Divisive Discourse on Israel


The left views “settlements” and the “occupation” as a serious roadblock to a peace agreement that would, finally, result in two states for two peoples. Worse, the left believes that the “occupation” is illegal and that by continuing it, Israel has lost its moral high ground.

I am troubled by the discourse in our community, specifically about the incendiary phrase “Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.”
The political left and right both strongly react to that phrase, but for different reasons. The left views those “settlements” and the “occupation” as a serious roadblock to a peace agreement that would, finally, result in two states for two peoples. Worse, the left believes that the “occupation” is illegal and that by continuing it, Israel has lost its moral high ground. Thus, many on the left in the United States believe that public criticism of Israel’s “settlement policy” and lobbying the U.S.
government to force Israel to give up the “settlements” and retreat to the Green Line — the 1949 ceasefire line — would advance the prospects for peace.
Those on the right have the opposite reaction. They point out that the phrase is loaded with political implications not warranted by either history or international law. They argue that those on the left are at best naïve and ignorant of the history of the conflict and of Palestinian Arab intentions. They point first to the 1947 U.N. “Plan for Partition of Palestine,” which the Jews accepted, but the Arabs rejected. The right notes that Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan and Syria invaded following Israel’s independence on May 15, 1948, and that formal hostilities ended in 1949 by a ceasefire, leaving Israel in control of what the Partition Plan had designated for Jews, plus some land the plan had intended for Arabs.
The ceasefire left Egypt occupying the Gaza Strip and Jordan occupying most of what they dubbed the “West Bank.” Significantly, during this occupation, which lasted 17 years until the end of the Six Day War, neither Egypt nor Jordan helped to establish a Palestinian Arab state. As a result of the war, which was precipitated by Egyptian aggression, Israel took control of Jerusalem, Gaza and the so-called West Bank.
The right argues that Israel has attempted to make peace with the Palestinian Arabs ever since Israel declared its independence, but that the Palestinian Arabs — who later became known as just the “Palestinians” — have rejected peaceful co-existence at every opportunity, countless times over the past 50 years. The Palestinians have time and again demonstrated that they do not want their own state alongside Israel. They want all the land.
To the left’s contention that Israel’s “occupation” is the reason there is no peace, that the “settlements” are illegal because they lie beyond Israel’s border, the right counters that they’re not borders at all, but are ceasefire lines, and that the land in question is disputed territory. They note that Jews have as much legal and historic right to that area as the Arabs. Indeed, until 1949, the West Bank was known by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria; those were the names used in the Partition Plan.
The right points out that many forget that, in exchange for peace, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt, and abandoned Yamit and other communities there. More recently, Israel left Gaza, hoping that the Palestinians would use the opportunity to build a peaceful society. Instead, the Palestinians destroyed everything in Gaza and then voted in Hamas, whose only mission is to destroy Israel.
The right complains that those who advocate ending the “occupation” have not explained how that would work or who would fill the vacuum. Would Hamas take over the West Bank, with terrorists in control very close to Israel’s population centers? How safe would Israel be? So they wonder whether those on the left are truly as pro-Israel as they profess to be. I hear from the right that the left should therefore have no voice, that they do not belong “under the [pro-Israel] tent.”
Where does that leave the rest of the organized Jewish community, represented in part by Jewish federations? What position should the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia take on this divide? And how should the Jewish Exponent handle this divide? For example, should the Exponent publish views of those criticizing Israel’s policies in the so-called West Bank?
Several weeks ago, the Exponent published an op-ed piece by Anya Friedman Hutter in which she complained that she had been refused the opportunity to join in a letter to be signed by a number of University of Pennsylvania student Jewish leaders because her proposed statement expressing why the U.S.-Israel relationship was important to her included a criticism of the “occupation.” She argued that “hiding the word ‘occupation’ and censoring it in print will not make the problem … disappear.”
The right points out that her view is flawed because she has her facts wrong. But should Ms. Hutter’s voice be silenced?
It has long been the view of the organized Jewish community that we should support the State of Israel and not publicly criticize its democratically-elected government, even if some or even many of us disagree with its policies. The people in Israel live in a tough neighborhood and have to make tough, existential decisions. Are American Jews who disagree with Israel’s policies free to speak up and criticize policies of Israel’s government? Of course they are. But should they?
While I disagree with those on the left who criticize the “occupation,” I also disagree with those who say that they should be silenced. Instead, they should be educated. We should make sure that whenever a piece criticizing the policies of Israel’s democratically-elected government is published, it is accompanied by a credible and thoughtful opposing point of view. By doing so, we will be doing Israel and the American Jewish community a great service.
Daniel E. Bacine, a partner in the Center City firm of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, is the immediate past chairman of the Jewish Publishing Group, which publishes the Jewish Exponent. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Exponent.


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