The Polarization of Israel in American Politics is Dangerous
JALAA MAREY/Getty Images Taken from slate.com

The Polarization of Israel in American Politics is Dangerous

Sirens blare. Dogs bark.

For Israelis living near the Gaza Strip, there was no uproar. A scene so familiar it could be custom, families seek shelter as hundreds of rockets are indiscriminately fired upon their communities. Most are intercepted by the Iron Dome, a missile defense system that has served as a beacon of security for nearly a decade. A few, however, slip through, killing four and injuring one-hundred and twenty three.

On the other side of the fence, people scatter as Israeli aircraft roared overhead. Airstrikes were intended to eliminate “three hundred and fifty Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihadi Terrorist targets,” according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), but the area’s dense population led to disproportionate collateral damage. Thirteen civilians were killed compared to the twelve military targets. One-hundred and fifty three were wounded, and hundreds more were displaced from their homes.

Hostilities intensify, tension flares, and the prospect of peace wanes. These exchanges, the fiercest since a war between Gaza and Israel in 2014, occurred just this May. The loss of innocent lives should be mourned. It should remind leaders of the urgency of resolving the violence which has disturbed the region for too long. 

But that is not happening. Attacks like these are not treated as tragedies, but as ammunition for political agendas. 

In the United States, a growing Progressive wing increasingly views the conflict as Palestinian oppression; appalled by fifty years of occupation, disregard for international law, and neglect for human rights, they have amounted the State of Israel as a state of apartheid. And yet, a strong Christian electorate, remarkably the most pro-Israel American demographic, increasingly view the conflict as anti-semitic terrorism; believing that God’s Chosen People have an inherent Biblical right to the land, they have proclaimed unwavering support for a country which shares many of the same geopolitical threats as the United States. 

Identifying between Palestinian liberation or Israeli fortification has consumed American politics: recent data from the Pew Research Center show that 60% of Republicans view the Israeli government favorably, compared to just 26% of Democrats. 

This polarization is dangerous. When we try to distill such a nuanced conflict into a narrow political dichotomy, our understanding of the conflict becomes rudimentary. When the conflict becomes tainted with political motives, America’s role in mediation become alarmingly fragile. 

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To free ourselves from partisan perspectives, it’s important to forget our prejudices and understand the conflict on a factual level. 

The conflict is not a story of Israeli brutality, the survival of the Jews, or of religious struggle, as political narratives have tried to generalize the conflict into. It is a history of mutual desires to live in autonomy, and unfortunate circumstances which prevented it after decolonization and continue to prevent it now. 

The State of Israel has continued to consolidate power. Settlements divide and contain Palestinian communities; they expand endlessly, robbing the occupied West Bank of political autonomy and resulting in the demolition of Palestinian homes, even in spite of constant international condemnation. When violence erupts, the IDF is seldom held accountable for human rights violations, giving soldiers impunity from unlawful killing; protests such as the “Great March of Return” have been met with bullets, killing hundreds of unthreatening protestors. A rigid blockade of the Gaza Strip, meant to obstruct the flow of arms to Hamas, confines the Palestinian people without basic necessities such as water and electricity; the lack of the flow of goods strangles their economy, evidenced by an unemployment rate of nearly 50%.

Hamas maintains loosening grips of governance. With priorities diverging from those of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas masks their illegitimacy by instigating conflict and sending protestors to their deaths, drawing dissatisfaction away from their poor administration and consequently vilifying the Jewish people. Opposing negotiations with Israel, they instead persist on its complete annihilation. With ties to Hezbollah and Iran, they jeopardize the security of the world’s sole Jewish state, a republic established for the self-determination and safety of a people relentlessly persecuted for millennia—a safety growing in relevance as anti-semitism resurges across the globe. 

Without homes, without justice, and without jobs, there is no future for Palestinians, which is why many become vulnerable to extremism. Yet, the fear of radical and state-sponsored actors threatening Israel drives the harsh retaliation and the political expansion which has only further complicated the creation of an eventual Palestinian state. 

A pragmatic approach requires an understanding of these sensitive realities, which is why in both Democrat and Republican administrations the United States has consistently supported a two-state solution since 1948. Without a Palestinian state, no political entity can represent the millions displaced by war, foster an economy stable enough for growth, or provide necessary basic services to the hundreds of thousands who are stateless. Without both states, the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as a safe-haven for the Jewish people is constantly challenged, and the strife which fuels the cycle of violence continues.  

The United States was right when it delivered aid to the Palestinian people, who are the most dependent in the world. The United States was right to preserve the military defense of Israel, which has been challenged by its neighbors for decades. By helping to alleviate the greatest anxieties obstructing regional diplomacy, we have helped mediate meaningful progress. Through the Camp David and Oslo Accords, Israel has enjoyed relative peace with its Arab neighbors and a framework for the gradual creation of a Palestinian state has been constructed. 

American leadership on the world stage has power—immense power—which is why we must continue to use this power as a means of conciliation rather than alienation.

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But, as American civility erodes in a new era of hyper-partisan politics, the polarization of Israel has evolved from intensifying identification to solidifying policy, motivating the Trump administration to dramatically shift American strategy and give critical concessions to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. These concessions have consequences, and these consequences are shocking. 

The recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital was one of these concessions, and it was a brazen one. The city is claimed by both sides for its immense historical and religious significance, and recognizing the city as Israeli sparked justified international outcry. The decision is in effect an acceptance from the United States of Israel’s growing efforts of expanding settlements and annexing parts of Jerusalem that lie in the West Bank—efforts that erase the eastern half of the city’s Palestinian identity. More countries followed the leadership of the United States, tabling any potential shared-status of the city which was once central to discussions of peace.

This isn’t the only time we have put our thumb on the scale either. We have cut sixty-five million dollars in aid for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency For Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, exacerbating the destitute condition of five million displaced Palestinians. We have closed the offices of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Washington DC, ending the diplomatic mission established by the Oslo Accords. We have recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, even though it has been occupied from Syria since the War of 1967, validating international fears of enabling Israel to annex the West Bank. 

The polarization of Israel in American politics and its effects on our policy has not just had consequences for the realization of peace, but consequences for Israel itself. 

Its declaration of independence exclaimed that “[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

But a dogmatic loyalty to the State of Israel has already emboldened Netanyahu to redefine Israel’s identity from democracy to ethnocracy by passing a controversial basic-law, which is Israel’s equivalent of an American constitutional amendment. Fulfilling a core pledge to his supporters and his fracturing right-wing coalition, the basic-law cemented Israel’s identity as a nation-state for the unique self-determination of Jews alone. Among other things, the law demotes Arabic from an official language to a “special-status” and designates the expansion of Israeli settlements as a national value. Though mostly symbolic, the law has been interpreted as a license for discrimination against the Arab and Druze minorities, a fifth of Israel’s population. To them, the law is a proud admission of Jewish Supremacy.

Though Israel is quick to defend the law, the trend of “Jewish Supremacy” exists. How is Israel fulfilling its founding principle of democracy when Arabs experience voter suppression and are the scapegoat of a successful nationalist coalition, a coalition which consists of the Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) parties? How is Israel fulfilling its principles of equality when it allows local housing commissions to discriminate against Arabs? How is Israel fulfilling its principle of freedom when it fails to protect Arabs from increasing hate crimes caused by extreme rhetoric from thriving politicians?

And even when it is most needed, dialogue about these issues has become taboo. Take the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, whose goal is to mobilize pressure to Israel for their treatment of Palestinians under occupation, the rights of Palestinians living under Israeli sovereignty, and the rights of Palestinians affected by their diaspora who hope to return to their homeland—a hope identical to Zionism. Under the Netanyahu government, reciprocating to this movement has become just as urgent as reciprocating to a rocket attack from Hezbollah. They view it as the forefront of Israeli delegitimization and modern anti-semitism. Likewise, pro-Israel lobbying groups and organizations followed, creating unanimity against the movement and caution when listening to Israeli criticism.

The claim that the fringe movement is anti-semitic, regardless whether or not that is true, is plaguing. It has only intensified polarization and contributed to the degradation of the two-state solution’s support. 

It has shifted discourse away from what both Israelis and Palestinians must concede for coexistence, to that any concession from Israel is against its existence at all; it has pushed red states to punish the boycott and criticism of Israel, vilifying progressive circles instead of talking with them; it has sustained a rhetoric which demonizes two Muslim women of Congress, who were banned from entering Israel on a diplomatic mission in August.

Worst of all, it has conflated the meaning of anti-Israel, anti-Zionism, and anti-semitism into a monolith, breeding a toxicity where even Jews can call other Jews deprecating for liberal beliefs. 

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I’m Jewish, and I’m liberal, and I’m critical of the world’s only Jewish state. But I don’t hate myself. I am not any less Jewish than the Jews who say I’m not. And I’m certainly not disloyal to my own people, as Trump might suggest. I’m a Zionist. I am critical of the world’s sole Jewish state because it is the world’s only Jewish state and because it is the world’s only Jewish government. Israel is the only political extension of my identity and of fourteen million others like me, which is why it is so important that it represents values which make us proud. 

Israel should uphold the principles in its declaration—principles which distinguished it as the strongest democracy in the Middle East. It should cherish equality over power. It should respect democracy over tribalism. And most of all, it should value diplomacy over retaliation. 

It is heartbreaking that these values are neglected, and that Israel is exacerbating its own insecurity by suppressing Palestine, but the United States is entirely complicit in allowing this to happen because to do so has become politically favorable. These developments do nothing to improve the security of Israel. These developments do nothing to enhance the prospect of peace. 

Politics have hijacked American foreign policy away from the bipartisanship and obscured our objectives. The United States should remain loyal to Israel, and we must continue to assist in its security. But have not been loyal to the extent where we arbitrate every contentious aspect of negotiations, to the extent where we forget about the root political and economic struggles of Palestinians, or to the extent where we ignore the dying democratic character of Israel. This blind loyalty, born from polarization, has only gridlocked negotiations further, undermining the two-state solution and diluting our once-relevant ideological and strategic alliance as more Americans lose sympathy. Blind loyalty is simply disloyalty. 

Recommitting to a bipartisan strategy in the region would not end the conflict, but it would be the first important step to resume any preexisting progress. 

The bitterness of conflict does not pause with a change in politics—it continues. A vision for the Jews thousands of years old remains in peril. Hundreds of thousands remain stateless. Millions remain in refuge. The safety of tens of millions of bystanders is at risk. 

Polarization on any issue is counterproductive, but it is dangerous when juggling the safety of countless lives. We must recommit to the two-state solution optimistically, or peace will remain unattainable, and sirens will continue to blare. 

Thomas Goldstein is a senior at Westlake High School, an officer of Westlake’s Model UN team, and an accomplished bassist in both jazz and classical settings. He also has experience in local and national activism, as well as grassroots campaigning. As the lead journalism editor and a member of the Austin Youth Artists United team, it has been his mission to give high school students a platform to share their work and their voice. 

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