Is It Possible to be Both 'Pro-Israel' and 'Pro-Palestinian'?
The sad truth is that, in a zero-sum conflict, it's become exceedingly difficult to present as sympathetic to both sides.
I’ve mostly been reading and writing about non-Gaza related topics in recent weeks. Part of this is by design. I’m finding it genuinely difficult to write on the topic, or at least to think of anything original or interesting to say. At this point, attitudes are likely entrenched among people who follow the war closely. If you’re not identified with a side, it probably means you’re not engaging on the topic enough to become so “identified.”
This time, actually, is different, or so I think. It was once possible to say you were both “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” without inviting too much cognitive dissonance. J Street, established as a sort of counterpoint to AIPAC, is an organization that sometimes seems to aspire to this (although even they don’t explicitly say they are “pro-Palestinian.” Rather they say they are “pro-peace”). But Israelis themselves by and large are firmly behind Israel’s punishing military campaign in Gaza, or one might say against Gaza.
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Yes, Benjamin Netanyahu is deeply unpopular, but that doesn’t translate into support for a more limited or “humane” military operation. Some of this is zero-sum: there is no such thing as a humanitarian-friendly bombardment, particularly not if you think, as most Israelis understandably do, that this is an existential struggle and not at all a war of choice. In other words, there is no way to realize Israel’s aspirations and objectives—as most Israelis understand them—without undermining Palestinians’ interests and objectives, which include an also comprehensible desire to not be killed.
We are loathe to think that such tradeoffs can be measured in human lives. It is part of the American disposition to hope, even against all hope, that we all somehow have shared interests, if only we could spend the time and do the work to figure out what they are. But this is obviously not the case when it comes to the dueling nationalisms of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. Not all problems have solutions, or at least there are no solutions that would be mutually intelligible to “both sides.” I’m reminded of my former Brookings colleague Natan Sachs’ caution that “anti-solutionism” is its own disposition and one that tends to be more popular in the Middle East.
I was (and still am) someone who was criticized—or attacked in rather personal terms—by comrades on the pro-Palestinian side for being insufficiently committed to Palestinian liberation, to use the language of the movement.
I often found myself somewhere in the in-between, still pro-Palestinian but seen as suspect for not endorsing a one-state or binational solution. Moreover, I had my criticisms of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), since I didn’t think it made much moral sense to penalize Israelis for being Israeli, which presumably wasn’t their fault. I even, God forbid, traveled to Israel on a research trip sponsored by a Christian Zionist organization, whose president, Robert Nicholson, is both a friend and a friend of the pod (He was on recently for a quite emotionally intense conversation, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t already). And, yes, I went to settlements and spoke at length with settlers, similar to how I would speak at length with just about anyone, provided they aren’t members of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization so as to avoid any legal complications.
These things won’t be controversial to many of you, but it is worth noting that they are extremely controversial among activists and advocates for the Palestinian cause. I wish they weren’t, but activists, understandably, have a different set of priorities than researchers, journalists, or academics, particularly those of us who preoccupy ourselves with a mission like Wisdom of Crowds’—which is to understand why people, even bad people, come to believe the things they believe in.
I “even” believe in Jewish self-determination. As a matter of consistency and principle, I think this is the right position to take. This, in turn, means that I believe Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.
This might make me “balanced” or fair-minded in a way that others who advocate for Palestinian rights aren’t, but that doesn’t make me, in any intelligible sense, “pro-Israel.” Especially now. Do I want the “best” for Israelis in some kind of ultimate sense? As a human, sure. But my consideration of what’s best for Israelis is very different than their own consideration of what’s best for them. How could it not be?
At a more fundamental level, however, it doesn’t make sense for me to be pro-Israel any more than it would make sense for me to come out as “pro-French” or “pro-Swede.” It might make more sense for me to be “pro-Ukraine” or “pro-Taiwan,” but that’s only because both peoples and nations have, today, a clear adversary against which to define themselves. Which is also, as it happens, why I’m “pro-Palestinian.” There is a both sides. But it’s not possible to support both sides equally, at least not if one wishes to maintain any semblance of political, moral, or intellectual coherence.
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