By Scott Fox
Soon after I sat down at my table at a fundraiser sponsored by the local Justice in Palestine chapter, the elderly woman sitting next to me said, “I see you crossed over to the other side.”
What she meant was that I had crossed over to the St. Olaf side of town for the event. Northfield, Minn., has two liberal arts colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf. Carleton is on the east side; St. Olaf is on the west. Even though the two institutions are only a 20-minute walk from one another, it is not too often that students from each school interact.
I could not help but see a parallel between Carleton and St. Olaf and the difference between my beliefs and those of Justice in Palestine. In other words, I could see where they are coming from but it still feels like crossing over to an uncomfortable side.
I am a member of J Street. The conditions in which Palestinians have lived are unacceptable. I even believe that Jerusalem should be divided, as long as Jews have access to the Western Wall. However, when I first found out about Northfielders for Justice in Palestine/Israel, I was hesitant to sign up for the group’s email list. Even though they also advocate a two-state solution, I assume that groups like these are tinged with anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, or just misinformation. Thinking I was possibly being too biased against them, I decided to go to their Palestine Gala Dinner to gain a better understanding.
When I entered the church lobby for the event, I encountered a barrage of posters and pamphlets that were mostly biased in favor of the Palestinians. One poster was calling to “break the bonds” and have the U.S. divest from Israel. One brochure read, “Israel is actually involved in an unremitting and merciless vendetta against the subjugated Palestinian people in order to expel them and acquire their land.” The same brochure did make it clear that not all Israelis felt this way and that people should seek out left-wing Israeli opinions. Overall, the display in the lobbying felt off-putting.
Inside, it was much warmer. The sold-out function had brought in much of the Northfield community, though most of the attendees were gray-haired. Carleton’s Arabic professor and his friends provided Oud music. St. Olaf students dressed in full traditional garb performed dabke dances. Before everyone could eat the delicious spinach pie and mujaddara, Christian, Jewish and Muslim blessings were said. The affair raised money for Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a Christian charity dedicated to helping all Palestinians in the West Bank.
Many of the people there had prior awareness of the complexities of the situation in the Holy Land. At my table, a Lutheran pastor who had led an English-speaking congregation in the Old City of Jerusalem sat next to me. Two young women who had spent a year doing missionary work in Bethlehem sat across from me. The pastor was distressed with Netanyahu but did not place sole blame on any government. He recalled how there was so much optimism for peace when he was in Jerusalem during the 2008 U.S. election. Three years later, he feels that hope has been totally crushed. Feeling the communal spirit and compassion of the people around me, I gained more respect for the group doing what it could to help the oppressed Palestinians.
But the main speaker of the evening, Jennifer Loewenstein, Associate Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, made the event take a negative turn. I supported her fight for human rights but felt she was unfairly harsh and incorrect in characterizing the Israeli government’s policies.
Loewenstein described the situation as a “brutal, sadistic occupation” where Israelis are starving Palestinians, applying a divide and conquer strategy that isolates West Bank towns. She called Israel’s actions genocidal. With walls around Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel limiting what food can be shipped into Gaza, conditions may be terrible but not genocidal when the Palestinian Arab population is growing at a faster rate than that of Israeli Jews.
Loewenstein also presented a skewed view of Israeli history with less than accurate statements that emphasized Jews taking Palestinian land without mentioning any reasons for why a Jewish state was necessary such as rising anti-Semitism. She stated that the Arab population rejected the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan not only because they felt Jews were taking land that belonged to them but also because they got the worse half of Palestine, describing their portion of the partition as unfertile desert. Actually, the plan gave Palestinians most of the more fertile Northern Israel. Most of the Jews’ portion of the land was in the Negev Desert.
Loewenstein cast blame on Israel’s extremely irrational fear of being driven into the sea even though the Israeli mainland had never been attacked by a foreign enemy until 2006, and its armed forces have always been superior to those of the Arab states combined. But she appeared to forget that Israel’s neighbors invaded the land on its first day of existence, and that Israel frequently faced the threat of attack ever since, and was not always as sure of its military might as it is today. Although Israel has made preemptive strikes in some of its fighting, it was because the threat of an attack was imminent.
“When looking at the conflict, it is two countries saying how much they want peace. But those two countries, the U.S. and Israel, are doing anything in their power to stop it from happening,” said Loewenstein, citing a “military-industrial based economy” in which the U.S’s of high-tech weapons to Israel is extremely beneficial to both countries.
From talking to a few people, it appeared the crowd primarily did not have as extreme views as she does. However, when asking the two young women at my table about whether Loewenstein’s denunciation of Israel was a little too harsh, she said that she was just “preaching to the choir.” At least some of the room supported divestment from Israel, a diplomatic tactic that I feel breaks apart the needed U.S.-Israel dialogue on how to attain peace.
I left feeling a little better about Justice in Palestine groups but remained worried that Loewenstein’s lecture could cause some of the crowd who did not know as much about the situation to leave misinformed. But crossing over to the other side of your beliefs or your town often brings something new.