By Sarah Stern
To me, the American Jewish community needs to be more dysfunctional in this sense (a sense that Moment magazine employs in publishing a number of different voices), and not in the sense that I have encountered in life; where one speaks, loudly, and everyone else listens. At a Shabbat lunch over Winter Break, when I was explaining the concept behind BPYI to a father of a friend, I was asked, “Why is there no Israel Youth Initiative on campus?” I was then told to go to the West Bank armed with a gun and a copy of Dershowitz’ “the Case for Israel.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are many American Jews who don’t agree with his stance. However, I think, as Conservatives liked to say in the 60s, this is the silent majority. His kids mumbled some dissent to his face, and when he had left the house other parents all wished me luck in “Palestine,” a term that made him palpably uncomfortable when I said it, even after I corrected myself by saying “Palestine-to-be,” to which he countered, “Judea and Samaria.” There are organizations that see the danger in these people being the loudest. There are those rearing their heads like J-Street, who also keep it real, and challenge the notion that there is only one Jewish view of Israeli reality – one that monolithically supports AIPAC’s view of the conflict and Israel’s needs.
And then there’s BPYI, a group of friends that have encouraged my belief that when it comes down to it, a simple fact is often overshadowed by politics – Palestinians are human. I am human. We both lay claim to the same land, and have a lot in common culturally. I should care if I know that a people like with aspirations like mine are living sardine-style, while I and others who participate in the JDS trip, Birthright programs, and HSI have the opportunity to travel the length of Israel many times over, and gain a hands on education.
Maybe we do need Israeli Youth Initiative at Bard, or an alternative American Jewish Youth Initiative. It kills me when I find out Americans that I know are amazing, kind people plan on joining the Israeli army, as a way to connect with our homeland. A four-day introduction to the Israeli army called Gadna was part of my Israel trip. I refused to fire the M-16, admittedly, more out of fear than pacifism. Nonetheless, my mifakedet, or troop commander, favored me, saying they she hated when Gadna participants from Israel or abroad said that firing the gun was their favorite part.
So there are young Israelis who employ the Jon Stewart analysis, and criticize Israel despite (or perhaps because of) their service in the military. An Israeli in my Bard Language and Thinking group wouldn’t comply with the military, was imprisoned, and is now friends with the head of BPYI. My counselor on the JDS Israel trip told us that our day in the West Bank should be our favorite day. Kids on my program mumbled that the money they pay for Palestinian ice cream might go to terrorists, but I think some Israelis are starting to see the truth about engaging culturally, personally, and economically with Palestinians.
Certainly, the Brookings Institution conference verified a hunch that I’ve had for a while; the abysmal economic relationship between the territories and Israel is not only bad for Palestinians in a humanitarian sense, but it is really bad for Israel’s security. In an effort to enhance security, Israel has cut off Gaza from easy economic relations to Israel and the outside world. They fear that weapons will be smuggled in and hidden under civilian cargo, as happened in the infamous Karine A incident in 2002, which my friend brought up in our discussion in Amsterdam falafel. This attempt and other instances of weapons smuggling should not be overlooked as a severe problem for Israel’s security that must be dealt with, but the Brookings Institution proposed a different solution from the status quo.
During the question and answer session, this friend likely would have made the same important comment as Michael Lame from Rethink the Middle East. Lame said, “This is an incredibly knowledgeable panel. However, there is one shortcoming in that there is no one on the panel even remotely supportive of the Israeli position, and the one Israeli is legitimately and honestly critical of the Israeli government position, so it makes it sound as if it’s simply irrational or counterproductive everything that the Israelis are doing and I would imagine that there is an argument on the other side.”
Daniel Levy’s Palestinian counterpart at the Middle East Task Force, Amjad Atallah, responded that this “other side” is what you hear most often from Israeli officials, and there is something fundamentally irrational about it. Cutting Gazans off from trade causes them to fester in their dismal situation, growing angrier, more likely to seek weapons, and turn back to Hamas. Since Gazans are unable to engage economically with Israelis, a vast underground tunnel-trading network has sprouted up between Egypt and Gaza.
Atallah summed up what he encountered in terms of the multiple approaches regarding Cast Lead and the policy thereafter, “Rather than trying to channel the Israeli argument, I can tell you what they’ve told us because we met with the Israeli Army and we met with the IDF and we met with Israeli politicians and Likud officials to ask them what benefit are you getting from this and why is this in your interests. I think Daniel actually said it right and you alluded to it which is that the pressure on the civilian population will effect political change or will accrue political benefits to the State of Israel.
We heard a counterargument, specifically for example from the Palestinian Minister of Economy and Trade at the time who said that Hamas is bringing in over a billion dollars worth of goods from Egypt, civilian goods, not counting whatever pieces for rockets or anything else is being brought in, that are coming in from Egypt. They collect a VAT. They collect a tax on that instead of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank collecting a tax on it and the families and the businesses that are running the different tunnel enterprises are making money off of it and the goods are being brought in to help complement the goods that UNRWA is able to distribute to the civilian population.
But in all of that scenario, the Minister of Economy and Trade said this does nothing to help moderate or help, it only strengthens, as Andrew said it makes Hamas more powerful, it doesn’t achieve even the Ramallah groups’ goals of replacing Hamas, it doesn’t even achieve those aims.” As Atallah mentions, much of Israeli policy is less centered around Israeli security than it is around a “West Bank first” policy that is supposed to elevate the West Bank as a better alternative to Gaza, and Fatah as superior to Hamas. The speakers insinuated that this may have been part of the explanation for the mass destruction of Gaza under Operation Cast Lead; Hamas launches rockets into Sderot, Israel destroys Gaza in retaliation – why would you want Hamas as your leader? However, after Israeli/Gazan economic relationships are essentially severed, and Gaza is left in ruins, Gazans will not reject Hamas for inciting this retaliation; they will reject Israel for destroying their homes and trade opportunities, and embrace Hamas, who seek to re-establish trade via tunnels.
As a result, it comes down to situations like the one Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) shared with the audience at Brookings as witnessed during his visit to Gaza in February 2009. Citizens are worried about food, more than they are about establishing a legitimate government. The Congressman went back and forth with officials about whether Gazans had “macaroni,” and flummoxed, he exclaimed at the conference, “We’re debating macaroni here. And I think we need to reflect on that too.” Or, as Atallah phrases it, since the U.S. and Israel’s meta-narrative of West-Bank first is counter-productive, “then you’re at a weak place when you’re trying to talk on a micro level with Israel about saying, no, let the macaroni in because your meta-policy is problematic.”
(Stay tuned for the last installment)
Sarah Stern is a freshman at Bard College as a prospective Studio Arts Major with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies, and a Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School alumnus. On a rainy Sunday morning, she can be found chopping Israeli salad in the communal Cruger Hall kitchen.