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Ask A Jew: The Israeli Government

What questions do you have about Judaism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below.

By Neal Schindler

How do American Jews feel about unethical actions on the part of the Israeli government?

SPO_Ask-a-Jew-ad_042114I think most American Jews don’t see Israel as perfect; it’s not some kind of magical state that can do no wrong. Nonetheless, many Jews I know seem concerned about the frequency and tenor of criticism — some would say attacks — launched against the Israeli government these days, particularly by left-wing activist groups. Molly Harris’ recent WaPo essay does a nice job of summarizing these concerns.

In July, a FāVS reader who identified herself as Mary commented on a write-up of a local event. Like the Movement for Black Lives’ controversial platform, Mary made reference to “genocide” being perpetrated by Israelis. Use of that word in relation to Israel/Palestine does not go over well among the vast majority of Jews, not just because they consider it inaccurate, but also because it calls to mind the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism — specifically, the part about demonizing Israel.

According to the State Department, “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is anti-Semitic. To call the complex Israel/Palestine conflict a genocide perpetrated by Israel may not literally invoke the Nazis, but it comes awfully close. Even activists who call Israel an apartheid state or refer to the situation as an occupation generally stop short of calling Israel’s actions genocidal.

I think a portion of my response to Mary is relevant to your question as well:

The thing is, Mary, there are plenty of people in Jewish communities all over the world who have a sense of what’s going on in Israel/Palestine but see it as something other than apartheid, genocide, occupation, etc. It’s not that they are not “aware of what other members of [their] religion are doing.” It’s that their perspective differs from yours and that of many other Israel/Palestine activists who DO use “genocide,” “apartheid,” and/or “occupation” in reference to the situation, or even compare Israel’s actions to those of Nazi Germany.

One difference in POV seems to be: Is the situation in Israel and Palestine extremely complex, or extremely simple? Is it an obvious case of oppressor/oppressed, or is it a tangled mess in which big, broad, and gravely serious terms like genocide can’t be applied accurately? These are important questions, I think.

I used to avoid exploring the topic of Israel/Palestine, not so much because it’s controversial but because it felt Sisyphean — as though no matter how much research I did or how many people I talked to, I’d never really know much more than I did at the start. Now I realize that learning about Israel/Palestine is a worthwhile but inevitably lifelong pursuit. I’m planning to visit Israel next year with my family. I hope my trip helps me understand how Israelis and Palestinians see the world, as well as the complicated tensions that exist between them.

If you’re interested in a thoughtful and nuanced look at Israel/Palestine, I recommend the documentary “Colliding Dreams: The Zionist Idea,” which is being considered for the 2017 Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival. (Full disclosure: As the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services, I organize the festival.) Over roughly two hours and 15 minutes, “Colliding Dreams” chronicles the origin and development of Zionist thought while also looking at how Zionism is understood by Israelis and Palestinians today. I find the movie’s person-on-the-street interviews especially illuminating.

If it doesn’t end up in the festival, I’ll try to find a way to show this film to the community some other time in 2017. I’m just beginning my quest for knowledge when it comes to Israel/Palestine, but I can already say that I value sources of information that take a historically informed, relatively unemotional approach and refrain from dehumanizing people on either side. I encourage you to seek out the same kind of sources in your learning.


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