Is Israel good or bad? A silly question, perhaps, but this is what some of the cleverest minds around Israel and Palestine have devolved into discussing of late. A recent piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman -- himself long a target of derision by those who despise middle-of-the-road conclusions -- suggested that Israel should be judged on more than its occupation of the West Bank.
“This story [of a Palestinian citizen of Israel teaching a massive and global online course in nanotechnology from the Technion, and delivered in Arabic] is a useful reminder that Israel is a country, not just a conflict, and, as a country, it’s still a work in progress,” Friedman wrote. “Those, like members of the B.D.S. — boycott, divestiture, sanctions — movement who treat Israel as if it is only the sum of how it deals with the West Bank and therefore deserves to be delegitimized as a state, would do well to reflect on some of these complexities.”
A subsequent letter to the editor by Ben White, a UK-based, vocal critic of Israel, responded swiftly. It “is instructive that Mr. Friedman thinks anything could balance out the decades-long colonial occupation,” White wrote.
Policy analysis that furthers a zero-sum view of the world is all too common, and often falls short when it comes to productive recommendations. But public discourse that seeks to assess whether a country is good or bad is especially bewildering.
A similar view was expressed last week by a George Washington University historian of the Middle East, Shira Robinson. Writing in MERIP, Robinson objected to Yossi Sarid’s metaphor -- in a recent column in Haaretz -- that ending the occupation will enable Israel to “remove the gangrene and save the healthy tissue.”
Because 4 million refugees are still “denied the right to return to their homes,” Robinson argued, the idea that Israel in its pre-1967 borders is healthy (or even a democracy), is a “fantasy.”
Certainly these critics have not emerged from a vacuum, when it comes to discourse around Israel. Those working for Israeli hasbarah have often done Israel more harm than good in the court of concerned public opinion. Critics have long been accusing the government of “pinkwashing” Israel’s human rights record by drawing attention to its relatively open GLBTQ policies. And the focus on Israel as a start-up nation and high-tech miracle has left critics of its Palestinian policies similarly cold. (Copperwashing anyone?)
Yet those who seek to tar Israel with an equally broad brush aren’t helping either. By all means, let’s call for serious discussion of all outstanding issues when it comes to the fate of Israelis and the Palestinians. And that includes a discussion of the most sensitive policy areas: Jerusalem, settlements, equality for all of Israel’s citizens, and a measure of justice for Palestinian refugees. But no policy discussion can produce mutually satisfactory outcomes if either side’s historical circumstances are deemed to be fundamentally invalid.
Of course, none of this begins to approach the tone and tenor of Israel-Palestine debate on the Twittersphere where red marks are racked up in the silly game of collective back-slapping. I’ll leave it to my readers to find their choice examples of mutual delegitimation and point scoring.
So is Israel good or bad?
As I reflect on the writer’s craft, it’s quite possible that this week’s blog post is brought to you courtesy of last week’s therapy session, where my psychologist told me that I was neither good nor bad. “You’re just Mira,” she said. It stung, I’ll be the first to admit, to be fed a dose of nuance. But by challenging me on my own self-characterizing binaries, there was medicine in her method. Even if it was bitter tasting, the only way to start the hard work of self-improvement (whether personal, collective, or inter-group), is to dwell for a while in the grey zones.
Can Israeli-Palestinian conflict stakeholders similarly move beyond these hardened binaries and step into the grey long enough to come up with creative solutions that respect the needs, fears and dreams of both sides? These conversations need to happen both separately, among friends -- and that includes the need for the tough questions that surely won’t make nearly enough of an appearance at the line-toeing AIPAC conference in Washington, DC, this week -- and together.