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No, Palestinians don't need to empathize with the Zionist narrative

In the Israeli-Palestinian domain, the current demand for empathy above all else is obscuring what should be a more urgent discourse — that of rights.

By Peter Eisenstadt and Mira Sucharov

Palestinians show their ID cards at an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, June 10, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

Palestinians show their ID cards at an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, June 10, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

If American Jewish historians Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld’s Haaretz article last week disavowing Zionism was intended to provoke, it has succeeded. Diner called her earlier Zionism a “naïve delusion,” while Feld wrote of her painful rejection of Zionist “propaganda.” In response, Jonathan Sarna, another American Jewish historian, accused the authors of exchanging one “naïve delusion” for another. Rabbi and talmudist Ysoscher Katz called the authors “weak-kneed.” Los Angeles-based Rabbi David Wolpe dared the authors to experience the chilly reception his congregants would likely accord them. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that the piece prompted him to consider stopping reading Haaretz altogether.

While we do not share their emotional detachment from Israel, we think that Diner and Feld’s anguished essay is important in urging us to consider how fealty to Zionism may hinder creative thinking about Israel’s future. If one ideal of Zionism was to create a Jewish state, another was to “normalize” the condition of the Jewish people. Zionism has succeeded in the first task, and not the second. Israelis are challenged both by the ongoing state of enmity from many corners as well as by having become almost permanent occupiers of another people. Neither of these conditions approach normalcy.

Still, there was one particularly thoughtful and nuanced response to Diner and Feld. Writing in Haaretz, Noah Efron faults the authors for a lack of empathy towards Israel. For Efron, empathy matters because a “solution will arrive when both sides realize that the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the other side, like their own, have value, beauty and legitimacy.”

For scholars, empathy is an important tool; it’s the stock-in-trade of our own disciplines — history and politics. But just as we recognize empathy as a professional and public good, in the Israeli-Palestinian domain we fear that the current demand for empathy above all else is obscuring what should be a more urgent discourse — that of rights.

Over four million Palestinians under Israeli rule are denied citizenship, with order maintained through the brutal military occupation in the West Bank, and an inhumane blockade (run in tandem with Egypt and abetted by Hamas’s intransigence) around Gaza. An additional million-and-a-half Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer from the democratic deficits inherent in Israel’s ethnic democracy. And millions of additional Palestinians, living abroad, await word on whether there will be return or even compensation for the Nakba. While engaging in dialogue on competing historical narratives may be intellectually and emotionally enriching, today there is something much more basic at stake: international law and human rights.

The end of Jim Crow in the American South was brought about not by whites and blacks coming to acknowledge the “hopes, dreams and aspirations” of the other, but by unremitting pressure on white supremacy. Whether whites and blacks understand each other better now than half a century ago is doubtful, and the change wrought by the civil rights movement hardly ended all of America’s racial problems. Still, there has been progress. If, over the next half century, Israelis and Palestinians find a way to co-exist, it will probably resemble the progress in American race relations: slow and halting, but undergirded by certain fundamental political and legal changes basic to democracy.

So where does this leave Zionism? Even in its most progressive and empathic form, Zionism has meant a commitment to an increasingly elusive “two-state solution,” the kind that is supposed to take into account the needs and identities of both sides. But as the occupation nears the half century mark, we are increasingly concerned that the progressive Zionist commitment to the two-state solution as being the “only” one — due to a perceived need to protect Israel’s Jewish identity — is, if inadvertently, helping to shore up an unjust status quo.

In a future peaceful scenario, it is unlikely that Palestinians will be able to call up much empathy for Zionist ideals. It is, however, nearly certain that Israelis will have to recognize that the Palestinians deserve the same basic rights that they themselves enjoy.

If Diner and Feld’s essay has struck a nerve, it is probably because it articulated sentiments that many who call themselves progressive Zionists have to some extent shared, but were reluctant to articulate. Both the anger and the sympathy it has generated indicates the importance of probing Zionism’s current relevance. That Zionism helped to create the current impasse with the Palestinians is undeniable. Whether it can be of any assistance in resolving it is far less clear.

Peter Eisenstadt is an independent historian living in Clemson, South Carolina. He has written extensively on New York City and New York State, and African American and Jewish history. 

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations. She writes regularly for Haaretz, The Jewish Daily Forward and the Canadian Jewish News.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      I am not waiting for the Palestinians to “empathize” with us Israelis. I am waiting for them to empathize with their fellow Arabs who are butchering each other in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, etc. I don’t even see any empathy from the Palestinians for their brother Palestinians in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria who have been slaughtered by the Syrian government, or by the rebels. Have you seen any mass demonstrations in Ramallah or Gaza protesting this? I haven’t.
      Have there been any demonstrations in Ramallah or Paris or London or New York by Muslims and other Arabs making a blanket call for an end to the violence by all sides in Syria or Iraq. I haven’t seen it. All we see is them either cheering on one side or the other, or just sitting apathetically on the side.
      I don’t expect “empathy” from others in the world. The Jewish “exilic” mentality always drives too many Jews to want to hear from non-Jews that “they love us”. The world doesn’t work that way. For instance, I imagine the Finland has diplomatic relations of some level with far-away countries like Paraguay. Do Paraguayans and Finns “empathize” with each other? I doubt it, but I am sure they respect one another and have normal relations at what ever level. That is all countries need to do to relate to one another. That is what we in Israel should expect. If the Palestinians want better lives for themselves, it would be in their interest to make peace and have normal relations with Israel, without having to “empathize” or “love” us. However, since they don’t seem to care what is happening to their Arab/Muslim brothers, then to expect them to really respect us, whom they DON’T like is expecting too much.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You betray here, Ike, your racist, tribal mentality, which you project upon “the Arabs.” You seem to think every Arab in Palestine gets up in the morning and hones in on “the Arabs.” Like you hone in on “the Jews”? (Every right winger visiting these pages at some point speaks the language of “the Arabs” and “the Jews” and the war of gog and magog. You do it all the time.) In fact, they are Palestinians your state is brutally oppressing and it is Israeli Jews and Druze the Palestinians are trying to shake off. And there are clear lines of demarcation and loyalty down there in Palestine, not so elsewhere in the strife in “the Arab world.” Enough with the hasbaric whataboutery.

        Reply to Comment
        • Sherry Al-Mufti

          “hasbaric whataboutery” – what a perfect term to capture that particular standard diversion tactic! I’m stealing it.

          Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          (1) Oh, dear. You called me a “racist” and “tribalist”. Am I supposed to lose sleep because you called me those things?

          (2) You think it is unreasonable to think that Arabs spend time thinking about their brother Arabs, yet you spend a LOT of time thinking about the Palestinians and you aren’t an Arab, so why shouldn’t they be concerned about their brother Arab/Muslims who love one another, as the Muslims keep telling us.

          Reply to Comment
      • Duh

        Ike, I think people who write rants like this should put their money in the same place as their yap – Go to Bi’lin, demonstrate against the wall, absorb the tear gas and rubber bullets and then ask the villagers why they’re not demonstrating in solidarity with Yarmouk.

        It’s worth mentioning though that you most likely haven’t seen huge demonstrations in favor of Bashar al-Asad either.

        Reply to Comment
      • Baladi Akka 1948

        I_Like_Ike, aka Ben Israel and a whole bunch of other pen names is back, the guy lying faster than Usain Bolt is running !

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Examples of untruths, please?

          Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            Come on, Ben Israel aka I_like_Ike_1952, everyone who remembers you from back when you were working full-time here defending Zio-fascism knows you lie out through your mouth.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      We often hear the explanation that a Jewish state for the Jews is no different than a German state for the Germans. But I know of no other first world country that discriminates against its own citizens in this way:


      And then there’s the whole issue of marriage between Palestinians and Israelis….

      Reply to Comment
    3. Yonatan Falic

      As ex-Israeli Columbia trained historian of modern Jews, I can only call the Zionist narrative total nonsense that no one with minimal brain matter can take seriously.

      Reply to Comment
      • Baladi Akka 1948

        Why do you have to constantly say you’re a Columbian-trained historian and an ex-Israeli, here and on Mondoweiss on various occasions ? You know, it’s not a argument, and we might end up thinking it’s just bullshit to give you some authority.
        Maybe you’re just someone who’s been kicked out from every blog, and who now comes back with a new auto-biography, a name comes to my mind: Joachim Martillo.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Spencer_HR

      Total and complete nonsense:

      1. The Jewish people’s self-determination right is an equivalent of Jim Crow racism?

      2. So Arabs have a problem with Israel’s “ethnic democracy”. Does this mean that France, Germany, the U.S. will also be boycotted for somewhat unequal treatment of Arabs?

      3. Compensation for the “Nakba” – tell me again, when are other countries going to get compensation for some random events that took place 68 years ago? When will Germans/Poles/Ukrainians get compensation for post-WWII expulsions?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Spencer: The “Jewish people’s right to self determination”? What is that? You want to unpack that concept rather than asserting it like “motherhood and apple pie”? Does it include the right to deny others’ self determination? From the looks of it, it does. That makes it racist and colonialist. Is it something like “white people’s right to self determination”? If not, why not, specifically? Absolutely in no way is Israel’s “ethnic democracy” (oh, please) matched by Germany or France. France is explicitly, determinedly un-ethnic in its concept of what French citizenship means. If Germany extended a right of return to descendants of northern Lutheran but not southern Catholic or Jewish Germans, that might start to come close to what Israel does. If Germany denied legal marriage of non-Germans to Germans that might approximate Israel’s “ethnic democracy.” If Germany denied legal marriage of German Christians to Jews, while earnestly remonstrating about, gasp, assimilation, you’d scream bloody hell. There is no self-righteousness like Israeli self-righteousness.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Susan

      Yes, the Palestinians should empathize with Zionism. They realize that if you don’t have a state you get screwed.

      Reply to Comment
    6. I actually think that both rights and empathy (from both sides) are necessary.

      The reason why “Rights” alone are not enough is because one will always ask questions like: “Which rights are enough?” or “How much rights are enough?”. Can rights be measured by some absolute scale that will agree on? No this is not possible. “Rights” are relative. They change from one place from another and from one century to another (at the same place). Therefore because “Rights” are relative peace cannot be based only on them. A true peace will always require some psychological component. Call it “empathy”, “acceptance”, reconciliation”, the exact name does not matter. But it will always will be required. Empathy without rights is not not enough but rights without empathy are also not enough. Both are required!

      In my opinion the crucial right Israel should give the Palestinians is that of self determination, namely the right to have their own state. Which other rights the Palestinians then will have depends on the type of regime and the leadership they will have. And if other Arab countries are any example, their rights will be short of many Israelis have.

      Reply to Comment