Thoughts on the Closing of Open Zion

Originally published in The Daily Beast on November 11th, 2013.
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If the latest research on the American Jewish community has shown us anything, it’s that very often the people in positions of power, the leaders with the soapboxes and editorial positions, do not profess views that represent an overwhelming number of the individuals they claim to represent. And so, it was with great disappointment that I learned Open Zion would be closing shop and Peter Beinart would be moving on to new journalistic opportunities.

It seems strange to feel attached to a site that has existed for only a year and a half, and yet I know that I’m not alone in feeling a nervous sense of loss.

Part of what leaves people feeling unnerved is that there just is no other institutionalized forum for this kind of daily online discussion and debate. And especially at this time, right smack in the middle of fragile peace negotiations, losing that type of space provides a stark reminder of what kind of void it was originally created to fill. And how not even the finest Jewish publications out there, like The Forward and JTA really make it their mission to provide that kind of frankly uncomfortable discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We can click between Mondoweiss, Al Jazeera, Commentary Magazine, +972 Magazine, The Jerusalem Post  and all the others to try to piece together what perhaps is the spectrum of the debate, but there’s no real space where they all converge. And unfortunately, it’s these media bubbles that so often replicate, reinforce and reproduce our fractious politics. Open Zion was not just an interesting news source, but an experiment to break down the dichotomy between the progressive and conservative media.

I remember attending a J Street U winter conference in January of 2012; Peter Beinart came to talk to me and dozens of other students about his upcoming book The Crisis of Zionism that would be released later that year. He informed us then that he was in the midst of launching a new website, Zion Square, which later became known as Open Zion, to “start a new kind of conversation.”

Everyone working on these issues began reading Open Zion. Where else could you read Yousef Munayyer and Gil Troy side-by-side? What other platform in the Jewish press gave the freedom for writers like Maysoon Zayid to weigh in next to Alan Dershowitz and Danny Dayan? But what seemed so “revolutionary” at the time just turned out to be patently obvious to us now. Of course we need that kind of space. We need to be reading Ali Gharib’s reporting next to Brent Sasley’s analysis, while also making space for Palestinians, politicians, feminists, journalists, students, educators, rabbis and policymakers.

We’ll soon need an alternative to fill the void. I hope some of the institutions we already have will make a greater effort to model that kind of discourse. I’d love to read more Palestinian voices in The Forward, or see liberal Zionists engage more directly with Mondoweiss writers. I wrote for Open Zion for my first time last February, when I weighed in on the BDS debate playing out at Brooklyn College. I later reapplied for an internship, spent the past summer in New York City and had the opportunity to write on all sorts of topics, from intermarriage, to Hebron, to the future of Hamas’s political leadership. Having the chance to research, write and publish on such things strengthened my relationship to the region, deepened my understanding of the issues, and connected me with all sorts of challenging individuals.I wish that Peter Beinart had exerted greater efforts to make Open Zion the type of institution that could survive his departure. Our community needed and still needs that kind of outlet. Maybe the ultimate judgment of the site’s success will be if other platforms in the community do indeed open themselves to diverse, ideologically opposed voices. Peter established the structure, but we don’t yet know if it’s sustainable.

It’s also true that Open Zion was certainly not perfect. The opinions were often unbalanced and many voices were under-represented or absent entirely, such as Haredi Jews and Palestinians living in Gaza. I know much of that stemmed from it having a tiny staff with ambitious goals. If the site had more resources, I think the breadth and depth of content could have been significantly expanded and engaged a greater number of readers and writers.

Our community is a vibrant one with diverse opinions, and our media outlets should settle for nothing less than representing that. Our bare minimum standard should be an acceptance that we can’t have a meaningful discussion about Israel’s future without engaging religious settlers, anti-Zionists, Palestinians and Jews together, in one hard, difficult conversation.

Part of me feels that Open Zion is ending too soon. But then again, it’s also possible that the site contributed to fostering a sense of communal complacency–perhaps we became too dependent on OZ “filling the niche” of open discourse.

Maybe in the end its departure can serve to wake us up.

On the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

There is a fundamental Catch-22 with the security rationale of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. When Palestinians respond in violence to their oppressed situation, be it through acts of terrorism or riots, Israel justifies the occupation as a national security need. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, in order to protect the Israeli population from security threats.

But then when Palestinians renounce violence and switch their resistance tactics to more nonviolent demonstrations and protests, Israel justifies the occupation as a successful national security tool. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, as evidenced by how improved the security of the Israeli population has been over the past half decade. We can’t stop now, or else they’ll just return to their violent ways.

Thus there is no end in sight. And in the meantime, Israel continues to expand settlements which make the prospects of a two state solution much more difficult to achieve. An occupation is supposed to be a temporary situation. It is a distinctive characteristic that separates occupation from annexation and colonialism. But the Israeli occupation has existed for over 45 years.

Beyond the problematic state of the occupation in a legal context, it is immoral and undemocratic to maintain the situation that exists today in the West Bank. You have Israeli settlers living in the same region as Palestinians, and if an Israeli commits a crime, they are subjected to Israel’s civil courts, like any other Israeli citizen living anywhere in Israel. But if a Palestinian commits the exact same crime, in the same exact spot, they are subjected to an entirely different set of laws and legal proceedings, and they’re sent to a military court.

First of all, there is no due process for the military courts. Second of all, the military courts have astonishingly high conviction rates. (99.74%) And thirdly, Palestinians don’t have a right to vote for the Israeli government, even though the government is the body that makes the decisions and appoints the individuals that control their lives.

So why doesn’t Israel just annex the West Bank, instead of occupying it? If Israel wants to continue to expand settlements and build up the West Bank, why don’t they just de-facto annex the territory, like they did with the Golan Heights?

There’s a simple and oft-cited calculation for this issue. It goes like this:
There are three variables. 1. Israel as a democratic state. 2. Israel where the majority of citizens are Jewish. And 3. Israel controlling all of the land.

^In any final scenario, Israel will ultimately have only two of these three variables.

To annex the West Bank would mean Israel would need to grant all the Palestinians living there citizenship, and give them the same rights as any other Israeli. Which they don’t want to do because they want to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. Because of demographic realities, including the Palestinians in the citizenry would effectively end the Jewish majority. And to grant Palestinians citizenship but deny them equal rights would make Israel a patently undemocratic state. And so their solution for now is to continue to build up the West Bank with Jewish settlements, say they’re waiting for a “peace partner” (even though the current President of Israel has categorically said they already have one) and justify the occupation with “security concerns.” I’ll say it again. These Palestinians have been living under occupation for 45 years.

I care about the state of Israel. A lot. I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading and thinking about these issues. And I want the citizens of Israel to be safe and secure. Yet it really disturbs me when people, especially Jewish people, roll their eyes at the notion of “human rights”. Or even “democracy” and “dignity.” I really want to know, would all of the individuals who say the occupation is a necessary evil for security purposes, be able to look into a Palestinian’s eyes, as I did last week, and say to them, “I’m sorry but my need for safety is more important than your basic human rights.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Final thought: in terms of history, and especially history of countries engaged in conflict–one thing I learn over and over in my history classes is, there is really no such thing as a status quo.