A recent article by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books headlined “The Jewish American Cocoon” has been sparking lots of discussion in our community.
Beinart argues that American Jewish organizations are not willing even to hear, much less consider, Palestinian viewpoints and perspectives about what Zionism means. He does not argue that we should accept their arguments or agree with them — but we should at least be willing to listen.
President Obama made a similar point in his speech in Jerusalem on March 21 in which he urged his audience to try to imagine how Palestinians viewed the conflict.
“Put yourself in their shoes — look at the world through their eyes,” the president said. “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished.”
“It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home,” the president added.
That challenge, of appreciating the other side’s view of us, is not easy for Israelis or American Jews. Israelis have been in conflict with their neighbors for so many decades and have suffered terrible losses in war and through terrorism — and we have mourned along with them. Yet, we need to somehow move beyond that. The other side has suffered, too, and we need to acknowledge that.
This point was dramatized for me when I was recently looking at the official English-language website of the Israel Defense Forces (www.idfblog.com) where there is a section headlined, “What Happened to the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza.”
The text, accompanied by a slide show, reads: “Despite what you may hear from the media, Gaza is not an ‘open-air prison.’ This summer, Gazans are out in force, enjoying themselves in beautiful beaches and hotels and doing their shopping in pristine grocery stores and markets heaving with fresh produce.”
I have traveled quite widely around the United States, speaking at synagogues and Jewish community centers, and if I were given a dime for each time an audience member has told me, “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” I would be able to retire in comfort right now.
It’s a comforting refrain for American Jews. It makes us feel a whole lot better. But is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
A 2009 article in the British medical journal The Lancet offers a different perspective, reporting that incidence of stunted growth among Palestinian children is increasing and there are pockets in northern Gaza where the level of stunting reaches 30 percent. Stunting is caused by chronic malnutrition and affects cognitive development and physical health. It poses a serious threat to normal childhood development and may cause severe health problems for children in the future.
Last year, an Israeli court ordered the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to release a document drawn up in 2008 with input from the Israeli Health Ministry. It calculated the minimum number of calories necessary, in COGAT’s view, necessary to keep Gaza residents just barely above malnutrition levels so that food deliveries could be precisely targeted to that level. The number came to 2,297 calories per person and the calculations were based on “a model formulated by the Ministry of Health … according to average Israeli consumption,” though the figures were then “adjusted to culture and experience” in Gaza.
When we talk about Israeli settlements, some of us may view them as an embodiment of God’s will while others may see them as a violation of international law. But try to see them through Palestinian eyes every day, towering over them on almost every ridge line in the West Bank, a constant reminder of what they have lost and what they still have to lose. They see construction cranes, new apartment blocks going up all the time, new roads being built which are not for them, new barbed wire fences closing off land. Can we blame them if they don’t love us and if they don’t trust us?
For many American Jews, it’s much more painful to criticize Israel than it is to criticize the United States. After all, we live here, vote here, pay taxes here, get sick and hopefully get healed here, get stuck in traffic jams here, grow old and die here. We can’t deny reality. But many of us allow faraway Israel to continue to exist in our minds as an ideal land; a kind of perfect dream.
We really need to wake up and face reality.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street.