You may have noticed the posters around campus in the days leading up to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit last week, which defined him and the state of Israel exclusively by apartheid and war crimes. At the lecture itself, a small group of students staged a protest by falling to the ground and screaming, representing those who died at the hands of Israel’s military during Olmert’s time as prime minister. These students’ actions demonstrated a tremendous frustration with the ongoing occupation, which I share. But I fear that any productive discourse on the need to work toward the rights of Palestinians was lost in theatrics and buried underneath simplistic and misguided slogans such as “Israel: apartheid state.”
Does this lack of nuance help move forward a conversation about how to end the occupation and, with it, the continual deprivation of Palestinians’ basic civil and national rights? Surely, there are more productive ways to engage in important conversations surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus that moves the parties closer to striking a peace deal. That’s particularly important now, when serious peace negotiations are unfolding under Secretary of State John Kerry’s mediation.
To be sure, as a Jew, I struggle with the disconnect between my commitment to social justice on one hand and a multitude of current Israeli policies on the other — especially its military occupation of the West Bank. This past summer, I worked for Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel and the West Bank, where I saw, among other things, immense poverty facing Palestinian villages in the West Bank juxtaposed with the fully developed Israeli settlements that border them. I was angered and disillusioned that Israel, a country that I feel in many ways represents me, has not fully actualized the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
It is precisely because of my values and knowledge of the injustices on the ground that I am a co-chair of our campus chapter of J Street U, a national student movement that is pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-Palestinian. We actively engage with the tough questions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We believe that rigorous engagement with the issues will build support for American diplomatic leadership to help facilitate an agreement on two states.
The United States was indispensable in helping Israel reach peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Kerry’s leadership was critical in helping bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table this past summer. But these negotiations will not be successful without difficult compromises on both sides. The United States will have to provide bridging proposals to help the parties resolve the core issues — Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees. We need an open, honest conversation on those issues so that our communities and our leaders understand what real support for peace and two states means.
In 1979, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were able to make immense compromises for peace. Peace was not achieved through fixation on Begin’s previous membership in the Irgun, a pre-Israel militia that many consider to be a terrorist group, or Sadat’s aggressive attack on Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, which was meant to catch the country completely off-guard; peace came by putting these judgments aside for the purpose of a greater good.
Just a few years ago, Olmert was prepared to make tough and unprecedented compromises in negotiating peace with the Palestinians, including sharing or dividing Jerusalem. If we truly care about the fruition of like-minded plans, we must push our own leaders to ensure that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have U.S. support for the hard but necessary choices ahead. It is counterproductive to peace to simply write off the political players involved in negotiations because of their past misdeeds.
Olmert’s lecture has to be the beginning of an important conversation. Regardless of whether you felt excited, frustrated or challenged by Olmert’s visit or the events surrounding it, I invite you to join in a productive conversation with J Street U, not only about the conflict but also your role in helping to end it.