Palestinian Violence Is Either Illegitimate or Justifiable; There's No Middle Ground

Attempts to conflate the two arguments have commentators contradicting themselves.

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A female Palestinian protester throws stones at an Israeli military vehicle during clashes with Israeli troops near Ramallah, Oct. 8, 2015.
A female Palestinian protester throws stones at an Israeli military vehicle during clashes with Israeli troops near Ramallah, Oct. 8, 2015.Credit: AP
Ayalon Eliach
Ayalon Eliach

Diaspora Jews are distanced from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At best, this distance affords the opportunity for calm, rational reflection about the situation, without the inflamed passions of living directly in the midst of the tensions. This perspective is often associated with an even-handedness that sees both sides to every story. But sometimes, attempting to find the truth somewhere in-between has commentators contradicting themselves.

In recent years, many Diaspora Jews have offered Israelis a caring but even-handed assessment of their conflict with the Palestinians. Writers like Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen of the New York Times, organizations like the New Israel Fund and J Street, and the thousands of Jews who endorse them, have critiqued both Israel’s settlement policy as well as Palestinian rejections of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. By highlighting the role of both sides in the conflict, they have offered a balanced, nuanced approach that is often missing in Israel.

That measured approach has been almost entirely absent from the debate in Israel since the most recent round of Palestinian terror attacks erupted. At one extreme, the attacks have been described as inevitable and even justifiable responses to Israel’s policies against the Palestinians. At the other extreme, they have been called a product of Palestinian incitement, allowed to flourish by Israel's accommodation of the Palestinian leadership.

This would be the perfect opportunity for Diaspora Jews to offer a more nuanced perspective. A few have tried to be even-handed, by embracing parts of both narratives. British student Aaron Simmons argued that “the occupation is the central cause of terrorism,” while simultaneously suggesting that this “should never mean reducing terrorism to this logic of inevitability, where the terrorists are blameless or their actions justified.” Similarly, American commentator and Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart suggested that even “Martin Luther King would understand” why the Palestinians have resorted to violence in light of Israeli policies, while nonetheless describing Palestinian terror as “illegitimate” and “vile.”

What does it mean to explain terror as an understandable reaction to Israeli policies on the one hand, but then to say that such violence is illegitimate on the other?

At first glance, these views appear irreconcilable. Either the violence is not understandable or legitimate because moral, logical people do not respond to difficult situations by resorting to terrorism; or the violence makes sense as a way to react to Israeli policies and is therefore justifiable. By trying to find a middle ground between these two positions, these writers – and those who share their views – appear to have made self-contradictory arguments.

They seem to have missed the main benefit that distance offers Diaspora Jews. Distance does not simply offer the ability to use language from both sides of the argument. It also allows people to see things from an entirely different vantage point altogether. The truth is not always somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, it is entirely off of the spectrum of the debate as it has been framed.

The problem with the current debate has been that it conflates two very different questions: 1. Do Palestinians have legitimate reasons for being furious at Israelis for their policies? 2. If there are good reasons for such anger, is it justified for Palestinians to stab, shoot and ram cars into innocent civilians?

The current debate has collapsed these two questions into one – is it understandable and justifiable that Palestinians have carried out terror attacks in response to Israeli policies? – in which the distinction between having angry feelings and acting violently is erased.

Any attempt to find a middle ground within the framing of this singular question leads to what sounds like internally inconsistent positions.

As Diaspora Jews, we need to use our perspective to parse out such distinctions instead of just gravitating toward the language of the middle ground. Instead of saying that “the occupation is the central cause of terrorism,” we should say the occupation is the central cause of Palestinian anger toward Israelis. Instead of saying that “Martin Luther King would understand” Palestinian terror, but that it is still illegitimate, we should say Palestinian frustration is understandable, but Palestinian violence is not. Reframing the debate, and our analysis, in this way offers a unique approach to the conflict that sees the suffering on both sides, while avoiding looking for a middle ground when none exists.

Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @AyalonEliach.

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