Ari Shavit, in his hauntingly beautiful and remarkably even-handed historical novel My Promised Land, writes this of Israel’s uniqueness: “Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened… Any school of thought that does not relate seriously to these two fundamentals is bound to be flawed and futile.” Unfortunately, most amateur political pundits lack Shavit’s wisdom — especially right here at Stanford.
A group of students stood in White Plaza last week toting signs that contained the typically vicious anthology of charges against Israel: genocide, apartheid, occupation, white supremacy. As usual, I considered approaching them to discuss their protest before ultimately deciding against it. And as usual, I thought of what I would say to them if I had the courage.
I would begin with genocide. This accusation is the most visceral, egregious, and personal — Palestinian activists are well aware of the cruel reality that for Israelis, genocide calls to mind The Holocaust. No one denies that Israel has overwhelming power over their neighbors; if their goal was to murder them all, they could do it immediately. What interest does Israel have in this cross-border violence? The deaths of Palestinians storming the Gaza border armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails is tragic, but it is not genocide. Israeli forces dropped leaflets warning Palestinians to stay away from the border in case violence arises. Hamas, the elected government of the Gaza Strip, openly calls for genocide in their founding charter: “The day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jews will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’” It is worth pondering why I have never seen a protest against Hamas at Stanford.
On the issue of occupation the discussion could be quite substantive. However, substantive discussion of Israel-Palestine is an endangered species in peacetime, wishful thinking in wartime, and hopeless fantasy on Stanford’s campus. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex international crisis that demands critical engagement, dialogue, and action. As I walked past the protest, I heard the following assessment of the conflict: “Imagine that someone came into your home, told you that it was theirs now, and then said that if you didn’t leave they would kill you.” While an objective account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best left to those more qualified than myself, this kind of sweeping generalization lacks the nuance this issue demands.
I worry that a disinterested observer on Stanford’s campus is force-fed one picture of what’s happening on Gaza’s border. On one side is Israel: the oppressors, the colonizers, the powerful. On the other is Palestine: the freedom-fighters, the underdogs, the disadvantaged. What kind of monster could root for the former? While this picture is seductive, it is woefully incomplete. It doesn’t mention that Hamas hides missiles in schools, hospitals, and mosques so that Israel faces an impossible dilemma. It omits that wounded Palestinians are routinely treated at Israeli hospitals. It ignores the anti-Semitic comments of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, the supposedly righteous alternative to Hamas. Most frustratingly, it fails to recognize that Israel and its people are wonderfully diverse, rapidly evolving, admittedly imperfect, and overflowing with democratic dissent and deliberation that could teach America a thing or two.
What keeps me up at night is that the singular political concern that fixates campus activists is presented as the purest dichotomy of good and evil; you are either a tyrant or a liberator. This worldview is foolish on any account, but particularly damning because Israel is the greyest of greys, its hue so tainted by triumph, tragedy, and false certitude that it is indiscernible to the well-trained eye, let alone the naked one. Zionists, progressives, and everyone in between should challenge the occupation and mourn the tragic deaths of innocents while understanding that Israel cannot afford to lose because failure means annihilation. If not, we are doomed to a perspective that is “flawed and futile,” devoid of nuance and empathy, pulling us further from common understanding, shared humanity, and ultimately, the peace that we all desire.