Israel and Palestine: Whose Side Are You On?

1. Context

My early Jewish education was saturated with the idea that the existence of the State of Israel was a categorical imperative of both Jewish identity and Jewish survival; and my early experience of antisemitism, starting in the third grade and lasting into my college years, made it all too easy to accept that idea as incontrovertibly true. The white, Christian kids in my neighborhood threw pennies, rocks, and bottles at me when I walked past, calling me Cheap Jew! and Fucking Heeb!. They harassed me in school, attacked me physically on multiple occasions, letting me know they had ovens waiting in their basements for me and my family; and they burglarized the apartment where my family lived, targeting my room in particular by trashing the books of Jewish learning I had on my bookshelf and carving the word kike into my closet door. Their message was clear. Because I was Jewish, I was not welcome among them.

The white, Christian adults who stood passive-aggressively by while all this happened only reinforced that message. Perhaps the best example I can give of how unwelcome I was made to feel, however—or, more precisely, of how clear the message was that Jews in general were not welcome in that neighborhood—is what didn’t happen after one of those kids wrote antisemitic graffiti about me on the wall of my town’s public library. I was fifteen when he spray painted Newman is a Jew on the wall facing one of the avenues that ran through the center of town, illustrating his words, just in case a passerby didn’t get it, with the image of a penny. That was in 1977. Fifteen years later, in 1992, when I brought the woman who would become my wife to meet my mother, the graffiti was still legible, and it continued to be legible at least until 2005 or so, when I took my then seven- or eight-year-old son to that neighborhood to show him where I grew up.

Out of curiosity, I drove by the library not too long ago, and found that the words had finally faded to the point where, if you had not seen them in the first place, you would not know they had ever been there. I have no idea, however, whether that’s because someone in authority finally decided to sandblast them away or because the wind and the rain and the snow finally did what someone in authority should have done a long time ago. For nearly thirty years, though, anyone walking by the library could read on its wall just precisely how unwelcome Jews were in that town.

Growing up, in other words, it was not hard to feel like I was living my own small version of the history of antisemitism, which, wherever it has been allowed to play out to its logical conclusion, has always contained within itself the desire to eliminate the Jews, whether by expulsion, forced conversion, or total annihilation. As a result, the need for a Jewish state, both a homeland and a safe haven, seemed to me like common sense, a feeling that was bolstered by the myth of the State of Israel’s moral superiority, expressed most powerfully, I thought at the time, by something Golda Meir said at a press conference in London in 1969:

When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.

At the time, I mistook the sentimental self-righteousness of Meir’s statement for an authentic moral stance. All the Jews wanted was a country where we could live as Jews, at peace with the rest of the world and free from antisemitic hatred, whether writ small, like my experience, or large, like the examples I learned about in school and in the books I read. It simply was not our fault if others forced us to kill in pursuit of that goal.

That conviction started to unravel during my sophomore year of college. A friend who was not Jewish and I were talking about Israel and Palestine in the hallway of our dorm. I don’t remember specifically what we were talking about, but at some point I repeated one of the more heinous, anti-Palestinian canards I had internalized without even thinking about it: that when Palestinian women became pregnant, they prayed to give birth to sons so those boys could grow up to become suicide bombers and martyr themselves for the Palestinian cause. My friend’s jaw dropped, and he stared at me open-mouthed, silent and incredulous. I wish I could recall exactly what he said next, but the meaning of it is still with me: Did I really believe, he wanted to know, that Palestinian mothers loved their sons so little that they did not want for them the long and happy lives that all mothers desire for their children?

It was my turn to be silent. No one had ever spoken aloud like that the implications of what I had been taught to believe, and the more I thought about it, the more ashamed I was for having believed it.

One thing I do remember about my friend’s question—the reason I was able to hear it without getting immediately defensive—is that he did not make its subtext a test to see if my presumed Jewish loyalty to Israel outweighed my basic humanity. In all the years since then, and it’s been more than forty, I think I can count on two hands the number of people with whom I have been as sure of that as I was with him. It can make the question Whose side are you on? more complicated than you might think.

2. Subtext

It is a fact that accusations of antisemitism are all too often used to silence voices critical of Israel. It is also a fact, however, that antisemitism sometimes does lie embedded within, and sometimes even animates, those voices, like, for example, the antisemitism enshrined in both the original version of Hamas’ charter from 1988 and the revised version of 2017. The 1988 version, for example, explicitly invokes The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, as proof that the goal of Zionism is world domination.

The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.

First published in Russia in the early 1900s, the Protocols purports to expose the Jewish plan to rule the world. As Hamas understood things in 1988, in other words, the State of Israel was not simply an occupying power that needed to be resisted. Rather, it was the political manifestation of something far more sinister and far-reaching, a Jewish plot to turn the world into one big Jewish state. The fight against Israel, therefore, was not just the fight for Palestinian freedom; it was a fight to ensure the freedom of the entire world. (If you’ve never heard of the Protocols, these articles, by Michael Fox and Steven J. Zipperstein are worth reading.)
On the surface, the 2017 revision of the charter suggests that Hamas has had a substantive change of heart. It contains in Article 16 an explicit disavowal of antisemitism, affirm[ing] that [Hamas’] conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion;” and, in Article 17, the document identifies anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews” exclusively with European history,” asserting that those phenomena have no place in the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or their heritage.”

Taken at face value, these words suggest that Hamas now considers antisemitism to be completely alien to its purpose and goals. Those statements, however, stand in direct contradiction to other language in the document that essentially reproduces the claims about the Jews that the 1988 charter took from the Protocols. This is from Articles 14 and 15:

The Zionist project is a racist, aggressive, colonial and expansionist project based on seizing the properties of others…The Zionist project does not target the Palestinian people alone; it is the enemy of the Arab and Islamic Ummah posing a grave threat to its security and interests [and also] to international security and peace and to mankind and its interests and stability.

The 2017 charter may not mention the Protocols at all; it may substitute the word Zionists for Jews; and it may contain language nominally disavowing antisemitism; but Hamas still clearly defines its anti-Zionism not in opposition to the State of Israel per se—a position which is not, in itself, antisemitic—but rather to the same campaign of world domination that the Protocols attributes to the Jews. The change in Hamas’ position, in other words, is more cosmetic than anything else.

I thought about the transitive nature of this rhetoric a lot as I tried to figure out how to respond in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ October 7th attack. On the one hand, not to acknowledge what Hamas did as an expression of Palestinian resistance would be to deny both the reality of Israel’s occupation and the fact that the Palestinians have the right to resist that occupation on their own terms. On the other hand, not to call out at the same time the antisemitism in Hamas’ charter would be to allow it to remain an unexamined subtext in any discussion of the attack, one that neither I nor any other Jewish person should be expected to set aside, minimize, or ignore.

I know it may sound like I’m trying to use antisemitism to both sides” the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but I am not. There is no question that the current Israeli government is using Hamas’ attack as a pretext for furthering the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians that has been woven into Israel’s DNA since its founding; and there is also no question that the unspeakable scale and brutality of Israel’s response to that attack should disabuse anyone who still believes, as I once did, in Israel’s inherent moral superiority. What we are witnessing in Gaza is the logic of military occupation being carried out to its completely one-sided conclusion.

Calling out Hamas’ antisemitism changes none of that. What it does do, however, is connect Hamas’ overall agenda (which is not necessarily the agenda of the Palestinian people), and, in particular, the atrocities the Hamas fighters committed, to other instances of antisemitism worldwide: the chants, for example, of Jews will not replace us” at the 2017 Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, and the Poway Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and the Halle Synagogue shooting in Germany; and the resurfacing of the blood libel in Turkey; and the antisemitism that is causing many Jews in France to feel they need to hide their Jewish identity—not to mention my personal experiences of antisemitism, those I told you about above and those I have not included in this essay, which, though their violence may only be implicit and implied, continue to this day.

For me, in other words, and for all the Jews I know, antisemitism is personal—how could it not be?—and so I take it personally when, in discussions about Israel and Palestine, someone refuses to acknowledge the presence of antisemitism when I point it out to them; or tells me that, in light of Israel’s behavior, I should not make calling antisemitism out a priority; or that I am being too sensitive, or am too fragile, and that I am therefore seeing antisemitism where it isn’t; or assumes that the only reason I choose to call antisemitism out is my presumed Jewish loyalty to Israel.

That person and I might very well agree both in our opposition to the Israeli occupation and in our understanding of the history that has culminated in Israel’s current campaign, as one Israeli official put it, to flatten Gaza.” Unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise, however—and I want to repeat that, because it’s important, unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise—if I have to choose between affirming what we agree on and confronting antisemitism, I will always choose the latter. Not because I think calling out antisemitism is more important than the Palestinian men, women, and children whose lives are currently being torn apart by Israeli forces, but because when someone in conversation with me is willing to give antisemitism a free pass, I find it impossible not to ask whose side they’re really on.

3. Whose Side Are You On?

The negotiations that will, in the end, bring any form of (admittedly imperfect) just resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—whether that be the increasingly implausible two-state solution, a secular one-state solution, or some form of confederacy1 will require each side to accept the fact that some aspects of the other’s narrative will be irreconcilable with their own. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the two sides have nothing in common. Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost children, for example, started the Parents Circle-Families Forum out of their shared commitment that no one else should suffer the loss of a family member. As this essay by Susan Dominus in the The New York Times Magazine shows, however, once you dig beneath the surface of that shared experience, horrific as it is, the ways in which it is impossible to both sides” the conflict quickly come to the surface.

Just as there can be no question that Israel is an occupying power and that any form of Palestinian resistance, including the October 7th attack by Hamas, needs to be understood in the context of that occupation; and just as there can be no question that Israel’s current campaign in Gaza is in keeping with, not an exception to, the policies and practices of that occupation; there can be no question that, whether you call Zionism a settler-colonial ideology or identify it, I would say more accurately, as a form of nationalism (because I do think that difference is meaningful), the Jews who founded Israel behaved like colonizers. Nor can there be a question that the Jews who’ve governed the country since 1948 have, some more and some less explicitly, continued that behavior. If you say that you support Israel, but you are unwilling to come to honest terms with that history, if you are willing to use accusations of antisemitism to obscure that history, then we are not on the same side.

Similarly, you and I are not on the same side if, implicitly or explicitly, you hold all Jews uniquely responsible for Israel’s behavior, or if the anti-Zionism you espouse when you declare your solidarity with the Palestinians does not distinguish between the political Zionism of the State of Israel and what Zionism means within the antisemitic world view where a core component of Hamas’ charter finds its roots. More to the point, if these are the positions you hold, then the side I am on will inevitably include anyone who is Jewish, even if they support the State of Israel without qualification. They need to be held accountable for that position, but they do not therefore deserve to be the targets of antisemitism.

I am, in other words, talking here about two very different areas of concern, one that has to do with the oppressive and murderously unjust behavior of a nation state, and one that has to do with an ideology that targets Jews worldwide, regardless of what their position on Israel and Palestine might be. Unfortunately, however, because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is among the few contexts in which it is possible, outside of Jewish circles, to insist that antisemitism needs to be part of the discussion, these areas of concern all too often become conflated. As a result, my self-interest as a Jew in calling out antisemitism gets pitted against the interests of the Palestinians on whose behalf opposition to the Israeli occupation is absolutely necessary.

There is, in other words, a divide-and-conquer strategy at work here, and it’s worth asking whose interests it serves. For now, since answering that question would require an essay (and likely more) unto itself, all I will say is that I am not on their side either. Rather, I stand with those whose opposition to the Israeli occupation and solidarity with the Palestinians is accompanied by an explicit and proactive stand against both antisemitism and that kind of divide and conquer strategy. Otherwise, it does not matter what we may nominally agree on—whether that happens to be opposition to the occupation or Hamas’ antisemitism and all it represents—we simply are not on the same side.

  1. Peter Beinart wrote about this in an article for Jewish Currents]↩︎

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