Skip to main content

Americans, stay open to both sides in Mideast talks

By Jill Jacobs, Special to CNN
updated 10:40 AM EDT, Tue July 30, 2013
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, has named former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, has named former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israeli-Palestinian peace talks need support that comes from understanding of both sides
  • Jacobs: Palestinian sympathizers, know the Holocaust is an open wound
  • Jacobs: Israeli sympathizers, stop dehumanizing Palestinians, accept their suffering
  • Each side needs to look forward, stop arguing over who's to blame, she says

Editor's note: Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the author of "Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-on Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community," (Jewish Lights).

(CNN) -- As Secretary of State John Kerry pursues new peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, he and President Obama will need broad-based support in efforts for peace, which will come only through bridging the gulf between those who identify primarily with Israelis and those who identify primarily with Palestinians.

As a rabbi and the director of a Jewish human rights organization, I have seen how that gulf inhibits all of us in our ability to support the peace process.

A few cases in point: A pro-Palestinian activist was struggling to understand why the Jewish community reacts so strongly against calls to boycott and divest from Israel. After all, she told me, boycotts are an accepted nonviolent tactic for achieving a political goal. Didn't I know about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa? Or the fight for the rights of migrant grape workers in California? What about the Montgomery bus boycott?

Jill Jacobs
Jill Jacobs

But the word "boycott" carries terrible associations for Jews. I explained to her that it is linked in our minds to the boycotts of Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany, which presaged the deportations and murders. Then there's the history of blood libel, the false accusations of Jewish violence against Christians that often prompted boycotts and worse. The very word boycott triggers this communal post-traumatic stress, regardless of the intentions of those advocating for such tactics.

Not long after, the director of a national Jewish organization complained to me that protests against the occupation, including calls for boycotts and divestment, seek to smear Israel's image and de-legitimize the country's right to exist. Although I don't support boycotts of Israel, I challenged him to consider that the worst damage to Israel's image and credibility might come from the occupation itself.

The failure of the two sides to communicate has implications far beyond whether pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates can get along.

Within the United States, we have seen a breakdown in relationships between Jewish communities and other minority communities who have long been natural allies for an open, diverse and equitable America. The inability to break out of one-sided rhetoric also limits both sides' willingness to accept the painful concessions that will be necessary for peace.

Could Middle East peace talks succeed?
Mideast peace: Here we go again
Kerry announces breakthrough in Mideast

Those who sympathize primarily with the Palestinians must recognize that the trauma of the Holocaust and of thousands of years of anti-Semitism remains an open wound for the Jewish community. We will never "get over it." Acknowledging this trauma does not mean that criticism of Israeli policy is off limits. Instead, those protesting the occupation need to clamp down on any rhetoric that crosses the line into anti-Semitic stereotyping, that denies Jewish history and identity, or that dismisses the suffering and human rights of Israelis.

There can be no space within the anti-occupation movement for negative portrayals of Jews, calls to wipe out Israel, or diatribes against "Zionists," a word that most Jews understand as a barely veiled reference to all of us. When Hamas militants shoot rockets at towns and villages in Israel, the Jewish community needs to hear condemnation from those who most often ally themselves with Palestinians.

Those who sympathize primarily with Israel must similarly reject dehumanizing rhetoric about Palestinians or Muslims. It is vital to acknowledge the day-to-day suffering of Palestinians, who contend with the theft of private land, long and demeaning checkpoint lines, and violence from settlers and soldiers.

Responding with disbelief to painful narratives, or countering with stories of Israel's scientific and medical achievements, paints the Jewish community as tone deaf to the suffering of others. When the Israeli government issues building permits for a new settlement, demolishes a Palestinian home, or levies only minor penalties on Jews who attack Palestinians and their property, mainstream Jewish leaders need to condemn these actions as unjust and destructive of the possibility for peace.

Those on both sides who are unwilling to change their rhetoric should come clean about whether they are actually committed to peace. Those who tolerate language that demonizes Jews or who justify violence against Israeli civilians must ask themselves whether they are actually most interested in achieving a better future for Palestinians, or whether they are indulging in dangerous anti-Semitism. Those who dismiss Palestinian suffering or who rationalize violence against Palestinian civilians must ask themselves whether they are serious about a two-state solution, or whether they are simply looking for excuses to sustain the occupation indefinitely.

Each side also needs to look forward instead of back. Jews must acknowledge that this moment is neither the Germany of the 1930s nor the Israel of the second intifada. The very prominence of boycotts, protests and appeals to the United Nations -- whether we approve of these tactics or not -- reflects a decision by the Palestinian majority to pursue nonviolent efforts to achieve a state. Those who take up the Palestinian cause must acknowledge that the state of Israel and its more than 6 million Jewish citizens are here to stay. Both sides need to stop arguing about whose fault it is that previous negotiations have failed.

It's easier to attack and defend than to seek to understand the other side's legitimate needs and emotions. But there's no easy way around it. Creating a just and peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians requires doing it the hard way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT