Dual Debates: Israel, Palestine and Polite Conversation

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Sitting in a hotel bar in East Jerusalem, an Israeli peace activist named Nimrod casually remarked to me, “I wish that American Jews would take a more moderate approach to the conflict. Sometimes they are so nationalist, it just makes things harder.

The comment elicited tired, knowing nods from the other Israeli journalists and human rights activists in the room.

“We don’t need any more people who are pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, we need people who are pro-solution, agreed his friend, a young woman filmmaker. “A lot of the problems we face come from America, Europe and the Arab world. These are the people who fund this war.

I was surprised by their comments. In the United States, comments like these were far beyond the realm of polite conversation, especially when in mixed company.

What I did not anticipate, on my second trip to Israel, was that comments like these are not so controversial inside the Jewish state itself.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has entered that holy trinity of un-discussable topics in America – sex, politics and religion – and is often more assiduously avoided than any of the others. Someone could take offense, someone else could be called an anti-Semite – a label that can stick with you for a long time. It’s best to just avoid the subject, or talk about today’s headline only with people who you know share your views.

In a country where almost every controversial political issue divides society roughly down the middle – with about as many people sympathetic to gay marriage, abortion rights, affirmative action or welfare as oppose them – it is striking how little space exists in the mainstream for criticism of Israel or Zionism.

Often, the only people who criticize Israeli policies without making nervous qualifications – “Israel has the right to defend itself, but. – are those portrayed as completely out of step with the rest of America – leftist academics, young unwashed anarchists; and of course American Arabs and Muslims.

Recently, though, a bold bid to widen that space for dissent has come from an unexpected player in American society: Jimmy Carter, a highly respected, Nobel Peace Prize winning former President. His new book, “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, has provoked heated charges of anti-Semitism from the leaders of America’s big Jewish organizations and a mass resignation of Jewish members of the advisory board of his Atlanta think tank.

He has responded to these charges in a dignified and calm way, appearing on popular political chat shows, writing on the opinion pages of the country’s largest newspapers, and delivering an address at America’s most prominent historically Jewish university.

But more than anything else, his response reminds me of my conversation with Nimrod and his friends in East Jerusalem.

“The many controversial issues concerning Palestine and the path to peace for Israel are intensely debated among Israelis and throughout other nations – but not in the United States, Carter wrote in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. “For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices.

He continued: “It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians.

But in Israel, it is not so unusual for prominent Israelis to argue that their country must respect human rights and international law.

All in all, the debate inside the Jewish state itself is much more vibrant than what convention allows inside the United States.

Reading the opinion pages of the country’s major newspapers, one is struck by how many things Israelis say about their country’s policies that would be considered suspicious or downright offensive by many American Zionists.

While American journalists fall over themselves to use the most politically neutral terminology to describe what Israel calls “the security fence, prominent Israeli journalists like Gideon Levy write in the pages of the Israeli press that “the apartheid wall is both Palestinian’s “profound fear and an “existential threat to their society.

And Amira Hass, a highly respected contributor to Israeli daily Haaretz, writes that “the Palestinians, as a people, are divided into subgroups, something which is reminiscent also of South Africa under apartheid rule.

It is hard to imagine prominent American figures, or even the more crass talking heads on cable news, making statements like these without facing a flurry of stinging criticism.

But living in such close proximity to the conflict, Israelis can less afford the luxury of confined, polite conversation. Sitting in that hotel bar in East Jerusalem, it struck me how much Americans could learn from the Israeli debate.

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