While the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians plays out via what appears – at the time of this writing – to be an ailing peace process, outside the Middle East, the relationship is conducted by increasing attempts at silencing opponents. As far as I can tell, this silencing stems from great communal fear that Israel’s political and philosophical opponents pose a dire threat. But, given Israel’s secure military position and America’s unwavering support, something doesn’t quite add up.
Let’s take a look at the political landscape.
The longer Israel and the Palestinians coexist in deadlock, the more critics of Israel are deepening their opposition to Israel’s core political identity. These Israel critics believe that saying Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, as Zionists proclaim, is an oxymoron. They believe, instead, that calling Israel a Jewish state denies the reality of the Arab minority, which comprises 20 per cent of Israel’s citizens. They also believe Israel cannot deign to call itself a democracy while continuing the decades-long occupation. Neither do they believe that a democracy can allow unfettered Jewish immigration while denying the same rights to Palestinian refugees.
These critics of Israel believe Israel is an apartheid state. Unlike U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said privately (before publicly apologizing) that, without a two-state solution, “a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state,” these critics believe Israel is already there.
Because of my vocal liberal Zionist position, I have been among the targets of these critics. I summed up this dynamic in my final piece for the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog (“No One Loves a Liberal Zionist,” December 17, 2013). In response, a commentator on the anti-Zionist blog Mondoweiss compared my call for a two-state solution to the Jim-Crow-era-segregationist-manifestos.
Those familiar with my writing know that, while I am frequently critical of Israeli policies, I still believe Israel can be saved from itself. Ending the occupation and enacting legal reform to address disparities between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens will enable Israel to retain its core identity of being both Jewish and democratic.
Readers of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin may associate my column more with criticism than with defence of Israel, and it is true I have used this forum to encourage our community to consider how we can help Israel emerge from the tragic conundrum it has found itself in. I work on the assumption that true friendship involves holding up a mirror to the face of one’s friend. I believe helping Israel end the occupation is therefore a moral imperative for the Diaspora Jewish community.
Unlike those on the far left, though, I believe that, without prejudicing the lives of citizens within a given state, every country has the right to define its identity as it sees fit. And, as a Jew who was raised with Zionist narratives and feels a deep emotional connection to Israel, I admit a certain subjective attachment to the idea of maintaining a Jewish and democratic state.
Given all this complexity, and the need to dialogue and engage more than ever, I am concerned that a chill factor is setting into our communities. This silencing is painted with a broad brush. For example, the invitation to David Harris-Gershon, author of the excellent What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? – a book I reviewed in the January 20 issue of the Bulletin – to give a book talk at the JCC in Washington, D.C. was rescinded in February.
And, as campus Hillels have made headlines for imposing strict bans on speakers who, according to their guidelines, seek to “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” some Hillel chapters, including those at Swarthmore and Vassar Colleges, have signalled their opposition to this silencing by declaring theirs an “Open Hillel.”
Every time I hear about another instance of the community seeking to police discourse that falls within the bounds of civil, if impassioned or provocative debate, I think this:
If we cannot engage in dialogue with those we disagree with politically – assuming basic standards of decency are being respected (meaning no hate, no racism, no Islamophobia and no anti-Semitism) – then what do we, as human beings, have left?
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.