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 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT