‘Peace’ doesn’t belong solely to Israelis, nor ‘justice’ to Palestinians

This article first appeared in Haaretz on the 30th of September 2014

The summer of 2014 was a horrendous experience. The kidnappings, riots, murders and war that gripped Israelis and Palestinians has left a bleeding wound that is still festering.

The violence of the summer also demonstrated the parallel universes within which each community, and their supporters, resides. Gilad Lotan’s groundbreaking research into the social media networks has demonstrated how each community talks past each other. Even people-to-people approaches, those attempts to try to foster some aspect of dialogue, found it increasingly hard to find a common language in the violent cacophony that engulfed the region this summer.

Digging a little bit into Lotan’s data we can find that the very language and concepts that each community uses are now completely distinct. ‘Peace’ is a term that has been appropriated by the pro-Israel community. In contrast, the issue of rights features prominently in analysis offered by pro-Palestinian networks; it is absent from the other side of the debate.

During my years working in and around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the appropriation of language has been getting worse. Within the Israeli camp, one hears of security, peace and coexistence. Within the Palestinian camp, justice, rights and freedom.

These concepts are all necessary for a lasting solution to the conflict, yet our inability to solve it has led the two camps to surround themselves with concepts that each believes are their birthright alone. Justice is not a divisible ideal; security must be inclusive if it is to be sustainable.

The appropriation of these terms though is more then just an interesting, if somewhat depressing, anecdote. The real world implications have been that programs that have sought to promote one or more of these values are instantly tagged as partisan.

‘Peace’ is only spoken about in quotation marks among many within the pro-Palestine movement. Too many false dawns have led them to the conclusion that any talk of peace is a fig leaf for the continued occupation. Peace has been replaced with Justice, a virtue that will reward the oppressed and punish those who occupy.

Within much of the pro-Israel community talk of rights (outside the right to self-defense) is immediately seen as suspicious. The institutional challenges of forums such as the UN Human Rights Council has created a defensive reflex within the community whenever the topic of rights is discussed.

Standing behind all of this are two radically different framings to the situation. For the Palestinians, this is a Zionist occupation of Palestine, one that has a clear imbalance of power between the occupied and the occupier. Any framing that tries to draw equivalence between the sides normalizes the situation and benefits the Israelis.

For the Israelis, this is an Israeli-Arab conflict, with Israel surrounded by a seething Arab world of hundreds of millions, a world that will not talk to them and characterizes them in the worst frames of Jewish history. An iron wall must be created to protect the villa in the jungle, a place where liberal democracy (with its warts and all) can flourish. Any cracks in that wall will be exploited and Israel will cease to exist. All outside must be treated with upmost suspicion. Peace is to be dictated on terms that can maintain the security that Israel has relied on to survive.

Each community viciously rejects any comparison to the other. The day-to-day reality means that while Israelis can generally get on with their lives and flourish (albeit under incredible levels of stress), Palestinians continue to suffer the daily indignities that an occupation brings.

The current situation is not stable. Violence is spilling out of the seams as the status quo fractures and groups try and take advantage of the despair that is filling the vacuum. Anything constructive must have a foundation, and in this case it must be based on the shared concepts of peace, justice, security, rights, freedom and coexistence. Finding ways to depolarize these concepts is essential to move forward. What must be done is to show that these virtues are all part of a shared future. This is the goal of people-to-people programming – creating a shared set of values with which to move forward.

People-to-people programs, whether between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs or within each group itself are easy to dismiss. On first glance they can appear fanciful and naïve. Like every other approach, they have so far not been able to solve this problem and are therefore dismissed. But that is a mistake.

These programs all have within them the necessary, aspects that any solution will be build upon. The creators and volunteers within these groups will be the first to tell you that they know that their work alone is not sufficient, but needs to be part of a mosaic to help turn the tide against those who wish to invest in the status quo and deepen the power imbalance. They are necessary though.

These dialogues, the ones that have survived the trials and tribulations of the past twenty years, are neither purposeless nor aimless. It is not about sitting around and eating humus while the world around them burns. Rather each attempts to affect change in some aspect of society, be it education, environment, economy, culture, faith or politics.

By coordinating and unifying various approaches, these peace builders look to create something out of the rubble that this summer, and so many of the summers before it, have left in their wake.

Should Zionists bother engaging Israel critics?

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 8/7/14

For those of you who are avid readers of my work (basically my Grandma), you probably noticed that I did not write a piece last month. Given the fighting and the general explosion of rage and hate, I felt that I had nothing useful to add to the conversation. Having now read Michael Koplow’s excellent piece on accepting the world as it is, not as we think it should be, I felt that maybe, just maybe, I could be of some use.

During Operation Cast Lead in 2009, I was a member of the United Kingdom’s National Union of Students, National Executive Committee. I was one of the 27 students responsible for leading the National Union of 7 million students. Much of my role during that year was dealing with the protests and motions regarding Israel’s war in Gaza.

It was a harrowing experience, but it taught me a valuable lesson that I feel could be useful to Jews in countries that are facing mass demonstrations against Israel’s actions: Those who wish to make the case for Israel need to do so by separating the protesters’ language from their complaints. Supporters of Israel need to be united in rejecting hate speech, and in their acceptance of legitimate criticism of the positions of the government of Israel.

This is not an easy thing to do.

Too many complaints against Israel’s actions are dressed in language that is meant to cause offense toward Jews. To give a protest an emotive kick, Nazi language and symbols (such as ghettoes and swastikas) are brought into the protests. The Community Security Trust has done a tremendous job explaining why the usage of these analogies and symbols are unacceptable.

The question then becomes: Is it worth engaging with critics of Israel who often couch their criticism in language that packs an emotive – and at times hateful – punch?

To many, the answer is no. All these people are anti-Semites, they say, finding proof in the protesters’ slogans and protest sites. There is no rationalizing or arguing, they say, with people who start discussions with analogies that bring up the worst moments of Jewish history.

I understand this position. Yet there is a problem with it: There are tens of thousands of people worldwide who are marching against Israel, and they need to be told, in a way that they understand, that some of the language they use is unacceptable, even though the complaints they are making may be legitimate.

It is, sadly, not good enough for Jews to live in splendid isolation while stating that all who surround them are hatemongers, if one wants to advocate for Israel. And it is certainly not effective for Jews to try to obliterate all criticism due to it being dressed in racist language. Doing so damages Israel’s case, for it creates the impression that supporters of Israel are shutting down debate, rather than welcoming it.

What my experience on the NEC taught me was to separate the language and the complaint. I would argue that apart from a vocal minority, few of the thousands who are marching in pro-Palestinian demonstrations – at least in the United Kingdom – are anti-Semites. They have complaints and they wish to make them, so long as they don’t use language that’s beyond the pale.

The right and the left of the Jewish community need to unite in calling out emotive language and educating those who use it of the hate it spreads. If they continue to use offensive terminology to make their protest, and if they continue to set Jewish history as its backdrop, then it is fair to label them as anti-Semites, but not before we have explained why the language is offensive.

The urgency of this has been demonstrated by Gilad Lotan’s phenomenal work, mapping social media on the Israel-Gaza fighting. Advocates for each side live in different social media universes – their filter bubbles so strong that they only see things they agree with. Worryingly for pro-Israel advocates, their network is smaller and involves far less mainstream media.

During the current Israeli military operation, Protective Edge, the anti-Semitism in Europe has gotten so bad that the UN secretary-general has had to address it. I know, as someone who faced this in 2008-09, that it feels particularly unfair that it should be the victim of hate’s job to educate those who are screaming at them what they are doing wrong. Yet there are few other choices. Wishing the haters away will not change the dynamic. Complaining about how the field has been set up is not going to help you win a game that is ongoing.

There are few lonelier places than Israel advocacy in the Diaspora. I hope that my experience can bring some thought to those wishing to face down protests this time around.

The Israeli High Court’s anti-circumcision ruling is a victory against religious coercion

This article was first published on Haaretz July 1st 2014

Ever since its inception as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel has tackled the question of where the rabbinical court’s authority ends and the secular court’s authority begins. This boundary was clarified this week when the High Court of Justice struck down a Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling that obliged a mother to circumcise her son as part of her divorce proceedings or face a daily 500-shekel fine ($140).

When passing down the original precedent-setting judgment, one of the dayanim (rabbinic judges) stated, “If the mother is given the opportunity to prevent the circumcision or use her objection [to the procedure] as a tool to make headway in the divorce struggle, we could find ourselves facing a flood of cases like these, and then divorce proceedings will take on a terrifying dimension. This trend must be stopped immediately for the common good, which takes precedence over that of the individual.”

But Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein recognized that the Rabbinical Court could not be objective in this situation. He urged the High Court to accept the mother’s petition to remove the rabbinical ruling,stating, “It’s doubtful that the rabbinic court’s decision was made based on the principle of what’s best for the child.”

This case highlights the issue of state-endorsed power of religious courts in Israel. There is no circumstance (outside risk of life) in which the Rabbinical Court would ever side with a parent who does not want to circumcise their child. In the eyes of the rabbis, one is doing harm to a child by not circumcising them, and a child should not be put in harm’s way as part of a divorce proceeding.

In overturning the Rabbinical Court’s decision, the High Court stated that issues of circumcision have zero to do with divorce, for disagreements over circumcision could just as easily arise for an unmarried couple with a son.

Allowing the Rabbinical Court to enforce its will in this manner would have given religious coercion a green light. This would have been precedent setting, for while Israeli law may sway toward Jewish law in certain areas, citizens still have the freedom to choose. Take marriage for example. Jewish Israelis are only permitted to wed in Jewish ceremonies; there is no such thing as a civil marriage in Israel. But Jewish Israelis are not forced into having Jewish weddings; they may choose to get married in a civil service overseas or to remain de-facto, without marrying at all. Another example is public transport. While public buses and trains do not operate on Shabbat, moniot sherut (shuttle taxis) do operate, providing an alternative form of transport for those who choose not to observe the Sabbath. Finally, chametz (leaven) may not be sold at kosher restaurants on Passover, but non-kosher eateries may operate, giving citizens choice over how strictly they observe the holiday.

Israel has always tried to balance the religious and democratic sides of its character. In order to continue a harmonious melding of the religious and public sphere within the realms of a liberal society, citizens must always enjoy the personal freedom to opt in or out of religion. The High Court decision to stop a mother from being forced into circumcising her son upholds the principle that no state body can force its citizens into keeping Jewish law. If Israel is to keep both parts of its Jewish and democratic character, it must never tip the scales into coercive religious law, whether judicial or otherwise.

Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and Jewish supremacists

This article first appeared in Haaretz 5/16/14

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, stated during the 1920s that the Jews would know that their dream of a nation state had been fulfilled when there were Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and a Jewish police force. David Ben Gurion, picking up on this theme, said while in office as the first Israeli prime minister, “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” We can now add to this list of prostitutes and thieves, Jewish racial supremacists.

The concept of “price tag” is very simple. When the Israeli government pursues a policy that members of the far-right do not like, they create a “cost” for the government of Israel by attacking the Arab community. Settler violence against Palestinians saw a 57 percent uptick in the first seven months of 2011, according to UN data, and since then it has continued despite condemnations from every political sector in Israel.

Over the past year, price tagging has metastasized from a phenomenon restricted to the Palestinian territories to infecting Israel within the Green Line. Car tires have been slashed while mosques and churches have been vandalized – each with a distinct political message.

“Close mosques not yeshivas,” said the graffiti in the northern Israeli-Arab town Fureidis. “Mohammed is a pig,” “mutual responsibility,” “Terror stones,” and “regards from Boaz and David Chai” were the statements left on the wall of mosque of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Boaz and David are the names of two individuals whose movements were restricted by the Israel Defense Forces.

The Jewish supremacists who commit these acts are doing so much like the aristocracy of a previous time who would employ a whipping boy. Unwilling to strike their own child, they would hire a child from a lower class to whip when their own offspring misbehaved. These thugs have made the calculation not to attack Jewish institutions, but those of the Arab other, causing them harm to make political statements against their own government’s policies of which they disapprove.

If a Jewish police force can deal with Jewish prostitution and Jewish thieves within the Jewish state, then why do they seem so incapable of dealing with Jewish racism? After a spate of “price tag” attacks, two ministers said they would urge the cabinet to allow the full array of security measures to deal with the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks, including administrative detention, by classifying offenders as terrorists.

Whether they are defined as terrorists, neo-Nazis (as author Amos Oz put it) or racist thugs, they need to be stopped. How does one do this?

With communal tensions simmering and Pope Francis on his way to the holy land, the Israeli security apparatus believes that the best way of dealing with hate crimes is to see them as a security problem. When it comes to security the Jewish state is an expert in all manners of tactics to secure the safety of its people.

Yet the tactics of security do nothing to deal with the strategic threat that these racist crimes pose to society at large. You cannot lock up everyone who makes a racist statement. The cancer at the heart of “price-tagging” has been growing for years.

There are no short-term fixes to this problem. If the Jewish state is to be a normal state, it needs to learn off other normal states how to deal with racism.

The key is through education. While “price tag” attacks certainly pose a security problem, the heart of the matter lies in education. Efforts need to be made through the education system to demonstrate the unacceptability of racism. Zero tolerance needs to be adopted. From sportsmen to public officials, all must be held accountable for racist statements and acts.

The Jewish state would do well to consult the Jewish Diaspora, a leader in the anti-racism and anti-fascism coalitions around the world, on strategies concerning how to defeat racism through education. They could speak to the Anti-Defamation League on the anti-bulling and cyber bulling campaigns they run across the United States. They could consult the Community Security Trust on how to create a police force that is sensitive to the needs of all racial groups within society.

There are constant debates about whether racism in Israel is the cause of the conflict with the Palestinians or a symptom of the conflict. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, we can all agree that we can not allow hatred to foster lest it consume us all.

Interview with Children of Peace

Children of Peace 4/9/14

Sarah Brown: How did you first get involved in OneVoice?

Joel Braunold: During University I was a member of the National Union of Students National Executive Committee. While an office holder the war in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) broke out and I saw the effect of the conflict spill over into UK campuses and made me wonder what people in the region thought of their advocates abroad.

It was during this time that I met Jake and Sayeeda from OneVoice Europe who were attempting to hold the advocates of Israelis and Palestinians accountable to what people on the ground actually thought. I had spent two years studying Talmud in Jerusalem and thought that I knew the region well, but meeting OneVoice allowed me to actually speak to people living under occupation and within the conflict.

When I graduated I won a fellowship with the Legacy Heritage Foundation (out of the US) and convinced them to allow me to work for OneVoice Europe as a fellow. Now almost five years later (with a little break for some grad school and private sector work) I am still with the movement.

SB: Could you tell our readers about any experiences that you found particularly striking or surprising during your involvement with OneVoice?

JB: Despite the asymmetry with the conflict the populations, Israelis and Palestinians, are mirror images of each other. Before starting at OneVoice I had spent a significant amount of time in Israel and knew the Israeli psyche very well. My first time travelling to the West Bank, to work with our Ramallah office, I encountered Palestinians who spoke about Israelis the same way that Israelis spoke about Palestinians. The populations are so similar in their outlook of the other, both positive and negative, that it is a tragedy that they cannot recognize themselves in the other.

SB: I recently heard Moshe Amirav give a talk in which he suggested that the Arab League and the European Union should replace the United States as the key intermediary in negotiations between Israel and Palestine. What is your view of that proposal?

JB: It’s interesting. While I was at grad school I wrote a paper about the challenge of the mediator being perceived as impartial. After twenty years of attempts, the US is seen as flawed as an honest broker. Yet there are two very important points when considering this view point.

1) It is the US’s relationship to Israel that makes them a valid broker at all. The Palestinians’ main complaint is not that the US has a unique relationship with Israel, but is that they don’t use it to motivate the Israelis to achieve a two-state solution. Seeing that any solution would require the Israelis to make the main amount of sacrifice at this point (the Palestinians made their compromise with their acceptance of two-states), the Israelis are the ones who need to move from the comfort of the status-quo. If the US could use its influence to affect that, then I think that their relationship with Israel would be seen as an asset rather than a liability.

2) There is a tendency to blame the mediator when the talks fail. The US is not involved enough, or they are obsessed by it. They need to want the deal more than the parties or they cannot want it more than the players involved. Whatever happens, the US is the easy party to blame, as by blaming the party in the middle, the Israelis and Palestinians avoid the responsibilities for their own failures. The biggest issue is not the US but the belief gap that exists within each population. As long as the populations are willing to accept two-states but do not believe it will happen in the medium term, then the conflict will never be solved as those opposing a deal enter into that incredulity gap and will build ‘negative facts on the ground’. Those opposing a two-state outcome are therefore empowered by this belief gap while those wanting the outcome are left advocating over a diminishing reality.

Could a different format work? Well as long as the US was present at the Israeli side and the Arab League there at the Palestinian side I think it could. One creative idea would be to subject any agreement to a vote in the UN both in the general assembly and at the security council where each side is ensured support therefore leveling the playing field. Yet all the talk of different mediation is for nothing unless the parties start trying to prepare their populations for the reality of two-states today. If we do not start building it today then we allow the reality on the ground to be changed by those looking for maximalist positions rather than mutually acceptable ones.

SB: Support for the BDS movement seems to be growing. What is your own view of boycotts?

JB: I think that the first thing to say is that anything that supports non-violent activism to show one’s opposition to the occupation should not be dismissed. The move from violence to non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation is something that should be encouraged and supported. Having said that, there is a difference between the tactic of boycott and the principles of the BDS movement itself.

The BDS movement is principally a rights focused movement that is supposedly agnostic on solutions to the conflict. The rights they endorse they see as inalienable and concern equality, right of return and end of occupation. The rights approach maintains that nothing can mitigate these rights, they can never be balanced or negotiated with.

The implementation of these rights removes the ability to achieve a mutually acceptable two-state solution. The reality of conflict resolution is that it is a balance of rights. The right to self-determination versus the right to security. The right of return versus the right of sovereignty over one’s own population. [This should not be interpreted that I support the current trajectory of laws in Israel around minority rights. I do believe that you can create a state with a stable majority and equal rights that might one day reflect changes in its demographic makeup. It is to say however that no country can be expected to offer a population that is equivalent to 85% of its current population the right to return and naturalize, if they so choose.

In many cases, these rights balance individual rights versus national rights. Now if you reject the concept of a national right then there is no balance to be sought and therefore you can be an absolutist about the rights of the individuals in this case. But this conflict has been about two national movements and two peoples. By reducing it to a contest of individual rights, you remove the concept of the nation state, something that is at the heart of the conflict for the Israelis.

In addition for many proponents of BDS Israel, as a nation, is not a rights holder. Their positions in the negotiations are merely impositions on Palestinian rights born out of colonialism. Reality dictates that you cannot remove the Israelis, but you should not think of their demands in terms of rights as all of them flow from a place of injustice.

I do not subscribe to the view that Israel has no rights. I also do not subscribe to the view that individual rights automatically trump the collective rights of the nation state. I think for a successful resolution that ends the occupation and achieves a mutually acceptable two-state solution, rights have to be balanced against each other. No side will ‘win’. This is not to say that I think that the current series of actors are negotiating in good faith.

I am a solutionist and weigh the various tactics to achieve the outcome that I think is most realistic, in this case the two-state solution. Do I think that boycotts make this solution more likely? Well I think demonstrating the unacceptability of building settlements is essential. My main goal is to get the state of Israel to stop funding them. Is the best way to get there to boycott the settlements? – I think that in many cases the answer is yes. Is it true in all cases? No. There is no hard and fast rule, and it is another reason I don’t subscribe to an absolutist set of principles. I’m a pragmatist looking to achieve a vision of peace that I think both populations can accept.

SB: Which journalists/analysts on Israel/Palestine do you find most insightful?

JB: I have a rich diet of various perspectives. I think it’s essential that everyone read people that they disagree with if they want a broad view.

I generally read Haaretz, Jpost, Ynet, Times of Israel, Maan, Al-Monitor, BBC, NYTimes Aretz 7, PNN, 972 Mag every day. In terms of most insightful, Yossi Verter’s political sketch on Friday’s in Haaretz is a must read and Daoud Kuttab for Al-Monitor is great on PA issues.


All Joel Braunolds answers are made in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of the OneVoice Movement. All Children of Peace interviews cover a wide range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and do not necessarily reflect those of Children of Peace. 


Passover in the Shadow of a Gunman

4/14/14 This post first appeared in Haaretz

The article I planned on writing revolved around the Golden Age of television we are now experiencing. I was going to write specifically about how Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews and Neil DeGrass Tyson’s Cosmos have had huge emotional effects on me.

I was going to comment on how Schama’s show is a work of staggering achievement that manages to make the Jewish experience accessible to everyone. My plan was to contrast this with the universal majesty of Cosmos, a series that depicts the history of our universe. The tension between the particularism of the story of the Jews and the grandeur of the Cosmos is a theme baked into the Passover Seder, as we struggle between these different concepts.

I was going to finish the article by comparing this tension to that found within the writings of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, whose work “The Lonely Man of Faith” speaks to the tension of the Jewish condition as one between majestic man and covenantal man. This tension between the awesomeness of being created in the image of G-d and simultaneously being created from the dust of the earth.

I was going to remark that there is no synthesis between the particularism of Jewish Peoplehood and our Universalist values. That we have to expect to continue to struggle through the challenge of what it means to be Jewish today.

Yet as I sat down to write this blog, three people were killed in a shooting at the Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living center in Kansas City. Here in the most integrated, comfortable and successful Jewish community in the history of the world, peoplewere targeted and killed because they were Jews.

This is not supposed to happen. Yet it still does. Hate finds a way forth and Jews are killed because they are Jews.Kids and pensioners both targeted and killed. Young and old gunned down due to this hate.

One can look at Jewish history and know that the line from the Haggadah “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” is true.

Yet what should our response to this be? We are within our rights to be hostile to the outside world, to close ourselves off and be suspicious of all those around us. Yet by doing so we would be failing in our duty to be an or l’goyim (a light onto nations.)

Being Jewish is not easy. We need to be able to deal with the tensions that our traditions demand from us. We need to understand our own particularism while being open to the universalism of the world around us. Sadly, even today, there are those who rise up to destroy us, but we cannot allow them to destroy our way of life.

Our resilience is shown by not withdrawing from the world and enclosing ourselves in the comfort of our particularism. Nor is it found in assimilating into the universalism of all of that around us. Rather, our quest to demonstrate what it means to live as a happy and free people, celebrating our traditions and impacting those around us, is found in balancing the wonder of the cosmos and the glory of our rich history together.