Part II: Political Activism – The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

JSpace Canada will hold a conference in Toronto on 4 November 2019 entitled, “From Indifference to Making a Difference.” (Novotel, 3 Park Home Ave.) This series of blogs is inspired as a side note to the forthcoming deliberations.  Because of my own backlog, I have been tardy in initiating writing on this tissue.

The main topic of the conference is “political activism” and how indifference can be translated into making a difference. Titles are made to be pithy and there is a problem with the title. Adolph Hitler was not indifferent. He made a difference. Donald Trump has not been indifferent. He is certainly making a difference. The title suggests a goal of stirring Jews, particularly in the diaspora, out of their passivity to become engaged to make a positive difference, a difference that makes the world a better place. Further, the title presumes that the main problem is complacency. And that may be a presumption, but not an accurate picture of the problem.

This blog directly follows the previous one and this issue dealing with the first twenty years of my personal activism and the lessons learned. It did not include any activism with respect to Israel. Someone – I forget who – suggested I title the blog, “Reflections on the Life of an Activist – Forest Gump.” Forest Gump was, of course, present at key points in American post WWII history. I was not so positioned with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but was involved sufficiently to offer reflections on political activism that are more specifically applicable than my thoughts in Part I. I will touch on a few of the other topics that will be discussed, including the role of the liberal left and the possible obsolescence of progressivism.

Other topics such as antisemitism and the boycott will be discussed in future blogs following a diversion onto other matters I plan to write about. I begin with an account of my own involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Like many others, though a minority of Jews in the diaspora, I was at best indifferent to and at worst a silent critic of Zionism prior to 1967 given my strong cosmopolitan new left convictions. I was wary of any type of nationalism. As the 1967 war approached, I became terribly fearful that Israel would be wiped out. But this emotional reaction seemed to be totally contradictory to my political beliefs as a New Leftist. Even more shocking to myself, I was overjoyed when Israel won its unbelievable victories in the Six Day War. I was elated. I wanted to jump up with unrestrained joy. However, my emotions seemed so incongruent with my thinking that I initially became silent on the subject. I had not been complacent. I had not been indifferent. My activism had been focussed elsewhere. I became quiet on the issue and determined to probe into the problem and go visit Israel for myself.

In 1973, I took my wife and four children to Israel following a month in Africa that included observing over a million animals – lions and elephants, wildebeest and hyenas – on the Serengeti. I told my children that Israel could not and would not be as exciting as the places and the people and the animals they had seen in Africa, but it was on our way home so we could spend three weeks there. Much to my surprise again, they – and I – found Israel to be even far more interesting and fascinating than what we had just seen. We had spied out the land and became less concerned with the conflict than Israel’s history, character and accomplishments. And that was long before the romance of Israel as a start-up nation.

The Yom Kippur War followed our return. My deep fears turned to panic. But they were allayed by the victory. But I was also very troubled. How could Israel survive as a small nation surrounded by 150 million hostile Arabs? How could the conflict with the Palestinians be resolved? And it seemed to get worse as the conflict had already begun to shift its centre of gravity from an inter-state conflict to a fight between Israel and non-state terrorist actors. When Hussein Abu al-Khair, the Fatah representative in Cyprus, was assassinated by a presumably Mossad agent in January 1973, Baruch Cohen, the European Mossad Director, was assassinated by Fatah in Madrid two days later and Simha Gilzer, a Mossad agent, was assassinated in Nicosia in March again followed by the murder of PFLP’s Basil al-Kubaisi in Paris. This tit-for-tat secret service war continued until the Yom Kippur War.

In 1974, the trend that had had already begun in the shift to an Israeli-Palestinian war became official. After the Yom Kippur War, the UN recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and adopted Resolution 3236 recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination and the question of Palestine was made a central fixture of the UN as the PLO gained observer status and the issue was automatically made part of each year’s agenda for the next 45 years. As the Palestinians shifted from an inter-secret service war to one against Israel civilians – 8 Palestinian terrorists killed 8 hostages in the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv and 15 Israelis in Jerusalem with a refrigerator bomb – in November 1974, the UNGA adopted the infamous and repugnant Resolution 3379 depicting Zionism as a form of racism.

It was time to get off the fence. Irwin Cotler, a law professor at McGill, initiated the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East. His most brilliant move was recruiting Harry Crowe as a member and then successor as chair.  Harry recruited me and, after his untimely death in 1981, I became chair for a year. I found that I could not develop my refugee work and lead the organization. However, I had never abandoned my then obsession with Israel that had been reinforced when I became a Lady Davis Professor at Hebrew University during 1977-8 when Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem and he and Menachem Begin signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Accord.

What happened over the next forty years to me as a political activist and to activism on behalf of Israel? In 2015, JSpace was five years old. It defined itself as a Jewish, progressive, pro-Israel, pro-peace organization. Irwin Cotler was invited to deliver the major address. (Jonathan Kay, the editor of Walrus at the time, moderated.) Karen Mock was elected as the new leader. Cotler enunciated the key principles to guide progressive advocates for peace in the Middle East:

  • Support for the security, legitimacy and well-being of Israel
  • Recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination in an independent state
  • The rejection of terrorism
  • The end to state-sanctioned incitement to hatred, especially of Israel in a new form of antisemitism that went well beyond any legitimate criticisms of Israel

These were precisely the same principles that guided progressives four decades earlier though the emphasis and wording had shifted slightly. But so much had changed. Israel had emerged as unequivocally the strongest military power in the Middle East at the same time as Arab states had been wracked by coups, wars and insurrections. Israel had also moved to a well-off state with a per capita income equal to that of Great Britain, in spite of the drag on the GDP from both the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish sectors. But the most important events that changed the political landscape for political landscape in Israel have been: 1) the first intifada begun in 1987, the same year Hamas was founded; 2) Oslo itself, and 3) the second intifada begun in September 2000 that finally petered out in about 2005.

In the Hamas-PLO civil war, Hamas emerged as the political authority in Gaza in 2007. In the Oslo Accords signed between the PLO and Israel on 13 September 1993, Israel intended to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through both territorial concessions and bringing into being a Palestinian state based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338. (Modifications in Oslo II were signed in 1995.) There were six issues left to resolve by the new supposed PLO-Israeli partnership:

  • Borders and the status of Israeli settlements
  • The status of Jerusalem
  • Full autonomy and recognition of Palestine to emerge out of the Palestinian Authority and its limited self-government in Gaza and the West Bank
  • The security of Israel and the continuing presence of Israeli military forces in Gaza and the West Bank
  • The sharing of resources, specifically water
  • The right of return with respect to Palestinian refugees.

The Oslo Accords ignored the right of the even greater number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Further, the Accords did not have the support of Hamas. In the Hamas-PLO civil war, Hamas emerged in 2007 with control over the Gaza strip and its 1.6 million inhabitants, 62.5% of them former refugees and their descendants from what is now Israel. Three Israeli-Gaza wars followed. Since then, the U.S. has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Israeli settlements in area C have been enormously expanded in their population to about 450,000 while the Palestinian population has declined to about 115,000. The U.S. has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

These changes are but the major tips of the iceberg, or should I write volcano. Yet the key planks of the progressive platform in Canada, and more specifically, JSpace, have not changed. In the 1970s we expected Jerusalem to be divided. Can any objective and rational supporter of Israel retain that expectation today? In the 1970s, settlements were an important but relatively marginal concern. In 2020, can any objective and rational supporter of Israel expect Israel to repatriate 450,000 of its citizens in a peace agreement? Is it not far more likely that Area C comprising 60% of the West Bank will remain part of Israel? Given Israel’s experience following its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, can any objective and rational supporter of Israel expect Israel to give up its security dominance of the West Bank? Does anyone, including the Palestinians, expect any significant return of refugees when the vast majority of the refugees already live in Palestine or as a majority in Jordan?

Since the Oslo Accords were signed, and I truly expected peace between Israel and an independent sovereign Palestinian state to result, my personal political activism turned elsewhere, to the genocide in Rwanda, to early warning systems in East and West Africa, to mediation in a few of the African conflicts and to refugees around the world. Prior to Oslo, I had become an active part of one of the many Track II efforts at diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We made no real progress. Instead, two Haifa professors, not previously part of any of the Track II efforts, brought the process to a culmination. Given my expertise on refugees and given that Canada had been handed the mandate to gavel the refugee talks after Madrid, I became one of the advisors to those talks.

Initially, the refugee talks were used as a front for the bilateral talks where the breakthroughs were made for the Palestinians to be recognized as a negotiator at the table separate from Jordan and then the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians after a great deal of Israeli resistance on both issues had been overcome. With Oslo signed, the Canadian attention began to focus on concrete possible solutions to the refugee issue. I will not focus on the myriad dead-end paths of those discussions. Instead I will sum up the conclusions of a book I and Elazar Barkan published in 2011 called No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.

Our study showed that in not one of the refugee flows since WWII did refugees who fled or were expelled as minorities return except following victory in war – the Tutus in Rwanda in 1994. There was no right of return except rhetorically, including with respect to the Palestinians in any reasonable understanding of the UN resolution that was subsequently interpreted as endorsing a right of return. Instead, with some refugees, especially if they had sources of external support, the dream of return had become a rite rather than a right. No significant return of Palestinian refugees could be expected unless the Palestinians managed to defeat Israel in a war. Hamas understands that. So do its supporters.

Where do all these changes leave progressives? Are they engaged in their own rites of repeating the mantras of the 1970s or are they going to face the reality that a two-state solution will involve a very truncated state for Palestinians, which Palestinians will certainly not accept, that Jerusalem will remain under the control of Israel, that the Palestinian refugees – now really their descendants – will not be returning? Will progressives choose to shift from the generalities and mantras of the 1970s to concretely wrestle with these issues or will they prefer to hold onto their rites and rituals developed decades earlier in a much different world?

A former graduate student of mine opined that, “provided there is no clear willingness on the part of the Palestinians to recognize Israel, something which needs to be reflected among other things in their school texts for example, and no clear direction from the Israeli government to curb abuses against the Palestinian population in the West Bank (both by settlers and the military in Judea and Samaria), the sovereignists with their policies will keep on advancing their expansionist agenda, regardless of what international law, the UN or the laughable if not irrelevant UNHRC have to say. Any boycott efforts or sanctions will only keep on entrenching the right, prompting reciprocal measures against the boycotters,”

Finally, may I suggest that the issue is not one of complacency or indifference. Significant sectors of Canada, especially among youth, including Jewish youth, have shifted their emotional allegiance to the underdog or support the de facto victor but will not overtly say so given their empathy for the weaker party. Further, they have other, and more urgent priorities – climate change. If progressives truly want to make a difference, they will have to abandon their allegiance to abstract and amorphous generalized principles and become mired in the muddy mess to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has descended.

I suggest the following:

  • Quietism among Jewish progressive youth in the diaspora is a result of cognitive dissonance between their tendency to support underdogs and the incompatibility of that support with “objective” conclusions that stare them in the face
  • The older progressive leadership is stuck and unable to get its hands dirty clarifying in very specific terms and in relationship to actual concrete circumstances policies and programs that make sense
  • One cannot make a difference unless one knows the difference one should make
  • Until then, confusion should not be mistaken for indifference.

To be continued: Alternative Progressive Models

With the help of Alex Zisman


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