Letty Cottin Pogrebin: Why Can’t We Show Empathy for the Palestinians?

By | Dec 31, 2012

The American Jewish thought police are quick to label sympathy a betrayal of Israel. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). That familiar verse, which I call “the commandment to empathize,” is God’s decree that we put ourselves in the stranger’s place and feel the feelings of the Other.

But these days, if the Other is the Palestinians, and a Jew admits to even the most rudimentary concern for their situation—the slightest tinge of rachmanes, or caring—it’s more likely to be treated as a betrayal of the Jewish people, as if merely acknowledging Palestinians’ hardship or their yearning for independence amounts to delegitimizing Israel.

Having virtually silenced political dissent, American enforcers of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line political correctness have moved on to the next phase of social control: They’re policing our thoughts and feelings.

During November’s Gaza war, Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of the IKAR Jewish community in Los Angeles, sent this message to her congregation: “I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives… But most critically at this hour, I believe that there is a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace… Supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”

That sounds pretty rabbinic to me—measured, empathic and moral. But Rabbi Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Center, who purports to be a friend and admirer of Brous, responded with an appallingly adversarial screed that accused her (and most progressive Jews) of disavowing Jewish particularity and abandoning Israel. According to Gordis’s twisted reasoning, because the Hamas government wants to destroy Israel, we cannot feel sympathy for the Palestinian whose baby was blown to bits by an Israeli bomb.

On November 29, the day after the United Nations voted to recognize the Palestinian state, Rabbi Roly Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) in Manhattan, speaking extemporaneously during Friday night services, noted the moment’s historic significance. Analogizing it to Israel’s birth at the UN on the same day 65 years ago, Matalon said “sensible people” would debate whether statehood was “a blessing or not.” But, he added, “the Palestinian people got overwhelming recognition and I think a sense of dignity that they really deserve and that they were missing for many, many years.”

In an email sent a few days later, all three BJ rabbis—Matalon, Marcelo Bronstein and Felicia Sol—as well as the cantor, board president, executive director and director of Israel engagement, reiterated support for the UN vote, prayed for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and repeated the core message about dignity.

The reaction was so virulent you’d have thought the letter had endorsed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For empathizing with the national aspirations and fundamental humanity of the Palestinian people, for saying what millions of Jews, especially young Jews, believe, the rabbis were excoriated. Although they also received a lot of support, it was the attacks that made news, especially when Alan Dershowitz, Israel’s self-appointed defender-in-chief, weighed in with a patronizing, wildly exaggerated critique.

After a front-page story in The New York Times about the uproar, the rabbis wrote again to congregants apologizing for the first letter’s “tone” and claiming that as a result of the premature release of an “incomplete and unedited draft,” the other signers had been included in error.  Lord knows what went on behind the scenes, what pressure was brought to bear against the rabbis (three holy souls who, in my opinion, anchor due north on the Jewish moral compass) or what financial and other threats may have been made by funders, board members and poobahs in the Jewish establishment. This second letter apologized for  “the feelings of alienation that resulted from [the first] letter,” while not retreating from its sentiments.

The media coverage that ensued ignored the moral quotient of the rabbis’ original letter. The headline in Haaretz said, “N.Y. shul rabbis backtrack on support for Palestinian UN bid.” Other articles described the rabbis as “chastened,” apologetic, pleading for “forgiveness” or issuing a “mea culpa.”

That people’s behavior is informed by their experience and emotions is obvious. Yet for years now, millions of Jews, Israeli and otherwise, have turned a blind eye to the feelings of Palestinians, refusing to consider the strain of living under occupation, the burdens of statelessness, their hunger for national dignity or how their frustration at their own inept leaders and humiliation at the hands of the IDF might have influenced not just their UN bid but how they behave in the world.

Think about times when you’ve felt powerless and hopeless; imagine what it must be like to be a decent person who is routinely debased and treated like a potential terrorist, whose pain is denied and freedom of movement hobbled. Then multiply your anger and frustration a thousandfold and you may begin to understand why the UN’s largely symbolic vote meant so much to the Other.

Whatever our opinion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, we must not let the thought police drain us of the rachmanes that makes us Jewish and the empathy that makes us human.

19 thoughts on “Letty Cottin Pogrebin: Why Can’t We Show Empathy for the Palestinians?

  1. Alexander Maller says:

    Do the Palestinians and the Arab leadership have any emphaty for Israelis or Jews? Since the begining of the Ishuv, the Jewsh Community in Erez Israel has brought more positive development for the Arab residents than the local and regional leaders. The Arab leadership of any inclination has harmed the Arab population in order to satisfy their personal interests. So, please learn history before making these irresponsible assertions.

  2. lexif says:

    @Alexander Maller Please read and at least attempt to understand what someone has written before making irresponsible and completely irrelevant comments on it. Nothing you write has anything to do with the author’s arguments, other than to sadly give support to just the points she makes.

    1. Alexander Maller says:

      To lexif: I am originally from Israel and witnessed the history of the country. I do not know what is your definition or the author’s definition of emphaty: is it demagogy and proclamations or is it constructive policies that take care of people and situations. I am so sorry to see numerous American Jews that take propaganda for facts. Here is one fact: I was personally involved in promoting a housing project for refugees in Gaza in the early 70s initiated by the Israeli Housing Ministry. The residents were ready to accept the project until UNRAW (the UN refugee organization) warnned the candidates for settment that if they accept the offer they will be deprived of their status as refugees and the attached benefits. In addition they will be considered traitors and collaborators with the “occupier.” Of course the residents of the camp rejected the proposal and confessed that they were afraid. Now tell me about the emphaty of the UN and its interest for peace and collaboration. Or shall I praise the hypocrisy of JStreet and George Soros. Israel has made numerous efforts for peace. Apparently giving Sinai to Egypt was not enough. Here we have Morsi very “friendly” to peace and understanding for Jews and Israel. We have Hamas and Abbas preaching thier “emphaty” for Jews and for their own people promising brutal death if they do not accept their order. Review their text books in the Palestinian schools to learn about emphaty. Shall I go on: Syria, Iran, and cheers to you for being so well informed.

  3. tomerhs says:

    People tend to forget too quickly.
    The Palestinians never accepted any separation plan, never accepted Israel, keep generating terror attacks onto Israel, they want us to forget that there is a solution but they never accept any of it – it’s called 2 states solution.

    This solution does not leave them behind, but they still prefer firing rockets.

    No, they do not get my empathy and not my vote.
    It doesn’t matter how long they are being ‘occupied’, what matters is that they are not stepping ahead into resolution, and they can only blame themselves to this because Israel had always agreed to the 2 state solution.

    Try to keep ur Jewish empathy to those who really deserve it. Palestinians do not.

  4. lexif says:

    You don’t give empathy– rather it is the basic human quality of being able to understand (or feel) how another person, even one with whom you disagree fundamentally or even hate, feels. Some people lack it , fear and anger generally destroy it, and some people seem to be willing to turn it off.

    1. Angel says:

      Sweet, but how about a minimum of reciprocity? Your deeply humanistic empathy will lead you to only receive blows from the other side because they have no empathy whatsoever for you, so what does that make you? A candidate for suicide, that’s what. Which is fine if it affects only you since you’re the one insisting on unilateral – and foolish – empathy, but when you put other people in danger as a result, your foolishness becomes criminal, and must be therefore rejected.

  5. Rich says:

    I find the picture in the article offensive. The Tee shirt says “Never criticize Israel”. Its saying that anyone who criticizes a critic of Israel is automatically saying that you should never criticize Israel. Why can’t someone criticize a critic of Israel on the merits without being dismissed as a McCarthyite.

  6. Perla says:

    Few Jews take the time to learn about and develop relationships with Palestinians; and given our history this is understandable. However, this leads us to make general assumptions based on superficial information. Imagine if one was to make assumptions about Jews based on the what the media says about PM Netanyahu and the actions of his government; the picture would be limited.

    I think this story from an 83 year old Palestinian peasant talking about Palestinian rejection of the partition plan is an eye-opener. He said, “I head about the partition plan in 1947. People started talking but they couldn’t understand it…I didn’t know much about politics at that time [nor did most] of the Arabs. Everyone liked to make a living and that’s it. [Those] that wanted to govern and be big shots [felt differently], but the population like to live with the Jews. But they couldn’t say anything, they couldn’t say anything all. A simple Palestinian man has no words.”

  7. Blusztejn says:

    It’s their shame that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. As long as their political vision is to replace the state of Israel, the best they can expect is to find leadership that will come to terms with Israel’s permanence.

  8. sanfranciscan says:

    So many of you are in denial about the many many ways that Israel has lost her moral footing. It’s amazing to me, as an American Jew who, yes has been to Israel AND the Occupied Territories and spent huge efforts to read about and study the history and the actuality of the conflict(s), how the bulk of the comments above so quickly and dismissively reject the very notion that Jews, or anyone else for that matter, should have empathy for the beleagured Palestinian population.Shame on you for working so hard to deny the appropriateness of empathy and understanding to so many based on such blithe assumptions, so many of which are largely or wholly incorrect..

    I am NOT dismissing or pardoning the mistakes and outright hostility of Palestinain leadership or the zealots when I say that Israel has many sins and crimes to answer for as well. But to so refer to Palestinains as a whole in the outright denial of empathy, let alone equality, is a serious moral and ethical error. Many facts about the Occupation and the current manifestations of Israeli policy are often ignored or obscured in this debate.

    What my studies, travels and witnessing have shown me is that Israelis ARE oppressors and Palestinians are victims of that oppression. Ask yourself, if Israel is the “Jewish State,” what does that mean if you are unlucky enough to be born a non-Jew in Israel, East Jerusalem, or the West Bank or Gaza. Although the answer differs depending on which of these areas you were born in, the answer ALWAYS is that you are a less than equal citizen. And, with any reflection at all, this is hardly surprising. The VERY DEFINITION of a state based on a single ethnicity or religion NECESSARILY results in policies, laws and instituions that discriminate against those who are not a member of that group.

    This is easier for many to see if you consider the ISLAMIC Republic of Iran, or Pakistan ( a Muslim state), or Sudi Arabia (ditto) or, if some in the GOP had their way, the supposed “Christian” States of America. As Americans, we generally espouse the American ideal that nation states should be color, religion, and ethnic neutral and that no person should be the victim of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, or race. It sure doesnt seem very disturbing to me to say that we profess liberal democratic values based on representative democracy where all are or should be equal under the eyes of the law.

    But these values are simply not applied by many Americans when we consider Israel. We blithely repeat and intone the catechism of the “democratic and Jewish” State of Israel without really looking to see, or analyzing, whether that phrase actually applies, or even can apply to the Israel that so many instinctively and yes blindly support.

    Please consider: if you are an Arab Israeli citizen, there are many places you can’t go, and rights you dont enjoy (e,g, Jewish only settlements, Jewish only roads to those settlements, Jewish preferential immigration laws (even for spouse or family members), etc etc). And then there is de facto discrimination – discrimination in hiring, movement, etc).

    But the Israeil Arab citizerns are the “lucky’ ones. East Jerusalem born Arabs and West Bank Arabs and Gaza Arabs suffer far worse. No voting rights, severly restricted civil rights, summary arrests without access to civilian courts and without charges, severey restricted rights to build homes on their land, severly restricted water allocations, loss of dignity, etc etc.

    JFK once said “we all cherish our children’s future.”Imagine (if you can muster the “empathy”) if you are 50 years old, a Palestinain resident of Ramallah and have 3 kids. Youve lived your entire life under the Occupation and now youre watching your kids grow up in the endless occupation. . Your rights to self determination, to movement, to prosper, to “pursue happiness” are all seriously curtailed. Is it any wonder that some turn to the despair of violence. What is a wonder is that so so so many don’t.

    I could go on for so long but what’s the use. Please please read The General’s Son by Miko Peled (the Israeli son of Israeli General at time of 67 war Miko Peled) After a lifetime of living in Israel, serving in the IDF himself and even after losing his beloved 13 year old niece to a suicide bomber, he found empathy and much more.

    My People! As Jews, how can we be unfeeling oppressors? How can we ignore what we are doing and what is being done in our name? The Holocaust does not give us license to oppress others. If anything, it should and does teach us the absolute evil of dehumanizing a group based on ethnicityor religion.

    Empathy is only the first step, but a very necessary one if we are to travel the path to a just peace.

    1. Rich says:

      i refer you to Daniel Gordis’ latest book, ‘the promise of Israel’ in which he addresses why western progressives have a problem with the Jewish state of Israel. Some Progressives believe that any level of particularism is discriminatory, even racist. Many progressive activists are uncomfortable with the notion of the ‘ethnic nation-state’; a nation state based on a particular culture. I would argue that their discomfort however, is highly selective; They are quick to condemn the Jewish state and other western nation states but have little to say about societies that are highly discriminatory, misogynistic, and homophobic. In addition, they don’t appreciate the value and contributions that ethnic nation-states make to the collective humanity. The US is somewhat unique in that its culture is based on an amalgam of cultures. Most nation-states don’t follow that model. Of course there needs to be balance between the particularism of the majority culture in an ethnic nation state and the rights of the minorities within that nation state. i would argue the Israel is imperfect but it handles this balance quite well, In fact far better than most nation-states especially under similar circumstances.

      As far as Israel oppressing the Palestinians; I find this to be a great distortion because it minimizes and in some cases leaves out completely the context of Palestinian/Arab rejection of the Jewish state of Israel. Israel has been willing to compromise from the beginning and on numerous occasions made concessions ceding land and offering a Palestinian sovereignty in return merely for the acceptance of its existence. The truth is Palestinian/Arab societies have not sincerely accepted the Jewish state; and the emergence of Islamist component with groups like Hamas have made acceptance and reconciliation that much more distant; And while I have empathy for the Palestinians I recognize that israel is forced to take measures in order to protect its citizens. Unfortunately some progressives can find fault only with Israel and don’t see this Palestinian/Arab rejection of the Jewish state as the great hurdle that it is.

  9. alexmaller says:

    To San Franciscan: First let me ask you why, as a proud American citizen, you hide your identity? A honest debate in a free country should allow us all to be open and responsible for our opinions. Your whole premise in reference to Israel is basically wrong. You project American ideals to a country, a region and, as amatter of fact, the rest of the world that does not follow the US Constitution. In the Middle East the political systems of All countries are based on religious identites. Freedom of religion is not accepted. The most tolerant country in this regard is Israel, the Jewish State. To make the issue clear, all nations, except the USA, program their political agenda based on religious identites: divine or secular religions. France, the promoter of freedom from religion imposed secularism on its citizens which in real terms translates in the political creed in power: nationalism, covert catholisicim or marxism. Germany is divided between protestant, catholic, “green’ environmentalists and other beliefs. In this context the Middle East excells in its Islamic extremism and messianic drive. To ignore this reality and its impact on the various communities is to be totally ignorant of the situation. These are just a couple of factors that you have ignored. If you are interested to expand your understanding on these complex and conflicting issues, in a modern understanding, I would recommend to read my book Reform Judaism for the Rest of Us : Faith versus Political Activism (2012) in which I dedicate a whole chapter directly to this issue. Looking forward for your comments.

  10. sanfranciscan says:

    Rich and Alex

    In both of your posts, you take dead aim at my criticisms of the State of Israel, but seem to ignore the central thrust of my message, which was responsive to the opinion piece, and the previous responses to that piece, that were either addressing or responding to the central issue of whether it was appropriate to show empathy for the Palestinians. Neither of you substantively respond to or address that issue, and thereby seem to imply by your silence that it’s perfectly alright to consider the Palestinians as a people who do not deserve our concern or empathy.

    I find this lamentable, especially because of the fact that many, indeed far too many, Americans as a whole, and American Jews in particular, are either very ignorant of the actual facts of the Occupation, Israel’s actions, and the basic history of the conflict or, worse, intentionally twist and skew such facts in their zeal to support and advance the Zionist ethos. And, it is precisely because of America’s and the Jewish community’s uncritical and generous support of Israel that this issue is so important. Yes, indeed, (as I mentioned in my previous post), there are many other ethnically preferential states and/or despotic states that deserve our criticism or a lessening of American support, but no state either receives as much monetary aid from the US (in excess of $3 Billion annually) or so much shelter and protection in the UN (the US habitually blocks/vetoes any measures critical of Israel). That very monetary and political support enables and encourages the very injustices and ethnically-preferential policies that I believe are so so wrong. So it is with an appreciation of that causative support and its extent, to say nothing for whatever “special responsibility” or, perhaps more accurately, sense of ironic shame I feel when I consider the oppressive or unjust actions and policies of the “Jewish State” that I justify my “selective” critique of Israel.

    But let me respond more specifically to some of your assertions.

    First, Rich. You attempt to deflect, rather than address or respond to directly, my criticism of Israel as an ethnically preferential, and, therefore, necessarily and inherently discriminatory, state by first asserting that (i) critics of Israel’s ethnic discrimination are “highly selective,” and thus apparently unfair because they ignore other discriminatory states, (ii) such critics “don’t appreciate the value and contributions that ethnic nation-states make to the collective humanity,” (iii) that although “Israel is imperfect … it handles this balance quite well, In fact far better than most nation-states especially under similar circumstances,” and (iv) Arab rejectionism is such a substantial barrier that it justifies Israeli policies.

    I cannot agree with any of these points. As noted above and my original post, I by no means countenance, absolve, or withhold criticism from any ethnically preferential state, be it past sysytems (like Apartheid South Africa or the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow America), mor current ones like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Pakistan, to name a few obvious but, by no means, the only examples. Although we support or are allied with, to one degree or another, many such states, there really is no comparison with the level and depth of the monetary and political support and protection we give Israel, on one hand, and the level of support and aid we might give any other such state. Thus, because we as Americans, let alone as American Jews, are so instrumental in the perpetuation of Israel’s very ability to maintain its discriminatory and unjust policies, I believe we have a moral and ethical duty to, at a minimum, become informed about, analyze, understand, and appropriately critique and disapprove such policies.

    As to your second point, that I and other critics “don’t appreciate the value and contributions that ethnic nation-states make to the collective humanity,” I suppose I must plead guilty as charged. I just don’t see your point at all. If a nation state that is discriminatory and oppressive is successful in its economic or cultural endeavors, well, so what? The obvious disproving example, of course (but so polarizing – which is not my intention), is the Nazi state. Do we really care, in our assessment of its despicable place in history, what Germany’s achievements in economic or “social” or “artistic” revival might be, even in light of the disastrous state of German affairs in the early 30s that allowed Hitler to seize power? The facts that the German economy awoke from its doldrums so quickly or that the Germans built the largest battleship ever, or that the ’36 Olympics might have been a wonderful spectacle, or that there were German advances in science and engineering, or that Leni Reifenstahl made a highly acclaimed film really don’t address, or relate to, our judgment of the “value and contributions” that Germany then “made to collective humanity.”

    Although, of course, Israel, for all its faults, is extremely removed from the extreme evil by which we justly judge and condemn Nazi Germany, the same basic principle obtains here if we retain our focus: do the cultural or economic benefits to collective humanity as a whole justify the maintenance of an ethnically preferential and therefore necessarily discriminatory state? I cannot see how we can alter our judgment of, or in any way absolve, Israel’s discriminatory oppression and unjust policies by pointing to the benefits (no matter how substantial) to “collective humanity” of Israel’s significant and otherwise laudatory cultural, economic, or scientific achievements. Those achievements, and Israel’s collective soul, are tarnished by its deliberate discrimination against, and dispossession and oppression of, the Palestinians.

    Third, when you state that Israel handles well the “balance” between “the particularism of the majority culture in an ethnic nation state and the rights of the minorities within that nation state,” I have no idea what you mean. If you are confining (as you must for your statement to have any factual support whatsoever) your analysis to the “minority” rights of Israeli Arab citizens (i.e., those born within the 1967 borders of Israel), you are apparently willing to countenance as “well-handled” a whole slew of discriminatory Jewish-favoring and Palestinian-discriminatory laws and policies, including laws establishing the Right of Return, the ethnically discriminatory prohibition of extending residency or citizenship to non-Jewish non-citizen spouses of Palestinians, providing for Jewish only rights vis-à-vis settlements or roads, a (largely and almost exclusively) Jewish only military, and many other educational, housing, or social matters. And that doesn’t even begin to address the “de facto” discrimination that is so common in Israeli society. Like blacks in this country for so many years, Israeli Arabs are so commonly subjected to discrimination in housing, employment, freedom of movement, and many other spheres. And once you consider the substantially greater deprivation of such freedoms and discrimination suffered by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, or the West Bank, I cannot accept your conclusory generalization about how “well” Israel handles such “balance” in any way. If you have, like I have, visited the Occupied Territories and seen the summary detentions, the indiscriminate use of skunk water, tear gas and rubber bullets against wholly peaceful demonstrations, the summary arrests and long detentions without charges, the rationing of water (Israelis commonly turn off the water at Palestinian villages for 2 to 3 weeks a month without notice while nearby settlements built on Palestinian land contrary to the Geneva conventions enjoy uninterrupted water supply), the discriminatory denial of building permits and home demolitions, the apartheid like denial of access to roads and settlements, etc etc., I can’t see any way to call such manifestations of invidious discrimination “balanced.” Simply put, the facts on the ground wholly contradict your assessment.

    Finally, as you assert, does Arab “rejectionism” justify Israeli policies? The answer is no. First, you apparently assume a uniform Arab rejectionism that hasn’t changed over time or by constituency, and, therefore, one that is so much easier to tar than the far more complicated reality. There were very real and understandable reasons why Arabs initially rejected the dispossession of more than half their homeland in 1948 to a Jewish population that constituted only one third (or less) of then current population of historic Palestine. If the UN, or the EU suddenly decided to give more than half of say, Sicily, to Gypsies, based on the long-standing European oppression of that population throughout history (after all, they too were also victims of Hitler’s genocide), and, as a result, many Sicilians were the victim of home demolition, attacks, discriminatory laws and exiled, the Sicilians would probably be open to the charge of “rejectionism” as well. Second, the actions of Jewish forces and governments, both before the 1948 creation of the State (e.g., the Irgun, Stern Gang, and the Haganah) and since have hardly been consistent with your conclusion that Israel would have long ago made peace with its neighbors if they just accepted Israel. Very sadly, based on the settlement program, the well documented occupation regime maintained by the IDF throughout the West Bank, Israeli housing policies and home demolitions, the maintenance of Jewish only roads and Jewish only laws, I am convinced that Israel’s real aim is to make life so difficult and unbearable for the Palestinians that they will someday decide to just give up and move to other countries. Third, to lump both the PA and Hamas and, for that matter, the rest of the Arab world, in the same boat as far as “rejectionism,” is fundamentally inaccurate and thus very unfair. The PA has been ready and eager to embrace the peace process for many years. The Arab League has offered fair proposals that the Israelis have not even given lip service to. Even Arafat, for all his contradictions and failures, was ready to accept a peace that contemplated only approximately 22% of the original Palestine. In face of this, Israel has continued its iron fist, maintaining its home demolition, settlement building, and discriminatory policies such that there is very very little hope for a negotiated settlement now because there is now no contiguous sufficient place for a Palestinian state. Thus, to use supposed Palestinian intransigence as the sole or even principal reason that justifies the continued Occupation and all the policies referred to above is neither convincing, fair, nor rationally acceptable.

    And as for Alex, your deflection of my argument, and complete failure to meet or counter that argument, is based on your observation that many other states ALSO are ethnically based or suffer from lack of religious tolerance. Yes, only the US follows the US Constitution, but that fact does not deflect, or even address my argument that, in this modernizing, if not modern, world, some of the fundamental values that Americans (especially) generally espouse and many many countries around the world embrace, recognize that ALL of a nation’s citizens should be entitled to full civil rights and the freedom to “the pursuit of happiness” without regard to their ethnicity or religion. This should be especially true in the “democratic” State of Israel, especially if it is to be both the recipient of so much US largess (in the form of funding) and political protection. Your assertion that “all nations, except the USA, program their political agenda based on religious identities: divine or secular religions,” may be true or false (when you start talking about the “secular religions” of Europe, and try to distinguish such constructs from the US, which is cleaved by a huge ocean of devout Christian fundamentalists amidst many distinct sects or secularists, I have huge problems with the utility or accuracy of your generalization), but how does it justify either Israeli actions that many, whether religious or not, whether American, Israeli, European or whatever, find to be based on ethnic or religious discrimination that promotes those of Jewish descent at the expense of those who aren’t.

    Clearly we disagree. Neither I nor the many who condemn Israeli actions and policies as discriminatory and unjust are “ignoring the reality” of the disparate influences on the many nation states that are inherently a part of their respective political evolutions and ethos. But merely pointing to those differences does not excuse, or justify, Israeli discriminatory policies or oppressive and unjust actions. Indeed, I submit that basic “liberal democratic” notions that are not only embraced by Americans generally but by many many nations and international organizations around the world are an appropriate yardstick to measure not only Israel, but the policies of unjust political entities throughout the world.

    I apologize for the length of this response, but because your posts raised so many issues, and were based on arguments and narratives that many have adopted or espoused, I wanted to respond in a considered and appropriate manner.

    Ps Alex – My name is Richard. Like many others on this page (e.g., almost all of the other posters to this chain of comments other than you), evidently because of the passions that these issues raise, I prefer to not, in this forum anyway, use my complete name. Unfortunately, the world is full of zealots who cannot tolerate dissent and very casually conflate criticism of Israeli policy with either anti-semitism or charges that such a critic is a “self-hating jew.” I am neither. I cherish my heritage and condemn racism in all forms. Indeed, that intolerance of discrimination, no matter who implements or condones it, is what has led me to the views expressed above.

  11. Rich says:

    I am happy to have this exchange with you, but I find it presumptuous and your tone a bit smug when you characterize those that disagree with your point of view as “… either very ignorant of the actual facts of the Occupation, Israel’s actions, and the basic history of the conflict or, worse, intentionally twist and skew such facts in their zeal to support and advance the Zionist ethos….” I don’t label you a ‘self-hating jew’, since I don’t know you personally and therefore don’t know what motivates you and further I find that term particularly perjorative; and while I do support and encourage constructive and fair criticism of Israel, I find that many of your arguments are unfair, distortions of the historic record and the nature of the conflict. You engage in a unfair double standard, invert cause and effect, and you minimize and in some cases leave context out completely:
    1. You say: “…(that I)…ignore the central thrust of (your) message, which was… whether it was appropriate to show empathy for the Palestinians….(and that you)…imply by (my) silence that it’s perfectly alright to consider the Palestinians as a people who do not deserve our concern or empathy….” I directly answered this issue in my previous response to you with “… And while I have empathy for the Palestinians I recognize that israel is forced to take measures in order to protect its citizens…” Stated once again, I do care about the welfare of the Palestinians but that empathy is tempered by the realities of the conflict and the very actions of the Palestinians themselves. While for example the ‘separation barrier/wall’ and checkpoints do cause disruption in the lives of Palestinians, and its appropriate to have sympathy for the effects these measure have, their purpose is not punitive but to prevent the type of heinous terror attacks that we saw during the 2nd intifada. Israeli citizens blown up with bombs filled with ball bearings and screws to inflict horrendous injuries on buses and cafes and passover seders. Incidentally, recently Suha Arafat confirmed what we already knew; Arafat started the 2nd intifada after Israel had sincerely offered sovereignty in exchange for ending the conflict. For some reason you choose to minimize this context.
    2. You confirmed that you have a double standard when it comes to Israel with “…(you feel a)…sense of ironic shame…when (you) consider the oppressive or unjust actions and policies of the “Jewish State” that I justify my “selective” critique of Israel….” which I infer the ‘ironic shame’ with which you ‘justify your selective critique’ to means that because of the history of the suffering of the Jewish people that Jews should know better. While Palestinian terror attacks, rockets, and the very rejection of the Jewish state which is behind these atrocities, is pervasive in the charters of Hamas and the PLO and inculcated in young Palestinians in textbooks and TV shows and officially sponsored sermons are minimized and in some cases completely left out of your analysis.
    3. you missed the point when I wrote, “…(some progressives) don’t appreciate the value and contributions that ethnic nation-states make to the collective humanity….” I was not referring merely to scientific and medical advances. I was referring more broadly to societal contributions. Different cultures do things differently. Just as individual states are the laboratories of democracy in the US where novel ideas develop and are incorporated by other states, so too do diffent ethnic cultures offer novel solutions. They contribute customs, art, philosophy, and public policy which evolve and are borrowed by other cultures.The founding fathers of the US incorporated the philosophy of the european enlightenment to the constititution for instance. That is the value of diverse cultures. The Jewish culture has made such contributions and like other cultures is worth preserving. Israel is the only place where Jewish culture is the majority and it is where Jewish culture can best evolve on its own terms.
    4. You say…” (You) by no means countenance, absolve, or withhold criticism from any ethnically preferential state, be it past sysytems (like Apartheid South Africa or the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow America), mor(e) current ones like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Pakistan, to name a few obvious but, by no means, the only examples…” Comparing Israel’s treatment of its minorities to Apartheid South Africa and Saudi Arabia is ridiculous. Israel is a progressive democracy, with an independent judiciary that has on numerous occasions ruled against the government, a highly critical free press,and robust political culture. The result speaks for itself: Israeli Arabs vote in elections, there are Arab Knesset members who are among the most critical of the government and Arab newspapers. Israeli Arabs are physicians, laywers, business owners, and there is an Israeli Arab serving in the supreme court. The truth is that Israeli Arabs have more rights and freedoms in Israel than they do in any Arab majority nation. West Bank Arabs are not Israeli citizens and therefore don’t vote in Israeli elections but they do vote at least several years ago in elections for the PA. Is there discrimination of Israeli Arabs? Sure there is as with any society; and individual issues of discrimination are fair reasons for criticism. But equating Israel with Apartheid south africa or Saudi Arabia is specious and betrays an unfairness and bias by those that makes the comparison. As I said in my previous response, “…i would argue the Israel is imperfect but it handles this balance quite well, In fact far better than most nation-states especially under similar circumstances.”And quite telling, you have little to say about the utter denial of Jewish ownership in the West Bank and the rejection of a potential Jewish minority living in a Palestinian state. Jews by PA law are not allowed to own land in a prospective Palestinian state.
    5. As far as the charges you make regarding Israel’s administration of the West Bank, I’ll say 3 things: first, some of what you claim is flat out factually incorrect or lacks important context; two, its easy to criticize in retrospect especially when you severely minimize the context and distort cause and effect; and three, there is fair constructive criticism to be leveled at the Israeli administration of the West Bank but you paint with such a distorted and broad brush that it makes your criticsm overall unconstructive. You say that there are “…jewish only roads…” in the West Bank. This is factually wrong. I refer you to CAMERA’s refutation of this canard: (http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=55&x_article=1914). ; your criticism of Israeli measures in the West Bank on “…wholly peaceful demonstrations…” is ridiculous. rock throwing at cars and at soldiers and sniper fire, attacks on including murder of Israeli settlers is hardly peaceful as well as the existence of terror groups within the West Bank require measures to protect Israeli citizens. Now the issue of whether all the methods used by israel in order to protect its citizens is necessary, appropriate, or effective is certainly fair game for debate and criticism, both from Israelis who as a Liberal society constantly struggles with the use of force and with the administration of the West Bank, and from non-Israeli’s. The use of “rubber bullets and tear gas” is not very surprising.Its use when Israeli soldiers are threatened and in some cases for riot dispersal is generally reasonable.
    6. Then you challenge whether Palestinian/Arab rejection of the Jewish state is significant, “… (I) assume a uniform Arab rejectionism that hasn’t changed over time or by constituency…:” and then within a few sentences you then challenge Israel’s very legitamacy in the very first place, “… the dispossession of more than half (Palestinian) homeland in 1948 to a Jewish population…” First I would say to you that Palestinian/Arab rejection of the Jewish state is at the heart of the impasse. Since the beginning of the conflict and into the present Palestinian and Arab leadership which reflect significant societal sentiment have rejected the Jewish state. They have denied Jewish narrative, history, and ties to Jerusalem and Israel and they have demonized Israeli’s and Jews in general. By deeds and by rhetoric this is pretty clear. Just recently Palestinians celebrated Fatah’s 48th anniversary in which they glorified terror attacks against civilians, demonized Jews, and negated the existence of Israel. See Palestinian Media Watch’s account ( http://www.palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=157&doc_id=8319). In addition view what Abbas said at the UN in 2011 in his push for Palestinian recognition. (http://c-spanvideo.org/program/AbbasU). There was no self reflection. No acknowledgement of wrongs done by Palestinians to Israeli’s. No calls for sincere reconciliation and true acceptance of a Jewish state as a partner and neighbor.There was just a total denial of Jewish narrative and history. Secondly, your recitation of hisitory is both selective and distorted. Again I’ll repeat what you wrote because its most telling, “…the dispossession of more than half (Palestinian) homeland in 1948 to a Jewish population…” essentially saying that Israel usurped half of the Palestinian homeland. Israel/Palestine was not a Palestinian state. There never was a Palestinian state. It was a part of the British mandate and prior to that part of the Ottoman Empire. The British and then the UN were trying to fairly address the aspirations for self determination of Jews and Arabs. The issue was debated and a compromise was formulated that would address both concerns. It was a resonable solution. But it required acceptance from both parties. There has been only one party that has refused to accept this compromise. Even after Israel’s survival in wars meant for its annihilation and years of terrorism, Israel has survived and thrived and yet still no sincere acceptance. Oh and by the way, haven’t you wondered why if this conflict was about denial of Palestinian aspirations for self-determination there wasn’t a Palestinian state declared anytime from 1948-1967? or why weren’t any of the offers by the Israelis accepted? Or why there is an insistence of Palestinian ‘right of return’ inside Israel proper?

    I’ll conclude by stating criticism of israel is fine when its fair and constructive. There is certainly much about Israel to criticize including some measures it takes to defend itself, but when Israel’s legitamacy is discounted or when Israel’s actions are distorted by selective historic references, the reversal of cause and effect, and the minimization of context, and when that is done on a consistent basis such as you have done, I then reject your arguments, and I reject them on its merits, or lack thereof. I don’t know you personally and therefore can’t comment on why you make the arguments that you do. It just seems sad to me that Israel which should be celebrated and championed by progressives is instead attacked unfairly and relentlessly. As for me, I am extremely proud of the Jewish state, not because of its technical achievements, but because even with constant threats for all of its existance it has maintained its Jewish cultural integrity; It has remained morally intact and a force for good while taking measures to ensure its survival.

  12. alexmaller says:

    It is refreshing to have a frank debate on the issue and reveal the depth of the misunderstanding a large portion of the American Jewish community have about Israel and Zionism. I share much of Rich’s opinions which will spare me some arguments. Also, in full disclosure I was personally involved in attempts to help Palestinians and I brought an example in a previous reply to this article. In reading the history of the Reform Movement in the USA I was shocked to discover the deep historic opposition the Movement had toward Zionism. On this background the so called support the current leadership of Reform Judaism, in particular Rabbi Jacobs, express toward Israel raise questions and doubts. I have developed an extensive discussion on this issue in my book entitled Reform Judaism for the Rest of Us: Faith versus Political Activism (2012) in which, in addition to a whole chapter dedicated to this specific issue, I also discuss the broad American context as related to modern Judaism.
    One point I would like to highlight: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Advocating idealistic, leftist, American ideas, which are hardly implemented in the US, to other nations is bad policy and bad politics. I also doubt they are constructive even in the US context. As far as Israel is concerned, for thirty years Israel was led by socialist regimes that were ready to make peace with the Arabs almost at all cost. The American Jewish “progressives” were as critical of Israel at that time as they are now. May be even more when Israel was socialist! Israel gave Sinai to Egypt in hope for peace. Never got a real peace and is about to face a new confrontation with the new democratic Islamist Egyptian regime. I am sure you are proud of the ways our current administration sustained the Arab Spring. Meanwhile the Israeli public has recognized the fallacies of Marxism (in all its variants) and chose the road of enlightened capitalism. It helped integrate millions of Jewish refugees, built a modern country in a hostile environment and most recently avoided the last crisis. In many ways Israel became a model for European economies. Unfortunately it seems that too many in the US still believe, with religious fanatism, in the miracles of socialism with its naïve and corrupting notions of world peace and universal love.
    Regarding aid: in your opinion if a country receives aid it must become subservient to the interests and policies of the provider. This sounds not very liberal (in the true sense of the word) but rather colonial. In factual terms, the aid to Israel is military and goes exclusively to American procurement. As a matter of fact US governments refused to allow the use of this aid to develop Israeli alternatives (see the history of the Israeli Aeronautical Industry).
    Finally, are you aware of the hate propagated by the PLO education administration? Did they ever try to accept a sincere dialogue expressed in Arabic (not in English for propaganda purposes)? Do you believe that a culture that accepts repeated massacres of its own in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen as common policy is at all interested in empathy? It is inhuman to demand one-sided empathy when the other side openly hates you. Christians offered the other cheek as a way to conquer the world. They failed because their lack of integrity was exposed. Are you not making the same mistake?

  13. Miki Less says:

    First of all; there are no “Palestinians”. My father lived in Palestine and was a Palestinian, my sister was born in Palestine and was a Palestinian. A Palestinian was anyone who lived in the mandate of Palestine, regardless of race or faith. Since there is no Palestine there can’t be any Palestinians. The concept of a Palestinian people was only introduced in the ’60s – any one remember a “Palestinian” leader before Arafat? Anyone remember a Palestinian language, culture, currency etc? Westernes really don’t understand this conflict – Arabs respect power – not kindness – they worship death – not life.

    1. LordYog says:

      First of all census records show that the Palestinians HAD lived there since the 1500s; any claim of them being new is at best a half truth and at worst a lie. Secondly, they had built farms, towns and culture (it wasn’t called Palestinian but by that logic we should assume Guatemalan culture doesn’t exist because Guatemala is recent) and there were instances of cooperation. In spite of this, most of the Yishuv openly treated Palestinians like animals who needed to be expelled (The King Crane Commission found that most of the Yishuv were hoping to bribe the Palestinians into leaving; when they said no the claws came out.) Israel’s own records also showed that most Palestinians only fled when the Yishuv forcibly expelled people and that most Arab countries told them to stay put (some Arabs claimed it was due to orders, but this was an attempt to spin a disaster in Israel’s favor), and the expulsions were often carried out with extreme cruelty and savagery (there were also cases like Dawayima, when the IDF massacred a friendly village AFTER they’d surrendered without a fight, and even hunted the people taking shelter in caves). The deals also boil down to “we control the borders water airspace and roads, and you live and die at our forbearance.”

      Cruelty is built into Zionism’s very dna; supporting Israel basically means you think Palestinians are subhuman filth who deserve to be brutalized so that Jews can feel safe.

  14. Ilana Rosen says:

    I have read all of the comments with interest and I am impressed with the knowledge of the commenters. I lived in Israel for many years and throughout that time I never met anybody who lacked empathy with Palestinians. Israelis do NOT lack empathy with Palestinians themselves. They are as much victims themselves as Israelis who have had to bear the hatred and the murderous intentions for decades. It disturbs me that Letty Cobrin Pogrebin has no qualms in manipulating her readers. No mention is made of the appalling acts of cruelty perpetrated upon Palestinians by their own leaders. They have always had the most to gain by ramping up the conflict. They have done their job well by manipulating the author of this article and others who posted here. This begs the question as to how good a Jew Letty Cobrin Pogrebin is. Is she merely a craven mouth piece for the ones willing to throw the rest of us to the Palestinian crocodile so it won’t eat her and other plastic Jews like her – or is she dangerously misguided? Is this her political self sharing her opinions or her weak willed self? Either way Letty Cobrin Pogrebin should take care of her fragile glass house before she starts throwing stones.

    1. LordYog says:

      If anything she’s right. For every act of cruelty a Palestinian has inflicted on an Israeli, the Israeli’s have done the same 1000 fold. Israel used Palestinian children as human shields until the Supreme Court told them to cut it out, and they fire knowing that the militants have already fled (thus making their reprisals acts of sadism). As far as the average Israeli is concerned, Palestinians are subhuman vermin who deserve to be brutalized. The Palestinians DID largely support peace in the 90s even when Israel was trying to worm it’s way out of fully honoring their agreement, so if anything had Israel actually abandoned the settlements AND given the Palestinians control of their water airspace and roads they might well have gotten security. They pissed it away because they valued short term comfort over long term justice.

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