For American Jews, a middle way on the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Ongoing civil discourse regarding current Israel-Palestine events is vital even as it is increasingly fraught.
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Sunday. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack in Israel.
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Sunday. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack in Israel. [ ARIEL SCHALIT | AP ]
Published Feb. 8

The U.S. Jewish community, in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere, is experiencing significant and painful schism over the Israel-Palestine Gaza war following the horrific Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

Douglas D. Schocken, M.D.
Douglas D. Schocken, M.D. [ Times files ]
Jeffrey Gold
Jeffrey Gold [ Times files ]
Mark I. Pinsky
Mark I. Pinsky [ Times files ]

On one hand, many are choosing a “circle-the-wagons” tribalism, broadly defending the Israeli government and Israel Defense Forces, while barely conceding widespread civilian casualties and destruction in Gaza. Their core justification: Israel has a right to defend itself.

On the other, anti-Zionist groups like the Jewish Voice for Peace, question the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.

In between, are Jews like us. We also abhor Jew hatred, and the October Hamas atrocities on Israeli civilians, especially women. Moreover, we abhor violence against Gaza civilians, governmental calls for their displacement, and criminal violent acts against West Bank Palestinians.

American Jews are rightly outraged by antisemitism’s rise on college campuses and elsewhere. But many barely acknowledge increasing Islamophobic violence, whose victims include a dead 6-year-old Chicago-area Muslim child and three Palestinian college students shot in Vermont. These events help compose a larger relational fabric of hatred toward multiple marginalized communities. White nationalism is far more destructive in this regard than actions by the U.S. left.

Many of these perspectives promote a binary “us versus them” paradigm. Rigid dichotomies that imply “We are right, and you are wrong” rarely yield fruitful solutions.

Ongoing civil discourse regarding current Israel-Palestine events is vital even as it is increasingly fraught. This discourse must acknowledge the complexities of multiple, conflicting and legitimate narratives. Whenever the horrid dust settles in the current Israel-Hamas war, diaspora and Israeli Jews and Palestinians must struggle to reconcile challenging, painful narratives.

Consider some starting points.

Ancestral claims: Historically, the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was never “a land without a people,” as some early Zionists asserted. Historical evidence and Biblical traditions hardly settle this argument; adequate evidence may never materialize. Currently, evidence exists for “Jews” (by any name) in that land starting around a millennium B.C.E, although far fewer after the failed 70 C.E. revolt against the Romans. But different tribes before and then alongside them also “peopled” the land. Few pure and uncontested records exist of ancestry, geography and identities of those peoples.

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Sovereignty and nationhood: Over time, kingdoms between the river and the sea rose and fell. Thus, no exclusive — or superior — divine or historical land claim exists. Asserting this claim solely for Jews is engaging in religious or mythic Jewish supremacy.

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism: Yes, the anti-Zionist chant “From the river to the sea,” suggesting “Jews out of greater Israel” evokes further Jewish trauma, reviving deeply troubling Holocaust memories. Evidence by some Israelis extending from the Likud party platform to West Bank settler-extremists’ similar declarations, religious fanaticism, violence and assertion of a divine right to all the land evokes appropriate anxiety in Palestinians. We Jews are not the only ones experiencing existential threat.

However, insisting that anti-Zionism is categorically antisemitism does profound injustice to the interwoven Israel-Palestine narratives. Palestinian nationalists are not all Hamas members. Anti-Zionism may or may not be antisemitic. Zionism’s history is complicated and multifaceted. From its inception, some prominent Jews opposed statehood. Most German and American reform movements from the late 1800s to the 1930s’ Nazi rise expressed similar opposition to a Jewish state, as do some ultra-Orthodox today. Were they all antisemitic? Anti-Zionist?

Some mainstream Jewish organizations attack criticism of Israel as antisemitic. This blanket approach can weaponize antisemitism (often for political purposes), obfuscate and do harm when real Jew hatred rears its ugly face.

Apartheid: On this point, much legitimate debate exists. However, undeniably the occupied West Bank has walls, roadblocks, checkpoints, differential identification cards, and differential infrastructure. Israeli human rights groups like B’Tselem have documented Jewish West Bank supremacy. On Sept. 6, a month before Hamas attacked, former Mossad head Tamir Pardo acknowledged that Israel enforces apartheid in the West Bank, according to an Associated Press world news report. This chronic occupation has damaged both Palestinians’ lives and Jews’ long-cherished ideals: a sense of justice, ethics and appreciation for human worth and dignity.

1948: An especially clear divide indicator is the two conflicting views of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe”). Very different perspectives interpret the same historical events. The Jewish homeland’s existence is inextricably bound to the dispossession and displacement of another people.

Our effort to recognize these complex, competing truths seeks to humanize the “other.” We challenge dehumanization stemming from tribalism, post-Holocaust trauma and victimhood. Acknowledgment of the “other” is as old as Judaism itself.

Those not directly confronting these realities condemn themselves to reinforcing their victimhood or a sense of omnipotence and its corollary, dehumanization of others. With ongoing grief we believe that the Hamas atrocities on Oct. 7 and Israel’s military actions in Gaza, while asymmetrical, are just the latest horrific examples. We need a different response.

Douglas D. Schocken, a longtime Tampa resident and cardiologist, is a member of Congregation Schaarai Zedek. Mark I. Pinsky is a former religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel who writes frequently about Zionism and antisemitism for Jewish and secular publications. Jeffrey Gold, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist who lives near Amherst, Massachusetts. The co-authors have been active in conciliation efforts in their respective Jewish and secular communities since Oct. 7 and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.