By Jonathon Leader
Before I start the bulk of this article I thought I’d shed some light on who I am and what my background is. I’m a 23 year old Jewish graduate on the NIF Activism Fellowship. I’m what many would incorrectly call a “liberal” Zionist. I’m actually a socialist one, but that’s a different story. I spent my gap year in Israel. In other words, I’m a cliché.
Those of us interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have watched the same scene repeat itself over and over again. Be it on university campuses, city centres or even on national news: In the red corner, flying the Palestinian flag, passionately cheering “Free free Palestine!” we have the Palestinian Solidarity movement. In the blue corner: flying the Israeli flag, vigorously bellowing out calls of “Am Yisrael Chai” (The Jewish people live in Hebrew) we have Pro-Israeli/Zionist activists. Each preparing to engage in a boxing match of facts; jabbing at each other with rhetoric until one manages to land the knockout blow. All the while disinterested onlookers walk sheepishly by attempting to get on with their daily lives.
This image and this way of approaching the conflict is actually a highly problematic one. It captures the essence of how we talk about the conflict in the UK, you either “Stand With Israel” or “Stand with Palestine”, with the chasm where nuance used to be left all but intellectually barren, apart from the few advocating for genuine reconciliation and dialogue. What I will aim to do here is identify the most problematic elements of this discourse and attempt to remedy them.
The overarching problem with this image of the conflict is that it paints a picture where the interests of both actors are irreconcilable. This is the fundamental assumption which leads to such polarised positions as “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” the fact is; you can be both, and some, although few, are. It’s perfectly possible to simultaneously support Israel’s “right to exist” and oppose the occupation of the West-Bank and the human rights abuses which Palestinians endure as a result. You can also support the existence of a Palestinian state and at the same time denounce Palestinian terrorism; they aren’t mutually exclusive.
The fact is that in order for both Israelis and Palestinians to get the peace they deserve, both sides will have to work together and come to a mutually beneficial two-state solution. If Israelis actually living under the very real threat of terrorism, and Palestinians who actually live under the indignity of occupation, can try and work together for a peaceful solution, then I see no reason why activists living in the UK need to be squawking at each other until our faces turn blue whenever the subject gets bought up.
Surely it’s about time that we recognise that the current approach simply isn’t working. I don’t know any committed activists on either side who after their regular shouting match have turned around and said “shit, maybe they have a point” and proceeded to swap flags/slogans/chants/insults. Whilst many would say “ah, but you’re trying to convince the audience”, the audience aren’t being convinced by the apparent nutter waving a flag and screaming angrily on the street.
If there are any doubts about just how abhorrently uncivilised both sets of activists can be, look at videos of the LSESU Palestine and Israel societies physically brawling with each other on campus in 2012, or an incident in Galway where Pro-Palestinian protesters interrupted a talk and started screaming “you fucking Zionists, fucking pricks, get fuck off our campus” (ignore the names of both videos), and the list of similar instances is a long one. So in future if you hear someone saying something you disagree with regarding the Middle-East, try to not let your first reaction be to call them a terrorist, or a baby killer or any other such meaningless insult. You’re probably better than that. (I hope)
It’s also about time the Holocaust is left out of the debate, Godwin’s law correctly states that the first person to mention Hitler in a debate about anything but Hitler loses. We’ve all heard the accusations that Israel is the new Nazi Germany, over the last Gaza war we’ve also seen the coining of the term “Nazionist”. If you’re going to go around conflating Israel with the Nazis then first you better show me some kind of evidence that Israel’s primary goal is to slaughter every last Palestinian on the planet; including the numerous Palestinians living in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere in the region. This is Nazism; and the lazy, disingenuous and in this case; anti-Semitic use of the slaughter of the Jewish people and 5 million members of other minorities to gain cheap political points is frankly a disgrace.
Equally on the Pro-Israel side, let’s stop evoking Holocaust imagery to somehow sanitise or justify the policies of the Israeli government, including comparing all of Israel’s enemies to the Nazis, and calling Israel’s legitimate 1967 borders “Auschwitz borders”. It’s equally disingenuous and equally exploitative; as it happens, Bibi Netanyahu is probably one of the worst culprits of this; having compared a variety of different states and people to Hitler, including Iran and the Grand Mufti. The fact is that this isn’t the 1940s, its 2015, and the situation in Israel-Palestine is despairing enough without bringing up what is possibly the darkest period in modern history…so leave it out.
I think Amos Oz, an Israeli author was able to encapsulate far better than me what needs to change when he said that “There are only two sides that exist in this conflict, moderates and extremists”. It’s about time that both sets of activists decided which side of they’ll be on. Will they be on the moderate side; actively trying to engage in an honest, civilised, and productive discourse which may at least in a small way make a peaceful settlement more likely? Or will they be on the extremist side, creating an increasingly polarised debate more concerned about winning pedantic squabbles than actually making any progress towards peace?
This doesn’t mean that we all the sudden have to agree on everything that happens in the Middle-East, but let’s at least try and find a more productive way of disagreeing, because the old way really isn’t working.