Adam Shedletzky is a Toronto-based law student.
As the death toll in Gaza continues to rise, Diaspora Jews are in a bind. Many of us either instinctually support Israel or are too overwhelmed with the conflict’s complexity or divided loyalties to wade into such an emotionally charged debate. Even for those of us who want to speak out, we feel powerless, uncertain how to make an impact.
Forming and conveying an opinion is difficult. On one hand, we may be angry that this Israeli government has not taken bold steps for peace. And our hearts ache for the Palestinians. Millions of ordinary people just like us – children, mothers, fathers, grandparents – live a life under Israeli occupation (and Hamas governance) of unimaginable misery and hopelessness. On the other hand, we relate personally to friends and family living in Israel, respect Israel’s right to defend itself, acknowledge the complexity and risks involved in dealing with a Hamas-led government, and are conscious that our understanding and appreciation of the conflict is necessarily limited because we don’t live in Israel. In short, we don’t know what to do.
Here is my suggestion: We should focus our attention on understanding both sides of the conflict and pushing for long-term solutions rather than mainly participating in the public relations battle over which side is more to blame. The core consideration for Diaspora Jews, given our inherent connection with Israel, has to be whether an Israeli action will be beneficial or detrimental to prospects for peace. Then we should be vocal about our perspective and use the limited leverage we have to make an impact.
Let’s think through the current crisis in Gaza. I would argue that the rationale to set back Hamas’ military infrastructure by several years to achieve another period of calm for Israelis is shortsighted. Tunnels can (and must) be eventually destroyed, but without lasting peace, they will be rebuilt. Terror leaders can be targeted, but they will quickly be replaced. And while it is possible that Gazans will blame Hamas for their misery and eventually elect a different government, it is equally likely that Hamas will gain from this latest crisis.
The conflict is further entrenching a sense of hopelessness, deep-seated hatred and a desire for vengeance (which serves Hamas well). Peace requires the gradual building of mutual understanding and trust. The disproportionate amount of death and destruction brought about by this conflict, and the underlying Israeli siege of Gaza, is both immediately devastating to human life and will lead to even more hardened hearts, more terror and less international support for Israel in the long run.
The Israeli hawks argue that peace is not possible in the current circumstances and therefore a “war of attrition” against Hamas is a necessary evil. Hamas incites hatred of Jews, indiscriminately targets civilians, has an anti-Semitic Charter that calls for Israel’s destruction, and has said that any truce offered would only be short-term in nature. Rather than attempt to build up a prosperous state in Gaza after Israel withdrew in 2005, it used it as a launching pad for rockets and terror towards Israel. How can Hamas be trusted to govern responsibly if a peace deal is reached?
What is not frequently mentioned is that Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh has repeatedly said that Hamas will respect the results of a referendum on a peace deal agreed to by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, “regardless of whether it differs with [Hamas’] ideology and principles.”
Israel is now in a better position to take risks for peace than it has been in a decade. Israel’s controversial security barrier, Iron Dome missile defense system and increasingly sophisticated military and intelligence capabilities have enabled the majority of its citizens to live in relative comfort most of the time (compared with the Palestinians). Although Israel admittedly lives in a very unstable region, a failed Palestinian peace process does not need to be devastating to Israeli security.
Despite the obvious complexity and risks, there is a plausible pathway forwards to begin to unwind a decades-old conflict that should satisfy those of us concerned with Israeli security. Negotiate with Mr. Abbas. Come to an agreement on an incremental approach that includes the gradual loosening of restrictions and greater autonomy for Palestinians so long as security objectives are met. Allow the Palestinians to vote on the deal in a referendum. And see how Hamas reacts, both initially and over time.
The latest round of intensive American-led peace talks collapsed due to a combination of complex internal political calculations and a deep lack of trust between Palestinian and Israeli leadership.
Unfortunately, Israeli political discourse seems to have experienced a “radical rightward shift”, and the current government is not an enthusiastic partner for peace. The Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition is more interested in dismantling Hamas and preserving the status quo than considering the bold compromises necessary for peace.
Perhaps this is a wise short-term strategy for Israelis, but it certainly won’t help the Palestinians. And long-term, only peace will secure the kind of future that Palestinians and Israelis alike so desire.
So, what can those of us Diaspora Jews that are both pro-Israel and want a meaningful push for peace do when we disagree with Israeli government policies or actions?
First, we can discuss this controversial issue with our friends and family. Rather than only indulge in the social media-based “propaganda war on steroids” where we defend one side or attack the other, we can be thoughtful about exploring and pushing for lasting solutions. And when the Israeli government makes what we believe to be shortsighted decisions, we should have the courage to respectfully and strategically speak out.
Second, we can exercise some financial or political leverage. We can tell both Jewish political action groups and domestic politicians where we stand. Altering or temporarily suspending our donations is a bolder strategy. Supporting Jewish pro-peace advocacy organizations such as J Street in America or One Voice in Israel, or groups looking to build a more “democratic, just and equal” Israel such as the New Israel Fund are other impactful options.
Many Diaspora Jews have been inculcated with an instinctual “Israel is always right” attitude. Many of us are uncomfortable openly criticizing Israeli policy from afar. And our leverage is admittedly limited. But hundreds of innocent human beings are dying, and the outlook is depressingly bleak. To support Israel’s long-term security, and do what we can to prevent further suffering, we need to make our voices heard in favour of peace.