Both Sides Now

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The Green Line runs right through my family. One of my wife’s sisters lives in Ofra, a flagship, ideological settlement in Samaria. Another is a left activist who never crosses the Green Line—not even for her nephew’s bar mitzvah—except to demonstrate, or mix it up with settlers in the South Hebron Hills. On the night we hosted, and both attended, a dialogue evening between settlers and Jerusalem left activists, the line ran straight down our living room.

In some ways, the line runs right through me. I believe the settlement enterprise is a great and tragic moral and political error, unjust to the Palestinians and threatening to undo the extraordinary and precious achievement that is the State of Israel. And I care deeply for the well being of the settlers, my deep disagreements with them notwithstanding.

My sister-in-law in Ofra is a wonderful person, a social worker in Samaria, and through her I’ve come to learn about the poverty and desperation in many of the settlements there. She told me a while back she was willing in principle to live under Palestinian sovereignty (but that was before the Fatah-Hamas deal). She knows I deeply disagree with her, but she knows I care.

My sister-in-law on the left, however, apart from that one (painfully unsuccessful) evening, refuses to dialogue with settlers, and is blind to their humanity – though she sees the humanity of the Palestinians, and willing to overlook the patriarchy, religious dogmatism and class divisions among them that she bitterly attacks in Israeli society.

What I’m trying to get at is that it’s complicated. And that absence of a sense of just how complicated things are is why I can’t agree with Peter’s argument for ending the conflict by cauterizing the settlements by boycott and isolation. It just won’t work.

First, I don’t understand how Peter can just not mention the Palestinian leadership, which certainly has done more than its share to bring us where we are today. When they seemed ready for peace, as in 2006, Israelis voted in a government whose express platform was withdrawal. An attempted amputation of the sort Peter is suggesting relieves the Palestinians, once again, from having to negotiate seriously with Israel about things that Israel will genuinely and legitimately require.

Second, when engaging in boycotts we talk about penalizing governments and not people (indeed, I wish Obama had been clearer on that when talking at AIPAC about Iran). Yet the tack Peter is suggesting here precisely targets and embitters the people. As Tal Becker has recently pointed out the only way ultimately to move forward (and yes, it can still happen) is by convincing people on both sides that they actually have something to gain, and the punitive nature of Peter’s proposal cuts against that.

Consumer boycotts are a legitimate form of protest. But if American Jews want to be effective, rather than declaring war on the people producing Dead Sea salts, organic honey and software, they should regularly ask the Israeli leaders who lean on their support, hard questions about where their resources are going.

Third, and crucially, Peter’s blanket boycott proposal repeats one of the great, historic errors of the Israeli left: demonizing the settlers instead of talking to them. As one of Israel’s greatest journalists and men of the left once told me “Yitzhak (Rabin)’s great error was not talking to the settlers.” Sharon failed there too in the Gaza disengagement, relieving the settlers of real reckoning, and fueling their speculation that the whole disengagement was just a grand tactical diversion from his corruption scandals.

Peter approvingly cites the refusal of A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman to go speak in Ariel. But that just gets everyone off the hook—the right never has to come face to face with serious people making serious arguments, and the left doesn’t have to face hard and legitimate questions from the right about Palestinian intentions, Hamas, and, while we’re at it, how it proposes to maintain and grow Israel’s Jewish identity into the future.

Don’t get me wrong—dialogue is no panacea. And I am not calling for the unbearably earnest “conciliation talks” that were (understandably) fashionable in the aftermath of the Rabin murder. At the end of the day there are hard conversations to be had, hard political choices to be made, with lives to be shaken and hearts to be broken, and no degree of dialogue will make that go away. But we have to find a way to convey to the settlers that as much as we disagree with them, they are not the enemy; a way to be what Michael Walzer has called “connected critics” whose suasion comes precisely from their deep connection to the people and societies they criticize, who are, as he put it, “steady, patient, stubborn, faithful.”