Friday, October 29, 2010

Day of Dialogue

On Wednesday I was asked to participate in a panel discussion entitled "Israel/Palestine and the Blockade" at Hofstra University's Day of Dialogue.  The following are my introductory remarks.  A video of the presentation and subsequent discussion is promised.

This is what I believe.  And this is what I hold to be paramount.  Let me be brief and direct.

A few opening facts should be mentioned at the outset.  Israel captured the Gaza Strip in 1967 from Egypt.  Palestinians never had sovereignty there under Egypt.  In my estimation, the Arab world has not supported Palestinian’s aspirations for sovereignty.  Throughout the years Egypt never even wanted to discuss Gaza.  During the Camp David accords Israel repeatedly tried to raise the question of Gaza but was rebuffed by Egypt.  My view is that Israel has tried to help establish sovereignty for the Palestinians while guaranteeing the security of its own citizens.  80% of Israelis support a Palestinian state with such safeguards.

In 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and ended what is called by many "the occupation."  It uprooted 7,000 settlers at great cost, most especially at great emotional cost.  This was in some ways like its earlier withdrawal from Southern Lebanon.  But the disengagement from Gaza was similar but different.

It is the same in that Hamas, like Hezbollah, is sworn to Israel’s destruction.  It has declared war against Israel.  Its charter is filled with antisemitism.  It is part of the movement of global Islamic fundamentalism.  Hamas controls Gaza..  And Hamas fails to prevent the firing of rockets at Israel. 

This in a nutshell is the central issue for me.  Although I am sensitive to the suffering of Palestinians, I believe Israel has every right—and a sacred duty—to defend its citizens.  The legal issues are secondary to this moral imperative.  It can be on the high seas.  It can be within another country’s sovereign borders.  It can be on Israel’s borders.  It can be in tunnels within Gaza.  Israel must do everything it can to protect its citizens.

Hamas continues to fire rockets at Israel—175 to date this year.  Hamas fires these rockets from civilian areas.  It fires these rockets at civilians.  These facts are what do more harm to the people of Gaza than any of Israel’s actions.

That being said, I do admit that Israel is not always perfect.  Sometimes it makes mistakes.  Sometimes it even makes tragic mistakes.  The IDF does its best to live by a moral code, and to investigate those who fail to live by this code.  I wish it quietly let the ship from Turkey slip into Gaza’s port.  Israel boarded these ships as a matter of principle.  But there were no game changing missiles on board.

Israel must walk a fine line between providing security and lashing out in vengeance.  It must balance the security of its citizens against applying collective punishment.  I believe that the vast majority of the time it acts out of its security needs.  It is fighting an enemy who hides behind its own citizens.  This fight is not easy.  

I am proud that in this day and age there is a Jewish state that struggles to live by Jewish values while protecting and defending the lives of its citizens.

Since the panel ended and in response to some questions I continue to reflect on the situation.

I still believe that although the blockade is painful, it is indeed justified because Hamas and Israel are in a state of war and belligerence.  Although there is no formal declaration of war, hostilities exist to justify the blockade.  

My fellow panelist, David Wildman, from United Methodist Global Ministries, argued that Israel and Hamas should just talk and not resort to armed force or blockades.  But I wonder how you talk to someone who wants to kills you.  The right of self defense is a sacred right.  The critical difference between Israel and Hamas is that Israel does not want to destroy the Palestinians while Hamas vows to destroy Israel, Israelis and Jews.

Some students expressed disappointment that I did not respond to every one of David Wildman's facts and figures with better facts and figures of my own.  "You should have said that Egypt maintains the blockade as well!"  Although this fact is evidently true I find such back and forth arguing over facts to be similar to, "He said.  She said."  Or as my teacher, Dr. Tal Becker remarked, "It is like my daughters who are constantly fighting.  When I ask one of them what happened, she screams, 'It all started when she hit me back.'"  

We might be better served by struggling to understand the narrative that is told on the other side and to work to include the other within our own narrative.  We are not going to convince each other whose facts and figures are mightier.  The answer might only be to see ourselves as standing in their shoes.

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