Meeting with MKs during the J Street Mission

August 4th, 2014

By Mark Zivin

Last Wednesday, our group of J Street leaders from the United States and J Street U students spending the summer in Israel, met with four members of the Knesset to get their perspective on the war – or “Operation” as it’s referred to here. One was from Hatnua (which is Tzipi Livni’s party and part of the government), one from Meretz, and two from Labor.

From Labor and Hatnua, we heard a message of support for the war. That it was necessary and needed to be fought. While the fighting is going on, this type of position is not surprising even given the brutal way that Israel has been conducting the war. I think that they all perceive the tunnels as a very real strategic threat that needs to be destroyed and they have no illusions about the nature of Hamas as a terrorist group actively planning to attack Israel.

Because all of those we spoke with are on the center left, it is not surprising that they emphasized the importance of strengthening President Abbas so that he could be in a position to gain enough political power to execute a deal with the Israelis. They felt that one of the not so obvious benefits of this war is that it opened the eyes of many, not only in the government, but in the general population as well, to the fact that they have someone that they can deal with on the other side. All of a sudden, Abu Mazen has gone from being the “Partner we can’t Trust” to being ‘not so bad’ compared to the alternative. Amram Mitzna, former General and Mayor of Haifa and Yeruham, feels that the Operation will help more people understand that there is no better option than the two state solution. There is no military solution to the conflict because Hamas is more than a military organization – it is a state of mind. Israel can destroy all of the rocket caches, blow up the tunnels and kill all of Hamas leaders, but Hamas’ “death to Israel” message will simply be adopted by new leadership.

But the most surprising and most upsetting thing we heard about is what has been going on in Israeli society. Over the past several years, there has been a steady and significant increase in overt racism in the country. This extreme hatred is now being projected against those who oppose the war. Whether it is at physical protests where marchers have been beaten up and forced to disperse - or online bullying which has gone to the extreme of calling out death threats to those posting pieces against the war – we heard about an ugly atmosphere of hate that is getting stronger and stronger. These MKs were concerned that the Cabinet Ministers have remained silent on denouncing these racist attacks. Rather, said one, Ministers are often actually the ones inciting this conduct. Virtually everyone we spoke with was extremely concerned about the increase in societal hatred – even the American Consul General in a separate meeting. Although the tragedy of the death and destruction from the war is heart wrenching, what hits me the strongest is the changing nature of Israeli society. There is something going on here that is abhorrent and rotten. No one drew any links directly to the Occupation, but it is clear that in order to enforce the Occupation, there is a need to dehumanize the Palestinians as “the other”. And once a society labels one group that way, it is a short hop to applying the same attitude to any other group. This trend is taking Israel further and further away from what most of us consider to be our Jewish values.

Along these lines, we also heard about the deterioration of conduct within the Knesset. Of course, it reminded us of home, seeing that Congress continues to set new lows in obstructionism and lack of decorum. One characterization of the way bills are pushed through the Knesset was “violent”. Not a term that one expects to hear describing legislative functioning. Just as in the U.S., we got the sense that there is a general breakdown in decorum and long-standing unspoken rules of how to relate to your political opponents. Whether this reflects the trends of more explicit and blatant religious, ethnic and, now, political hatred, or leads those trends, isn’t clear. But what was being communicated to us by the MK’s was that this was a serious, serious problem.

Finally, all of the MK’s expressed their appreciation for J Street leaders – particularly the J Street U students - for being in Israel at this time of war, and caring enough to reach out to see and hear what was going on so that we could bring what we saw back to those in the U.S.

Mark Zivin is a leader of J Street's Chicago chapter. He writes regularly at beyondzs.com.