Every story has a beginning. My interest in Israel/Palestine began on an evening in October 2003, in my faculty office at Boston College, where I had just finished grading a set of papers. As I prepared to leave, a colleague, newly arrived just the month before, stopped by my office. “You must come to the talk I’m hosting,” she said. “It’s the first talk I’ve organized, and I’m so worried that there will be no audience.” My heart sank. I had been looking forward to an evening curled up with a glass of wine and my book club novel. “What talk is that?” I asked. “It’s FFIPP,” she replied, “The Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.” They send teams of speakers, a Palestinian academic paired with an Israeli academic, to inform university audiences about the state of the longest running conflict in the Middle East. Reluctantly, I agreed to attend the talk.
The Palestinian professor spoke first. Saleh Abdel Jawad is a historian at Birzeit University whose work focuses on the villages lost by Palestine in the 1948 war.1 He was then Harvard University’s inaugural “Scholar at Risk”; the first professor to take up a one-year appointment reserved for distinguished academics around the world who were in danger not only because of the generally miserable political situations in their respective countries, but, more specifically, because of the work they did in speaking truth to power. Abdel Jawad’s talk outlined the history of the Nakba, the catastrophic expulsion that Palestinians experienced as part of the creation of the state of Israel. I had previously known nothing about the Nakba and was shocked by what I heard. Nevertheless, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s the Palestinian point of view, let’s hear what the Israeli professor has to say.”
Yoav Peled, a political scientist from Tel Aviv University, came to the lectern. I later discovered that he is the son of a famous and distinguished Israeli family. His father, Matti Peled, is one of the architects of the Israeli military victory of 1967, who later came to repudiate the fruits of that war: the on-going control of conquered territory by Israeli settlers and the military, universally known as the Occupation. His sister, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, is a professor of education. She has shown how Israeli textbooks normalize the Occupation and immunize Israeli students against criticisms based on international human rights standards.2 His brother, Miko Peled, is the author of a best-selling book, The General’s Son, which also unmasks the crimes of Occupation.3 Yoav Peled is also the uncle of Smadar Peled-Elhanan, killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber at a shopping mall during the popular uprising against the Israeli Occupation known as the Second Intifada.4 Peled opened his speech by pointing to Abdel Jawad and saying “What he says is an understatement, the truth is really much worse.”5
I was riveted and, despite their later intense disagreement about the term “sociocide,” I realized that both speakers were painting a bleak and entirely consistent picture of ethnic cleansing and endless war.
After the talk, my colleague again appeared at my side. “They are our guests,” she said, “you must help me entertain them at dinner.” My book club novel receded further into the distance. We adjourned to a Thai restaurant and talked late into the evening. At one point I remember Abdel Jawad saying to me “you really don’t know anything about the Middle East, do you?” which, alas, was an entirely correct observation.
But a hook had been planted; my curiosity was piqued. As with so many beginnings, this one, upon closer examination, was revealed to have antecedents – small seeds and tendrils of interest that remained curled in the shade of other, more pressing concerns and commitments.
My earliest memory of any conversation about the Middle East dates back to 1956 and the Suez Crisis in which England, France, and Israel invaded Egypt.6 I was then the ten-year-old child of two Holocaust survivors who taught themselves English, mainly from American newspapers. Every evening at precisely 6 p.m., we sat down to dinner in Brooklyn and listened to the international news on WQXR, a deep, masculine voice announcing in plummy tones that this was “the radio station of the New York Times.” That newspaper was an object of near veneration in our home. After the broadcast, dinner was spent discussing the news. Without yet having the words to describe myself as skeptical about Zionism, I do remember asking my father, “If everyone hates the Jews as much Auntie Sylvia says they do, why would you want to put all the Jews in one place?” I do not remember my father’s answer; only that Israel was rarely a topic of conversation at our dinner table. In general, both of my parents preferred left-leaning politics to religion as a spur to social justice.
A second memory surfaces from 1967. In June of that year I was a newly minted college graduate, about to embark on a PhD program in anthropology. I had become a child of “the sixties,” involved since high school in the civil rights movement, and recently immersed in the peace movement critical of the Vietnam War. I spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village. Over coffee at Rienzi’s Coffee House, a classmate told me about attending the big, Vietnam-focused peace demonstration at the United Nations Plaza. He was disconcerted by how many of his Jewish friends ran back and forth between the peace rally at the UN Plaza and the Israeli victory parade on 5th Avenue, celebrating Israel’s victory in the Six Day War that brought all of historic Palestine under its control. Something about that seemed perverse and wrong. Over time, I encountered this contradiction again and again: the American left is disproportionately Jewish and progressive on many issues, but not on questions of Israel and Palestine.
Many other issues and projects came to fill my life before those early, tentative observations were prompted to resurface. I immersed myself in the women’s movement and the green movement. I switched from anthropology to sociology, earned a doctorate, found a faculty position, and achieved tenure. Throughout that time, I thought of my work as belonging to “public sociology”7 – a place where scholarship and social justice meet. I investigated class inequalities in higher education,8 gender discrimination in the work place,9 and the subordination of professionals in the context of organizational restructuring.10 I spent ten years, with others, on issues of worker health and safety, especially in the post-Soviet world of Central and Eastern Europe.11
I was aware of many injustices in the world and knew that I could not effectively address all of them. Without looking too closely, I recognized that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was a massive violation of human rights. At the same time, however, I knew that if I pursued this particular injustice, my family (though not my immediate family) would be unhappy. And indeed, to this day, when I criticize Zionism as a Jew, I am often asked: “Why do you focus on this conflict? Aren’t there more important struggles, more poignant, or massive, or immediate injustices?” My reply is that while the struggle for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not the most urgent problem in the world, it is the one being perpetrated most directly in my name and allegedly on my behalf. It calls to me. It is an issue in which everything about my life – my family’s Holocaust heritage, my citizenship in a country siding with an occupier, even my tenure and safety to speak out – require that I pay attention.
When I began to pay attention, I recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a profound struggle for human rights. There are some 12 million people who live in Israel/Palestine, “between the [Jordan] River and the [Mediterranean] Sea,” as people in the area often say. Each one of them is of equal human value. And each must struggle against vicious stereotypes that have harmed their group’s life chances: Jews are not the killers of Christ, the bringers of the Black Death, the secret bankers in control of the world. And, similarly, Palestinians are not murderous terrorists intent on the destruction of Jews. The 12 million people of Palestine and Israel are simply human beings, the vast majority of whom are just trying to live their lives as best they can. Each and every one of them is entitled to be treated fairly in accord with human rights standards.
The Israelis and the Palestinians even belong to communities that are approximately equal in numbers: some 6 million Jewish Israelis12 and roughly as many Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip.13
And yet, paradoxically, these equally valuable human beings in their relatively equal numbers are grouped in two profoundly unequal communities: an occupier and an occupied. The occupier, Israel, enjoys a modern, Western standard of living, is heavily armed and protected diplomatically, economically, and militarily by the last remaining superpower in the world, the United States. The occupied, the Palestinians, are a stateless people, a sizable percentage of whom live as refugees.14 Their leadership is divided, and periodically subject to arrest and even assassination. Their allies pay lip service to their needs more often than they provide real aid. Despite their long tradition of literacy15 and entrepreneurship,16 Palestinians live constricted lives, uncertain of their ability either to remain in their homes or to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Confronting that paradox – human beings of equal human worth grouped into such unequal communities – is where this book began three years ago and where it still draws its inspiration.
Alas, since the first edition of the book was published, a great deal has changed, mostly for the worse. On the ground in Palestine and in Israel, both regimes are losing their political legitimacy, and their respective populations are considering new goals that are, paradoxically, increasingly antithetical and increasingly convergent at the same time. In America, the Trump administration has deepened the asymmetry in the conflict, and discarded even the pretense of observing international law as a framework for its resolution. In the region, ISIS’ rise and fall and the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia have become the new foci of attention, leaving Israel more room to expand the Occupation under the cover of global indifference. Even the scholarship addressed to Israel/Palestine continues to shift into new paradigms.
In Palestine, there is political disarray. The Palestinian Authority, long past the expiration of its last elected term of office, governs by executive order. Whether one believes that the PA was ever meant to be an embryonic state or whether one considers it to have been a subcontractor to the Israeli Occupation from its inception, its behavior today lacks political legitimacy. It enjoys pallid support within the West Bank because it employs more than 150,000 of some two and one half million people directly, and thus supports their families and the various professionals and businesses who serve them, acting as the largest and most important economic entity in Palestine.17 Before last summer, when the PA openly supported the cutback of power services in Gaza,18 it perhaps enjoyed pallid support there as well, because it was not Hamas, and not tarnished by Hamas’ failure to improve the lives and livelihood of the nearly 2 million Palestinians besieged in Gaza. Nevertheless, leading intellectuals now refer to the Palestinian Authority as the Vichy government.19 The failures of the Palestinian Authority include the inability, despite significant concessions in Hamas’ new charter,20 to create a coalition that would establish a united Palestinian leadership and the inability to engage in succession planning even as the 83 year-old President Abbas’ health appears to be deteriorating.21
In Israel, there is also political disarray. The sitting Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, faces possible indictment on any of five corruption scandals being investigated by the police. This makes him vulnerable to the destabilizing demands of his right wing coalition partners, many of whom advocate annexing most of the West Bank, especially Area C (explained further in Chapter 8) that has been largely cleansed of Palestinians. The Trump administration’s policy further pushes the Israeli political system toward over-reaching.22
Contradictory regional and global forces also buffet the Israeli political system. On the one hand, the surrounding Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, are ever more overtly uninterested in the plight of the Palestinians.23 Yet, at the same time, the population ratios between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, once evenly balanced, are now tipping decisively toward a Palestinian majority.24 Similarly, Israel is moving ever more assertively to be a leading source of arms sales and security consulting in the international market.25 At the same time, however, a growing Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment movement attempts to undermine Israel’s hold on this economic niche.26
The counter-move to BDS has been the attempt to label every critic of Israel as a “new anti-Semite.” This effort is credible only to people whose attitude is “Israel, right or wrong.” Beyond that narrow group, as Israeli historian Neve Gordon explains, the attempt at silencing fails. “The logic of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ can be formulated as a syllogism: (i) anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews; (ii) to be Jewish is to be Zionist; (iii) therefore anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. The error has to do with the second proposition. The claims that Zionism is identical to Jewishness, or that a seamless equation can be made between the State of Israel and the Jewish people, are false. Many Jews are not Zionists.”27 As Gordon points out, not all Jews are Zionists, and, further, not all Zionists are Jews. In fact, in the United States, Christian Zionists far outnumber Jewish ones. Paradoxically, some Christian Zionists are also anti-Semitic. This phenomenon is particularly relevant to the American political scene at present.28
In the United States, too, there is political disarray. The election of Trump has meant the ascension of an administration marked by inconsistency, and profound disregard of international law. This administration, like its Israeli counterpart, is mired in allegations and investigations into wrongdoing that are spreading to engulf more and more members of the Executive Branch. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem definitively discredits America’s already dubious claim to being an “honest broker,” and his ambassador’s support for settlements embodies the entire administration’s disregard for international law. Finally, as Judith Butler has pointed out, Trump’s tacit endorsement of white supremacist groups and their rhetoric points to the confluence of two unlikely political impulses: an anti-Semitic white nationalist program and simultaneous unlimited support for Israel, presumably because the Israeli state represents the “white guys” in the Middle East.29 Politics does, indeed, make for strange bedfellows.
The turmoil in the wider Middle East adds to the difficulty of imagining a reasonably settled future for Palestinians and Israelis. The nation state model imposed by European powers – through the League of Nations mandate system and through secret agreements among individual European countries – appears to be crumbling. Iraq and Syria lie in ruins. Kurdish nationalism raises the possibility of re-drawing international boundaries. There are intensified struggles among Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to become the dominant regional power, and these, too, work against a just or balanced Israeli/Palestinian agreement. And, finally, climate change is an emerging threat that adds a growing swell of climate refugees to the many political refugees already suffering inadequate care in Lebanon and Jordan.30
The scholarship on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also changed significantly since the first edition of this book was written.
The earliest generation of historians parroted the Israeli government’s line that the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel conquered the entirety of historic Palestine, was a necessary war of self-defense, even though Israelis struck the first military blows. Gradually, as archives opened some thirty years after the war, a movement referred to as the New Historians began to produce a very different version of the events surrounding the Occupation. In 2005, Tom Segev’s 1967 detailed the extent to which the war of that year arose not out of an inevitability, but through a series of miscalculations.31 A year later, Gershon Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire, caste the settlement movement as an opportunistic achievement following swiftly on the military victory of 1967 and soon thereafter supported by the Israeli state.32
More recently however, the ground has shifted again. In 2006, Norman Finkelstein made the point that the Israelis could have chosen simply to defeat the Jordanian and Egyptian armies without also occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.33 And finally, in a series of groundbreaking books culminating in the 2017 publication of The Biggest Prison on Earth, Ilan Pappe shows that Israel had made comprehensive plans for organizing the Occupation from 1956 to 1963.34The war of 1967, therefore, was no more than an opportunity to put a long-planned program into effect, the government and the settlement movement acting in conscious support of one another.
In part because of such incremental shifts in the understanding of 1967, the framework that is emerging for understanding the Occupation and, indeed, Zionism itself is that of settler colonialism. Chapter 9 explores the most common frames for understanding the Occupation (Israeli self-defense, genocide, apartheid, and settler colonialism). Suffice it here to say that the settler colonial frame, first advocated by French historian Maxime Rodinson,35 and later affirmed by the work of Israeli historian Gershon Shafir,36 has the great advantage of creating a unified story from the beginnings of Zionism in the 19th century to the present day, instead of treating the half-century Occupation as something qualitatively different from all that had gone before.37 Though the scholarship itself dates back decades, it is only now, with the cumulative weight of the New Historians’ arguments (especially that of Pappe), that the settler colonial framework is taking its rightful place in the understanding of the whole history of Palestine and Israel.
With all that has changed, some things remain the same in both editions of this book.
First, I remain convinced that, Americans should not aspire to dictate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, however, they should employ the standard of human rights in assessing any proposal to do so, and in evaluating the behavior of all the parties to the conflict. As I discuss in Chapter 3, human rights doctrine is not a magic wand that contains all the solutions, but it is, I will argue, the only metric that aspires to universalism and that avoids the powerful undertow in American conversations about Palestine and Israel, that always puts Israeli needs, real or imagined, ahead of Palestinian rights.
Second, I am even more convinced than before that the Black American experience remains the best point of reference for Americans who wish to understand the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. In the first edition, I used this comparison mainly for historic reasons, focusing on the strategies that oppressed populations can employ in pursuit of their rights. For the future, the comparison turns more on the repressive ways that Israelis police Palestinian communities and that Americans, not coincidentally, police Black communities.
Third, I will continue to argue that the situation now existing between Israel and Palestine is tragic, but not incomprehensible. The framework I used in Chapters 5 through 8 in the first edition remains in place. I understand this conflict as arising out of the interaction of three parties: Zionists, Palestinians, and great powers. Each of these behaves according to a logic that is self-interested and consistent and therefore not incomprehensible. The history has not changed. Zionism remains the project of building an ethno-religiously exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. Palestinians, continue to want normal lives, whether through national liberation or by securing civil rights in a single state. Either resolution poses a serious challenge to Zionist ambitions to Jewish exclusivity in the whole of the land. Great powers continue to care only how the area serves their national agendas.
Fourth, and finally, I maintain that the future is uncertain but not hopeless. Despite the image of the conflict in the American media,38 there is a great deal of activity, beneath the surface of a seemingly immovable Occupation, in which Palestinians and Israelis are working together on projects that I call “thinking about the day after:” the day after the Palestinian Authority collapses, the day after an even more right wing Israeli government decides to annex the West Bank, the day after the U.N. reaffirms the refugees’ right of return, the day after younger, more diverse American voters signal an openness to the Palestinian voice39 – in short, the day after the current impasse shifts in any one of a myriad of unpredictable ways.
My purpose, in re-writing this book, continues to be to make available a reasonably concise and even-handed account of the conflict for those who know it is important and who want to understand it without becoming experts in Middle East history and political theory.