I support Israel’s right to exist as an independent, sovereign nation. Israel has a right to defend itself.

I support Palestine’s right to exist as an independent, sovereign nation. Palestine has a right to defend itself.

Can Israelis and Israel’s supporters agree with both of these statements? Can Palestinians and Palestinian supporters agree with both statements? 

Maybe that’s the heart of the problem.

I support both statements, but I do not support all the ways Israel and Palestine choose to defend themselves. And I do not support their respective current leadership. Gaza, the West Bank and Israel are all poorly led.

But I am not equally unsupportive because this is not a fair fight. The Israelis have the upper hand — wealth, power and military might (subsidized by the U.S.). Because they have the upper hand, they have a greater responsibility to seek a solution to this mess. But they effectively gave up on solutions a generation ago, preferring a policy of “containment,” while allowing encroachment by extremist groups who built settlements on land that should be part of Palestine.

Israel, meanwhile, built isolating walls and created security checkpoints for Palestinians. I’ve seen them — long lines of cars waiting to get through as we breezed past in our tour bus, even though our tour was led by a Palestinian. That was in 2006. I’m guessing not much has changed. It has probably gotten worse.

When Palestinians get fed up, the “unrest” revives this most vicious of vicious cycles. Hamas fires rockets, mostly shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, though a few have gotten through and killed civilians. Israel bombs suspected Hamas strongholds and underground tunnels in Gaza, resulting in far more civilian casualties, which the Israelis blame on Hamas being imbedded in the civilian population. The Israeli government, meanwhile, is poised to seize land and property in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem.

As Neil Steinberg wrote in his Sun-Times column last week, “I’ve picked over the Torah, looking for the part that says it’s OK to oppress people who live on land you want, and haven’t found it yet.”

I’m no expert, but I’m not sure there are any experts on this catastrophic mess of a Middle East feud. I only hear unwarranted, unearned and toxic certainty on both sides. 

At least that’s how it looks from a distance.

But how it looks is important. If enough of us speak out, maybe our government will put pressure on the governments of both sides to act responsibly — and maybe the Israelis and Palestinians will elect more responsible leaders. Maybe.

In the meantime, here’s how it looks to me and, I suspect, many other Americans: Palestinians are treated like second-class citizens and Palestinian lives do not matter, at least to the Israeli government. In this country we know from our ongoing reckoning with race that where there is inequality, there is racism. Israel’s government seems to believe that because some Palestinians are terrorists who put Israeli lives in jeopardy, Israel is justified in treating all Palestinians as potential terrorists and therefore as second-class citizens. 

But no excuse for inequity is valid.

And there is no justification for a long-oppressed people to adopt the methods of the oppressor in order to “guarantee” their own safety and security — which doesn’t work anyway. In fact, the Israeli approach to the “Palestinian situation” has badly damaged their moral credibility. Israel has had an authoritarian leader for most of the last three decades, resulting in a fractured, divided society that is currently living a coalitional nightmare — at the mercy of right-wing religious groups, which ultimately decide who holds power. 

Ignoring the peace process has undermined the high opinion many of us once had of Israel. Defenders of the status quo tell the growing number of American critics to keep quiet because we can’t know what it’s like unless we live there — and there is some truth in that — but the problem persists and the perception that there’s something rotten in Israel is only growing stronger.

I support Israel’s right to exist and I support Palestine’s right to exist. I do not support Israel and Palestine’s right to defend themselves in any way they see fit, and I do not support their right to defend themselves in the way they have currently chosen. 

The authoritarian approach is only making matters worse. Not solving this problem is harming Israel, just as not solving racism harms our country. Jewish religion and culture have endured by staying true to the bedrock principle of doing what is right. And when they don’t do what’s right, there is a long, biblical tradition of prophets arising to speak truth to power, chastising their leaders when they become corrupted by arrogance. Where are Israel’s prophets? They’re needed now more than ever to bring this troubled nation back to its senses and to its moral underpinnings.

Both sides are being poorly served by their leaders, but only one side has the power, and that side is showing clear signs of being compromised by it.

Israel cannot afford to be the oppressor. 

Their security ultimately depends on finding — with the Palestinians — a win-win solution to this awful, never-ending conflict. 

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