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Palestine as an exclusively Jewish issue in the US

Are Palestinians only relevant by what they mean to Israel, instead of how they are related to the bigger picture?

Last updated: 21 Apr 2014 13:29
Marwan Bishara

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
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Among the staunchest defenders of Palestine are a minority of anti-Zionist ultra orthodox religious Jews who see Israel as anathema to Jewish teachings, writes Bishara [AFP/Getty]

A Jewish-Jewish debate has heated up in recent years in the United States with new critical voices of Israel taking centre stage. Such healthy debate is not unique in American politics. Immigrant communities like Cubans, Irish and Armenians do the same.

But confining the US debate on Palestine and the Arab world to a mere intra-Zionist debate is counterproductive. It's narrowly defining and largely dictating the larger debate over US policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It renders the Palestinians relevant only by what they mean to Israel, not for who they are or how they are related to the larger Arab or Muslim worlds.

They are judged to be moderate or extremist, enlightened or primitive, peace loving or evildoers according to their tolerance of Israel's occupation or rejection of a "Jewish state" on "their" lands.

This approach has culminated in utter US failure to conclude a successful peace process to end the conflict. A failure that could further diminish US leverage to the detriment of its policy towards the region. 

But this is neither inevitable nor irreversible.

Jews by association 

American Jewish association with Israel has intensified over the last few decades. Coolness towards the early labour/socialist Israel gave way to new excitement after Israel's 1967 victory against the Arabs and its occupation of all of Palestine.

Eventually, the emergence of the "special relationship" Americanised Israel and opened the floodgates of Jewish support to the new regional ally. 

Unlike Jewish communities from other countries who emigrated to Israel in droves, American Jews have overwhelmingly stayed in America. Instead of migrating, they provided indispensable support, financial, political and even strategic.

To their credit - the estimated 4 million Jews, who emigrated to North America from Europe between 1860 and 1960, and their descendants have emerged as powerful and influential actors throughout the American establishment, and hence their position carried huge weight over their main issue of interest, Israel/Palestine.

This is especially the case because Palestine does not count on its own as a strategic imperative for the US and Palestinian/Arab Americans have failed to mount a counter political charm offensive.

Moreover, the Arab world has been divided and weak and in the absence of regional pressure on Washington to act responsibly and fairly, leaving Washington ever more perceptive to domestic Jewish influence.

The only two exceptions to this rule came first in 1991 when the George Bush administration insisted that Israel freeze all settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories in order to convene the international conference for peace. And in 2010, when General David Petraeus reportedly warned that the Palestinian issue was "fomenting anti-American sentiment due to the perception of US favouritism towards Israel".

But even that concern was soon pushed aside when Washington appeared to be engaging in the peace process once again.

American Zionism has remained largely antiquated despite Israel's own historians' demystification of the traditional Zionist narrative by chronicling early Zionists' war crimes and revealing their covert plans to take over Palestine. The American Zionists continued to hold onto myths and mythologies about the 'miracle' of Israel, a city on a hill.

Unfortunately, American Zionism has remained largely antiquated despite Israel's own historians' demystification of the traditional Zionist narrative by chronicling early Zionists' war crimes and revealing their covert plans to take over Palestine. The American Zionists continue to hold onto myths and mythologies about the "miracle" of Israel, a city on a hill. 

Jewish polarisation

The US turn to the left and Israel's further turn to the right after the 2008 elections, have polarised the organised American Jewish elites and put pressure on moderate Jewish voices to be openly critical of Israel and distance themselves from the extremist policies of the Netanyahu government.

The new split has reinvigorated the political debate between these Jewish moderates who demand that Israel end its occupation and its illegal settlement construction in order to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the radicals, who demand that the Palestinians embrace Israel as a "Jewish state" and relinquish their rights over Jerusalem and Palestinian right of return, even before a final negotiated settlement is reached.

While on the face of it, the moderates' position is a big step forward on the road of recognising Palestinians' rights in Palestine, it stems primarily from having Israel’s best interest in mind. Not Palestine's.

They see a compromise in the occupied West Bank as a necessary step to maintain the "democratic" character of the Jewish state and ensure continued US support for an Israel ever more isolated in the region and in the world.

But they don't recognise the importance of admitting Israel’s historic injustices or compensating the Palestinians for more than six decades of dispossession and more than four decades of occupation.

In other words, while the moderates attempt at saving Israel from itself and unburdening Judaism from the ills of occupation and apartheid is commendable, it falls short on addressing the Palestinians as victims of Israel's aggression.

Jews by disassociation

Make no mistake, there are also many non-Zionists as well as robust post-Zionist and anti-Zionist activists among American Jews.

If Palestine's worst opponents in the US are Jewish, so are Palestine's most vocal and dedicated supporters.

This is especially admirable because supporting Israel is praised, celebrated and even rewarded (including tax breaks) in the US, while supporting the cause of Palestine can be terribly taxing for a Jewish American.

Among the staunchest Palestine defenders are a minority of anti-Zionist ultra orthodox religious Jews who see Israel as anathema to Jewish teachings.

But it's the secularist Jews who don't necessarily identify themselves as Jewish per se, that have adopted the most uncompromising and moral position on Palestinian rights. 

Agree with them or not, these courageous "universalists" identify with the Palestinians as victims of dispossession and oppression, unconditionally. They see the cause of Palestine as an extension of the struggle for freedom from colonialism and war.

Their compass is truly universal and their prism is ethical not ethnic.

But they remain a minority on the margins of the US establishment and outside the influential Jewish organisations.

Palestine, the test for the US

President Barack Obama might lean towards the moderate Zionist J Street lobby, but the US government, including Congress, continues, rather expediently, to follow in the footsteps of the extremist pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC.

And so the US foreign policy establishment continues to swing between moderate and radical Zionism instead of fairly mediating between Palestinians and Israelis.

The result is an utter failure of two decades of peace process and a diminished US credibility in the Middle East.

Soon after failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, I remember reading that Palestinians, like other Arabs before them, felt that the US delegation was divided between Labourites and Likudniks, in reference to Israel's own centrist and rightist political parties.

Indeed, one keen observer went as far as noting that while the US delegations mediating the first Camp David summit between Israel and Egypt were all Christians with the exception of then US Ambassador to Israel, the later Camp David Summit with the Palestinians in 2000 featured a US delegation that was compromised of only Jewish friends of Israel with the exception of President Bill Clinton.

I personally don't know and don't look for who's a Jew and who isn't. Nor do I judge people by their religion. But the dominant presence of staunch supporters of Israel in the US establishment, Jewish or otherwise, is certainly a cause of concern. Does the name Martin Indyk ring a bell? Like his predecessor Dennis Ross, this close ally of Israel is spearheading the US day-to-day negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

The US government can't pretend to be a fair broker when, according to one of its former Zionist delegates, it acts as "Israel's lawyer". That's not a question of ethnicity or religion, but one of sound political judgement.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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