On Independence Day, voices and groups from across the political spectrum had lots to say, sometimes through their silence. AIPAC focused its April 23 Israel update on the Iran threat; Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, currently based in Illinois, in his unique melancholic-comedic style wrote that he longs for real “al-ha’esh” (Israeli/Palestinian style barbecue), Jewish Voice for Peace issued a statement not about Independence Day, but about the Armenian Genocide, and voices like Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wrote on his public Facebook page that while on many days he spends time thinking about how Israel “could be better,” today, because “the perfect should not become the enemy of the good, especially as it relates to a still nascent project; and because the successes are still great and the opportunities are endless even if they are not all met - today I celebrate Israel just for what it is.”
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When it comes to policy critique, it is often hard to find a middle ground beyond criticism and whitewashing on one hand, and between criticism and outright abdication on the other. Scholars for Israel and Palestine, of which I am co-chair along with Steven M. Cohen, saw Independence Day as an opportunity to reaffirm our hope that there will one day be a Palestinian state existing alongside the State of Israel:
The same Zionist and democratic principles that underlie our commitment to Israel’s existence and security as a democratic Jewish nation-state demand that we support the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian nation-state as well. It is simply unjust for Palestinians to continue to live in a condition of occupation, subjugation, and insecurity. They deserve to have their own Independence Day.
We also support the establishment of an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza because we are convinced it is essential for Israel’s security, survival, and well-being. Israeli control over Palestinian territories captured in 1967 has turned into an open-ended oppressive occupation lasting almost a half-century, accompanied by a large-scale settlement enterprise in the West Bank that violates international law. The consequences have profoundly damaged and corrupted Israeli society and politics. Israel cannot maintain its achievements and promise as a democratic society while ruling indefinitely over another people.
As part of the Third Narrative, Scholars for Israel and Palestine tries to find a middle ground between what it sees as two polarized positions, each typically denying the humanity of the other. But in politics, the middle is often a fraught place to reside. Looking at our Independence Day call for dual statehood through the lens of those to our right, I see some interpreting the call as a cynical spoiling attempt: eroding the pleasure of those celebrating Jewish sovereignty by calling to mind the longings of their enemies. To our left, I see some interpreting the call for a two-state solution as selling out the desire of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, given that a two-state solution as it has typically been conceived would most likely entail refugee return to a Palestinian state, with only limited return to Israel itself. I also see some to our left believing that the time for the two-state option has come and gone, such that continuing to call for it might actually mean, paradoxically, shoring up the status quo.
Of course, when it comes to politics, law and morality, one should never slavishly adhere to the middle for its own sake, despite the psychological comfort that being in-between can sometimes bring. More than anyone, scholars, with the academic imperative to ask uncomfortable questions, know this. But one should also remember that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as in many tough policy areas, there is one element that is often in too-short supply: that of empathy for the needs and desires of both sides. Recognizing Israel’s impressive stamina, creativity and power at 67 years young suggests that it could use some of this fortitude to imagine a different future.