In Defense of Complexity
I’m surprised to find myself as The Forum’s resident Israel defender. Growing up, I shied away from my Jewish identity: I never had a bar mitzvah and felt Jewish holidays were a burden. My parents and sister sometimes teased me for being one of those ‘self-hating’ Jews. Yet, since October 7th, my Jewishness has been inescapable. I grapple with the weight of Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions, feeling an unwarranted personal culpability. I'm equally disturbed by some stances on the pro-Palestinian side, namely those veering into tacit or explicit support for Hamas.
The instinctive alliance that many American liberals, including a notable Jewish contingent, have traditionally maintained with Israel has been in decline for some time. Just look at the evolution among American Jewish commentators, like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who this past summer, suggested a reassessment of U.S. aid to Israel—a stance with which I agreed. This shift was marked, though not initiated, by the exasperation various officials in the Obama administration expressed about Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Biden Administration’s vociferous assertions that relations remain unaltered are less than fully convincing.
The primary cause of this estrangement is Israel's enduring occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza, a consequence of the 1967 war. The protracted and oppressive occupation has cast Palestinians, many of whom have been in favor of a two-state solution, in a sympathetic light. The West Bank settlements, fueled by Biblical territorial claims, have tremendously tarnished Israel's moral image, alienating liberal allies who view the settlements policy impractical and unjust.
In some analyses, Israel serves as a stand-in for American power, or for bygone colonial struggles. Jewish leaders and organizations wonder why human rights abuses in, say, Syria or Afghanistan—where the perpetrators as well as the victims are Muslim—stir less concern from the Left.
One should be able to call out the double-standards, hypocrisy, and rhetorical excess that prevail in leftist circles without being accused of being in favor of Netanyahu and all Israeli policy.
The Claremont SJP and Claremont Jewish Voice for Peace, along with a dozen other groups, issued a statement in the wake of the October 7th attacks—a statement that, to me, seems not only offensive but factually unsound. Here is my response:
On War With Hamas
Dissecting the decolonization narrative, one finds many ways in which Gaza doesn’t fit. To begin with, it is not under conventional occupation—for nearly twenty years, no Israeli soldiers have patrolled its streets. Israel withdrew from the Strip in 2005, dismantling its settlements. Two years later, Hamas usurped power, exterminating its Fatah opponents in a brief but brutal armed conflict. It instituted a draconian Islamist regime that suppresses dissent within Palestinian society, criminalizes same-sex relationships, subjugates women, and promotes the extermination of Jews.
When anti-Israel demonstrators declare their quest for a secular democracy with equal rights, it seems only fair to take them at their word. Yet the most vehement detractors of Israel may be losing sight of the core issue: Hamas’ aspirations are utterly at odds with their own. Hamas doesn’t want a pluralist state. It wants an Islamic theocracy with all the Jews removed.
For a time, Israel sought to maintain an uneasy peace with Hamas, disrupted by the attacks on Oct 7. These provocations legitimize self-defense, though the resultant civilian casualties are no less tragic.
Jews, who have themselves been victims of horrific crimes throughout history, now stand accused of crimes they once suffered. Among these accusations is the charge of “genocide” against Palestinians, a term that does not accurately describe the reality on the ground. The blockade on Gaza by Israel and Egypt was instituted following Hamas' seizure of control there, and Israel has conducted military operations in response to the barrage of rocket attacks from the territory. The 2014 Gaza War, for example, erupted after over 4,000 rockets were launched into Israel by Hamas and its affiliates, leading to a tragic loss of life with more than 2,000 Palestinians killed. According to reports from Hamas, the number of Palestinian deaths in the current conflict has reached over 8,000, including a heartbreaking number of children.
But that’s not genocide, which means the systemic attempt to eliminate an entire people. The Palestinians have been victimized in many ways, both by Israel and their own brutal and corrupt leaders, who have never been willing to agree to a compromise that would create an independent Palestinian state.
The discourse often deteriorates into what journalist Matt Yglesias calls “discourse lawyering,” (which I have been guilty of) where the rhetoric is confined to legal justification or condemnation, rather than seeking tangible solutions. This manner of debate can shroud the pressing humanitarian crises, where civilians are unable to escape due to sealed borders—a stance maintained by Egypt for its own reasons, but also, unfortunately, contributing to the portrayal of Israel as the sole aggressor in Gaza.
The radical narrative that presents Israel as a colonial power or a byproduct of European colonialism applies a crude ideological overlay to a complex history. It ignores the continuous Jewish presence in Palestine, which arguably dates back millennia and certainly suggests a form of indigeneity. Immigration from the 19th century onwards meant a return to an ancestral homeland. The ensuing conflict arose not from an inevitable trajectory but through failed land-sharing arrangements and a series of missed opportunities for peaceful resolution.
Despite the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Great Britain powerfully resisted Zionist aspirations in the 1930s and 1940s, supporting an Arab state in Palestine without a Jewish one. It was an armed Jewish revolt, from 1945 to 1948 against British colonial power, that forged the state.
The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 broke out when five Arab nations invaded territory in the former Palestine mandate immediately following Israeli independence. In this brutal war, Israelis did drive many Palestinians from their homes; others fled the fighting; and many others stayed. They and their descendants are Israeli citizens with the right to vote. To say this displacement of approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs occurred because of settler-colonialism is false. It occurred because Arab states attacked Israel. It is also notable that a higher number of Jews – approximately 900,000 –- fled and were driven from Arab countries as a result of the same war. As in the partition of India and Pakistan, there was an exchange of populations.
On Israeli ‘Apartheid”
Labeling Israel as an apartheid state has become widespread in leftist circles that it is just taken as a given. While there is an aspect of truth to this analogy, it also amounts to a crude simplification. Israelis do not have different rights based on race or religion. Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs with full democratic rights. Residents of the occupied territories of course lack those rights and have been subjected to shameful and humiliating treatment. But under the two-state solution long supported by a majority of Israelis, they would have citizenship in an independent Palestinian state. To demand an end to Israeli “apartheid” without a peace agreement is to demand a one-state solution that would effectively mean the end of Israel.
The analogy also glosses over and misconstrues the political ambitions of Hamas. In South Africa, the ANC earnestly pursued a multi-racial democracy, a commitment that eventually won over many white South Africans who feared it. Hamas, however, has not embarked on a similar campaign of reassurance. It supports not racial and religious equality, but ruthless theocratic oppression on an Iranian model.
Viewing the world through a stark dichotomy of good versus evil offers the solace of clarity. But bifurcating the world into rival teams – colonizer against the colonized, oppressor versus the oppressed, white versus other races – isn’t just an oversimplification of complex realities. It applies an American political framework as its own distorting lens. As the political theorist Yascha Mounk observes in his book The Identity Trap, “The American brand of anti-colonialism” is ironically colonialist in nature.