The Peril in Declaring ‘I Stand With Israel’

Thousands of people attend a “New York Stands With Israel” vigil and rally in New York City on Oct. 10. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Thousands of people attend a “New York Stands With Israel” vigil and rally in New York City on Oct. 10. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The cascade of emotion and revulsion over the heinous tactics used by Hamas to deliberately target, kill, and kidnap Israeli civilians in surprise cross-border raids from Gaza last weekend has been remarkable to behold, and entirely appropriate.

Like millions of others, I have followed the news compulsively over the last several days. I saw journalists from the United States and other countries jettison their customary guise of studied neutral objectivity as they reported on the unspeakable nature of these events. Many freely exuded their empathy and even identification with Israelis who had just lost loved ones or narrowly escaped attacks on unarmed civilians. In one instance, I watched a reporter from the U.S.-based PBS network tear up as he spoke remotely from a studio with an Israeli woman whose husband had gone missing during these awful events.

Amid this outpouring of feeling and support, a short and blunt statement has been adopted so widely by U.S. President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials and politicians that it has almost instantly achieved the status of a stock phrase: “I stand with Israel”.

But one effect of an expression such as this that so thoroughly captures a well-justified sense of outrage—as in the case over the recent Hamas attacks—is that it can block out further thought, and especially the asking of hard and necessary questions. Those who violate the unwritten decorum established amid the shock of atrocities face the shushing disapproval of others that signals that now is not the time for deeper thought.

The unfortunate reality is that it has almost never been the right time for Israel or the Western countries that count as its steadiest supporters—led by the United States—to probe the hard questions that stem from the existence of millions of Palestinians who subsist in various states of what have come to seem, evermore, like permanent inequality and legal inferiority under Israel’s authority or control.

In the wake of Hamas’s crimes, we have been told with metronomic regularity that there can be no excuse for organized armed attacks against defenseless Israeli civilians—and that much is true. We are also told there can be no legitimate equivalency drawn between the actions of Israel and those of violence-prone nonstate enemies, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and other militant groups. This is a more complicated matter, given the role of both the Israeli state and Israeli settlers in killing Palestinians with relative impunity over the years. But even if one accepts this principle, neither of these notions encourage further thought. And this is precisely the time when further thought is most desperately required.

It should not require condoning the violent tactics of groups such as Hamas or the atrocities they commit to understand that Israel’s own behavior toward Palestinians has long been deeply troubling and problematic. It is not establishing a false equivalency or blithely writing off acts of terrorism to observe that Israel has not been willing to grant rights to Palestinians that would be recognized by a dispassionate observer as anything remotely approaching equal or fair. In fact, under the long rule of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a string of his predecessors, meaningful conversations about a just dispensation for Palestinians have been largely off the table.

I don’t write these words as a deeply credentialled expert in the Middle East, or even as an expert in this region at all, even if I have traveled a bit in it, and once, years ago, interviewed Netanyahu myself by telephone. To some extent, my thoughts are informed instead by universal notions of justice, as well as by common sense.

Most of all, though, they lean on what many Israelis themselves acknowledge about the stark regime of inequality, unfairness, and violence that their country imposes on the Palestinians, who fall under several different legal regimes and live among—or, as in Gaza, in stark confinement in immediate proximity to—Israeli Jews.

If Israelis can acknowledge these things, those who count themselves as true friends of the country should be able to do so as well, and far more openly. But at least insofar as openness about this nuance is concerned, this has been a persistent problem.

This week, a striking opinion piece appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that captured this dissonance. While “I stand with Israel” was still the standard refrain in the United States, the headline read: “Israel Can’t Imprison Two Million Gazans Without Paying a Cruel Price”. The writer, Gideon Levy, spoke of Israeli arrogance: “the idea that we can do whatever we like, that we’ll never pay the price and be punished for it. We’ll carry on undisturbed”.

“We’ll arrest, kill, harass, dispossess and protect the settlers busy with their pogroms”, Levy continued. “We’ll fire at innocent people, take out people’s eyes and smash their faces, expel, confiscate, rob, grab people from their beds, carry out ethnic cleansing and of course continue with the unbelievable siege of the Gaza Strip, and everything will be all right”.

Two years ago, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem likened Israel’s dominion over Palestinian populations to South African apartheid. “One of the key points of our analysis”, said Hagai El-Ad, the group’s director, speaking of the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, “is that this is a single geopolitical area ruled by one government. This is not democracy plus occupation. This is apartheid between the river and the sea”.

Israelis in large numbers, as well as many non-Israeli Jews and other people who sympathize with Israel as a state created in the wake of the European Holocaust, bridle and stew over comparisons between Israel and South Africa under apartheid, and it is easy to understand why.

What is harder to do, though, is to explain away how having roughly 7 million people of Palestinian descent living with unequal rights under Israeli authority, many of them confined in places such as Gaza or squirreled away in discontinuous parcels of homeland on the West Bank that are under constant pressure from expanding Israeli settlements, is consistent with ideas of democracy, or even of approximate equity.

In Italy two weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Amira Hass, a daughter of Holocaust victims who is said to be the lone accredited Israeli journalist to reside amid Palestinians in the West Bank. She has previously lived in Gaza as well. Hass described in detail the elaborate ways in which Palestinians are marginalized or made virtually invisible, such as road signs in the West Bank written only in Hebrew (and not in Arabic or English) that skip mention of Palestinian settlements and methods of counting—or not counting—this population that have promoted the illusion that the lands Israel controls are predominantly Jewish.

“Look, the current reality is actually one state, which is an apartheid state”, Hass has bravely written. She continued:

This means there are two separate laws: one for Palestinians and one for Israeli Jews. The Palestinian population is subdivided into groups and subgroups like the nonwhite population of South Africa. They’re disconnected from each other. They are treated differently by Israel, while Israeli Jews live in the entire country, like one people, with full rights. The question is: How sustainable is this? We assume it’s not sustainable. But so far, it’s working fine for Israel—it has been sustainable. Because the world has accepted it. In the past, we used to say that the world would not accept it, but it does.

Hass wrote these words four years ago. For those who say they stand with Israel, these words should encourage a deeper conversation and a sense of urgency. With mass collective punishment and death on a large scale of Palestinians trapped in Gaza now a real possibility, the stakes are higher than ever.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.

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