Last year when I visited Israel and Palestine during a time of relative peace, cracks revealing an unsustainable situation were everywhere. I saw illegal Israeli settlements being built in the West Bank and violent tensions that boiled over into communities like Hebron. I saw the relatively insulated, yet vigilant life of Israeli citizens. On the last day of the trip in Tel Aviv, I wrote at length about how the experience had impacted me spiritually. In more ways than I understood in that moment, my life was transitioning.
I was traveling for a month in the Middle East and Africa before I began working in the Biden administration as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow. An administration I changed my career to help elect, yet an administration that very clearly had little interest in changing the unsustainable status quo of this land. Working 6–7 days a week as a staffer on the Biden and Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns was life-changing and profound, yet also revealed cracks in an unsustainable situation in my personal life. Working in the administration promised to be a more sustainable path for me personally, and it generally has been. But how would I feel when it didn’t live up to my values?
Fast forward eighteen months to October 7th and the cracks of this unsustainable situation shattered in front of the world’s eyes. The horrific act of terror at the rave hit especially close to home for me. Cracks were showing in my own community as I watched staffers who worked together in the campaign trenches shout over each other online. Others online were taking positions that felt completely backwards to me. Then I was asked to sign letters asking, and to some degree shaming, the presidential candidates I worked to elect to change their stance on the issue. I was asked to take a “side”, to claim a fragment of a broader movement for justice that had splintered.
How do you decide which “side” to take in a constantly evolving situation like this? Do you take stock of each side’s transgression over the past century and combine that with a cost/benefit analysis of all the projected political, economic, military and humanitarian outcomes? Do you decide it’s too complicated and tune out? Do you side with your friends? Which friends? These were the choices that I and many others in my life seemed to be confronted with.
After a series of conversations and reflections, however, I’ve decided the following guiding principles are more important and constructive than unconditionally defending a “side”:
1. Have courageous conversations
I hosted an intentional gathering of friends and co-workers at my house a few weeks back to talk about this issue and was inspired by the courage guests showed by expressing their perspectives on this issue. It changed the way I looked at it because the conversation happened in an environment of trust and I was genuinely curious about what others thought. You don’t have to frame a conversation around finding a solution to make progress. You just have to ask questions and listen. If I’m courageous enough to be vulnerable and share what I’m uncertain about, the other person might too. That’s where I’ve seen change happen on this issue that otherwise seems immovable.
2. Stay focused on the core issue of power
I don’t need to have to have an opinion on every transgression that takes place in the war so long as I stay clear on the underlying problem, which is the lopsided power imbalance between the Palestinian people and the Israeli government. I’m comparing the state of Israel to the Palestinian people because the Palestinian people are without a government that represents them. They do not have representation in an Israeli government that suppresses their freedom of movement, economy and natural resources. Nor are they effectively represented by their local authorities. Hamas and other groups have prevented elections in Gaza and the West Bank for nearly 20 years and are not supported by the vast majority of Palestinians according to recent polling.
It’s inaccurate to say Hamas doesn’t have power. Part of their PR strategy is to present themselves as helpless victims and not part of a 50 year movement that has chosen to inflict violence on both Israeli and Palestinian civilians in order to protect their own power. They haven’t worked productively to improve Gaza and are suppressing the aspirations of their own people. If Hamas and similar groups could be easily removed, that would theoretically benefit Palestinians in a very real way. The problem is that merely attempting this would require either some degree of the bloodshed we’re currently seeing, or for their peaceful resistance to be met with good faith negotiations.
Israel has not responded to peaceful resistance from Palestinian people with good faith negotiations. For example, they violently suppressed the largely peaceful Gaza border protests in 2018–2019 and continued to build settlements on Palestinian land deemed illegal by the UN. By continuing to support Israel economically, militarily and politically through this time, the US shares responsibility for peaceful resistance appearing unviable to Palestinians. That doesn’t mean what Hamas did on October 7th is justified, but it means the US and Israel are responsible to do something besides besieging Gaza. The solution to long term peace is not simply a command to “stop shooting”, it’s for the US and Israel to share their power with Palestinian people by giving them representation.
3. Remember that both fringes of this issue are bleak
On an issue like universal healthcare, there’s only so much harm you can do by taking a far left position. On both “sides” of this issue, however, cliffs at the edges steeply descend into the abyss of violent reactionary politics that justify the killing of civilians. It’s not hard to see this violent reactionary edge in the American right. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he wants to see Gaza “leveled”. Congressman Max Miller effectively said the laws of war around protecting civilians should be swept aside. It’s a sad but unsurprising state of affairs that openly advocating for the death of innocent civilians is a mainstream talking point in the Republican party.
The violent reactionary side is more subtle in the American “left” but it’s there, sometimes lurking under what can appear to be a genuine concern for human life. Shortly after the events of 10/7, I received a DM from a guy I had once done progressive organizing that first appeared to be a reasonable discussion on “both sides” framing. However, it quickly descended into him saying that the Jewish people killed on that day were “not innocent”. I was taken aback. It’s expected for supposed “leftists” to differentiate themselves by saying vague, polarizing things like “Hamas is not at fault”, but in this moment he said the violent reactionary part out loud. Unfortunately, he didn’t walk back those words after I tried to have a courageous conversation with him. Unsurprisingly, he declined to own them outside of our DM thread.
The encounter made me reflect on how stressful it must feel to be a visibly Jewish American (I identify merely as “Jew-ish”) as they parse criticism of US and Israeli actions. It must get exhausting wondering if a person making the criticism coming from a place of genuine concern for humanity, or, like the person who slid into my DMs, believe the rape and slaughter of Jews on 10/7 was justified due to the actions of their forebears. Few on the left say the violent reactionary part out loud in this country, so trust and context is everything. Before I consider adopting “left” talking points as my own, I think of what it must sound like through the perspective of a stressed out Jewish person.
4. Avoid vague, polarizing language
Vague, polarizing language like “antisemetic”, “zionist” or “terrorist” is the lingua-franca of online comment threads and crappy hot takes. The right has deliberately made “antisemetic” vague by conflating criticism of Israel with prejudice towards Jews, so correcting that term is warranted whenever it’s used like this. However, there are also vague, polarizing terms used by the “left” Palestinian-side. “Zionism” is thrown around to mean illicit motivation by Israelis to control and displace Palestinians, which no doubt is the motivation of some extreme right fringes. Meanwhile however, some moderate Jews believe “Zionism” simply means Jews should have their own state, i.e. Israel should exist in some form. Zionism has been a vague movement since its inception in the 19th century and everything around it has been messy ever since. Being clear and direct about what you’re criticizing or aspiring towards is a more effective means of persuasion than debating vague terms, so I try to just say what I mean.
5. Capitalize on the moment, build towards the long term
The vast majority of Americans don’t have a “side” of this longstanding conflict in Israel and Gaza that’s captivating the entire world’s attention. Their hearts and minds are, in many ways, up for grabs and there is urgency in engaging others in this moment. However, that urgency needs to be balanced with the reality that it’s going to take patience and discipline to address the underlying problem of power. Those involved in the movement shouldn’t assume that people in the streets will result in a lasting change in public opinion. Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement is now lower than it was before the George Floyd protests. Ultimately, a US movement for lasting peace in Israel and Palestine has to build effectively now and stay disciplined.
6. Hold leaders accountable, but know we’ll ultimately need them
As a former staffer for both of their presidential campaigns, I signed a letter to Bernie Sanders and a letter to Joe Biden asking that they call for a ceasefire. A call for a ceasefire isn’t a long term solution and is destined to be a “pause” without additional shifts in power. However, it’s the most clear and immediate way to tell our leaders that we must find an end to the catastrophic loss of life happening now and rebalance the power dynamics to prevent it from happening again. In addition to signing these letters, I’ve called my elected representatives asking them same to ask them to:
- Stop sending unconditional aid to Israel — It’s one thing for the US to support an Iron Dome system that shoots rockets destined to kill civilians out of the sky. It’s another for the US to support a war in Gaza killing thousands of children a week with no clear win in sight.
- Pressure Israel to stop West Bank settlements — Netanyahu and the Israeli government continue to support illegal settlements in the West Bank. Nearly half a million have already settled seemingly in an attempt to poison a “two state solution”, not to mention the immediate effects of constraining water and resources for Palestinians.
- Do not accept money from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — AIPAC’s mission is to strengthen bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. In practice, it means the violent US supporting the reactionary agenda of Netanyahu that does not make Israel or the US safer. Should extreme regimes in foreign countries be allowed to buy influence in congress? Should countries with the means to buy influence in congress have it? Is it in line with the values of Judaism to support PACs that fund election-denying Republicans and corporate Democrats, all for the sake of silencing criticism of Israel? Who are congresspeople representing by accepting AIPAC’s money?
It’s not divisive to hold party leaders accountable to the values held by their party and constituents. It makes them stronger. Even staffers of the DNC, whose entire mission is to re-elect Joe Biden, signed a letter demanding that he call for a ceasefire. There is polling in Michigan to suggest his current position on the issue could cost him re-election.
Ultimately movements need to pressure those in power to act. Not every leader is persuadable, but I believe Joe Biden is on this issue as he’s demonstrated change on a host of other issues over his 50+ years in public office. Biden might not have the same take on the situation as The Squad, but it’s a world away from how Trump managed this issue. There’s already been some movement from his administration since October 7th and, with a disciplined movement pressuring him, there can be more.