The Israel Debate Requires Empathy and Nuance

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on February 13, 2019

On the floors of the House and Senate, in social media and across opinion pages, the debate over Israel is intensifying.

Over the past 48 hours, the firestorm around one 28-character tweet has exposed a tremendous amount about what’s wrong with this debate. But two recent op-eds in the prestigious New York Times — a medium that would seemingly allow for far more nuance and complexity than Twitter — are even more illustrative of how these issues are being used to deepen divides in our community and in our politics.

One, by Michelle Alexander, provided a scathing critique of Israel’s occupation wrapped in the mantle of Martin Luther King and civil rights, while the other, by Bret Stephens, paints such criticism of Israeli policy as nothing less than a “progressive assault on Israel.”

Neither piece speaks to, or for, the majority of Americans who support both Israel’s right to exist and defend itself and the right of the Palestinian people to freedom and self-determination — twin goals best achieved through compromise and a diplomatic two-state solution to the conflict between them.

The two Times columnists have articulated the outer poles of the debate.

Those on the left-most pole see, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, a minority of Jews denying political rights to a majority of Palestinians and a regime deserving of the same types of boycotts, divestment and sanctions that South Africa received a generation ago.

Those on the right-most pole sees such criticism of Israel as transparently anti-Semitic and a threat to the “moral health” (Stephens’ words) of the Democratic Party and broader progressive movement.

Those at the poles of any debate are prone to paint the argument in black and white. For one side, Israel is in the “wrong,” and its very nature — rooted in its identity as the national homeland of the Jewish people — is racist and antithetical to liberal democratic norms. For the other, Israel is in the “right;” attacks on it are unfair, disproportionate and rooted in anti-Semitism.

The truth — as always — is most likely to be found in the nuance and gray that lie between these black and white poles.

For instance, shouldn’t those drawn to support the Palestinian cause be able to acknowledge that the Jewish people too have suffered? And that they too — and not just the Palestinians — have a right to national self-determination?

Can’t those most inspired to defend Israel step back for a moment to acknowledge that — whatever the failings of Palestinian leaders of yesteryear and today — Israel’s treatment of Palestinians beyond the Green Line today runs counter to core Jewish and democratic values?

How about an acknowledgement from Israeli and Palestinian advocates that both Jews and Palestinians have a historical claim to a nation-state in the land bounded by the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea?

While we’re at it, why can’t both sides acknowledge that both peoples have suffered mightily at the hands of others? In reality, these two peoples have so much more that unites them than sets them apart.

Instead of rallying those most angered by Israeli behavior for battle against those most inclined to defend Israel at all costs, why don’t more highly-respected political observers with access to significant platforms like the Times op-ed pages make the case that both Jews and Palestinians should have self-determination in states to which their diasporic communities can have a right to return?

My bottom line — in response to both Alexander and Stephens — is that their parallel failures to express empathy and seek nuance does a disservice to the causes they hope to advance.

For our part, J Street believes that fruitful engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse should be grounded not in choosing sides and deepening divides but in bringing the sides together to build a better future.

Our movement will continue to advance that message in the Jewish community and in our national politics. And, more importantly, we will continue to advance policies that build that better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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