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.

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. 


Why I have nothing to be ashamed of

National Union of Students 5/309

When I was campaigning to get elected at conference last year, I would go up to delegates and give them my election speech which revolved around my ARAF work and campaign on student housing. After speaking to one delegate, though, I was asked a question that I thought had nothing to do with my election. “Well, are you a Zionist?” A little taken a back, I said, “Yes, I believe in the concept of the state of Israel alongside the concept of the state of Palestine.” The delegate shook their head and said, “Sorry, I can’t vote for a racist,” and walked away.

At the time I shrugged this off as the ignorance of a single delegate and went on to try and persuade more people to vote for me. What I have discovered, though, is that whether in a students’ union or a seminar, the word Zionism is seen as a slur, something you say to make someone feel ashamed or embarrassed.

It’s important at this point to state that I am a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. I believe in the national self determination of the Jewish people in the same way that I believe in the national self determination of the Palestinian people. There is nothing shameful in this belief, nothing that makes me a racist. I am utterly perplexed and at times frustrated by people insisting that I am a morally corrupt person for believing in the above.

What I find astonishing is that it is becoming an acceptable view in the student movement that my belief in national self determination means that I am a legitimate target for hate. If I were to denounce any wish for self government, be happy with the concept of being a minority in every country, with no place to call home, then people would stop hating me and all would be well. If only I could understand that it was my belief in a homeland that leads people to the slip from anti-Zionism into antisemitism then I would see that the best way of avoiding being a victim of racism was to give up the concept of me being a people and settle for me being only a member of a religion – then I too could be a member of the progressive student community and no one would have to wonder if I have a sinister Zionist agenda.

Over the past two months there have been things said to me by students and colleagues, both in formal NEC meetings and informal ‘chats’, that range from offensive to outrageous. I have been told that I am an immoral Jew, that I am one of the bad ones who do not march against Israeli oppression and that there are good moral Jews who march and Zionist Jews who don’t (of course this was said by someone who is not Jewish). I have been told that rather than being a victim of antisemitism, I am the cause of antisemitism, I and my fellow nasty Zionists are responsible for everything that happens to the Jewish community in the UK. Not the people who attempt to burn down synagogues, attack school children on buses, graffiti over Jewish community buildings or who call for death to all Jews; not any of them, but I am the one responsible for the historic rise in antisemitism, I, a member of a people who deserve the homeland that the UN granted us sixty years ago. Lastly I was told that I do not understand how to fight antisemitism and, rather then oppose a rally that intertwines a swastika with a Star of David, I should march alongside that banner to educate the people there….

Sometimes clarity is very important so let me be clear. I have never heard of anyone in the student movement blaming a victim of racism for the abuse they get. I have never heard people justify racism when in pursuit of a political cause (whether legitimate or not). Anyone who racially abuses me because I am a Zionist is wrong as racial abuse is wrong. This is not about me smudging a line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but rather pointing out that clear cases of antisemitism such as speakers going around saying it is a rational thing to blow up a synagogue or people actually trying to burn down synagogues, are being explained away by motivations that lie in the Middle East. I don’t give a damn how angry you are about what happens in another part of the world, there is no excuse for people putting up the names and addresses of people’s places of worship on a protest group. Yet it is justified and absolved because the Jews were asking for it – what do they expect if they have a prayer for the safety of the state of Israel in their services. Antisemitism is not contentious and I’m sick of people ringing their hands over it and making excuses.

My aim here is not to open a can of worms, that was done at the last EGM, but to state a message loudly and clearly. To those who feel that it is a slur to accuse someone of being a Zionist I stand up proudly as a Zionist, unashamed and willing to defend it passionately. To those who are disheartened with what they have seen, who are feeling intimidated and low, you have nothing to feel bad about. Though some people like shouting louder and will use more underhand tactics, tactics that they should have to apologise for, to achieve their goals, you have a legitimate voice that should and will be heard.