Daniel Gordis and cognitive dissonance.

Israeli_and_Palestinian_FlagsLast week, Daniel Gordis ran an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post entitled “We Gave Peace a Chance,” consisting largely of a lengthy and pretty accurate list of the many and various ways in which Palestinians have been a disappointment to Israelis.

I cannot and will not argue that the Palestinian leadership has been a paragon of virtue, either in leading its own people or in dealing with mine, nor will I argue that the Palestinian people have taken many steps to reassure my people that they don’t actively despise us. It’s my impression, based in a quarter of a century of observation, that a lot of Palestinians do, in fact, despise Israel. Where Gordis and I differ, I think, is our starting point for dealing with Palestinians in the first place.

In his piece, Gordis relies on and advances the same kind of bush-league dehumanization of the Palestinian people writ large at which so many Israeli and American Jews excel. We feel sad when their children die (some of us do, at least, although I’ve certainly heard from those who do not), and we proudly cite Israel’s military rules of engagement as a sign that the IDF is the “world’s most moral army” (without much examining the extent  to which those rules are adhered to or are, in fact, moral). Mostly we just don’t think about the Palestinians—not as a nation, not as a culture. Not as actual people with real rights.

That blindness to the Palestinian people as anything other than flat characters in a play that we Jews get to write is the bedrock for everything else with which I disagree in Gordis’s piece.

Early on, he refers to the long-held peacenik expectation that “we would give land, and we would get peace.” This is an attitude shared and bruited about by many supporters of Israel, and the problem with it is that it presumes that the land is ours to “give” in the first place.

As a Zionist, it’s clear to me that the Land of Israel is the only place in which the Jewish people could build our national home; as a pro-Palestinian activist, I’m very much aware that the contours of the Land of Israel are more or less coterminous with those of historical Palestine.

When the Palestinian leadership began to negotiate for the establishment of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, they were acknowledging that after many decades of nationalist warfare—they had lost. Israel had and would remain in 78 percent of historical Palestine; the State of Palestine would be built on 22 percent, split into two pieces.

But just as the Land of Israel doesn’t belong to the Palestinians, neither does Palestine belong to us. The Palestinian people have just as much right to a state in their homeland as we do; when and if we negotiate land for peace, we’ll not actually be negotiating over “giving” the Palestinians anything—we’ll be negotiating over how to share that which belongs to us both.

Gordis goes on, attempting to rebrand the second intifada as “the Palestinian Terror War,” announcing that the Palestinian leadership has never been interested in a peace deal, and suggesting that the Palestinian position “gets stronger with each passing year.”

Space prevents me from responding to every disagreement we have (and there are more), but I’ll focus on the particularly striking notion that the Palestinian position can be seen as having gotten “stronger,” a notion that’s again based in a bedrock assumption that somehow the Palestinians are somehow a different manner of human:

Why should the Palestinians be interested in a deal? …They have seen the world shift from denying the existence of a Palestinian people to giving them observer status at the U.N. …With the terms bound to get sweeter in years to come, only a fool would sign now.

I’m left to paraphrase Chris Rock: one doesn’t get a cookie for acknowledging that people exist, not even if one is Israel and/or the Jews. Furthermore, U.N. observer status is not unlike being made assistant manager on your junior high basketball team—a consolation prize, and not a very good one.

Meanwhile, Israel decides whether or not Palestinians in Gaza may have access to gravel (serving to rather powerfully suggest that we didn’t really “give them” Gaza after all), and is free to launch military incursions into the West Bank seat of the Palestinian Authority. The state and its settler proxies continue the decades-long theft of Palestinian land on the West Bank, creating facts on the ground in order to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, while the majority of Gazans find themselves dependent on international agencies to meet their basic food needs. And as the editorial board of Haaretz put it on Thursday, the IDF has created and perpetuated an impression that “Palestinian blood may be shed with impunity.”

Again I ask: What would we Jews, we Israelis do—how would we react—if this was our reality? Would we trust the people who’ve been saying for decades that they want peace even as they continue to build on our land and kill our people? Would we sit quietly, or fight back however we could—fair or dirty, moral or not? Would we find it easy to not hate the people who rule over us? Might we not say (like Daniel Gordis) “our enemies are not fools, but they are consistent”?

By and large, the Palestinians behave as if they’re living in a long-term state of war in which their enemies have vastly more power and much better friends. They sometimes say terrible things (just like Israelis) and they often believe those terrible things (just like Israelis). They behave, by and large, like people.

Gordis is right that Israelis live in “a world of utter cognitive dissonance,” but it’s not a world in which we’ve duped ourselves into believing in the magical unicorn that is Peace With The Palestinians. It’s the world in which we say one thing, act another way entirely, and expect the human beings upon whom we’re acting not to notice.

Unlike Gordis, I can’t fool myself into believing that “to give up hope for peace is not to choose war” (speaking of cognitive dissonance). I fear that our attachment to this kind of willed ignorance will not only continue to lead to the sort of fear and tragedy with which Israelis have lived since 1967, but will ultimately lead to the end of the Zionist dream. For which, I am certain, we will blame everyone but ourselves.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.


  1. Reblogged this on Well, This Is What I Think and commented:
    This is a brutally frank and important commentary from a Jewish Zionist on everything that is wrong – and morally wrong – with the current Israeli government’s position on the Palestinian question. It deserves to be read by anyone – anyone – who genuinely wants peace in the Middle East.

  2. I frankly don’t even know what’s going on in the middle east anymore, but, I have tons of respect for you, not only for caring, but also for being honest,

  3. Want2Know

     /  January 21, 2013

    “It’s the world in which we say one thing, act another way entirely, and expect the human beings upon whom we’re acting not to notice.”

    That also describes the Palestinian M.O. I was in Area A last spring. I found no enthusiasm for a “two-state” solution, to put it mildly. What I really came to appreciate was how little any Palestinian leadership to-date has prepared its followers to even think about the reality of a two-state solution based on something like the Clinton parameters. Those 1948 key symbols are all over. It is very easy to overlook the degree to which both sides attitudes feed on each other. Bibi and his policies are a problem, but Bibi is also a symptom–a symtom of the profound disillusionment of Israelis following the collapse of the 2000-2001 negotiations. Bibi, and others like him, were not elected in a vaccum. Surely, at some level, you know this is true.

  4. A nice deconstruction of the Gordis piece.
    There is so much about this dispute that is caused by that ‘dehumanization’, on both sides and from outside, of the conflict. So sad, and so many horrible tragic wasteful deaths…

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