Skip to main content

Americans, stay open to both sides in Mideast talks

By Jill Jacobs, Special to CNN
July 30, 2013 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT