A panel on Palestinians – with no Palestinians

Both discussion of and activism in the Palestinian struggle amongst Jews raises the question of the role Jews should play in this struggle.

Next week, the Harry Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, which is part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is holding a panel entitled: “Palestinians in East Jerusalem: What do they really think?”

The speakers include: Dr. David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Professor Yitzhak Reiter of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and Tal Shenhav, Coordinator of Middle East Research at the Truman Institute.

I could not help but notice that for a panel strictly dealing with what Palestinians from East Jerusalem “really think,” a key ingredient seems to be missing: actual Palestinians. The panel should really be called: “What some Israeli and American academics think that Palestinians from East Jerusalem really think.”

While this is just a tidbit that reflects what I think is a misconceived, or at least poorly planned, panel, it made me think about a different, maybe even inverse, although related trend in Israel, in which Israeli activists join the Palestinian struggle against the occupation. In an interesting article that appeared in Counterpunch, a Jewish community leader argues that that Jewish activists who join the Palestinian solidarity movements in the U.S. are actually copping out of their responsibility to challenge Jewish supremacism in their own communities.

So what are Jewish-led and Jewish-identified groups and leaders doing? Certainly, they criticize atrocities committed by Israel in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but are they clearly defining their positions? Do they oppose Jewish supremacism, as some opposed White supremacism in South Africa during the 1980s? Which of the higher profile Jewish-led and Jewish-identified groups are demanding an end to a Jewish state and full and immediate return for displaced Palestinians and their descendants?

While I do not agree with the sentiments of this statement (primarily because he does not appear interested in peace between two peoples but rather a negation of Israel in favor of Palestine), I do agree that the discriminatory and racist policies applied in Israel are fostered by American Jews because they are afraid to go the extra mile and say, for example, that the Jewish National Fund is a racist institution that privileges Jews and thus should no longer operate in a modern democracy. It also brings up an interesting question of the role Jews are playing in the Palestinian struggle both in Israel and abroad. Should they really be involved in another people’s struggle or concentrate on their own? Are these mutually exclusive? As he asserts:

The lesson is that sincere Jews should not play leading roles in the Palestinian solidarity movement, but should instead expose and challenge the racism that exists in their own Jewish communities.

Invoking Malcolm X’s conviction that whites should not join the blacks in their struggle because it is merely a way to salve their conscience,  the question remains whether going out to protest with Palestinians, whether in Israel/Palestine or abroad, is the most effective way for Jews to challenge and take responsibility for the racist policies of Jewish and Israeli institutions done in their name. I certainly think such activism succeeds at challenging daily injustices, but the fact that Israeli activists often play a leading role in conveying the Palestinian struggle to the world media is akin to a bunch of academics addressing a conference about what Palestinians really think.

At the end of the day, Israelis cannot wear the shoes of Palestinians. And there are plenty of problems within Israeli Jewish society itself, with its own Russian, Ethiopian and Mizrahi minorities, with the religious-secular divides, that need addressing. As Malcolm X said:

Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out there on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities.