Last Sunday, two Israeli Defense Forces soldiers spoke at Swarthmore on behalf of the Israeli Soldiers Stories campaign from Stand With Us, a non-profit organization whose mission is to inform the public about Israel, combat anti-Semitism, and to stand up for Israel. Members from Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP) who participated in the lecture were very concerned about some of the false narratives presented. In their scripted monologues, the two speakers ignored the complex regional history and the ramifications of Israel’s foundations. SPJP always applauds any genuine effort to discuss the conflict in a safe and neutral manner; however, we strongly felt that this was not the case last Sunday. While their presence was meant to break down barriers between the two sides of the conflict, they ultimately produced a discourse that further reinforced them.
First, when telling their stories, the soldiers largely ignored the painful and controversial formation of Israel from Palestinian territory as well as the history of divided Jewish support for Zionism. While explaining what it was like to grow up around violence, the soldiers focused on the acts of violence without contextualizing, questioning, or addressing its root cause. Furthermore, they argued that any Palestinian hatred toward Israel was the result of a lack of education and an indoctrination of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic beliefs. We feel this is a surface level response, and an avoidance of facts that is unproductive for appropriate discussion.
Another major aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the soldiers ignored was the power imbalance between Israel and Palestine. Israel is currently the largest recipient of US aid, while Palestine is a state under occupation, with regions like Gaza under blockades with severe restrictions on educational and economic opportunities. Israel also has by far the most capable military in the Middle East. When asked about the impact of this power imbalance on discourse and politics, the soldiers responded that the most important power imbalance was that Israel was surrounded by numerous Arab states wanting to destroy it, further reinforcing the dated and paranoid discourse of defense. However, Israel has maintained full, open diplomatic relations with Egypt (since 1979) and Jordan (since 1994).
Another one of the repeated claims put forth by one soldier was that he would not stand for anyone who threatens his “national identity”, and would never sit down with a Nazi, a KKK member, or Hamas. While the soldiers professed a desire for a peaceful political resolution, “negotiating with terrorists” is a reality that cannot be ignored. Even the US now negotiates with the Taliban. This discourse of “terrorism” serves to artificially isolate Hamas and prevent the comparison of Hamas’ actions with Israel’s. While Hamas’ attacks on civilians can never be justified, they are an important player in the politics of the region; ignoring them will not make them go away, nor will it assuage their violent acts.
Most importantly, these soldiers completely ignored the masses of human rights violations committed by the IDF. Instead, they asserted that the occupation is an attempt to stimulate the economy of Palestine. This is blatantly false. The speakers repeatedly complained about criticisms of Israel, arguing that it has the best human rights record in the region. According to the Human Rights Watch, in 2013, Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians, destroyed their homes, imposed severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and arbitrarily arrested Palestinians, both children and peaceful protestors. Israel has also imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2005, stopping almost all exports, and severely restricting imports, essentially imprisoning its 1.6 million population (Amnesty International).
The speaker went on to assert that the internationally legitimized claims that Israel pursues apartheid policies with regards to its treatment of Palestinians were “ridiculous accusations” rooted in ignorance and anti-Semitism. This rhetoric conflates religious and national boundaries (anti-Semitism vs. anti-Israel), and only serves to distract from Israeli human rights violations, of which there are many. The soldiers argued that the world cannot accuse Israel of human rights abuses when all the other nations in the Middle East were committing them as well. Yet human rights violations in one country are no less important than in another.
One soldier’s script detailing his positive experience as a gay man serving in the Israeli army was an example of “Pinkwashing”, which is a marketing tactic Israel uses to appear progressive through support of the LGBT community, while concealing their violations of Palestinian human rights. In line with this idealistic image of Israel, one speaker went so far as to say that “the only country in the world that helps Syrians is Israel,” as if the millions of Syrian refugees currently harbored by Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and the humanitarian efforts of international organizations are insignificant.
In order for discourse on the conflict to be peaceful and productive, there needs to be a proper acknowledgement of facts and reality. Ignoring the complex history of Israel’s establishment and the human rights violations it has been committing toward Palestinians ever since only results in anger and alienation of the two sides. SPJP hopes that by bringing these flawed narratives to light, we will encourage people to approach future discussions on this issue with a greater understanding and a critical eye.
Aneesa Andrabi ’16, Joelle Hageboutrous ’16, Danny Hirschel-Burns ’14, and Timmy Hirschel-Burns ’17 have written this piece on behalf of Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine.