Michelle Alexander’s “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine” Omits Key Facts, Puts Entire Onus for Conflict on Israel

January 29, 2019

Michelle Alexander is a scholar and writer of considerable repute on issues of racial equity and social justice in the United States. Her works have contributed significantly to public understanding of these issues. But her recent New York Times column on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one-sided and contains significant factual inaccuracies.

Her column, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” attempts to imagine how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  would see the conflict in its contemporary form, downplaying his long-standing and unambiguous support for Zionism. It tries to draw parallels between Dr. King’s early and morally courageous condemnation of an “unjust war” in Vietnam and what Alexander says is the moral imperative to break what she characterizes as the near-total reluctance of Congress and civil rights organizations to condemn Israel with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is puzzling, to say the least, given the high-profile criticism of Israeli actions that many, particularly on the political left, but also within the wider Jewish community itself, have engaged in. There is a dizzying array of groups that criticize Israel. Newspapers are filled with stories. Legislators often join in the fray.

The article also seeks to render as equivalent in many ways the heroic domestic struggle for civil rights by African-Americans and the enduring conflict between two national movements indigenous to the same piece of land. Any informed observer will acknowledge that these are entirely different scenarios that bear little resemblance. Attempting to understand this foreign conflict through the prism of American history reveals little and does justice to no one.

Beyond all of the shortcomings of this initial frame, the column omitted key facts and completely failed to represent how the vast majority of American Jews, including those who denounce and oppose Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, see the issues.

To begin with, the piece places the entire onus of the conflict on Israel, broadly relieving Palestinians and their leaders of any agency or responsibility.  It ignores the repeated peace offers Israel has made over the past quarter century – and the fact that they have been repeatedly rejected by Palestinian leaders.  For example, in 2000 former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an offer to then-Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership of a shared Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, and establishment of an independent Palestinian state in 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and as much as 95 percent of the West Bank.  The Palestinian leaders rejected that offer, as well as a subsequent, even more generous proposal. There were things that still had to be negotiated, but had any of those Israeli proposals been taken seriously, the Palestinians long ago could have attained an independent, viable state rather than the current status quo.

While Alexander criticizes Israel’s rejection of a Palestinian right of return, she makes no mention of the fact that this claim - which long has been understood by serious policymakers and even many Palestinian leaders to be a non-starter - would result in an end to Israel as a Jewish state. This is a proposition that no serious Israeli leader would accept. The article also mischaracterizes international law as requiring a full right of return for all Palestinian refugees, when what actually is required is a resolution to the refugee problem. 

Finally, the allegation that Israel has refused to discuss the refugee issue is flat-out wrong. There have been frequent discussions, over many years, about reparations, land swaps, the return of some Palestinians, and other relocation aid and assistance.  Any two-state resolution, negotiated by the parties, would have to include these issues.

Many factors have contributed to the humanitarian crisis faced by many Palestinians, including certain Israeli government policies and actions.  But the current crisis is also a result of cynical and corrupt manipulation by Palestinian leaders and Arab states. Disturbingly, Alexander’s New York Times piece also omits mention of decades of Palestinian terrorism that Israeli civilians have endured, including stabbings, shootings, suicide bombings, and thousands of rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon. These attacks did not start in 1967 – they began in 1948 after the Arab leadership rejected a partition offered by the United Nations and five Arab states initiated a war to destroy the new Jewish state. As a columnist, Alexander may choose to omit these facts, but readers are ill-served by the lack of proper context.

The piece also entirely ignores the role of Hamas, a terror organization that wrested control of Gaza in a violent coup in 2007 and that continues to openly, actively call for and support Israel’s destruction.  And the article ignores the disturbing and tragic practice of glorifying Palestinian “martyrs” – including many recruited for suicide missions when they are barely more than children – who died while committing terrorist attacks intended to maim and kill Israelis. In fact, the families of such slain terrorists benefit from regular payments from the Palestinian Authority (PA), funds that vary based on the size of the crime. Imagine if the PA rewarded the families of those who demonstrated bravery in the pursuit of peace instead!

To bolster her case, Alexander cites statistics about rising anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and the United States and writes “[w]e must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.”  We agree. Real anti-Semitism exists on both the right and the left – and criticism of Israeli government policies on human rights or other grounds is not inherently anti-Semitic.  Indeed, ADL, a steadfast supporter of the Jewish state and a two-state solution, often has been quite critical of various policies over the years, including the recent highly problematic nation state law referenced by Alexander.

But as we are seeing in parts of Western Europe and here in the United States, “criticism” of Israel can be the new incarnation of an old hatred. Singling out Israel for criticism in a one-sided manner or advocating for policies that intentionally undermine the viability of a Jewish state are suspect at best and cynical at worst. In addition, one has to ask critics – where are their voices when it comes to human rights concerns in other countries? The enormous disparity in attention to Israel and the comparative silence of so many of these same critics when it comes to human rights abuses conducted by states that have resulted in massive famine, mass use of rape, terrible suffering and far more deaths leads to the suspicions about underlying agendas here.  That is not to say, in any way, that criticism of Israeli policies is unacceptable. But is it any wonder why there is such concern about such an overwhelmingly dominant focus on the only Jewish state in the world?

Finally, Alexander is not telling the full story when it comes to the authorities she mentions. She cites Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a rabidly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel group, as a model of a Jewish organization willing to criticize the Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians. As anyone who is familiar with JVP’s activities will tell you, it is not a group that offers criticism in any constructive sense. To the contrary, it is an organization that entirely rejects Israel’s legitimacy and does not believe it should exist as a Jewish state. This was most evident in their recent public statement on Zionism, a document that rewrites Jewish history and bizarrely echoes the kind of claims so often found in anti-Semitic propaganda.

There are many organizations in the Jewish community that criticize Israeli policies – including ADL. And there are widely-divergent, legitimate views about Israel’s human rights record and what kind of society Israel should be. But it is incredibly alienating to be told by someone from outside the Jewish community who should represent the views of our community. 

With respect to the organized BDS movement, it is no secret that some of its founders, like Omar Barghouti, seek to delegitimize the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland and demonize it at every turn. Even a cursory examination of their charter or social media feeds makes this plain. Their model is not one that seeks an equitable outcome for all parties, but rather a formula for the perpetuation of the kind of conflict that has plagued the Jewish people for millennia. The founding goals of the organized BDS movement aim to deny the Jewish people the universal right of self-determination, and deem Israel to be, from its inception, a criminal enterprise that is irredeemably colonialist and racist.

This perspective categorically characterizes Israel solely as a corrupt colonial endeavor of white Europeans designed to suppress indigenous peoples of color. It ignores the fact that all of Israel’s Jewish citizens have historic ties to the land and yearned for Zion in diaspora. Indeed, the vast majority of Israelis descended from people who were persecuted over centuries in the countries in which they sought refuge after originally being expelled from their homeland. These are the reasons that the campaign has spurred outrage and drawn rebukes from all mainstream Jewish groups as well as from a wide range of non-Jewish organizations and public figures.

The arguments of those supporting BDS and equating Israel with apartheid South Africa or Jim Crow and a black/white or brown/white binary in the United States also fail to grasp the fact that more than half of Israeli Jews are not of European descent, but of Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian descent, largely from Muslim and Arabic-speaking countries. These Israeli Jews have had to fight to be represented in the country’s leadership. It is fair to note that the tensions between ethnic groups of Jews and attitudes toward Israeli Arabs and Palestinians merit attention.  But the Jews who came from or are descended from Muslim and Arabic-speaking lands support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and depend upon its existence. Like those Israelis whose descendants came from Europe, many were expelled from their ancestral homes or the victims of systematic discrimination or persecution in those places.

Clearly, not every individual who gets involved in a BDS protest on a college campus or some other setting intentionally harbors ill-will toward Jewish people. But those who support BDS need to grapple with the reality that it is a movement that drapes itself in the rhetoric of non-violence even as its leaders seek an outcome that appears deliberately engineered to induce violence.

In summary, Alexander is a serious scholar whose work has illuminated the very real challenges that continue to face communities of color in our country. But if she or other critics of Israeli policies truly want to increase understanding of the issues, let alone create an equitable and fair outcome for Palestinians, they need to avoid blaming only Israel for the current impasse and avoid the urge to isolate and demonize the Jewish state, or to praise as worthy criticism from the Jewish community only those groups whose goals, if met, would erase Israel as a Jewish state. The quest for Palestinian rights can be attained through honest dialogue and real, albeit very difficult compromise on both sides, but forced analogies and incomplete or false narratives will lead to little more than misunderstanding and pain.