Pride and Prejudice: A Conversation With an Israeli-American Friend

In my last post, I cited a comment from a longtime friend of mine who has been living in Israel for the past twenty years. By way of introduction: his name is David Melman and he lives with his family in a small community village in the Upper Galilee. My friendship with David goes back to our undergraduate days at UCLA, where our mutual connection to Israel was always an important aspect of our relationship. Despite the long distance and the passage of time, our families have remained close.

David and I have been in communication since his first comment to my blog. I’ve asked him if he would be willing to allow me to post our dialogue and he graciously agreed. Click below for his comment, followed by my response.

Dear Brant,

As an old friend of yours, I certainly know that you do not “hate Israel” and you are not an “Israel basher” with intent to harm Israel.

Nonetheless, I am very saddened to hear that you no longer have “Jewish pride in Israel and in Zionism itself”. This is very evident in your writings.

I can’t agree with you more in terms of the human suffering the Palestinians have endured and continue to endure. It is good that you have raised awareness in the Jewish community to this real tragedy on the ground.

But I don’t accept your premise that Zionism and the creation of our national state bear the moral responsibility for the Palestinian suffering, and that there is “something fundamentally problematic with the Zionist enterprise itself”.

Had Arab states accepted Israel’s creation in 1948 rather than attack with the goal of destroying her, history would have played out differently, both for Israel and the Palestinians. Israel was not established based on the ideology of disenfranchising the Palestinian people. Yes, Israel conducted immoral acts during the war, such as driving many Palestinians out of their villages. But do not forget that this was a war of survival that was forced on her. Israel never had the goal of conquering and occupying the West Bank and Gaza. The 6-day war was also a war of survival.

Oppression of the Palestinian people is not part of the Zionist dream. I have no doubt that Israelis would overwhelmingly support a Palestinian state in the West Band and Gaza if Palestinian leadership would recognize Israel and agree to live peacefully by her side. Israel has made peace with Egypt and Jordan to the credit of its brave leaders Sadat and Hussein. If only the Palestinian leadership would could show such courage. This situation in Gaza would change overnight if Hamas would recognize Israel, agree to cease all hostilities and terrorism, and return Gilad Schalit.

The Israeli government and military apparently believes the blockade of Gaza is needed to ensure Israeli security. Tactically this may prove to be a wrong decision in terms of Israeli security, and to your credit, I am becoming a believer that it is also morally wrong to cause such extreme hardships for the entire population in Gaza.

But again, I believe what motivates Israel’s actions in Gaza is not its desire to cause suffering, but its desire to protect its citizens. I’m also sure the army could have done more reduce innocent casualties in the last year’s incursion into Gaza to stop the incessant rocket fire, but this is not because the military guidelines were to harm innocent people, but to the contrary. I know there are stories as well where soldiers put themselves in greater danger in order to protect possible harm to innocent civilians.

Just yesterday I read that Israel evacuated a Palestinian in Gaza who needed medical treatment in an Israel hospital, while Hamas released a cruel video showing Noam Schalit wandering in Gaza until he finds his son Gilad in a coffin.

I support your right and indeed, obligation, to speak openly and honestly about Israel, even when it means criticizing Israeli government policy. Israel is a very open democracy. As you often find and cite in your blogs, there is plenty of open criticism of our government policy here in Israel.

Brant, what I find lacking in your blogs is the larger context to the situation. Israel faces two very hostile entities whose main goal is to harm Israel: Hezbollah in the Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Both are radical Islamic entities sponsored by Iran who do not seek compromise or any kind of peaceful co-existence with Israel.

What I think we can agree on is that Israel should strive to find ways to reduce the suffering in Gaza without sacrificing its security.

Furthermore, I think with a little effort, you can find stories of things happening in Israel which do provide you with a source of Jewish and Israeli pride. Such stories would provide a welcome positive addition to your very thought-proving criticisms of Israeli policy.

Still your friend,
David

______________________________________________________________

Dear David,

Thank you so much for your generous and thoughtful comments.  Given the sensitive nature of of the issues I’m raising, the respect and friendship inherent in your words mean a great deal to me.   I’m also all too aware that anything regarding Israel has directly personal significance for you and your family.

It’s obvious that my own feelings have recently been going through something of a transformation – but as I tried to express in my last post, there are many, many things about Israel that will always fill me with pride.  I suppose the reason that I don’t seem to exude love for Israel in my writings lately is that my anguish over Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians has come to eclipse that pride. It’s not easy for me to write that, but it’s really the only way I know how to put it.

I was so glad to read that we are largely in agreement about the tragedy of Palestinian suffering. I was especially gratified – and moved – to read that you are coming to believe that Israel’s current actions in Gaza are “morally wrong.”  I know you don’t admit these things lightly.  It’s obvious to me, however, that we disagree over the essential background of this tragedy.

You and I were both raised with the conventional Zionist narrative of Israel’s founding.  Indeed, I have long accepted the version of these events in way you describe them:

Had Arab states accepted Israel’s creation in 1948 rather than attack with the goal of destroying her, history would have played out differently, both for Israel and the Palestinians. Israel was not established based on the ideology of disenfranchising the Palestinian people. Yes, Israel conducted immoral acts during the war, such as driving many Palestinians out of their villages. But do not forget that this was a war of survival that was forced on her. Israel never had the goal of conquering and occupying the West Bank and Gaza. The 6-day war was also a war of survival.

To make a long story short, I’ve come to question this particular narrative. I’m just not sure any more that it’s as simple a matter as “if only the Arab states had accepted Israel’s creation in 1948…” I don’t think we Jews can so blithely discount the Palestinian narrative (which, I will grant, has its own mythic simplicities as well).

The conventional Zionist narrative holds that Palestinians were purely and simply rejectionist because they could not abide a Jewish presence in their land. But I’m no longer sure that it’s really that straightforward.  I’m becoming increasingly less dismissive of the original Palestinian concern over the Zionist settlement of Palestine. After all, as the Arab inhabitants saw it, the essential goal of the Zionist movement was to extend Jewish sovereign control over as much of historic Palestine as possible.  (I’m especially mindful of what this must have meant to an indigenous Palestinian community that had endured a succession of empires – and were finally given the promise of self-determination by the British following the defeat of the Ottomans at the end of WW I).

Though according to our narrative, the 1947 UN Partition plan was eminently fair and equitable, I’m now trying to understand how this plan must have been experienced by the Arab residents of Palestine. Despite the fact that Jews were a clear minority in terms of population and owned only 6% of the land, the UN plan gave 55.5% of Palestine to the proposed Jewish state (which would have contained 400 Arab villages within its new borders). Given that indigenous Palestinians, without their consultation, were set to lose more than half their land to a minority settler population who sought political control over it, I can certainly understand the reasons behind Palestinian resistance to partition.

In reading the work of the new Israeli historians, the revelation that continues to affect me the most – and one that was never part of my Zionist education – was that between the date of the partition vote in November 1947 and the declaration of the State of Israel (and the exit of British troops from Palestine) in May 1948, a civil war was fought between the Yishuv forces and Palestinian military irregulars.  It was during this time that Jewish forces began to forcibly expel Palestinian resident from their villages – including large swaths of territory that were intended to be part of the new Palestinian state according to the Partition Plan.  The Arab states did not join the fight until May 1948, at which time the Yishuv forces had already begun to gain the upper hand (and the Palestinian refugee problem was well under way.)

Without going into more historical detail, here’s the long and short of it: I’m not so sure that this war was, as you put it, a “war of survival that was forced on Israel.”  (I’m also not sure it was that simple in the case of 1967 either, but let’s save that one for another conversation, if we’re up for it.)

David, I do agree with you that “oppression of the Palestinian people is not part of the Zionist dream.”  I don’t think that oppression of another people could ever have been the essential design of Israel’s founders. But I now wonder: was it an inevitable by-product?  I can’t help but question whether or not it was ever possible to establish an exclusively Jewish state in a country as historically multicultural and multi-religious as Israel/Palestine without engendering conflict. And I’m no longer sure whether it’s possible under the circustances for the Jewish state to maintain political dominion over this land without increasingly wielding its power oppressively toward its non-Jewish inhabitants.

Given what I’m coming to accept about the circumstances of Israel’s founding, I’ve become increasingly more sensitive to the impact of these circumstances  upon Israeli society – the increasing militarization, the all-encompassing emphasis on national security – and the increasing need to demonstrate Israel’s overwhelming might in order to “ensure” her security.

The war in Gaza last year was something of a turning point for me in this regard. I read and watched the news obsessively, as the IDF used such devastating military force toward 1.5 million inhabitants squeezed into a tiny 140 square mile strip of land. I’m sure, as you point out, that there were individual examples of humanitarian efforts by Israeli soldiers, but I also believe that these actions took place between a larger and more oppressive context.

When I asked myself why Israel was using such disproportionate force (and why the IDF was repeatedly targeting schools, factories and essential parts of Gazan infrastructure that had nothing to do with the firing of Kassams), the only answer I could think of was that Israel’s strategy was simply to beat the enemy into submission.  To bring Hamas (and the citizens who elected them) to their knees through the sheer power of greater military might.

If this is indeed the case – if this is Israel’s essential strategy – then I don’t believe she will ever find the safety and security it so desperately seeks. It will only cause greater and greater humanitarian misery for Palestinians while  further alienating Israel from the outside world. And this, as you say, was never, ever part of the Zionist dream.

At any rate, these are kinds of questions I’ve been asking myself these days. And while I might not have many solid answers, I feel compelled to continue to ask them.  I realize that those who know me only from what they read on my blog must think I have precious little love in my heart for Israel.   But I have to tell you, David, it means a great deal to me that you know me well enough to know better.

I can only hope that I can find a way to ask these questions in such a way that makes it clear they truly come from a place of Jewish love and Jewish  conscience.

Your Friend,

Brant

7 thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice: A Conversation With an Israeli-American Friend

  1. Thank you for sharing this dialog between two friends who can articulate their ideas and concern regarding the present situation between Israel and the Palestinians. I look forward to reading both of your comments as the situation continues to unfold. I hope to see peace in this area in my lifetime.

    As you know I’m an incurable optimist.

    Shalom: with love to you both.

    LMr

  2. It saddens me to read that David is still more committed to the myth that Israel was a victim in 1948 and again in 1967. It also saddens me that David will not look at the truth that Israel has always wanted to conquer the West Bank and Gaza; indeed, even founding Israeli leaders have admitted to this. I understand how painful this is for David. If he were to look critically and consciously at the disparity between what Israel has said and what Israel has done, it might shatter his workd and force him to rethink the narrative. I understand this pain because I have gone through it.

  3. Your anguish at the regarding Israel’s insistence on fighting to create a state in the face of Arab opposition reminds me of a scene from the movie “Exodus”. It has been many years since I have seen it but as I recall it goes like this: A Holocaust survivor, played by Sal Mineo, arrives in Eretz Israel and wants to become a fighter so he decides to join the ETZEL (Irgun). The ETZEL officer who interviews him (played by David Opatoshu) is the uncle of the movie’s hero, Ari Ben-Canaan (Paul Newman). During the interview, the uncle lays out both the Jews’ claim to the country and then that of the Arabs. He then says something to the effect that an outside observer might find it hard to choose between the two. He then says that, for him, the deciding factor is “let the next injustice happen to somebody else”.

    There you have it. Israel exists. The UN voted it had a right to come into being. The Arabs rejected it, proclaimed Jihad and said the Jews would be thrown into the sea…that it would be a war of genocide. They immediately began to attack the roads between the Jewish towns and settlements. Thus, the response of the Jewish armed groups to clear out areas populated by Arabs that endangered communication between the settlements doesn’t have to be part of some nefarious plan to expel the Arabs from the country (as Ilan Pappe, who is obviously the source of your historical information), but is what I would rather call “sound military tactics”.
    I will begin to pay attention to the world’s hand-wringing over the morality of our situation when they first take on the suffering of the millions of Indians who were killed, uprooted and dispossessed because of the insistence of their Muslim population to create a separatist, religous, Muslim state. I will pay attention when the millions of ethnic Germans who were uprooted from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II have their claims recognized. I will pay attention when the hundred of thousands of Serbs exopelled from Krajina (sp?) in Croatia and from Kossovo have their claims recognized, along with all the other refugees created by the break-up of Yugoslavia. Same with the Greek and Turkish refugees from each other’s countries in the 1920’s, plus the Greek Cypriot refugees of the 1970’s. I could go on and on.

    • YBD,

      You make this argument repeated on this blog, and it never ceases to dishearten me. The argument boils down to ‘as long as there are still injustices in the world, Jews are justified in committing injustice against others.’ In other words, let the nations of the world be a light upon us. And as long as that light is dimmed, we are permitted to act with impunity.

      Once upon a time in America, people believed all our wars were justified, if not entirely defensive, and our actions were always just. Vietnam brought the horror of war into people’s living rooms. Since then many have rejected the mythologies surrounding American military campaigns.

      My generation, and the one coming to adulthood now have largely shed much of the fundamental mythology surrounding Zionism, and care much more about the situation in the present.
      And some of us choose to pay attention now.
      So long as you and others continue to rehash tired, disproved arguments (Israel only acts to defend itself. The Arabs only ever wanted to destroy the Jews. Palestinians in Gaza deserve to suffer because the elected Hamas.), I predict support for Israel among American Jews continuing to wane.

      It may be time for a change of strategy. Though on this front, I am far less hopeful than others.

      • The argument boils down to ‘as long as there are still injustices in the world, Jews are justified in committing injustice against others.’
        – – – – – – – – – – – – –
        No – the argument boils down to “focusing exclusively on the Arab-Israeli conflict for decades – and applying a unique moral standard to Israeli behavior – indicates a politically correct double standard.”

        There is no essential difference between the decades of violence on the India-Pakistan border and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both were caused by the breakup of European colonies.

        Oh, there is one differenct – the scale of the deaths: far more Hindis and Moslems have been killed than Israelis and Palestinians.

        And the Indians are proceeding with their “apartheid wall” without so much as a peep from the International Hand-Wringing Community.

        Double standard – that’s the observation put forward. Could you address it please?

  4. Dear Brant,

    I read David’s letter to you and was preparing to briefly address the version of events upon which he bases his feelings about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And then I read your response to him and it is completely unnecessary for me to write a single word. You have articulated the issue and summarized the facts and their implications accurately, clearly and compassionately. I hope that David can hear you.

    From strength to strength, my friend.

    Mark

  5. Thanks to both David and Brant for opening their conversation for all of us to hear and for the respectful way it is carried on. It is in marked contrast to so many conversations carried on – or suppressed – in both religious and secular circles, certainly in American society and, though probably less so, in Israeli and Palestinian societies. The critical components in Brant’s and David’s conversation are their willingness to listen, to allow their positions to be challenged and the suggestion that assumptions that have been taken as dogma are being examined. We could do well with a lot more of that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s