Poster Politics

Israeli and Palestinian Narratives Mirror One Another, But Do Not Reflect Parity

10.15.13 8:15 PM ET

At the end of the summer I blogged about the controversy stemming from a series of public transit ads paid for by a Palestine solidarity organization in Vancouver. Now an Israel advocacy group has fought back with an ad of its own.

In my two earlier pieces on the issue here at Open Zion, I discussed the ethics around the decision to post the original ads, and assessed their veracity.

I also suggested that the response of the organized Jewish community at the time, namely to try to get the ads removed, was futile. Instead, I wrote,

…there is something the Jewish community can do. Rather than silence the call for the clock of history to be rolled back to 1948, a call that is both futile and arrogant in its lack of empathy for one side of the conflict, the Jewish community should jump into the marketplace of ideas and issue a call for a mutually just solution, one that respects the needs and desires of both sides, today, in 2013.

It seems that elements of the Jewish community, at least in its Israel advocacy form, have indeed taken my advice and jumped into the fray. In that light it is only fair to shine a light on these ads too. Are their claims true? And there’s another question that deserves to be asked: why are Jews—and even self-described Zionists— more likely to take issue with these so-called “pro-Israel” ads than Palestinians are to the original, so-called “pro-Palestine” ads?

First, the veracity question. Like the “Disappearing Palestine” ads, these posters seek to portray “Jewish” land as steadily shrinking—from its Biblical days, through to the British promise to establish a homeland for the Jewish people (documented in the 1917 Balfour Declaration and echoed at the 1920 San Remo Conference), to the present day, where the State of Israel (plus the “disputed territory” the map calls the occupied territory of the West Bank) currently resides.

Are the Biblical borders accurate? While it’s difficult to be certain, one can assume that the passage from Exodus 23:31 roughly corresponds to the poster’s claim. “I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you.” Now, as for the fairness of allowing the use of the Bible to adjudicate modern-day political disputes, I will let the reader decide.

And what of the San Remo Conference? Like the 1947 UN Resolution to divide the land of Palestine into two states (and to which the Disappearing Palestine posters made reference), the Balfour Declaration indeed served as a policy guide for the Mandatory power—and for the five countries (Britain, France, Italy and Japan, with the U.S. as a neutral observer), who gathered at San Remo in 1920. But neither plan ultimately came to fruition.

As for the so-called “disputed territories,” this is a term that more hawkish Israelis tend to use to obscure the fact that the Palestinian population lives under a foreign military occupation where the law of the land is not their own.

Despite the mirror-image claims, there is something that the two sets of posters have in common, and that is an appeal to national narratives. As I argued in my earlier blog post, the Disappearing Palestine ads successfully convey the dominant Palestinian narrative of exile and dispossession. So too are these Jewish-loss-of-land posters important for delivering a message of Jewish historical memory and longing. Each side can understandably cry, “what could we have had if we didn’t have our adversaries to contend with?”

But despite these similarities, there is something fundamentally different between the tenor and impact of the two initiatives. Quite simply, one side has much more power than the other.The fact of an imbalance of military and material power between Israelis and Palestinians helps explain how different are internal Palestinian (including Palestinian Diaspora) politics from internal Israeli (including Jewish Diaspora) politics. It also helps explain why the kind of Palestinian “peace activists” and critical journalists and academics we see among some Israelis and some Diaspora Jews are less visible. Where are the Palestinian Yossis (Beilin and Sarid), one might ask? Where is the Palestinian Amira Hass or Gideon Levy?

Despite P.A. President Abbas’s statement that his government has renounced the Palestinian claims to “Jaffa, Acre or Haifa,” most Palestinians, and many of their supporters, keep the maximalist dream of refugee return actively alive. Most, if not all, deny the legitimacy of the Zionist project. And the calls for a “one-state solution” are only increasing. At minimum, while many Palestinians abhor political violence, virtually all are united in the fact that the status quo—in the form of the occupation—must end.

On the other hand, the range of political thought and action within Jewish and Israeli communal discourse varies wildly— from those who would seek to maintain permanent control over the Palestinian population to those who challenge the Israeli government to radically shift its policies. While many Zionists would laud the message behind these current political ads, many others—including many of the so-called liberal Zionists among whom I count myself—would admittedly bristle. When your side wields the power, one can afford to demand that its use be moderated. One may even feel compelled to push one’s own side to pursue a sliver of justice.