Israel/Palestine: An Encyclopedia, Part One

This will be the first entry into what I shall call “Israel/Palestine: An Encyclopedia,” a list of terms that provoke constant bickering as to their meaning, purpose, et cetera. I hope in writing this that I am able to clear some up rather nebulous concepts. Nota bene: Although I hope to clarify these things, do understand that this is only my own, limited take, guaranteed to please few and anger many. If your interest is peaked, I suggest you continue researching this topic on your own and come to your own conclusions.

Israel vs. the Israeli government/military/judiciary/und so weiter: it is important to keep nomenclature sound to avoid disputes. In all of my writing about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I cleave to the following rule: “Israel” refers to the geographical and national entity contained east of Suez, west of Jordan and Syria, and south of Lebanon, but not including the occupied West Bank region nor the Gaza Strip. It may also refer to the people that live in the land of Israel, viz. Israelis. The “Israeli government” refers to the current governing coalition that wields political power over the land of Israel. Why does this matter? When a man says “Israel” and begins to criticize it, he is immediately putting into the minds of his opponents the notion that he is personally attacking the integrity of the nation and its people. “Israel does X and it’s bad!” may be true in some sense, but it threatens charges of anti-Semitism which obscures the message our interlocutor is likely trying to convey. By saying “the Israeli government does X and it’s bad!” our interlocutor is on much firmer footing: he is criticizing a discrete body of people and their actions, rather than an entire nation of 7+ million people; he cannot be charged with anti-Semitism, because his attack is leveled at a certain political echelon as opposed to all of am Yisrael; he cannot be misconstrued as anti-Israel, and thus a deligitimizer and again an anti-Semite, because he is not attacking Israel itself but the policies of its leaders.

Note: one can still attack the Zionist premises that Israel was founded on and not be an anti-Semite, for Zionism is not equivalent with Jews as people or as a religion. However, criticizing Israel as a nation-state is treading far different ground, and one must be careful to maintain legitimacy in an argument.

Occupation: What is the occupation, and what is it about? The occupation is the military and settler presence in the West Bank, and the military blockade of the Gaza Strip. From Jewish Voice for Peace: “The rest of the West Bank has been under a military occupation ever since [1967]. This means that the Israeli army has complete control over these areas. Palestinians in these regions have no guarantee of civil rights. They have no government of their own other than what Israel will allow. Israel can impose total curfews on any part or all of the territory. This prevents people from traveling to work, to market or to see family members. It can prevent medical care from reaching people, and people from reaching hospitals.” (source)

What is it about? Some might say “security,” some might say “religion,” and while these factors certainly are very important in creating an idea of what the occupation is, the most pressing factor is certainly land. One may see this when certain supporters of the Israeli government line say that the West Bank can’t ever, really, be given up because that would leave Israel far too slim at the waist; Mother Israel needs that extra buffer zone so in the inevitable next invasion from the Jordanians, Israel will have more time to respond. Indeed, this is security playing the lie so that a blatant land grab might be legitimized.

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS): BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, a rather self-explanatory acronym. The movement seeks to boycott Israeli companies, seek out foreign companies that invest in Israel and persuade them to divest, and international sanctions on the Israeli state. All of this is to peacefully persuade the Israeli government and society to disengage from the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip. What is controversial is exactly what these broad policy goals entail.

To offer an insight into what the anti-BDS movement believes BDS is, I will quote from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last year to AIPAC (source). In said speech, he said of the BDS movement that it should be “vigorously opposed… because [it is] bad for peace and because BDS is just plain wrong.” Netanyahu concludes this is so for the following reasons:

  • The BDS movement does not seek a two-state solution, because they “openly admit that they seek the dissolution of the only state for the Jewish people.”
  • BDS “sets back peace because it hardens Palestinian positions and it makes mutual compromise less likely.”
  • BDS is “morally wrong… it is about making Israel illegitimate.” Why? According to Mr. Netanyahu, only in Israel can Middle Eastern academics openly speak their minds, Christians openly practice their religion, journalists can write, gays can be gay, women can have equality. Not only that, it is an anti-Semitic movement: “today the singling out of the Jewish people has turned into the singling out of the Jewish state… the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism.”
  • Finally, BDS movements really should be targeting worse offenders, such as Syria or Iran, and not the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

I am unsure where Netanyahu gets the idea that the BDS movement is about the dissolution of Israel as a state. Perhaps he believes that justice for the Palestinian people constitutes the dissolution of Israel as a state? Perhaps he is referring to the right of return, or of the proposed return to 1967 borders? I have no idea, but the stated purpose of members of the BDS movement, and their actions, seem far more constrained in their scope. From the website for Jewish Voice for Peace: “we support divestment from and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This includes companies operating in or from occupied Palestinian territory, exploiting Palestinian labor and scarce environmental resources, providing materials or labor for settlements, or producing military or other equipment or materials used to violate human rights or to profit from the Occupation” (source). Nowhere does this imply support for the dissolution of the Israeli state, but rather non-violent civil disobedience and non-violent divestment from companies that profit off of the occupation.

From the mission statement of the Free Gaza Movement: “We want to break the siege of Gaza. We want to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation. We want to uphold Palestine’s right to welcome internationals as visitors, human rights observers, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, or otherwise. We have not and will not ask for Israel’s permission. It is our intent to overcome this brutal siege through civil resistance and non-violent direct action, and establish a permanent sea lane between Gaza and the rest of the world” (source). Again, non-violence and awareness (NB: I am unsure whether the widely-publicized violence, involving the injury of several and the death of one of the protestors, on one of the Gaza Flotilla boats, originated from the Israeli commandos or the activists themselves – perhaps it is moot, perhaps we will never know?)

If a large part of the West Bank occupation is due to economic reasons (I have read as much, at least), then making it economically unfeasible for settlements to exist there seems like a good strategy – this of course doesn’t take into account religious reasons.

The anti-Semitic one is pretty easy to refute: boycotts and divestment don’t target Jews but companies that profit from occupation. A recent divestment bill that passed at my alma mater, University of California Santa Cruz, had the following text for its resolution:

“Let it be resolved, that SUA [Student Union Assembly] should further examine UC assets for funds being invested in companies that directly profit from or support a) military support for, or weaponry to, support the Israeli occupation; b) the building or maintenance of the illegal Separation Wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes, farms, or orchards; or c) the building, maintenance, or economic development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; … if it is found that UCSC or UC funds are being invested in any of the above-mentioned companies we call upon or University… to divest their holdings from these aforementioned companies.” (source)

As anti-Semitism is an attack on a person’s being (or perceived being, perhaps, if you take Sartre’s analysis in Anti-Semite and Jew to heart), while the above is an attack on illegal actions taken by the Israeli government, it seems hard to argue that the BDS movement is inherently against the Jewish people.

However, it becomes all too easy when a man like Netanyahu conflates the Israeli state with all of am Yisrael. Because of this, in his mind any attack on the legitimacy of the actions of the Israeli government, or the territorial incursions of the Israeli state, is ipso facto an attack on the Jewish people themselves. This is problematic for multiple reasons: one, it essentializes all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, their nationality, or their political positions, into de facto citizens of the state of Israel, so that any attack on Israel is also an attack on them; two, it marginalizes Israel’s substantial Arab, small Druze, and smaller minority populations, effectively telling them that the country they are citizens of and which they call home is not really theirs; three, it shows as barren Netanyahu’s claim that “that Israel, like all states, is not beyond criticism,” because by equating the Israeli state with the Jewish people, any criticism of Israel can be construed rightly or wrongly as anti-Semitic; fourth, it has the odd outcome that criticism of the Jewish people is also criticism of the Israeli state – does the anti-circumcision movement in Europe equate to being anti-Israel, because it has elements of anti-Semitism? Perhaps, but not necessarily; fifth, if BDS is about the dissolution of the Israeli state as Netanyahu suggests, then it is necessarily also about the dissolution of the Jewish people, which on its face makes his claim even more absurd. Regardless, the charge of being anti-Israel rings hollow anyway: no boycott or divestment bill I have seen wants anyone to divest or boycott Israel itself, only companies that profit off illegal Israeli activity. Netanyahu’s conflation is unjustified and duplicitous.

Finally, Netanyahu’s last objection is just a tu quoque fallacy – other nations, such as Iran and the Sudan, are targeted by sanctions. Israel is also not equivalent with other nations policy-wise: Israel receives more military aid than any other nation, and our “special relationship” with the Israeli state merits equally special scrutiny. Big ticket offenders like China are left alone for various geopolitical and economic reasons, so mentioning them is more of a red herring – we have to focus on what is feasible to solve.

Pinkwashing: a term coined by academics to denounce Israeli efforts, and the apologetics of their supporters, to point to purportedly positive and/or progressive policies held by the Israeli government, or attitudes held by the Israeli people, as merely a red herring distracting from their human rights abuses of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. While it is true that Israeli actions in one area do not impinge on Israeli actions in another – the liberal policy towards the LGBT community in Israel, though arguably the most open in the Middle East, has little to do with the draconian policy on Palestinian movement of people, for example – it is precisely because of this that the charge of “pinkwashing” carries no weight. If it is true that certain Israelis and their supporters attempt to distract from a poor human rights record in one place by holding up their stellar human rights record in another, it is equally true that their detractors do the exact opposite: detract from their stellar human rights record in one place, by holding up their appalling human rights record in another. It is a red herring in any event, and each policy should be examined on its merits before we take an account of the whole Israeli political apparatus. We ought not to proceed from a negative assessment of the system and then judge its parts, but begin with its parts, and from there form an image of the whole.

To be clear, pinkwashing can refer to any sort of apologetics for Israel that follows these lines: “We have a great policy on X, don’t you agree? So why do you keep hammering us on policy Y?” Such an example can be found in the above-quoted speech Mr. Netanyahu gave to the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). I quote: “I visited an Israeli army field hospital in the Golan Heights. Now, that field hospital wasn’t set up for Israelis. It was set up for Syrians. Israelis treated nearly a thousand wounded Syrians — men, women and a lot of children. They come to our border fence bleeding and desperate. Often they’re near death. And on my visit I met two such Syrians, a shellshocked father and his badly wounded 5-year-old boy. A few days earlier the man’s wife and baby daughter were blown to bits by Iranian bombs dropped by Assad’s air force. Now the grieving father was holding his little boy in his arms, and Israeli doctors were struggling to save the boy’s life.”

It seems clear that such lines are expressly designed to deflect charges that Israel terror bombs civilians in Gaza – which it most certainly does. Be that as it may, charging this as pinkwashing ignores the fact that, even if it does have rather nefarious intentions, nonetheless it has a good result.

13 thoughts on “Israel/Palestine: An Encyclopedia, Part One

    • I can’t comment much on the “price tag policy,” except to say that it is stupid. It is just as stupid as the BDS project, and much of the global, anti-Israel protests currently going on around the world.

      Allow me to explain.

      First, let me say upfront that I am no big fan of Israel. I could never fully support a state founded on nineteenth century, national socialist principles, as Israel (and most others in the post-colonial world) was. Unlike most post-colonial states, Israel actually does a very, very good job affording minorities full legal, political, and economic rights. In this regard, I think Matthew is wrong when he levels the charge of “human rights abuses” against Israeli Arabs. Israeli Arabs live better, on average, than Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East, and the fact that Israeli Arabs aren’t lined up to immigrate somewhere more prosperous (say, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states) suggests that Israel is doing a fine job when it comes to governance and minority protections.

      Here is a simple notion that does not get nearly enough thought from anti-Israeli protesters around the world: There are varying degrees of evil in this world, and as far as Israel goes its “human rights violations” pale in comparison to those of its immediate and regional neighbors. This does not mean that Israel’s crimes – whatever those may be – should be overlooked, of course, but only that, from a foreigner’s point of view, the choice of which side to pick in a war is a relatively simple one if justice is the end goal.

      You are right, Matthew, that the ultimate problem in Canaan is about land, and Dr Foldvary does a good job explaining how to go about fixing it in his recent piece on the matter. The land issue is responsible for one of Israel’s two major mistakes at the moment: settlements (the other is having an extremely bland foreign policy, including not recognizing Hamas as a legitimately elected government).

      The bombing of Gaza is, in my mind, not a war crime at all. It is self-defense. The argument in the West Bank – that Israel needs space to defend itself from another inevitable attack on its Eastern flank – is likewise legitimate. The Israeli state took that land fair and square (the fact that the government is currently pursuing settlements there has nothing to do with the legality of how it acquired the land, but rather the practicality of such an endeavor; if Israel wants a barrier for defense, why on earth would it begin erecting population settlements in the region?).

      The charge of “pinkwashing” does not hold, I think, again owing to the fact that there are varying degrees of evil in the world. It does not mean we should implicitly support Israel over its neighbors, but it does mean that we should think carefully about who we decide to sleep with in the Middle East: the guys who at least make an effort to be civilized, or the ones that have abandoned the notion altogether in the name of revenge and destruction?

    • I largely agree. Israel is the least severe offender, and considering its neighbors does quite a good job. I myself am often puzzled at why Israel receives the lion’s share of attention in the media; I am not sure the reductionist reaction of “anti-Semitism!” Is necessary true, and am willing to entertain counter proposals.

      In regards to your other assertions, I would agree that 1., the annexation of the West Bank as a military buffer ad 2., the bombing of Gaza as a defensive war are legitimate, but only if you take the Israeli government at face value. As you point out, erecting settlements in an ostensible buffer zone is puzzling, which makes me question the ultimate rationale behind it. Whether the current Gaza war is legitimate is not just a question of motives but one of actions as well – the reason for the war might have been legitimate, but Israel’s reckless use of “precision” weaponry may not be, especially if they are not taking the necessary precautions to safeguard civilians. Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of the government’s actions is probably predicated on one’s sympathies beforehand.

      And yes, pink washing is a silly argument, as I believe I pointed out above.

    • I think the allegations of anti-Semitism can be found if you follow along with me while I tease this out.

      First, though, an important geopolitical thought. The settlements in the West Bank are the worst policy to come out of a Western government since overthrowing democratically-elected Leftist governments during the Cold War. The settlements are absolutely toxic to peace and prosperity in the region, and for this reason I cannot count myself among the “supporters” of Israel.

      The reasoning behind this policy probably has to do with the buffer zone, though. If I were an Israeli I would view the settlements as an important “human buffer,” if you will, to another (another) invasion from the east. I don’t think the settlements are a nefarious attempt on behalf of Right-wing Israelis to ethnically cleanse the West Bank of indigenous Muslims (that is a charge being leveled by some otherwise serious Leftist quarters). My opposition to the settlements in the West Bank is more of a strategic one than a moral one (though the moral argument underlies the strategic). A human buffer zone will not prevent another invasion from the east any more than an Iron Dome will discourage rocket attacks from Gaza. All these settlements do is stir bad blood between already hated enemies, and that is as stupid as you can get.

      Speaking of Gaza, I can agree to an extent that Israelis should try to limit civilian casualties as much as possible. This is a standard that should be held up to all of the world’s states (even if it is not). However, Israel and Hamas are fighting an undeclared war and as such I do not think it just to condemn Israel and overlook the targeting of civilians by Hamas. (I am sure you are in agreement on this.) As a rule of thumb I don’t trust governments to take necessary precautions of any kind when it comes to interests of state, but I think the overwhelming scrutiny that Israel faces from the international community pressures it to take precautions that would be unheard of in the non-Western world. Hence I am caught between disavowing war – as all good libertarians must do – and acknowledging that Israel is fighting a just one.

      On to the implicit anti-Semitism of Israeli criticism. Usually I can spot anti-Semitism by the reliance upon conspiracies or money to explain events pertaining to Jews or Israel, but the pinkwashing argument – which I suspect is anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Western – is a tougher nut to crack.

      Pinkwashing is certainly anti-Western, as you don’t see many organizations – especially those on the Left – criticizing policies of despotic non-Western governments that would be condemned outright in Western states. Anti-Semitism exists, indeed permeates, Arab and European societies in a way that is hard to fathom in places like the United States or, say, India. Thus I conclude that the criticisms of Israel that do not include equal criticisms of Hamas or other non-Western organizations, and that stem exclusively from Arab or European capitals, are anti-Semitic. I know this is a broad brush and there are certainly principled dissenters among the ranks of anti-Israeli critics in these regions, but sometimes all you can do is call a ‘cat’ a ‘cat’.

      If you delve into the critiques of Israel that come from European or Arab capitals, you will often find such critiques to be superficial and, indeed, relying upon conspiratorial explanations for Israeli actions. This is of course not true in the American or Israeli media, where critics are often more principled and have a better understanding of the mechanisms of Israeli society.

      In this sense, you are right to criticize Netanyahu for dissemblingly conflating Israeli society with Jewish society, but in another sense Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians are dealing with factions that extend far beyond the borders of the United States or Israel, and these are factions that I would describe as being most savage in nature.

    • This is really good stuff Brandon, and I think you should turn it into a blog post on its own.

    • Thanks Matthew.

      I usually save ‘From the Comments…’ posts highlighting my own comments for rainy days, but I might make an exception.

      I wanted to publicly thank you for taking the reins and getting involved in the ‘comment’ threads here at the consortium. As I never tired of saying: The ‘comments’ threads are where most of the insights about an idea or an event happen. Without dialogue this blog would be just another soap box on a San Francisco street corner.

  1. This is a very balanced and informative post. I wish I’d seen it before. I do have two or three quibbles about the first two items. The quibbles happen to come from “opposite” ideological perspectives.

    (1) Regarding the use of “Israel” as opposed “Israeli government”: I see your point, but it really strikes me as a case of going overboard to accommodate Israeli sensibilities. It is the Israelis who never tire of telling us of the vibrant nature of their democracy. When other democratic nations act, we take their policies to express the consensus of their people and speak accordingly.

    For example: It was the United States that waged war in Afghanistan and Iraq, not “the United States government,” and people speak accordingly. Prima facie, it is extremely unlikely that if the American people as a whole opposed either war, the government would have been able to wage it anyway. So the wars are correctly describable as “American wars,” not merely wars waged by the American government, as though the government waged them in defiance of the people’s will. Compare the wars to a (hypothetical) proposal to abolish Social Security tomorrow. Such a proposal would have no hope of passage precisely because the American people would oppose it en masse: Social Security is the “third rail” of American politics in a way that foreign policy is not. But the very possibility of a third rail of American politics implies that the process is at some level responsive to the popular will. Americans will scream if you touch Social Security, but they are relatively acquiescent when you invade Iraq or debate the possibility of fighting ISIS. That tells us something about the character of the American people–their sense of responsibility–and we shouldn’t shrink from taking a good, hard look at it. That is not “anti-Americanism” but simple fact.

    At some level, the citizens of democracies have to take responsibility for their policies. They can’t pretend that the policies are one thing, and the people’s will is another. The same point applies to Israel. Israel occupies the West Bank and Golan because the Israeli people want it to. It’s a separate question whether they’ve been justified in wanting to, but as an explanatory point, their wanting to is what explains why Israel has remained a settler state for the last several decades. If they didn’t want an occupation, it wouldn’t have persisted for nearly 50 years.

    (2) Re the occupation: Coming the other way around, I’d take issue with the description of the occupation you seem to endorse, from Jewish Voices for Peace. For one thing, it conflates the occupation of the West Bank with the blockade of Gaza, but a blockade is not an occupation. (The US didn’t occupy Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.) I think it also exaggerates the character of the occupation. It’s misleading to say that Israel has “complete control” over the occupied West Bank. The Oslo Accords divided the WB up into three administrative areas, A, B, and C. Area A gives the Palestinian Authority full civil and security control, and Area B involves full Palestinian civil and joint Palestinian-Israeli security control. I’m the last one to want to minimize the problems with this arrangement from a Palestinian perspective, but “full control” is a misnomer.

    And the Israelis don’t always exercise the control that they have. I was in Israel/Palestine in June 2013, staying in a hotel in East Jerusalem, and traveling daily into the West Bank. I made at least 20 some trips through Israeli checkpoints in vehicles driven by Palestinians, but we were only asked to show documents twice. On every other occasion, we just drove through without being stopped. That was a relatively benign time–and not everything that I saw was benign, trust me–but my point is that the character of the occupation varies a lot. It’s more intense at some times and places then others. The Jewish Voices description fails to convey that nuance.

    (3) There’s a problem of internal consistency between your characterization of Israel and your use of the Jewish Voices description of the occupation. On the one hand, you want to exclude the occupied territories from your definition of “Israel.” On the other hand, you want to say that Israel has “full control” over the West Bank. But the two claims don’t cohere well: if Israel has full control over the West Bank, how can the West Bank NOT be Israel? It would seem to be more accurately describable as Israel than anything else. If you want to exclude the West Bank from Israel, you have to concede that Israel doesn’t fully control it–as in my view, it doesn’t.

    Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that Israel occupies Golan as well as the West Bank, and I think it’s clear that Golan is part of Israel despite its officially being occupied Syrian territory. At this point, it’s unclear when Syria will ever get Golan back–if it ever does.

    • Apologies for the long reply time, Dr. Khajawa. I can only work with the limited bandwidth here in Nepal. Anyway, I will answer each of your points in turn.

      1. I agree with you completely. However, the discourse on Israel/Palestine is completely poisoned by ideologues, and a clear, rational conversation cannot be had with most people on this subject. If you are in a group of open-minded individuals, you can ditch the squid ink – it’s obviously Israelis that create Israeli governmental policy, so the use of terms really shouldn’t matter that much. However, consider this line of reasoning: Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people,” the “Jewish state.” In criticizing Israel, you criticize Jews, and if you criticize Jews, you are an anti-Semite. I don’t endorse this position, but it is one that many people implicitly or explicitly hold. I tend to use the term “Israeli government” because, even as a Jew with other Jews, I cannot have an open-minded and fair conversation if I use regular language. It always devolves into non sequitur, or shouting, or some combination of the two.

      2 and 3. Thank you for catching this error. I must not have read the JVP definition thoroughly enough before I included it. I will edit accordingly in the post, with reference to the comments.

  2. Point of clarification. “Palestinians in these regions have no guarantee of civil rights.” Does the use of the plural indicate that Gaza is included under this statement? Does it mean that the Israeli blockade of Gaza contributes to the lack of guarantee of civil rights in Gaza?

    • I just happened to look up the source, and the wording of that particular sentence is very unclear, but they clearly do think that the Israeli blockade of Gaza amounts to an occupation and therefore contributes to the lack of civil rights there. (The quotation comes from the answer to the second question in the FAQ.)

      I liked Matthew Strebe’s post better than I like that source–It’s not very well written, and contains some factual mistakes, e.g., describing East Jerusalem as part of the West Bank.

  3. Thanks for answering my question. The answer implies logically that to the extent that the blockade of Gaza is lessened, the “guarantee of civil rights” there will increase. That’s strange because there is really no implication that civil rights themselves will improve, just the “guarantee” of them. This twisted language is a good illustration of why it is difficult to lend a receptive ear to those people. I often feel like shouting, ” What TF are you saying?”

Please keep it civil

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