Hard Truths from The Gaza Bor­der

A Lib­eral Is­raeli Re­sponse To Peter Beinart

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - Jonathan Dekel-Chen

Nei­ther Is­raelis nor Pales­tini­ans have the qual­ity and courage of lead­er­ship they de­serve.

The main­stream me­dia has been ablaze with cov­er­age of the Great March of Re­turn, a se­ries of week­end protests of Gazans at sev­eral sites along the sep­a­ra­tion fence with Is­rael. Many, like Peter Beinart have taken to the pages of pub­li­ca­tions like this one to crit­i­cize Is­rael’s mis­treat­ment of the pro­test­ers, ar­gu­ing that nei­ther Ha­mas nor se­cu­rity con­cerns nor Is­rael’s with­drawal from Gaza in 2005 can jus­tify Is­rael’s ac­tions.

Although Beinart does raise im­por­tant points about the pos­si­ble roles Amer­i­can Jews can take in this cri­sis, his piece does not deal with some of the most ba­sic counter-ev­i­dence.

I am a mem­ber of a kib­butz on Is­rael’s bor­der with Gaza and live daily in the shad­ows of this coun­terev­i­dence. I em­i­grated to Is­rael in the early 1980s from the United States at age 18 and have lived on bor­der kib­butzim since then. As a mem­ber of Kib­butz Nir Oz, my home is ap­prox­i­mately one and a half miles from the bor­der with Gaza and faces the Fri­day protests that have erupted. My “day job” is as a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem.

Like nearly all kib­butz mem­bers in the bor­der com­mu­ni­ties, I have lit­tle affin­ity for our cur­rent gov­ern­ment or its poli­cies. As an Is­raeli I am fre­quently ap­palled by Jerusalem’s poli­cies to­ward the Pales­tini­ans and its be­hav­ior vis-à-vis di­as­pora Jewries; as an Is­rael-Amer­i­can, I am deeply trou­bled by the widen­ing di­vide be­tween Is­rael and non-Ortho­dox di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties.

Like most kib­butz mem­bers, I am ded­i­cated to de­fend­ing the coun­try, strength­en­ing its econ­omy and pre­serv­ing lib­er­al­ism, de­spite its myr­iad chal­lenges in Is­rael, which stub­bornly re­tains a trib­al­ism that in­hibits the emer­gence of civil so­ci­ety along­side an elec­toral sys­tem that dis­pro­por­tion­ately re­wards ex­trem­ist grand- stand­ing. Kib­butzniks liv­ing on Is­rael’s bor­ders would ben­e­fit the most from peace with our neigh­bors, yet are the most en­dan­gered of all Is­raelis by the cur­rent state of af­fairs.

For the most part we un­der­stand that nei­ther Is­raelis nor Pales­tini­ans have the qual­ity and courage of lead­er­ship that they de­serve.

Beinart de­serves praise for rais­ing timely is­sues. For one, main­stream Amer­i­can-Jewish lead­ers should re­assess what they feel they can, and can­not, ac­cept as Is­raeli gov­ern­ment pol­icy; this is true whether one feels pas­sion­ate about the Gaza hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, ques­tions of re­li­gious free­dom, the treat­ment of il­le­gal im­mi­grants in Is­rael, the sta­tus of the Western Wall, in­equal­i­ties fac­ing Is­rael’s non-Jewish mi­nori­ties, the vast and grow­ing dis­par­ity be­tween “haves” and “have-nots” or the per­va­sive cor­rup­tion in Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

There is surely much to ques­tion about some seem­ingly un­nec­es­sar­ily harsh and counter-pro­duc­tive as­pects of Is­rael’s pol­icy to­ward or­di­nary Gazans. In­deed, all Jews would ben­e­fit if Amer­i­can-Jewish lead­ers in­ter­acted more force­fully and con­sis­tently with the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment around these prob­lems, none of which pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Is­rael but cer­tainly im­pact global Jewry.

From here, how­ever, there is much in Beinart’s ar­ti­cle that de­mands a re­ply. It’s true that un­der­ly­ing the world­view shared by most Is­raelis is a gar­ri­son men­tal­ity that has been cyn­i­cally ma­nip­u­lated by our politi­cians since the days of David Ben-Gu­rion. Lead­ers from al­most all of our par­ties have at one time or an­other used dire warn­ings (some based in re­al­ity, oth­ers not) of im­mi­nent, Holo­caust-like catas­tro­phes if in­tran­si­gent poli­cies to­ward our neigh­bors were not pur­sued.

It is painful to ad­mit that per­haps Is­rael is slowly be­com­ing that which the late Abba Eban ob­served about the Pales­tini­ans, a state which “never miss[es] an op­por­tu­nity to miss an op­por­tu­nity” for forg­ing peace.

And yet, like most enduring myths and na­tional nar­ra­tives, there are im­por­tant grains of truth em­bed­ded in this men­tal­ity.

Since 1948, a se­ries of large Arab states, most re­cently Iran, have pro­claimed their in­tent to de­stroy Is­rael. Beinart doesn’t men­tion this.

Gen­er­a­tions of Is­raelis have suf­fered mur­der­ous cross-bor­der at­tacks per­pe­trated by Palestin ian ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions or in­di­vid­u­als since the early 1950s, many of them orig­i­nat­ing in Gaza. Dur­ing the Sec­ond In­tifada alone, more than one thou­sand Is­raelis were mur­dered. Beinart

makes no men­tion of this ei­ther.

Fur­ther, since Is­rael’s uni­lat­eral with­drawal from Le­banon, it has faced the grow­ing threat of an Ira­nian-sup­ported Hezbol­lah de­voted more to Is­rael’s de­struc­tion than to state-build­ing in Le­banon. In re­cent years, with the desta­bi­liza­tion of Syria and the re­gional as­cen­dance of ISIS, the sit­u­a­tion on Is­rael’s north­ern bor­der be­came even more tense.

Per­haps most cru­cially, af­ter the Oslo agree­ments were signed, waves of ter­ror at­tacks from the West Bank and Gaza flooded Is­rael, forc­ing the con­struc­tion of bar­rier walls and fences, which for the most part have elim­i­nated cross-bor­der in­cur­sions.

Fi­nally, whether or not one is con­vinced by Beinart’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the causes of Ha­mas’ 2007 putsch in Gaza, it (and other ter­ror­ist groups) have in­dis­crim­i­nately launched mas­sive num­bers of mor­tar shells and rock­ets at our com­mu­ni­ties, spark­ing three deadly rounds of large scale op­er­a­tions by the IDF.

Of course, Beinart cor­rectly ob­serves that this cy­cle only cre­ates more sus­pi­cion and pain on all sides. That be­ing said, it is disin­gen­u­ous for any­one, in­clud­ing Beinart, to ob­scure the fact that Ha­mas con­tin­ues to in­vest vast amounts of its avail­able re­sources in con­struct­ing elab­o­rate at­tack tun­nel sys­tems and other weapons de­signed to kill Is­raeli sol­diers and civil­ians in­stead of re­build­ing Gaza’s econ­omy and ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem.

As a re­sult of these his­tor­i­cal truths, Is­raelis along the bor­der and the IDF have good rea­son to be­lieve that our lives would be at risk if thou­sands of en­raged Gazans — what­ever the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for their anger — tore down the bor­der fence.

As a lib­eral and pa­tri­otic Is­raeli and the son of a Holo­caust sur­vivor and a refugee from Nazi Ger­many, my heart aches at the hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter un­fold­ing so close to my home, and I agree fully with Beinart’s call to Amer­i­can-Jewish lead­ers to pres­sure their Is­raeli coun­ter­parts to make com­mon sense, hu­man­i­tar­ian changes to pol­icy to­ward Gaza.

While Beinart is on solid ground when not­ing that a ma­jor­ity of the cur­rent res­i­dents of Gaza are de­scended from refugees of the War of In­de­pen­dence, he ne­glects to men­tion that they be­came refugees mostly as a re­sult of the Arab re­jec­tion of the 1947 U.N. Par­ti­tion Plan and the in­va­sion in 1948 of newly in­de­pen­dent Is­rael.

This truth in no way ex­cuses the parts of Is­rael’s pol­icy to­ward Gaza that are tan­ta­mount to col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment. But no one, in­clud­ing Beinart, should be con­doned or fol­lowed in crit­i­ciz­ing Is­rael without first tak­ing these truths fully into ac­count.

I pray that this more holis­tic ap­proach to­ward the con­flict can help en­cour­age a re­newed, truth­ful, car­ing, re­spect­ful con­ver­sa­tion among Amer­i­can Jews and Is­raelis, par­tic­u­larly those who claim the right of lead­er­ship.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem. He lives on Kib­butz Nir Oz near the Gaza bor­der and is co-founder of the Bikurim Youth Vil­lage for the Arts in the Eshkol Re­gion of Is­rael.

Gen­er­a­tions of Is­raelis have suf­fered mur­der­ous cross-bor­der at­tacks per­pe­trated by Pales­tinian ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions or in­di­vid­u­als, many of them orig­i­nat­ing in Gaza.


RE­CESS: Is­raeli chil­dren play at a kinder­garten sur­rounded with con­crete blast walls in an Is­raeli kib­butz near the Gaza bor­der.

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