Reconceptualizing Israel vs. Palestine

Photo by Baz Ratner, Reuters
Photo by Baz Ratner, Reuters

by Gabrielle Cherney
Contributing Writer

“We must pray for Israel. We must pray for Israel and our fellow Jews. Israel is under attack.”

I remember hearing this as a child during every religious service I was taken to at the reform temple my family joined. I heard this, I believed it, and I grew up taking the assumptions behind the allegiance for granted.

This experience is not unique to me, nor is it unique to American Jews, Americans in general, or Jews in general. The inheritance of a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the most divisive conflicts of recent generations’ collective conscience, is almost universal.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media are constantly diagnosing, endorsing,
and proposing solutions—trying to answer the question of how to create stability in the region.

But while everyone ever-more frantically bickers about what the correct answer is, anti-Israeli powers continue to rise in the region, and the nuances and complexities embedded within the question itself are lost, making an educated position nearly impossible.

Mainstream discussion of policy proposals is laden with assumptions of false dichotomies and oversimplified history. As a result, analysis of current events, such as President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Israel, is misguided. There is a common lack of appreciation for the dynamics of inequality within Israel that exist beyond and within  Israelis versus Palestinians. Understanding these dynamics is fundamental to realizing that one of the main problems for Israel is its leadership’s insistence on embracing a Western identity despite its Eastern history, population, and geography.

Jews and Muslims have a long history of coexistence, particularly in Muslim states over the past two thousand years. Legally, socioeconomically, and politically, Jews were recognized and accommodated, despite divergence from the theocratic religious agendas of Muslim societies throughout the Middle East.

Additionally, an observable concentration of Jews has lived in the biblically defined borders of Israel for centuries. It was not until the late 1800s, with the first large wave of Zionists, when this Jewish concentration became significant vis-à-vis the non-Jewish population in the region. With this new wave of Zionists, Jews set on making Israel a legally recognized Jewish state and demanded higher wages for the same work Palestinians were already doing in the region. In response, the Jewish community excluded the Palestinians by effectively creating a split economy—one in which Jews made and spent higher wages and the other in which Palestinians experienced an economy with a considerably lower circulation of money.

This split economy set the stage for an easy transition to the systemic sociopolitical exclusion and economic blockade on Palestinians that arose when Israel became a state in 1948.

More importantly, up until 1948, the people of Palestinian were designated British Protected Persons, which meant essentially having a colonial-style extension of what can be understood as British ‘citizenship’ (insofar as the notion of citizenship functions in a colonial dynamic), as Britain owned the Palestinian territory after World War I when the Ottoman Empire was partitioned. This dynamic conveniently allowed the U.S. to create the Israeli state without infringing on a technically pre-existing “state.”

By the time Jews from all over were functionally bussed into the new Israeli state, the territory had already been zoned, categorized by level of security risk. The lowest levels of risk positively correlated with proximity to major cities—a proximity which also happens to be most conducive to socioeconomic and political access to the state.

Eastern European Jews (“Ashkenazim”) were placed in the relatively more secure and centrally located areas and Middle Eastern Jews (“Mizrahim”) were placed in the more obscure, high-risk areas.

Systemic discrimination against Mizrahim was, and continues to be, the consequence of the pro-West  incentive structure (i.e. garnering sociopolitical rewards by virtue of simply appearing pro-West) implemented at the very creation of the Israeli state. With Western oriented politicians installed in Israel, and supported by the seemingly more Western Ashkenazim in cities, the pro-West mentality dominated and was viewed as being at odds with the Eastern mentality, Jewish or otherwise.

Though different, and more extreme in the case of Palestinians, the discrimination felt by both Mizrahim and Palestinians has been so severe that coalitions have been formed to unite and promote mutual benefits for the two groups in the face of Ashkenazim exclusionary practices.

Simultaneously, the resistant cause of such coalitions rose in political prominence, which brings us back to the present situation. From the political center and left in Israel, political groups have been growing in numbers and force, endorsing the cause of middle and lower class Jews as well as Palestinians.

As I mentioned, most people in the Middle East, the West, or anywhere else, are raised under the pressure of an expected allegiance to either Israel or Palestine. However, the identity being embraced in order to inform that allegiance may not be as simple as you think—it is not as simple as Arabs vs. Jews; Middle Easterners vs. Israelis or Jews; or Jews vs. Muslims.

And perhaps most importantly, conflict between Jews and non-Jews, particularly Muslims in this case, is not inherent. Just as the relationship between these groups has shifted into one characterized as antagonistic in recent memory, it can shift back.

At the most fundamental level, Israel and its supporters must stop insisting on pushing a distinction between East and West as well as a distinction between Israel and the Middle East. Israel is in the Middle East and much of its population is Middle Eastern, religion aside.

The discrimination occurring within Israel is making it internally unstable and the projection of this discrimination is informing Israeli foreign policy. The result has been increasing isolation practices and general belligerence (i.e. violent assaults within its own territory and persistent aggression and threats toward neighboring states) on the international stage.

President Obama gave a speech on his most recent trip to Israel and the speech has received a huge amount of mainstream attention for its mention of concessions with Palestine. But less obviously and more importantly, what the President did with this speech was align himself with the position of the rising center-left portion of Israeli Jews, who have proven to be a surprisingly strong force during the most recent elections. He directly characterized the occupation of the West Bank as simply morally objectionable. This endorsement was inherently pitted against the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was a way for the President to make his stance known and, presumably, fuel the fire of political tension in Israel.

The current state of Middle Eastern affairs vis-à-vis Israel, Palestine, and the immediate region as a whole is not sustainable. By criticizing the framework in which Israel appears to view itself and, in turn, the way many in the West tend to view it, I am not implying that Israel should simply let its guard down. I am merely seeking to combat the fundamental oversimplification of Israel vs. Palestine, which even Israel itself tends to promote.

Gabrielle Cherney is a fellow for the U.S. Department of Education’s Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship Program. She is being funded for research and language development specifically in Persian. Her academic specialization is on the Near East and Central Eurasia, as well as Political Science, at Indiana University in Bloomington.


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