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Ideas Worth Spreading?

What my trip to TEDx Ramallah says about the state of progressive Palestinians.

In terms of Israeli politics, I have always been a left-winger. Or at least that’s what I thought before a Saturday in April, when I attended the TEDx Ramallah conference, which took place simultaneously in Bethlehem, Amman and Beirut. After a long day of listening to inflammatory polemics, I understood that I needed to re-identify, to add a small qualifier to my political affiliation: No longer am I simply a left-winger, but rather a Zionist left-winger. This might not seem like a significant adjustment, but after hearing the Palestinian speakers—many educated in leading institutions abroad, all eloquent, smart and ostensibly progressive—I felt they represented something far from what I was willing to endorse. Whether it was the elderly gentleman who lamented how borders are an unnatural addition to the pristine hills of his childhood, or the Palestinian-American businessman from Youngstown, Ohio, who argued that the only just solution to the conflict is a full right of return for the Palestinian refugees of 1948, many seemed to be saying the same thing: No longer is a two state solution desirable, and one state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean is the only acceptable outcome. There was no attempt to sugarcoat the implications—they were talking about the end of the Zionist enterprise. 

I came to TEDx expecting to meet liberal counterparts: forward-looking individuals with ideas “worth spreading,” as the TED motto promises. TEDx, which are independently organized TED events, are supposed to be—according to their guidelines—events filled with “short, carefully prepared talks, demonstrations and performances on a wide range of subjects to foster learning, inspiration and wonder.” At the same time, there is a strict prohibition on any promotion of “spiritual or religious beliefs, commercial products or political agendas.” I can understand, of course, how many Palestinians would say that their daily existence is so fundamentally tainted by the Israeli occupation that it is impossible for them to ignore “politics.” And perhaps it was unrealistic to hope that for one day, the progressive intellectual leaders of the Palestinian street would be able to stand up—in front of their own people—and say that extremists, on both sides, are those who fuel the conflict, and that it is time for the liberal pragmatists with “ideas worth spreading” to step up to the plate.

As it turns out, however, I emerged sorely disillusioned. While we on the Israeli left are fighting for the Palestinian right to self-determination, at least some on the Palestinian “left”—represented at this particular conference—were advocating for an end to Jewish self-determination. But the most depressing fact in listening to these Palestinian activists was that they were not that different from the right-wing extremists on the Israeli side: incapable of self-criticism and reflection, or of giving an honest account of the situation. Frequently they smudged facts in a disingenuous manner, referring in one instance to “the Zionist war machine” and the killing of “our friends Juliano and Vittorio.” They were referring to two killings that took place in the last month in Jenin and Gaza: the first of Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli-Palestinian actor and activist, who was gunned down by a masked Palestinian outside the theater he ran in Jenin, and the second of Italian International Solidarity Movement activist Vittorio Arigoni, who was kidnapped and murdered by extreme Islamists in Gaza. While both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas quickly condemned these two murders, the fact that both men were killed by Palestinians was not once mentioned. If you were unaware of the circumstances of these murders, the implication was that Israel was responsible for their deaths.

Similarly, listening to Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker describe Israel as a brutal and evil force would have you believe that Israel takes a sadistic form of pleasure in making the lives of Palestinians miserable. Not a word was uttered about the reasons for the roadblocks or cautious behavior at checkpoints. No one mentioned the slaying of the Fogel family, including the stabbing to death of their 3-month-old infant, just last month. No one denounced the ongoing bombardment of rockets from Gaza onto the cities of southern Israel. Call me naïve, but I am suspicious of anyone who is able to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict in black and white terms.

Typically, I couch my position—that Israel should get out of the West Bank, dismantle the settlements, and work to build a viable Palestinian state with a stable economy—in the language of human rights. This is not a ploy. In doing so I join a familiar chorus of do-gooders who genuinely believe that we are oppressors, that the lives of many Palestinians living under our occupation are unbearable, and that our presence in the territories raises serious moral questions. And I should know—I’ve manned unnecessary roadblocks, witnessed abuses at checkpoints, seen the anguish of innocent families enduring nightly raids, and spent three years as an IDF soldier implementing an egregious form of communal punishment by demolishing the homes of terrorists’ families. I’ve also experienced the other side: arms being smuggled into Israel in ambulances by supposedly pregnant women, charred buses filled with blown-up Israelis in the center of Jerusalem, and my 81-year-old next door neighbor killed by a young female suicide bomber.

The venomous rhetoric I heard in Bethlehem, however, makes it difficult to continue espousing my arguments in terms of human rights. I still believe in the moral argument, of course, and hearing a few radical speeches will not alter that. What’s more, human rights justifications have universal and international validity. But I was disappointed to find so little reciprocity on the other side. I think, therefore, that there is a need for a tactical shift in rhetoric from a moralistic viewpoint to a selfish strategic one. We should get out of the territories and the Palestinians should have their own state not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the smart thing to do. It is in Israel’s best interest to reach a two-state solution before it is no longer an option. If we are to envision a Jewish and democratic state continuing to thrive in the future, a state that is not universally condemned as a second apartheid regime, this is our only recourse. Needless to say, moralism and enlightened self-interest are not mutually exclusive. But, with these kinds of counterparts, the latter seems more persuasive.

Mishy Harman is a doctoral candidate in archeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

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