Beyond the Palestinian Empathy Movement

Supporters of BDS protesting in Parramatta, Australia. Photo courtesy of Kate Ausburn/Flickr.

Beyond the Palestinian Empathy Movement

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books titled “The American Jewish Cocoon,” Peter Beinart makes the case that many American Jews live, as the title suggests, in a cocoon. The cocoon he’s referring to is really a set of structural limits within American Jewish institutions that preclude interactions with Palestinians. Many American Jews, he suggests, simply don’t know Palestinians and therefore can’t empathize with them. The problem is widespread, he asserts, and is serious. Because American Jews don’t talk to Palestinians they don’t understand them. In addition, when they get information about what Palestinians think or do, that information if often bad and deceptive. The equation is simple and alarming: ignorance + bad information = no empathy.

I applaud Beinart for his article. It is both brave and timely. It is brave because it presents a compelling critique that effectively says the American Jewish community needs to do two things: learn about Israel from Palestinians’ experience of Israel and challenge the misinformation about Israel in their communities. His article is also timely. The current state of the so-called Israeli/Palestinian conflict is abysmal. With little hope for any change in the status quo (except, maybe, to something worse), reaching out to the public is a worthy effort. If nothing more, his article can provide the basis for a much-needed discussion about what American Jewish supporters of Israel might do differently when thinking about the conflict. His article is, in a word, prescriptive and constructively so.

Peter Beinart Photo courtesy of Center for American Progress Action Fund/Flickr.

Peter Beinart
Photo courtesy of Center for American Progress Action Fund/Flickr.

There are, however, some problems with Beinart’s analysis that reveal the limits of the kind of critique he wants to offer. These problems are not restricted to Beinart and thus reflect an issue within some American Jewish communities who, like him, genuinely care about the plight of Palestinians. These issues are not trivial. They are, in some ways, symptomatic of the very condition he describes among American Jews. In what follows, I’d therefore like to underscore a problem within Beinart’s position in order to raise a larger critique of what I’d call the “Palestinian empathy movement.” This movement is one driven by a genuine concern for what Palestinians feel and experience. Thus the approach is much like Beinart suggests: talk to Palestinians, listen to Palestinians, and even embrace Palestinians. But it is a movement limited by a persistent commitment to Zionism that prevents it from moving beyond empathy to the kinds of positions that could meaningfully transform the conflict. It is a movement that situates empathy within the parameters of Zionism, which is at the heart of the very conflict.

We can start by examining what Beinart means by empathy. Empathy is a good word for thinking about the conflicts between those who support the Israeli state and those who support Palestinian freedom and independence. Beinart believes it’s what’s missing among American Jews living in the cocoon he describes. I won’t take issue with Beinart’s metaphor of the cocoon or the lack of empathy it creates. I believe he’s done his homework and that there is a problem within American Jewish communities that results from an imperceptible casing. What we need to ask, then, concerns what Beinart and others like him believe will build empathy and what that empathy might accomplish.

His proposal is that American Jews meet and listen to Palestinians. They must interact with and engage Palestinians more often and more sincerely. Beinart seems to have done this much himself. Indeed, throughout his article he tells us all about the Palestinians he’s encountered and their perspectives. He’s listened to those who support the “Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel movement,” herein referred to as BDS movement (anti-Semites included), those who support two states, those who support one state, those who believe Israel is linked to imperialism, and others. He’s also done some research. Thus Beinart cites the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, and even mentions Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abu Nimah.

One of the key problems with Beinart’s proposal is that, while he asks American Jews to listen, he’s also telling them what not to accept. For example, Beinart tells his readers that they should listen to the position of the BDS movement. Yet he goes on to say that this movement is “based on the dangerous and inaccurate analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa.” Beinart adds that this analogy “leads many BDS activists to oppose the two-state solution in favor of a single secular binational state that would, in reality, probably mean civil war between Jews and Palestinians.”

Photo courtesy of AlphaBetaUnlimited/Flickr.

Photo courtesy of AlphaBetaUnlimited/Flickr.

Pushing for American Jews to break their cocoon in order to listen to Palestinians seems like a fine suggestion. It’s a basic starting point to get a much-needed conversation going about the oppression of Palestinians and its implications for Israel’s present and future. But asserting the “danger” and “inaccuracy” of the BDS movement is taking an unnecessary step. Why is any Jew trapped within the cocoon going to step out and talk to people that Beinart himself suggests are promoting a dangerous analogy? Or, why ask them to listen to Palestinians supporting a binational solution to the conflict if it will “probably mean civil war?” Empathy? What exactly will empathy do here given his firm belief that the BDS perspective is “dangerous” and capable of leading to a “civil war?”

It seems Beinart is caught between two contradictory ideas. The first is to listen to Palestinians of all stripes. This will bring about empathy. The second, however, is to listen to Palestinians but only accept what a few of them say because he knows better than anyone how dangerous some of their positions are. If we follow his logic, I’m not sure I see the point of empathy. American Jews should listen to the claims of the BDS, dismiss them as he has, but be empathetic towards them because they are not reasonable positions but expressions of anger over “interactions” with the Israeli state. Ok, then what?

The problem here is simple. While Beinart is sincerely interested in listening to Palestinians, he’s unable to hear what some of them are saying. And he can’t hear what they’re saying because he’s ultimately committed to an idea that precludes the possibility of a solution to the conflict that doesn’t rely on the idea that Israeli Jews ought have their own majority-Jewish state. His rejection of the South Africa analogy and the specter of a civil war is a clear indication of this. The danger in saying that Israel/Palestine is like South African Apartheid is to say that the solution just might be integration into a shared territory. Moreover, it is to say that integration under equal citizenship can solve the historical animosities between Palestinians and Israelis better than separation can. This, however, he can’t accept. Why else would he suggest the prospect of a civil war between Palestinians and Israelis? For example, Beinart knows, as many liberal American Jews know, that Palestinians have lived within the state of Israel since its creation. From 1948 to 1966, these Palestinians lived under martial law subject to military control. During this time, many of these Palestinians lost their homes and villages to the Israeli state through land confiscation and the destruction of property. Following 1966, these Palestinians have lived as subordinate citizens of the state. Yet despite their experience, no civil war has ensued. Coexistence, in other words, even under discriminatory policies, is possible. Moreover, plenty of societies divided by oppressive inequalities have not fallen into civil war once those policies ended. South Africa and the United States are good examples. The horrific cruelties of both apartheid and slavery/segregation didn’t result in civil war between the communities. Why then should Israel/Palestine be any different? Is the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians so unique that they could never live together in a common state? Whether Beinart thinks this is a good idea, he should at least be willing to entertain the possibility of coexistence as the one-state BDSers suggest. True empathy would require that.

Let me be clear, the issue here is not Beinart’s suggestion (“listen to Palestinians”) but his need to reject what he knows American Jews will hear. Beinart has every right to take the positions he does on the BDS movement. Indeed, he’s quite honest about his two-state approach, which leaves a Jewish state of Israel on 78% of Mandate Palestine and a Palestinian state on the remaining 22%. This is his Zionist commitment. But asking people to listen and then prejudicing their views about what they’ll hear is not that different from not listening in the first place. It violates the methodological principle he’s advancing. What if some American Jews listen to the claims of the BDS movement and agree with the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa (many have)? What if some American Jews listen to the claims of the BDS movement (and others) and agree that a binational secular state is a reasonable approach to resolving the conflict (many have)? The point is that Beinart and liberal Jews like him can’t ask people to listen to Palestinians and proceed to tell them how to do so. If you want American Jews to listen to Palestinians, then let them listen. And let them decide whether what they hear is dangerous, inaccurate, or the groundwork for a civil war. Let them, in other words, experience empathy on their own terms.

Supporters of BDS protesting  in Parramatta, Australia. Photo courtesy of Kate Ausburn/Flickr.

Supporters of BDS protesting in Parramatta, Australia.
Photo courtesy of Kate Ausburn/Flickr.

A second issue within the Beinart’s analsysis and the empathy movement concerns the limits of language. Within his article, Beinart demonstrates that he’s listened to a lot of Palestinians. Yet it’s surprising that from all that he has heard, he never seems to realize that what Palestinians have to say may actually resemble reality. For example, Beinart never uses the word “oppression” to describe Israeli state policies. Considering that one of his sources is B’Tselem, which is quite clear about the fact that the Israeli state is guilty of an assortment of human rights abuses, one would expect a more robust statement about the situation American Jews are supposed to learn about. Instead, he uses the word “interactions.” Knowing what he knows about Palestinians’ experiences under occupation, and knowing what he knows about what American Jews don’t hear in the cocoon, one could reasonably expect Beinart to take a more empathetic stance on the situation and, pardon the cliché, call a spade a spade. Yet he doesn’t and thus leaves the reader wondering why such a good listener hasn’t realized that what fuels the Palestinians’ perspective is much, much more than “interactions.”

This is not an uncommon problem. Many liberal Jews who maintain a commitment to Zionism are unwilling to recognize that language is essential for empathy. Thus despite all they hear from Palestinians about the Israeli state, they seem unable to accept it as a true account of life under occupation. Describing the policies of the Israeli government vis-à-vis the Palestinians as oppression would mean accepting that the Israeli government is oppressive. While a Zionist ideology wouldn’t necessarily prevent such a conclusion, it seems that some strands do. As a result, all that Palestinians say about the Israeli state (or a good deal of it) has to be filtered through a moral prism that sees the Israeli state as exceptional; that is, incapable of being anything but a fundamentally “good” state. Capable of mistakes, yes, but not oppressive.

An empathic understanding of the Palestinians’ experience under occupation, for example, would recognize that the punitive demolition of Palestinians’ homes (664 between 2001-2005) is an act of oppression. An empathetic understanding of the Palestinians’ experience under occupation would also recognize that 99 fixed checkpoints in the West Bank constitutes a violation of the rights of Palestinians to employment, education, and healthcare. This much is clearly stated by the very human rights organization Beinart relies on, B’Tselem. Why then the reluctance to use the term “oppression?” Why should we believe that Beinart and others like him are truly empathetic if they can’t accept the reality Palestinians describe: seen from the experience of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, Israel is an oppressive settler state committed to the expansion of its territory and thus the destruction of Palestine.

Empathy is a compelling word. It means not only understanding what others think and feel but also sharing those thoughts and feelings. Despite all of Beinart’s good intentions, and I do believe they are good, he seems trapped within his own cocoon that limits the efficacy of his own suggestion: empathize with the Palestinians. This is not an issue Beinart suffers alone. It is an issue inherent within what might be a  movement that seems willing to listen to Palestinians but unable to accept the consequences of what they hear. It can listen to Palestinians, but it can’t accept what they say because its own empathy is limited by an idea that is at the very heart of the conflict: the commitment to an (almost) exclusively Jewish state of Israel and an inferior, diminished state of Palestine that exists in complete subordination to its Israeli neighbor.

What would true empathy entail? I think it requires a willingness to let go of the most cherished cocoon of exclusivist Zionism and embracing a more humane framework based on an empathic understanding of human suffering. Empathy with Palestinians might just mean envisioning new solutions to old problems. Whether from the BDS or an Israeli Jew, apartheid analogies and binational solutions might make sense given that over sixty years of separation has failed to resolve any of the problems the conflict has created.









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