Defending the Jewish State

What fighting on the front lines has taught me about the cause of peace.

gaza-troopsIn December 2008, a day before Operation Cast Lead began, I walked through rocket-besieged Sderot, dispensing candies and cards courtesy of my sister’s class in New Jersey. A month later I returned to New York as an NYU undergrad. Then the long war began. In the coming months, my fellow pro-Israel students and I faced protests, one-sided panels, movie screenings and other events designed to ostracize Israel. As co-president of the Israel club at the NYU Hillel, I tried unsuccessfully to engage our critics. I attended meetings held by the Students for Justice in Palestine, joined Facebook groups, and attended anti-Israel events. My repeated overtures to pro-Palestinian groups on campus fell on deaf ears.

Six years later, Israel is again at war, as am I. By day I work in the Medical Corps, assisting in providing medical care to Israeli soldiers, Palestinian children, Syrian refugees, Bedouin mothers, and Ethiopian and Russian immigrants—the oath of the Medical Corps a militarized version of the Hippocratic Oath. At night I again fight the long war, an uphill battle to protect Israel’s name. I talk to the dwindling group of moderates invested in this conflict interested in hearing different perspectives and sharing their own.

My activities over the last month sharpened a long-forgotten observation from campus advocacy days, an insight into the failure of intergroup dialogue. Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates fail to communicate, because the two groups do not speak the same language.

Much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, dialogue between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates often fails because the two groups seek to yell at, rather than talk to, each other. However, even when we do listen to one another, there is a gulf which is more conceptual than linguistic. Israel advocates speak of Peace; Palestinian advocates of Justice.

It’s no coincidence that the Palestinian student advocacy network is called “Students for Justice in Palestine”; their activities are steeped in this rhetoric. Israel advocates, on the other hand, speak in the language of peace. At rallies in Washington Square Park we chanted for “Peace in the Middle East,” a simple, yet elusive, goal. Our message was, is: “stop the rockets, stop the terror, let us all live in peace.” Their message was, remains: “There can be no peace until justice is established.”

There are many pro-Palestinian advocates who believe this message. Justice is a fundamental value in Judaism and Islam, as in many societies. However, the goal is an illusion, the rhetoric misleading, the agenda damaging to Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Every conflict has injustice. A conflict of over six decades offers infinite injustice. Land taken, war started, ceasefire broken, children murdered. There’s endless blame to go around, and it gets worse the farther back one goes. We needn’t give up on justice altogether. But as with any intractable conflict, a hyper-focus on something so eminently subjective and unachievable as “justice” merely highlights reasons to fight. It burns bridges rather than builds them; it tells us that we can never live together until we settle the fight that my grandfather fought with your great-aunt. There will always be many, if not infinite, narratives. Perhaps too, forgiveness and some semblance of justice may occur once we learn to live in peace. But surely we should address our children’s future before we settle our parents’ grievances? Surely peace trumps justice, for both sides?

As an Israeli, I don’t believe that we fight a war with the Palestinians, or that Hamas’s attacks are those of a nation. They are those of a fringe extremist group that has chosen violent resistance, despite the damage that it brings. I do worry though, about the growing number abroad who can’t condemn Hamas, who openly support it, or who tacitly do so, by speaking the language of injustice, rather than of peace. Israelis and Palestinians share an interest in an end, not merely a suspension, of armed hostilities. Our supporters abroad, if genuine, should also share this interest.

I believe the time is long overdue for pro-Palestinian advocacy to change their language, to forget “justice” and embrace peace. Peace, requiring work on both sides, may bring some semblance of justice. Seeking justice will bring neither justice, nor peace. For most of us living here, the answer is obvious. Too many children have lost parents, or parents their children. Most Israelis and Palestinians seek to live in peace, despite political differences. I hope that advocates abroad, rather than demanding vague notions of justice, can help us to build bridges and to promote peace.

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