(Picture by Carlos Latuff)
It must be emphasized that criticizing Israel’s policies and practices is not the same as criticizing Judaism. Making this connection is tantamount to saying that criticizing the policies of the United States government is like criticizing Christianity. We understand how ridiculous that sounds. Unfortunately, some well-meaning but misinformed people use this emotionally packed and ignorant retort to silence any criticism of Israel’s behavior, no matter how egregious those behaviors might be. People who work for justice and desire peace between Israel and Palestine must withstand those ill-intended efforts to obfuscate the reality of the situation. The myth must be held under the light of truth.
Examining the behavior of the nation of Israel, through the critical lens of history and justice will be a great service to Israel. It is a relatively young nation, and is trying to mature into a contributing member of the world’s family of nations. Israel must be held to the same standards of conduct that all other nations follow. It is our responsibility to hold Israel’s relationships with it neighbors under the glaring light of history and justice. We can do no less for those who want peace through justice in Israel and Palestine. History is often a demanding and unbending teacher. Let’s examine Israel’s short history with its neighbors.
Historically, Israel has never been a victim in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, most Israeli historians would dispute the victimhood of Israel vigorously. You can read the works of the new Israeli historians (such as Illan Pappe), who have been given access to Israel’s archives and have concluded that Israel (even before it became Israel in 1948) was using what we would now call acts of terrorism against Palestinians to create an exclusively Jewish state. It is agreed upon by the new Israeli historians that the Stern Gang and the Irgun initiated the violence before, during, and after the 1948 war for Israel’s independence. The Palestinians call it their “Nakba” (Arabic for catastrophe).
During the late 1940’s, these gangs (who were actually trained militias and the forerunners of Israel’s modern and powerful army), under the leadership of David Ben Gurion (who became Israel’s first Prime Minister), systematically forced more than 750,000 Palestinians out of their homes and took or razed their villages or towns (more than 400 such villages and towns have been carefully identified and documented). In addition to using conventional war equipment and tactics, such as airplane bombings, tanks and foot soldiers, these gangs used the weapons of terrorism, such as car bombs, letter bombs and barrels full of gasoline hurled downhill at Palestinian villages below. These gangs were very effective in ridding Palestine of Palestinians.
Ben Gurion, in his memos and correspondences, called this offensive against the Arab inhabitants of Palestine “Plan Dalat”. In his most current book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Dr. Pappe meticulously documented this systematic offensive. In addition, Dr. Walid Khalidi, a renowned and highly respected Palestinian historian and scholar, in his carefully researched book, Before Their Diaspora, records the lives of Palestinians before and during the creation of Israel. Both these historians confirm the fact that immediately before and during its first years as a nation, Israel’s behavior was intentional, systematic, aggressive, and violent. Israel cannot be considered a victim, by any stretch of the definition.
To more fully understand the flow of history and the complexity in this area, I would highly recommend the body of work of Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Her most recent work focuses on the situation in Gaza and addresses the critical role of Israel (and the US) is this current mess. In addition, Phyllis Bennis’ book entitled Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer would be helpful. She provides a great deal of information in a very short book – unfiltered through personal biases or ideological lenses.
Israel was not a victim during the conflicts it had with its neighbors throughout its short history. Modern historians have concluded that Israel initiated the fighting during the 1956 and 1967 wars, in response to the bombastic statements made by its neighbors. And, of course, it initiated the invasions of Lebanon in 1983 and again in 2006. Pre-emptive strikes are Israel’s method of operating even to this day. I cannot get into the kind of details this topic requires in this limited venue. However, even Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin admitted publicly that all of Israel’s wars have been wars of “choice” (his word). In reality, the result of the ’67 war, against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, was the occupation of Palestinian (Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem). Israel still occupies those territories today.
Israel is not a victim economically or militarily. Israel receives almost 7 million tax dollars a day from the US. You can refer to the scholarly work of John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy to get a thorough analysis of the relationship between Israel and the US. This money Israel receives directly from our tax dollars, does not include the hundreds of millions of dollars sent to Israel by American Jewish groups and American Christian Zionist groups. And, who knows how much money it receives from Europe, China, India, Australia, or elsewhere.
Israel also receives vast amounts of military equipment, training, and intelligence from the US, far more than any other ally of the US. Israel’s military receives the most up-to-date equipment (tanks, armored carriers, Hawk attack helicopter, F-16 fighter jets, drone surveillance planes, etc. etc.). And, it is widely agreed that Israel has a nuclear arsenal estimated to be between 100 to 250 warheads. No outsider really knows the actual number, but everyone knows that Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East.
Israel is not a victim but an occupier of Palestine for the last 41 years. The brutal and illegal occupation of the Palestine territories is not the action of a victim, nor is it about Israel’s security. Israel as a victim would not build the illegal separation wall within Palestine if it wanted just security. Israel as a victim would not build more than 240 settlements inside Palestine, against international law, if it just wanted security. Israel as a victim would not subsidize Israelis to live in those settlements if it just wanted security. Israel as a victim would not arm radical and ideological settlers with machine guns, if it just wanted security. Israel as a victim would not build modern highways inside Palestine, for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers, if it just wanted security. Historians today would agree that Israel’s actions are not about its victimhood or about its security. It is about the land. Many of the best Israeli and Palestinian thinkers agree that this is a continuation of the systematic plan devised before Israel was created to rid Palestine of Palestinians so that a pure Jewish State can exist.
Israeli and American Jewish scholars have refuted the victimhood of Israel. The lively and often heated discussions about Israel as victim are happening within Israel openly. Unfortunately, this civic discourse does not occur in our democracy. You can refer to Norman Finklestein’s book Image and Reality of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict for his careful analysis of the situation. Professor Finklestein offers a very detailed account and a clear alternative voice to the myth of Israel as victim. Avraham Burg’s courageous book entitled The Holocaust is Over We Must Rise From its Ashes provides a very provocative interpretation of the victimhood of Israel. As a life-long Zionist and past Speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Mr. Burg offers his interpretation of the myth that Israel is a victim. It is difficult to reject his personal assessments and conclusions, based on a lifetime of service to Israel as a soldier, elected politician, and social critic. Serious students of Israel and Palestine must read these two books.
In addition, there are many Jews in Israel and the US who provide another understanding of this complicated situation. I would like to highlight just a few individuals and groups for your review. Dr. Jeff Halper, founder of "Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions" (www.icahd.org), is one such voice. He has been the conscience to the Israeli government in response to its illegal, immoral, and inhuman policies toward and treatment of Palestinians, especially with the capricious practice of demolishing Palestinian homes within the territories and East Jerusalem. He has concluded that Israeli policies and practices have created a “Matrix of Control” in the territories that effectively takes Palestinian land. He sees it as a continuation of the program to rid Palestine of Palestinians, as seen throughout Israel’s history.
The Israeli civil rights group “Bat Shalom” (www.batshalom.org), monitors and documents human rights violations committed by Israel’s occupying forces toward Palestinians. Their annual reports of these gross and blatant violations are shocking to anyone who believes in human rights and civil liberties. Dr. Alice Rothchild’s book, Broken Promises, Broken Dreams and Anna Baltzer’s book, Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in The Occupied Territories are powerful voices of American Jews who have had first-hand experiences in Palestine, met and worked with Palestinians, witnessed the impact of the occupation on Palestinians’ human rights and civil liberties, and as a result, have rejected the myth about Israel as victim. These, and so many other courageous Israeli and American Jews are working tirelessly for peace through justice between Israel and Palestine. They refuse to ignore what they have seen. And, they cannot unsee what they have seen. They have withstood the assaults on their character, intelligence, wisdom, and their “Jewishness,” often by those who equate Israel with Judaism. Despite these malicious attacks, they continue to work for justice between Palestine and Israel. Their voices must be heard in order to understand this situation more completely. Inviting all perspectives and narratives into our civic discourse must be our standard as a proud democracy.
Finally, I know how difficult it must be for anyone in the US to criticize Israel’s behavior. Unfortunately, criticizing Israel is often misinterpreted as criticizing Judaism. It is not! It takes a strong, determined, and courageous person to collect information from various sources, evaluate those data, and make her/his own conclusions. Civic discourse about Israel and Palestine must happen in our democracy. We must have all the voices and narratives at the table. Every story must be held under the same light of history and justice. Let us have an open, uncensored civic discourse about Israel and Palestine. This is the least we can do in our democracy.