Opinion

Why American Jews' Forceful West Bank Protests Are Legitimate and Necessary

The activists breaking the U.S. Jewish community's timidity and silence on the occupation are showing how Diaspora Jews should intervene in Israeli politics from the left, not just the right

A child stands by protest signs reading in Hebrew "50 years is enough", prior to a mass demonstration against 50 years of occupation titled "Two States - One Hope", on May 27, 2017 at the Rabin Square in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

The vast majority of American Jews are mostly steadfast supporters of Israel. But there are areas of disagreement. The settlements and military occupation of the West Bank are the best examples of American Jews’ critical views breaking with mainstream supportive Israeli opinion.

This disagreement is mostly of little interest to Israelis, who point out that it is not American Jews who will suffer the consequences if Israel takes risks with its security: the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank, they say, would constitute just such a risk.

But in the past few weeks, some U.S. Jews have been demonstrating their discontent with the occupation at ground zero: in Israel and the West Bank.

In the Hebron hills, Israelis, Palestinians and American Jews built the Sumud camp to protest land confiscation. On Jerusalem Day, commemorating Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, American Jews from the organization IfNotNow and others blockaded the Damascus Gate, the eastern, mostly Arab entrance to the Old City. Their intent was to prevent a march of Israeli nationalists from marching through Arab neighborhoods waving Israeli flags, an act considered by many to be incitement

Not all Israelis who might agree with the overall positions of these American activists, however, support their tactics. Mikhael Manekin, a seasoned campaigner, wrote on Facebook: 

“Protesting has short and long term implications for local population. Being in another country and acting there has implications. Protesting and leaving a week later can also be irresponsible towards those living here, and also can be perceived by many Israelis (and Palestinians) as unfair,”  a position Manekin developed further in a Haaretz op-ed, “Why American Jewish Activists Must Help, Not Headline, Anti-occupation Efforts”.

So what is, and what should be, the role of American Jews in anti-occupation activism?

As American Jews who’ve been involved personally and professionally in seeking an end to the occupation and the realization of the two-state solution, we’ve grappled with this dilemma. Is such advocacy possible or legitimate thousands of miles away from the conflict, where the consequences of any policy we advocate would have little direct impact on us?

We can acknowledge these criticisms, but not agree with their logical conclusion: that American Jews should stay out of Israel's affairs.

For one thing, this falsely suggests the occupation of Palestinian territory is solely a domestic Israeli issue, a misguided sentiment that aims to lessen the appearance of the occupation’s severity. It also assumes the Israeli opposition to continued occupation and settlement growth doesn’t need outside help. Finally, and most important, it glosses over the reality of Israeli politics, where foreign interventions by Diaspora Jews have been frequent and often welcomed – but only from one side of the political map.

There is already much Israeli-related activism taking place from the United States. Sheldon Adelson sponsors the country’s most popular newspaper, Israel Hayom, long mocked as the "Bibiton" for its obsequious coverage of Netanyahu. Right-wing nonprofits funnel millions of dollars to settlements and settlement advocates in the Knesset. Back in 2005, Jewish religious communities in the U.S., led by politicians like Dov Hikind, mobilized against the Israeli disengagement from Gaza.

While these right-wing interventions have stirred some discontent in Israel, they have never been strongly condemned by mainstream American Jewry. Only liberals and progressives, it seems, are told to stay away.

Indeed, extraordinary interventions in Congress on behalf of the Israeli right are often praised and encouraged, including a bipartisan resolution that cleared the Senate this week celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem. In January, senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio proposed legislation to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. These same senators have also called for the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These resolutions stand in contrast to a unanimous international consensus on Jerusalem, which includes the U.S: Jerusalem's status is predicated on the expectation that the city will be shared or divided. Indeed, moving the embassy is a decision even Donald Trump now considers too risky. For these senators, however, this type of blind, reckless support for Israel is rewarded.

Sumud: Freedom Camp in the West Bank, 19 May 2017
Gili Getz

For all the discomfort about left-wing diaspora Jews demonstrating against the occupation, there is little discussion of the damage wrought by the right. This is partially a result of years of an unsustainable status quo surrounding American Jewish support for Israel, one in which only the right was allowed to challenge the establishment approach to supporting Israel. That model, while ostensibly supportive of the two-state solution, failed to properly address how settlement construction ate away at its viability.

This is not to say the Palestinians hold no responsibility for the conflict's continuation, only that the inverse narrative in which Israel tirelessly pursues peace in confrontation with Palestinian intransigence is at least equally misleading.

The right unmasked this phantasm by openly opposing the two-state solution, massaging it with a few efforts to ameliorate the occupation. It's now time the liberals still remaining on the fence join in this unmasking, by openly opposing Netanyahu's coalition and its policies.

The protest interventions of recent weeks should not be seen as a disturbance of the status quo, but rather a natural and forceful correction after years of neglect by previous generations of progressives.

At the Jerusalem Day demonstration, hundreds of extremists were set to march through Arab neighborhoods waving Israeli flags. Make no mistake: their celebration was not that Israel conquered Jerusalem and made the city its capital, but that the Jews are taking Jerusalem back from the Arabs. If this is not the future you want for Israel, then you must speak out against it, regardless of whether you live in Israel or the United States.

There is strong historical justification for how American Jews have organized and demonstrated in Israel. It is morally incumbent upon liberal and progressive Jews to either join them or form their own plans to influence what happens in Israel. Either way, the period of liberal silence in the face of centrist impotence and right-wing activism must come to an end.

The fruit of our respectful silence has been the expansion of settlements, the empowerment of uncouth extremists, and a creeping binational reality that risks plunging Zionism and the Palestinian right to national self-determination into permanent and unnecessary conflict.

Nathan Hersh is a writer and the former managing director of Partners for Progressive Israel. His work has previously appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @Nathanhersh

Abe Silberstein is a political writer based in New York. His work has previously appeared in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, and +972 Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @abesilbe