Opening the door to peace

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 25, 2013.

Given how low the expectations were for President Barack Obama’s highly publicized trip to the Middle East, it may not be saying much to declare that he exceeded them. But given the precarious state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it would also be easy to underappreciate just how crucial his efforts may prove to be in the long quest for a lasting peace in the Middle East. When Mr. Obama arrived in Israel, he faced many who believed that the possibility of a two-state solution was on its death bed, if not gone already. Although the president brokered no breakthrough, he did make it appear that, for at least a little while longer, a negotiated peace deal is still a legitimate option.

On the second day of his trip, Mr. Obama gave a speech in Jerusalem that was well received by both the spectators in the audience and the Israeli and international press. This is not to be understated — in a conflict where distrust, cynicism and skepticism on both sides are at soaring levels, President Obama’s ability to speak to the concerns and needs of both Israelis and Palestinians was crucial. Raising hopes is a key variable in this conflict, where the element most lacking in negotiations is often political will.

Mr. Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians to see the world through each others’ eyes and made clear that he can do so — something that many Israelis in particular had doubted. The president emphasized that peace is “necessary, just, and possible” — necessary for Israel’s security and viability as Jewish democracy, just because Palestinians living under military occupation deserve a state of their own, and possible, because Israel is the strongest country in the region, with the U.S. as its unconditional ally, and with leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who can be a “true partner.”

The president acknowledged that a two-state solution is far from guaranteed. However, with his legacy still to be decided and no election in the near future, the time for strong U.S. diplomatic leadership appears to be ripening. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a prioritized issue, and he is set to lead exploratory talks over the next few weeks, with the hopes of direct negotiations thereafter.

On a symbolic front, the trip was certainly a success and erased Israeli doubts about Mr. Obama’s understanding of their views that had lingered since his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo four years ago. But President Obama’s trip to Israel yielded some surprising tangible results as well.

At Mr. Obama’s urging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for actions taken by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was part of a flotilla attempting to breach a blockade of Gaza. Nine were killed in the raid, which drew international condemnation. Both countries agreed to restore ambassadors and normalize relations. This unexpected reconciliation is good news for several reasons, notably that any legitimate peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians would need the backing of Turkey, a stable and strong country in the Middle East and a pillar of American foreign policy in the region.

On Monday, again at Mr. Obama’s urging, Israel announced that it would release withheld payments to the Palestinian Authority, funds that the Israeli government suspended after the Palestinian Authority successfully sought to upgrade its status at the United Nations in November. That is another step meant to help build confidence between the two sides to restart negotiations, as well as to disempower Hamas in the Gaza strip.

To be sure, Mr. Obama has made serious mistakes in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past, and his commitment to Israel and the peace process in general has been questioned by many at home and abroad. However, following a trip that yielded tangible results as well as smart, pragmatic, and inspiring rhetoric, Mr. Obama has provided himself with at least a chance to lead Israelis and Palestinians to a negotiated peace.

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‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.