The Next Step for Liberal Zionists After Gaza: A Freedom Summer With Palestinians

In an era of direct action, supporters of the two-state solution must start putting their bodies on the line.

Peter Beinart
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Bruce Solomon, a participant in the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as the Freedom Summer, teaches a class for young black students about arts, African American history and rights, August 1964.Credit: AP
Peter Beinart

The third Gaza war in less than six years now seems to be over. On the surface, despite the horrifying destruction, it doesn’t appear to have ended much differently than its two predecessors. But if you think of each war as a snapshot in political time, you can see how the picture has changed.

With each war, the prospects of an American-brokered two state solution have dimmed. In late 2008, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its prime minister supported a Palestinian state free of Israeli troops on almost 95 percent of the West Bank. Today, Israel’s prime minister has essentially ruled that out. In 2008, the United States had just elected a president eager to put Israeli-Palestinian peace near the center of his foreign policy agenda. Now that American president has given up. In 2008, it was rare and exotic to hear intellectuals propose alternatives to the two state solution. Now the New York Times publishes them all the time

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement is built for this moment. Its activists long ago abandoned hope that Washington would aid the Palestinian cause. Nor would they mourn the demise of the two state solution, since key BDS leaders oppose the existence of a Jewish state within any borders.

The American Jewish right is built for this moment too. The more hostile global opinion becomes to Israel, and the more that hostility shades into anti-Semitism, the more hawkish Jewish groups can stand at the ramparts, ignoring Israel’s misdeeds and raising money by telling Jews that we’re living in the 1930s once again.

In the United States, the people least prepared for this new era of outside-the-Beltway activism are us: Those American Jewish liberals who still consider the two state solution the best hope for a just peace between the River and the Sea. Although J Street, the most well known liberal Zionist group, was born only six years ago, it was born in a prior age. In its first year of life, 2008, it saw Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas come within months of inking a two state deal. (That’s what the two of them have subsequently said). In its second year, 2009, it saw Barack Obama appoint a high-profile envoy to kick-start the peace process. It’s understandable, therefore, that J Street fashioned itself as Obama’s “blocking back,” clearing a path so Congress didn’t sabotage the White House’s efforts at peace.

J Street has made important gains. It has forged alliances with a growing number of Democratic members of Congress and with some of the Democratic Party’s biggest Jewish donors. And it has helped destroy the myth that most American Jews support the Israeli government no matter what it does.

But by itself, J Street’s strategy of pressuring Washington to pressure Israel won’t work if the White House won’t aggressively run the ball. And there’s little reason to believe that this White House, a Hillary Clinton White House or a Republican White House, will. Without outside pressure, however, it’s unlikely Israel will elect another government eager for a two state solution anytime soon. The lesson of the last few years, in fact, is that absent outside pressure, the Palestinian issue recedes from Israeli politics entirely.

The problem, for people who believe in the two state solution, is that most of the pressure that exists today comes either from Hamas terrorism or a BDS movement that is largely hostile to Israel’s existence.

It’s time for American Jews who support Israel but oppose the occupation to commit to large-scale, direct action of our own. And the most important place to do so is in the West Bank. Palestinians in villages like Bil’in and Nabi Saleh have been protesting, unarmed, for years against the theft of their land. But their efforts receive little attention in American Jewish circles or in the American press. Few American Jews have any idea that under the military law that governs Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel routinely criminalizes freedom of speech and assembly. Or that peaceful protesters can be held in detention for years without trial.

But if thousands of American Jews joined those protests, American Jews would know. Protesters would return home with videos to show their synagogues; hawkish parents would be appalled by the treatment meted out to their children. And the American media, which covers Jews far more intensively than it covers Palestinians, would follow. The model would be Freedom Summer, Robert Moses’ campaign to bring white college students to help register voters in Mississippi in 1964, and thus draw the nation’s eyes to oppression that garnered little media attention when practiced only against blacks.

Such an effort would not be simple. The call for Jewish volunteers would have to come from Palestinian activists themselves. There’s a risk that some protesters would throw stones. Even if American Jews came to support a two state solution, some of the people marching with them would not.

But even if protesters differed on their ultimate goal, the core message—that it is fundamentally unjust to deny people the basic rights that their neighbors enjoy because of their religion or ethnicity—might reach American Jews, and Americans overall, in a way it never has. By facilitating a human connection between Palestinians and Jews—the kind of connection Palestinians rarely make with settlers or soldiers--such a movement would also combat anti-Semitism. It would create the right kind of pressure on Israel: not military pressure but moral pressure, the kind of moral pressure that Washington still refuses to deploy.

As the Gaza War has shown yet again, Palestinians often remain invisible to American Jews except as killers and haters. And it is because their humanity remains invisible that we so easily justify their oppression. Perhaps if we placed ourselves among them, we might be able to see them as we see ourselves. And in the wake of a war that has brought only misery and destruction, those of us who still believe in a democratic Israel living alongside a democratic Palestine might create a beachhead of hope.