When you deny a people’s identity, you deny that they have rights. That’s why it’s so dangerous that powerful American Zionists — from billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson to former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — have claimed that the Palestinian people do not exist. If Palestinians don’t exist — if they’re just generic Arabs — then they have no right to their own country in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, they may not even have the right to live there. After all, if they’re merely Arabs, and not Palestinians, they have no more right to live in historic Palestine than in Saudi Arabia.
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When right-wing Zionists deny Palestinian identity, progressives like myself erupt in outrage. We should be just as outraged when Palestinians do the same to Jews.
Palestinians have the right to oppose a Jewish state. They have the right to argue for some kind of binational one state solution in which everyone lives equally under the law. I consider such a view dangerously unrealistic, but it does not, in and of itself, deny Jewish identity. It does not deny the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. You can, after all, recognize the Jewish connection to the land of Israel without believing that it must express itself in Jewish statehood. That was the position of the great cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am. He argued passionately for the importance of a Jewish presence in the land of Israel. But unlike his antagonist, Theodor Herzl, he wasn’t sure that Jewish presence should take state form.
Unfortunately, Palestinian leaders have not merely questioned the legitimacy of a Jewish state. They’ve repeatedly questioned the Jewish connection to the land of Israel itself. In his book, "The Missing Peace," Dennis Ross reports that Yasser Arafat repeatedly denied that a Jewish Temple ever existed in Jerusalem. In 2010, Al-Mutawakil Taha, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister of information, published a report on the PA’s website claiming that the Western Wall “has never been a part of what is called the Jewish Temple. However, it was Islamic tolerance which allowed the Jews to stand before it and cry over its loss."
The second sentence follows chillingly from the first. Because Jews have no authentic connection to the Kotel — to which our ancestors prayed for millennia — we have no right to pray there. Only Muslims do. Whatever opportunities we’re afforded there are subject to their whim.
Sadly, Palestinian leaders continue this denial of Jewish identity to this day. In April, Palestinians successful pushed UNESCO to pass a resolution about Jerusalem that referred 18 times to Israeli infringements around the “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif” but never once referred to the Jewish connection there. The document never mentioned the Jewish term for the area: Temple Mount. And when it mentioned the “Western Wall,” it put the phrase in quotations.
Last week, a similar resolution did affirm “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.” Still, it mentioned “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif” 21 times without ever mentioning the words “Temple Mount.” And again it put “Western Wall” in quotation marks. The resolution passed 24 to 6, with 26 abstentions. A Hamas spokesman said “We commend the vote at the UNESCO that denied any historic claims between Jews and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and its Western Wall.”
Not everything in the UNESCO resolution is wrong. Israel does often restrict Palestinian access to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. But to protest Israel’s denial of Palestinian religious rights while simultaneously denying Jewish religious rights is hypocritical and perverse."
To its credit, J Street declared itself “profoundly disappointed” by the resolution’s “contempt for factual history and for the Jewish people’s sacred bond to its holiest site.” Its British liberal Zionist counterpart, Yachad, called the resolution an “inflammatory denial of Jewish history.” These statements are important because they expose as a lie the oft-repeated claim that progressive Jewish groups never criticize Palestinians. They’re important because they show that groups like J Street don’t exist merely to criticize Israel. They exist to affirm the principles in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which pledges “equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and, “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” AIPAC praises Israel and criticizes the Palestinians irrespective of their fidelity to these principles. J Street, at its best, uses them as a moral standard against which to judge both sides.
Recently, some idealistic young American Jews have created an organization called If Not Now, which bravely challenges the American Jewish community’s silence regarding Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. But the famous phrase in Pirkei Avot from which the group takes its name doesn’t only counsel Jews to stand up for others. It also counsels us to stand up for ourselves: “If I am not for myself who is for me?”
I would love to see Palestinians criticize UNESCO for disregarding our people’s connection to our most sacred site. But I’m not holding my breath. Before we expect others to defend us, we must first defend ourselves.