again, it has been the nonviolent movements — and not those that simply ramp up more mutual hatred — that have healed divides like the one between Israelis and Palestinians. The Middle East needs a Martin Luther King, Jr., and a nonviolent movement to back him or her.
As citizens of the United States, we cannot start those movements ourselves; they have to come from within the parties torn by conflict. But we can do something: We can change the way we talk about Israel here, in hopes of inspiring a change in the mindset of those abroad.
Realistically, because of the close political and cultural ties between our nations, that mostly means inspiring changes in Israel, rather than in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s not that the conflict wouldn’t benefit from a Palestinian nonviolence movement or that the Palestinians are somehow incapable of forming one. Were I writing to a population of Arabs or Muslims, I would advise exactly the same approach toward the Palestinians. But since we have more influence with Israel, it is there where we must focus our gaze, and Israel whom we must encourage to move toward nonviolence.
Despite the fact that I recommend changes primarily for Israel, mine is a pro-Israel position. If we think there is a need for a Jewish state in some form or other, the solution we have now is laughably unsustainable. As long as contempt for the “other” continues to grow on both sides, it will only provide the groundwork for greater violence in the future. The only way to ensure Israel’s survival — in the very long run — is to eventually dissolve that hatred. Being prudently pro-Israel requires looking beyond the immediate political realities toward potential long-term solutions.
Really, though, it’s time we stopped counting which positions are pro-Israel and which are pro-Palestinian. No longer should pro-Israel positions be limited to those that dismiss Palestinian suffering; no longer should pro-Palestinian positions deny Israel’s basic right to defend its people. The two must cease to be mutually exclusive. Rather, any humane position must be both.
Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.