Earlier this month, I toured Ramallah, East Jerusalem, and the Bethlehem area with a group of over 30 rabbis, educators, lay leaders, executives, and philanthropists from across the denominational and political spectrum.
It was a powerful, intense experience facilitated by Encounter, an organization that brings American Jewish leaders into direct contact with Palestinians for an on-the-ground perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Over the course of the four-day trip, our group asked many of the Palestinians with whom we met what they hoped to gain by speaking with us. Some thought we might be able to influence others on their behalf - whether it was the U.S. Jewish community, the American government, or even Israelis - whether at large, or in positions of power.
Most of all, though, it seemed to us that they simply wanted the dignity that comes from being heard. Ironically, that is something we, American Jews, are increasingly looking for as well.
We, the vast liberal majority of Jewish Americans, have been increasingly marginalized in the face of a rapidly developing realpolitik connecting the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration.
To be clear: we certainly benefit from far more privilege in our lives than the Palestinians we met. Still, our conversations caused me to reflect on how we could begin to relate to their feeling of being left behind.
The Saturday before our trip was the day Robert Bowers murdered 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. In choosing a Jewish target, Bowers had repeatedly and explicitly expressed hostility towards HIAS, the Jewish immigrant and refugee advocacy organization that, since Trump emerged as a candidate, has forcefully opposed his anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric.
From Bethlehem, we read reports of President Trump’s controversial visit to Pittsburgh, where most members of the local community and its Jewish organizations support HIAS’ values and programs and opposed his visit to their grieving community. The president was faced with Jewish demonstrators holding signs reading, "You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees."
But Trump was welcomed by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. Neither Trump nor Dermer offered a reflection or critique of how the atmosphere promoted by Trump's own incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric may have contributed to Bowers’ radicalization. Instead, they pointed to Trump’s friendship with the State of Israel.
To many, this was implicit confirmation that Trump and Netanyahu prioritize that relationship over their relationship with the American Jewish community.
Under Netanyahu's leadership, Israel clearly does share more common ground with the Trump administration than it does with most American Jews. Notable examples include the scuttling of the Iran deal, the relocation of the U.S.embassy to Jerusalem, and the shuttering of the Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington, D.C. In contrast, most American Jews supported the Iran deal and continue to support an active American role in facilitating the negotiation of a two state solution.
If anything, both Trump and Netanyahu share a sense that the concerns of the mainstream American Jewish community are more fictitious than real, ginned up by Jewish liberal elites for the sake of partisan politics.
The day before Ambassador Dermer welcomed Trump to Pittsburgh, MK Naftali Bennett, Israel's Diaspora Affairs Minister, even expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of ADL statistics showing a spike in American anti-Semitic activity since Trump became president. Instead of listening to the alarm about basic safety expressed by a key U.S. Jewish organization, the Israeli government dismissed it as "fake news."
Ironically, our trip also highlighted how the realpolitik pushing American Jews to the margins is also further silencing Palestinians.
That same week, reports emerged describing warming relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states, backgrounded by shared concerns over Iran, with meetings between a range of high-ranking government representatives regarding joint water policy, security and economic cooperation, and even the construction of a transnational freight railway.
These initiatives, part of building an anti-Iran coalition, are key to America’s Mideast foreign policy interests. And now, as President Trump has bluntly affirmed, he’s willing to work for those interests, along with lucrative arms deals with the Saudis, to the point of loudly standing with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite clear evidence that he directly ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump explicitly cited Israel’s wellbeing as part of his justification for doing so.
In the past any Israeli-Gulf state cooperation would have been stymied by long-standing Arab insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be resolved before diplomatic overtures could proceed.
It is, then, probably no coincidence that America freezing out Palestinian diplomats coincided with remarkable statements from Gulf leaders that closer ties to Israel should no longer depend on a final peace settlement, but should develop alongside an "ongoing process."
In reality, this means continuing the status quo indefinitely, as intolerable as it is for the Palestinians who live its reality on the ground, unrepresented in the far-off negotiations between international elites. And again, mainstream U.S. Jewish positions - deeply skeptical about unilateral moves not based on a two state solution - no longer have much traction in Jerusalem.
As we had expected, much of what we heard from the Palestinians with whom we met during our week in the West Bank was deeply challenging. We grappled with the possibility that some of the most fundamental disagreements that emerged are simply unbridgeable.
At the same time, I am even more convinced of the critical need to maintain these points of contact.
For one thing, despite whatever fundamental differences there may be, American Jews and the Palestinian people both know that the status quo is a broken vessel. It deprives Palestinians of their dignity and liberty, and, unchecked, is a danger to the long-term health of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Perhaps even more essential, though, is the basic human need to have someone who listens. We need to recommit ourselves to that sort of listening, especially now that we know, on some level, what it feels like to go unheard.
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