While the conflict between Israel and Palestine plays out via an ever-ailing peace process, outside of 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 that 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 its Palestinian minority, who comprise 20 percent of Israel’s citizens. They believe that 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 that Israel is an apartheid state. Unlike Secretary of State John Kerry, who said privately (before publicly apologizing) that Israel is headed down an apartheid road unless it achieves a negotiated end to the conflict, these critics believe that 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, a piece I called “No one loves a liberal Zionist.” In a short piece last year, one commentator, writing on the anti-Zionist blog Mondoweiss, even compared my call for a two-state solution to Jim Crow-era-style segregationist manifestos.
Those familiar with my writings know that while I am frequently critical of Israeli policies, I still believe that 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.
“I work on the assumption that true friendship involves holding up a mirror to the face of one’s friend. Helping Israel end the occupation is, therefore, a moral imperative for the Diaspora Jewish community.”
Readers of the Independent may associate my column more with criticism than with defence of Israel. It is true that I typically use this forum to encourage our community to consider how we can help Israel emerge from the tragic conundrum it has found itself. I work on the assumption that true friendship involves holding up a mirror to the face of one’s friend. 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. David Harris-Gershon, author of the excellent book What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, was disinvited in February from giving a book talk at the Washington, D.C., Jewish community centre. And, as campus Hillels have made headlines for imposing strict bans on who may share a podium (those who, according to the guidelines, seek to “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel”), some colleges, like Swarthmore and Vassar, have signaled their opposition to this silencing, 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 with whom we disagree politically – assuming basic standards of decency are being respected (meaning no hate, no racism, no Islamophobia and no antisemitism), then what do we, as human beings, have left?
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.