Category Archives: Communication and Conflict Resolution

The Truth About BDS


The immediate result of Israel’s recent election was a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of American President Donald Trump. But the election results have also revived the perennial interest outside the country in the political lives of Israelis and Palestinians. Paradoxically, while formal relations between the governments of Israel and the U.S. appear to be at a high, anti-Israel political movements have also been getting stronger as the  Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has inched closer to normalization in American progressive and to some extent liberal politics.

The growth of the BDS movement in America presents a serious challenge. It means that even as the U.S. alliance with Israel may grow stronger on some fronts it will always remain vulnerable to changes in political administration and sudden setbacks and it has a negative impact on the relations between Israel and left-leaning Jewish Americans. It is imperative, therefore to confront the false premises on which the BDS case has been constructed and expose the great distance between the polite myths repeated by BDS supporters and the violent realities inherent in a political cause that holds as its ultimate goal the destruction of Israel.


Setting the record straight on the issue of the ‘two-state solution’

One place to begin examining the misconceptions surrounding BDS is with a long article written in The Guardian last August by the American journalist Nathan Thrall, which purported to explain the historical roots and current aims of the movement. In fact, Thrall’s thousands of words on the subject highlighted the fallacies animating the beliefs of progressive Americans on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Thrall mentions “two-states” 15 times in his Guardian article, but not even once does he mention “two-states for two-peoples,” which indicates his deep misunderstanding of the issue. Indeed, the Palestinian leadership is ready to have a “two-state solution” as long as it is not a “two-states for two-peoples, with a mutual recognition of their national identity” solution. The Palestinian narrative thus negates the existence of a Jewish people and of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine throughout history, and treats Zionism as a racist, colonialist movement created by the Europeans to promote Western interests. It therefore rejects the idea of a state for the Jewish people on any grain of soil in Palestine.

This is the core of the conflict and has been so since this narrative was formed after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, since, before 1900, namely before the emergence of Zionism, the Arab residents of this piece of land did not consider themselves Palestinians.

The two-state solution supported by the Palestinians speaks about a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 territories and a nonethnic state called Israel that is not the nation-state of the Jewish people (which does not exist, since, in their narrative, Judaism refers only to a religion and not to a people with their own nation).

This is the implementation of the “phases theory” adopted by the PLO in 1974, namely that Palestinians should take from the Israelis whatever they can and then form a state that will keep struggling for the rest of British-mandate Palestine. Article 8 of this Ten Point Program stated that, “Once it is established, the Palestinian national authority will strive to achieve a union of the confrontation countries, with the aim of completing the liberation of all Palestinian territory, and as a step along the road to comprehensive Arab unity.” This is why the recognition of the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” is more important than the return itself; it is considered a tool to bring about the demise of Israel as a Jewish state.

Mahmoud Abbas’ speeches earlier in 2018, which Thrall mentions briefly, repeated this narrative and reaffirm his commitment to the ideas in his book Zionism, From Beginning to End, written in 1977 and never translated, which provides his full logic and recommended way of action for putting an end to the injustice represented by Zionism. Abbas may use occasionally the expression “two-states for two-peoples,” but the second “people” he refers to are actually the Israelis rather than the Jewish people; another way of denying the historical basis for Jewish nationhood within the borders of Israel.


Setting the record straight on the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian state

Thrall writes as if the Oslo Accords guaranteed the creation of a Palestinian state. In fact, there is nothing further from the truth. Oslo makes absolutely no reference to a Palestinian state, but rather speaks about an undetermined permanent settlement, to be negotiated. Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister at the time, made it clear in his last appearance before the Knesset, on Oct. 5, 1995, that he opposed the idea of a Palestinian state.

We view the permanent solution in the framework of a State of Israel which will include most of the area of the Land of Israel (Palestine) as it was under the rule of the British Mandate, and alongside it a Palestinian entity which will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. We would like this entity to be less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority.


Setting the record straight on the BDS stance toward violence

No less than 13 times, Thrall attributes nonviolence as a principle of the BDS movement. This is misleading.

First, unlike Gandhi and Mandela, who were morally and practically against the use of violence, BDS is not at all against violence. It rather views it as not efficient enough and unsuccessful in bringing about the demise of Israel. Therefore, BDS suggests nonviolence as an additional, more effective method. So, whereas Gandhi rejected violence and Mandela thought that violence is justified only when nonviolent activity is proven futile, BDS’ resort to less-violent activities is a result of the shortcomings of violence in the forms of war or terror. It complements the violent methods of the struggle and is not really nonviolent. It simply uses soft violence (hurting the enemy without using force). The option of peacemaking is definitely not what they try to promote as a group.

Secondly, among the groups that constitute the BNC (the Palestinian BDS National Committee), many of them are branches of terrorist organizations, especially PFLP, the Marxist Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine. One of the BNC founders is the “Palestinian National and Islamic Forces,” which Thrall describes as “the coordinating body for every significant political party.” In fact, the “Palestinian National and Islamic Forces” functioned as the joint command of the ruthless terror campaign known as the Second Intifada and among its members are the terror organizations Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. This whitewashing tells volumes about how far Thrall and many progressives are willing to go to justify their narrative of BDS as a beacon of principled nonviolence.

It is quite surprising that Thrall was so easily misled on this matter given that BDS activists themselves have made no secret of their support for violence. Chants of “Intifada, Intifada, long live the Intifada” have been chronicled on multiple occasions by both anti-Israel and pro-Israel groups. Pro-BDS websites are quite often used to glorify terrorists and encourage violence. One has to be willfully blind to compare such a movement, as Thrall does, to the nonviolent campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.


Setting the record straight regarding the goals of BDS

When it comes to describing the three declared goals of the movement, Thrall offers a sanitized and sympathetic account.

What was new about BDS was that it took disparate campaigns to pressure Israel and united them around three clear demands, with one for each major component of the Palestinian people. First, freedom for the residents of the occupied territories; second, equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and third, justice for Palestinian refugees in the diaspora–the largest group–including the right to return to their homes.

But here is the way the BDS actually phrases its demands from Israel:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

It looks somewhat similar, but misses the main point. The aim of these demands is the total annihilation of Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people. The occupation that they refer to is not the 1967 occupation, but rather the formation of Israel in the first place. On the matter of full equal rights for Arab-Palestinians living in Israel, some may point out that despite the large degree of political franchise and freedom exercised by Palestinian citizens of Israel, they are still underprivileged relative to the average Israeli, What is crucial to understand, however, is that the BDS framework of rights is not confined to individual civil and political freedoms but, rather, includes a claim to collective Palestinian national rights that would prevent Israel from being the nation-state of the Jewish people. This view was promulgated in the basic documents prepared by Israeli-Arabs in 1996-2000. The reference to Resolution 194 means recognizing the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” to their homes (though the language of the resolution is not that clear on the matter) despite the fact that no such right exists in international law and its implementation in practice would mean the end of Israel as a democratic Jewish nation-state.

Thrall might have gained a better appreciation for BDS goals simply by listening to the movement’s supporters.

Ahmad Moor, a prominent BDS activist, admitted: “OK, fine. So BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state … BDS is not another step on the way to the final showdown; BDS is The Final Showdown.”

As’ad Abu Khalil, a University of California professor and a BDS activist has also been quite clear. “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the State of Israel,” he said.

Thrall’s accommodating approach is exactly the response that BDS counts on from Western and Israeli “useful idiots,” who are all too happy to ignore inconvenient realities and accept the deceptive talking points that are spoon-fed to them.

Supporters of the BDS movement may believe that they are engaged in a legitimate form of protest. They may be motivated by their perception of abuses committed by the IDF, by a desire to end Israel’s settlement policy, or to redress the policies of the Israeli state that they believe to be unjust—but that is not, in fact, the goal of the movement in which they have enlisted. The goal of BDS is not to change the policies of Israel’s government, or force it to reform. Rather, its purpose is precisely what BDS  activist Ahmad Moor stated: to single out the Jewish state, alone among the nations of the earth, as the one country in the world that must be destroyed. Anyone who calls themselves pro-BDS, however noble they may believe their own intentions are, ought, at a minimum, acknowledge that this is the true end toward which they are working.


Setting the record straight on the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism

Thrall, like many supporters of BDS, tries to justify the BDS argument that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. This contradicts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, accepted by the European Union and the U.S. State department, which states that delegitimization, demonization, and the use of double standards towards Israel are modern day forms of anti-Semitism. Thrall claims that the purpose of the new definition was to punish criticism of Israel by equating it with hatred of Jews. Yet, the definition clearly states that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, which suggests that anyone making this claim to discredit the definition is either actively mendacious or totally detached from reality.

Israel has no problem with criticism. What it rejects is: delegitimization, demonization, and being treated with double standards. These are features of modern anti-Semitism. Thrall disregards the deep analysis and logic that stand behind this notion and gives unabetted credibility to the arguments of those opposing it, though they are very weak.

Thrall ignores the wealth of literature exploring the anti-Semitic motives embedded into the Palestinian narrative (including my own work on the subject). Instead, he gives credibility to ideologically driven so-called “human rights” organizations and lists reasons why the reference to three Ds (delegitimization, demonization, and double standards) is unjustified. This is exactly the position of Jeremy Corbyn and some radical members of the British Labour Party who are proud to cooperate with Hamas and organizations such as the British-based Palestinian Return Centre, that are part and parcel of the “delegitimization” and BDS efforts. It was at a Palestinian Return Centre event that Corbyn made one of his anti-Semitic remarks about British Jews who fail to get British Irony.

Thrall tries to justify double standards against Israel by noting that double standards were used in other cases. This is indeed a strange argument to legitimize the effort to delegitimize the existence of a U.N. member. Amazingly, Thrall’s article in The Guardian came after President Abbas delivered a speech earlier in 2018 blaming the very character of the Jews as the cause for the Holocaust—only one of a number of anti-Semitic statements he made that year.


Setting the record straight on the libel of apartheid

Thrall mentions Apartheid 20 times and eventually endorses this libel. Here is how he describes the situation:

The more deeply entrenched this one-state reality became, the more resonant the charge of apartheid, and the more difficult to imagine undoing it through partition into two states. A battle against occupation could be concluded with a simple military withdrawal, but a struggle against apartheid could be won only with the end of state policies that discriminated against non-Jews. In the case of Israel, these could be found not just in the occupied territories, but everywhere Palestinians came into contact with the state. In the West Bank, Palestinians were denied the right to vote for the government controlling their lives, deprived of free assembly and movement, forbidden from equal access to roads, resources and territory, and imprisoned indefinitely without charge. In Gaza, they could not exit, enter, import, export or even approach their borders without the permission of Israel or its ally, Egypt. In Jerusalem, they were segregated from one another and encircled by checkpoints and walls. In Israel, they were evicted from their lands, prevented from reclaiming their expropriated homes, and blocked from residing in communities inhabited exclusively by Jews. In the diaspora, they were prevented from reunifying with their families in Israel-Palestine or returning to their homes, solely because they were not Jews.

Since Thrall lives in Jerusalem and travels quite a lot around Israel and the territories one may wonder how he came to believe such fictions. Not all of his assertions are outright wrong. Some are detached from context—namely the terror threat Israel faces on a daily basis that forces Israel to take some measures to protect its citizens, including Arab Israelis.

Prominent black South Africans such as former Defense Minister Mesoia Lakota, himself a former victim of South Africa’s apartheid policies, have publicly refuted and even denounced the comparison between apartheid South Africa and the democratic State of Israel. Black South African human rights and anti-apartheid activist  Leon Jamaine Mithi has said that “calling Israel an apartheid state is an insult to black South Africans who suffered under the now defunct system of strict racial segregation. Mithi added that, “the Apartheid term has been appropriated to wrongly label Israel when referring to conflict with Palestine.”

The facts speak for themselves. The semi-sovereign Palestinian Authority that controls the lives of the Palestinians in Areas A and B in the West Bank is the chosen representative of their national will and has its own large security force. All the Palestinians in the territories, including those who are residents of Jerusalem and Area C (administered by Israel) vote in the PA elections. The fact that elections for the Palestinian parliament were not held since 2006 is very unfortunate for the Palestinians, but it has nothing to do with Israel.

Furthermore, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have the right to gather and demonstrate and they exercise this right very often. The problem is that most of the time the demonstrations turn violent, and then there is a need to restore public order. The limitations on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank are very limited (during the intifada there were checkpoints, but with the relative calm almost all of them were removed long ago). They drive on the same roads that Jews do, with a few exceptions that have to do with security needs (for example, Jews are not allowed to enter Areas A and B, which are controlled by the PA).

Thus, there are very few limitations on Palestinians and those that do exist have to do with security needs and have no racial motivation. Palestinians who want to cross from the areas that are subject to the Oslo Accords to sovereign Israel need a permit, and more than 100,000 workers do it every day.

Palestinians on the West Bank are not denied access to resources, but they refuse to cooperate in joint efforts to develop water systems. Almost all of them enjoy water and electricity provided mostly by Israel. There are also no West Bank Palestinians who are imprisoned indefinitely without charge. As sanctioned by the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel does use administrative detention in the event of a grave security suspicion based on sensitive information, but such cases have to be brought before a court for approval. After that period the arrest can be prolonged but that can happen only if there is reason to believe that the suspect is still dangerous.

Palestinian citizens of Israel have the right to vote and to be elected to the Knesset just like the Jews and there were 14 Arab members and four Druze members in the Knesset before the last elections. Their votes in 1995 made it possible for Rabin to have a majority in the Knesset to approve the second Oslo Accord, in spite of the fact that most of the Jewish members of the Knesset voted against it. Israeli Arabs already hold influential positions in Israel as judges, Knesset members, medical doctors and pharmacists, and their integration in society is growing considerably.

They can live wherever they want with the exception of small communities with special demographic or religious character, but this is true also for different segments of Jewish society. Arab Israelis fill the public spaces in mostly Jewish populated cities and have fun just like anybody else. According to public opinion polls Israelis are among the happiest people on earth and that includes Israeli Arabs too.

Palestinians in Jerusalem are not segregated from one another and encircled by checkpoints and walls. They can live wherever they want and they can move to wherever they want since they are residents of Israel. The state offers them full citizenship, which they generally decline. True, some suburbs were left behind the security wall and that makes their lives much more complicated because they have to go through checkpoints on their way to other parts of the city. And it is true that some of the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem suffer from negligence. But this is not proof of apartheid and the government has allocated significant budgets to close the gaps.

As for the Gaza Strip, the main actor imposing limitations on movement there is Egypt, which controls the Rafah crossing and can administer it in an erratic manner. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has no obligation to let the people of Gaza enter Israel, though it does allow almost unlimited entry to Israel for medical treatment and other special purposes.

There is no limitation on exports and imports that is not directly related to security needs. Hundreds of loaded trucks deliver merchandise across the Kerem Shalom crossing every day, and the small crew there has to make sure that no military equipment crosses (attempts to smuggle such material are a frequent occurrence). Pursuant to the terms of the Oslo Accords, the ability to approach the fence is restricted for security purposes and the demonstrations of the March of Return in recent months testify to that need.


Setting the record straight on the Palestinian diaspora

Perhaps Thrall’s most outrageous claim is regarding Palestinians in the diaspora who cannot unite with their families and return to their homes just because they are not Jews.

To set the record straight, these people left their houses in the context of the 1948-49 war launched by Arab parties who sought to annihilate Israel. In that context many decided to leave while others were forced out. As the intention to annihilate Israel still exists, denying them reentry is essential from a national security point of view. It has absolutely no racial connotation as those Arabs who remained in 1948 and enjoy equal civil and political rights.

In truth, many do not live in the diaspora but in territories governed by Palestinians themselves in Gaza and the PA-controlled areas, yet the international community (through UNRWA) still treats them as refugees. The Palestinian leadership, Arab states, and the U.N. insist on maintaining this refugee status rather than finding for them workable solutions in the places where they have resided for generations. Thereby, they “eternalize” the refugee status of those Palestinians even in their third and fourth generation and prolong their suffering, while deluding them into believing, through unceasing agitation and incitement, that they are going to return and wipe Israel off the map. It is precisely this destructive vision that is expressed by the ubiquitous chant: “from the river (Jordan) to the sea (the Mediterranean) Palestine will be free.” Thrall, of course, prefers to ignore this.


Setting the record straight on the security fence/wall

Thrall refers to the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice as a final ruling that held that the construction of the fence was illegal according to international law. However, as its name implies, this was nothing more than a nonbinding advisory opinion supported by most of the judges with the exception of the American judge, and some adverse comments by other judges. The fact that the U.N. General Assembly accepted it has no legal authority and is nothing more than another General Assembly recommendation adopted by an automatic anti-Israel majority.

However, what is much more relevant is the evident benefits provided by the fence to Israel’s security. A Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader in Damascus admitted several years ago that the fence makes it almost impossible for his organization to carry out terror attacks inside Israel from the West Bank. Before the construction of the fence, Israel was like a house with doors (the entry checkpoints) but without walls. The fence was a security necessity that saved many lives. Its path was a subject of discussions and corrections by the Israeli Supreme Court balancing humanitarian concerns with security considerations.

Thrall’s ranting covers other issues—Israel’s new “Jewish People Nation State” basic law, his claim that Israel has anti-democratic legislation, his apologetic attitude to the EU support of BDS-supporting organizations, his false claim that the PLO has accepted the international and Israeli demands for a two-state solution, his misleading and incorrect reference to the issue of unrecognized Arab villages in Israel, his irrelevant and misleading reference to the demographic issue (as if at any scenario the Arab Palestinians who live in Gaza or the areas controlled by the PA may become citizens of Israel), and his choice of interviewees and other issues for which space is too limited.

However, one final issue needs to be addressed. This is the question of whether progressive American Jews should support a boycott of Israel’s settlements. Thrall raises a list of pro and con arguments and though he remains officially undecided, he appears to favor this option.

The issue of settlements and Israel’s control of the territories since 1967 is controversial and there is a fierce and heated debate both in Israel and in the international arena over the matter. Israel respects the opinions of foreign entities even though they are not a party in the conflict. The EU for example spends considerable sums of money supporting fringe Israeli civil society organizations that represent the extreme left with minimal public support inside Israel in the hope that this will influence Israeli public opinion and change Israeli policy on the ground. This tolerance stands, of course, in sharp contrast with Thrall’s suggestion that Israeli policy prevents the country’s critics from expressing their views.

Yet calling for boycotts against the settlements goes beyond expressing an opinion. Its purpose is to harm, not only Israeli civilians within the settlements, but other Israelis and Palestinians who are involved in connected industries.

Moreover, one cannot ignore the context: Behind the boycott against the settlements looms the larger stated aim of BDS to usher the “final showdown” and wipe out the Jewish nation-state in Israel.

To sum up, Israel is interested in a secure and real peace and has no intention to rule over the Palestinians or disrespect them. On the contrary, we wish them prosperity. This transpired in an even clearer form than before from the election results. BDS on the other hand, has no interest in peace. It is against the existence of a state for the Jewish people and to promote this goal they support terror and adopt delegitimization, demonization, and double standards toward Israel. Liberals should be able to call this anti-Semitism and to oppose it, instead of providing it with legitimacy. This should not make them shy away from criticizing Israeli policies. They are welcome. We Israelis criticize vehemently our own policies. We call it democracy.

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(Original photos: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images; Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Several Jewish students at the University of Massachusetts, UMass, have filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts state court seeking to block the school from hosting a May 4 panel that includes Linda Sarsour, Marc Lamont Hill, The Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin, and British singer Roger Waters. The students are right to draw attention to the noxious views of the speakers and the support for anti-Israel extremism within their school’s own administration. But they are wrong, and perhaps dangerously so, to mount a legal case that relies on shutting down speech by equating it to a form of intimidation. That stance not only pits them against the deep, and mainstream, American tradition of defending free expression, but it also legitimates a set of ideas that will be used against Jewish groups who, as a minority on campus, are especially reliant on the First Amendment.

An organization called Not Backing Down had invited the quartet, and two UMass academic departments—Communication, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—found the Sarsour-Hill-Waters message significant enough to co-sponsor the event.

News of the panel has generated widespread condemnation from local and national Jewish organizations. The ADL’s regional director, for instance, wrote to the UMass chancellor to express concerns about the program “featuring speakers who engage in rhetoric that demonizes the State of Israel and seeks to marginalize its supporters,” raising “significant consternation among Jewish students and many others on campus and in the community.” Dozens of pro-Israel organizations added their concerns, though they made clear they were “not asking that this event be shut down.”

The panel and its speakers deserve this criticism. Unfortunately, a lawsuit seeking to shut down the event not only will almost certainly fail, it likely will weaken the position of Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. The factual aspects of the complaint are undeniable. The students’ legal complaint notes, for instance, that departmental co-sponsorship left the “clearly intentional” impression that at least a majority of faculty in these departments support BDS. The complaint also recaps the ugly pasts of the speakers—ranging from Sarsour’s connections to Louis Farrakhan and anti-Semitism in the Women’s March leadership (a background first exposed in detail by Tablet) to Hill’s glib celebration of terrorists and endorsement of calls for Israel’s destruction, to Waters’ ill-concealed anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, beyond the obvious legal problems—there is, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) long has pointed out, no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, and UMass is a public institution—the lawsuit suffers from two tactical shortcomings.

First, the filing allows Waters, Sarsour, and Hill to position themselves as victims, and attract allies, like the ACLU, that might not otherwise be in their camp. Rather than confronting the actual content of the speakers’ ideas, with its thinly veiled anti-Semitism and extremist position on Israel, the lawsuit has shifted the debate to First Amendment principles, which allows the panelists to position themselves in the mainstream as upholders of free speech. This is an outcome that no defender of Israel or campus Jews should desire.

Second, the legal threat sets a dangerous precedent. In fact, the students would be better served if the lawsuit failed. Otherwise, the resulting ruling would create a precedent that almost certainly would harm pro-Israel students and faculty. At most schools—and virtually all elite residential colleges or research universities—defenders of Israel are a minority, whose strength is declining as liberals and those further left on the ideological spectrum grow more sympathetic to the Palestinians and hostile to Israel. (That student government organizations are now almost routinely considering BDS resolutions even as they remain silent about human rights issues in every other country in the world provides a glimpse of the problem.) In this environment, pro-Israel voices need robust protections of the First Amendment and academic freedom as a bulwark against majority efforts to silence a diverse perspective on Middle Eastern matters.

In this respect, some of the lawsuit’s language, which suggests that exposure to troubling ideas is a kind of victimization, is deeply problematic. It urges judicial intervention in part because flyers for the event have left Jewish students feeling “fearful and intimidated.” (Imagine how easily this standard could be used to suppress a campus address by any Israeli legislator or policy analyst to the right of Meretz.) The complaint (accurately) notes that none of the members of this highly imbalanced panel have “moderate” views—but such a vague standard, if adopted, easily could apply to any address by supporters of Israel on campus as well. The students frame their cause through anti-discrimination and anti-harassment principles—approaches that would almost certainly be turned against defenders of Israeli security, on grounds that they’re discriminating against Muslim students on campus.

That litigation (or pressure on the chancellor to urge a change in the panel’s composition) is a self-defeating strategy, doesn’t mean Jewish students or their supporters at UMass should remain silent. Indeed, the director of the UMass Hillel, Rabbi Aaron Fine, identified the key problem with this event: “We are,” he noted, “particularly disconcerted that the event is being co-sponsored by two University departments.” It would be reasonable for the UMass administration and especially its board of trustees to examine the procedures used to co-sponsor events—and, more broadly, the intellectual and pedagogical atmosphere in the departments.

It’s inconceivable that two academic departments at a major research university would have co-sponsored a talk by figures with records of racism toward African Americans (such as David Duke) or Hispanics (such as former Sheriff Joe Arpaio). So why did the departments have no problem with co-sponsoring a campus visit from people with racist attitudes toward Jews? Does the decision suggest a lack of intellectual diversity within the departments, or a willingness by at least some of their faculty and perhaps the departmental leadership to treat Jewish students unfairly? These questions, which are reasonable ones in light of the decision to co-sponsor, fall well within the scope of a trustees’ inquiry.

Rather than seeking to shut down the event, students could use their own free-speech rights—either through peaceful, nondisruptive protest, or, more effectively, by organizing an event of their own highlighting the tolerance too many on the contemporary academic left have for those who traffic in anti-Semitic tropes.

Using the tools of shared academic governance and the protections supplied by the First Amendment represent more fruitful strategies than litigation for combating anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic speech on campus. The same tools will also prove to be Jewish students’ best defense, and once thrown away for immediate tactical victories, as in the fight at UMass, will not be easily regained.


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Building Theory of Ethnic Conflict

My most recent publication can be accessed below. It deals with the way in which ethnicity is socially constructed and its role in theories of communication and ethnic conflict. Below the link for the article is a brief abstract.

building a theory of communication and ethnopolitical conflict-

The impetus for this article is derived from three concerns: The first is to establish the components
of a theory of ethnopolitical conflicts. The second is to develop the relationship
between communication and ethnopolitical conflicts. The third is to predict and ameliorate
ethnopolitical conflicts and violence. I model ethnopolitical conflict along two dimensions:
the level in which the conflict is entered (macro state-level, mid civil society level, and individual
level) and the type of communication most characteristic of the level (bargaining and
negotiation, intergroup relations and intercultural communication, identity theories and
deliberative processes).

How the Two-State Solution Can Work

Below is a set of ideas related to how a two-state solution can work. It is presented by Professor Cohen-Almagor

In Support of Two-State Solution



The recent monthly Peace Index of the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, published in September 2018, finds that half of the Jewish Israeli public thinks that Palestinians deserve an independent state, while (43%) think they do not. Analysis of the Jewish sample by age shows that support for a Palestinian state increases with age: among those aged 18-34 only a minority (35%) supports the Palestinians’ right to a state, 54% of those aged 35-54 support it, and in the oldest age group a 61% majority supports it. Arab-Israelis believe unanimously (94%) that Palestinians are entitled in principle to an independent state of their own.[1]

47% of Jewish-Israelis support signing an agreement based on the formula of two-state solution while 46% answered that they do not. Among Arab-Israelis, 73% support such an agreement. 83% of Jewish-Israelis thinks that “the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people before peace talks with them can be revived.”[2]66% of Jewish-Israelis agree that “most of the Palestinians have not come to terms with Israel’s existence and would destroy it if they could.”[3]This rate has remained more or less constant, with slight fluctuations, since the first Peace Index survey was conducted in June 1994.

The Palestinians aspire to have an independent state in the 1967 borders, with Arab Jerusalem as its capital and a substantial return of refugees to Israel. The Israelis wish to retain the Jewish character of Israel, being the only Jewish state in the world. Both sides wish to enjoy life of tranquillity and in security, free of violence and terror. Both parties should explicitly accept UN Security Council Resolutions 242,[4]338,[5]and 1397[6] and then begin their full implementation. The endgame will be based on the following parameters:

Palestinian sovereignty – will be declared and respected.

Mutual recognition – Israel shall recognize the State of Palestine. Palestine shall recognize the State of Israel.

Mutual diplomatic relations – Israel and Palestine shall immediately establish full diplomatic relationships with each other, installing ambassadors in the capital of the respective partner.

Capital – each state is free to choose its own capital.

Borders– These should be reasonable and logical for both sides. Settling the conflict would give Israel greater international legitimacy to fight terrorism and enable it to deal with the more serious emerging threat from Iran.

Israel will withdraw to the Green Line, evacuating settlements and resettling the settlers in other parts of the country. The major settlement blocs — Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Gush Etzion, Modi’in Illit and Ariel –- which account for approximately 70% of the Jewish population in the West Bank and for less than 2% of its size, may be annexed to Israel upon reaching an agreement with the PA of territory exchange that will be equal in size.[7]Border adjustment must be kept to the necessary minimum and must be reciprocal.

Territorial contiguity– a corridor would connect the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to allow safe and free passage. As long as peace is kept, the road will be permanently openand solely Palestinian. No Israeli checkpoints will be there. Palestinians will not be able to enter Israel from this corridor, nor shall Israelis enter Palestine from the corridor. Palestine will ensure that this safe passage won’t be abused for violent purposes. Such abuse would undermine peace and trust between the two parties.[8]

The Separation Barrier creates a political reality. It should run roughly along the 1967 mutually agreed borders.

Security– Both Israel and Palestine will take all necessary measures to ascertain that their citizens could live free of fear for their lives. Security is equally important for both Israelis and Palestinians as this is the key for peace. Palestine and Israel shall base their security relations on cooperation, mutual trust, good neighborly relations, and the protection of their joint interests.

The Palestinian state will be non-militarized. This issue was agreed upon in 1995. Also agreed upon were joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols along the Jordan River, the installation of early warning posts, and the establishment of a permanent international observer force to ensure the implementation of the agreed security arrangements. The early warning posts will be periodically visited by Israeli security officers but they won’t be permanently present on Palestinian soil. If there is a need for a permanent presence, this would be trusted to an agreed-upon third party.

Terrorism and violence– Zero tolerance in this sphere. Both sides will work together to curb violence. Both sides will see that their citizens on both sides of the border reside in peace and tranquility. Zealots and terrorists, Palestinians and Jews, will receive grave penalties for any violation of peace and tranquility.

Jerusalem– What is Palestinian will come under the territory of the new capital Al Kuds. Al Kuds would include East Jerusalem and the adjacent Palestinian land and villages. Abu Dis, Al-Izarieh and Al-Sawahreh will be included in the Palestinian capital. The Israeli capital would include West Jerusalem and the adjacent Israeli settlements. To maintain Palestinian contiguity, Israel may be required to give up some of the settlements around Arab Jerusalem. The Old City will be granted a special status. Special arrangements and recognition will be made to honour the importance of the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter for Jews, and similarly special arrangements and recognition will be made to honour the importance of the Islamic and Christian holy places. The Old City will be opened to all faiths under international custodianship. There will be Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in providing municipality services to both populations.

Haram al-Sharif– On March 31, 2013, aJordan-Palestinian agreement was signed between the PA and Jordan, entrusting King Abdullah II with the defense of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.[9]While Jordan may be a party to any agreement concerning the site, a broader arrangement is welcomed. As agreed by Abbas and Olmert, it will be under the control of a five-nation consortium: Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Waqf will continue its administration. Jews will enjoy right of access. Excavation for antiquities may be undertaken only with the full agreement of both sides. Similarly, alterations to the historical structures and foundations can be made only upon the consent of both sides.

Education – Israel and Palestine will institute a shared curriculum on good neighborhood, understanding cultures and religions, respect for others and not harming others. This education program will commence at the kindergarten and continue at primary and high schools. In every age group vital concepts for understanding the other will be studied. This program is critical for establishing peaceful relationships and trust between the two parties.

 Languages – Starting in primary schools, Arabic will be a mandatory language for pupils to study in Jewish schools. Similarly, Hebrew will be a mandatory language for pupils to study in Palestinian schools. Language is the most important bridge between different cultures and nations. Israelis will master Arabic to the same extent that they presently master English. Palestinians will master Hebrew as their second language.

Incitement– Both sides need to clean up the atmosphere, fight bigotry, racism, incitement and hate on both sides of the fence/wall. This includes a close study of the education curricula in both the PA and Israel. Both sides need to overhaul their school books, excluding incitement, racism, bigotry and hate against one another.[10]The curricula should reflect a language of peace, tolerance and liberty. Both sides should utilize the media to promote peaceful messages of reconciliation and mutual recognition.

Prisoners– As an act of good will, part of the trust-building process, Israel will release a number of agreed upon prisoners. With time, as trust will grow between the two sides, all security prisoners will return home.

Refugees and their right of return– This is a major concern for both Palestine and Israel. For Palestinians, this issue is about their history, justice and fairness. For Israelis, this is a debated issue, where many Israelis are unwilling to claim responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy and most Israelis object to the right of return as this would mean the end of Zionism. The issue is most difficult to resolve as the original refugee population of an estimated 700,000-750,000 has grown to 4,966,664 refugees registered with UNRWA at the end of November 2010. About 40% of the refugees live in Jordan, where they comprise about a third of the population; another 41% are in the West Bank and Gaza, 10% are in Syria, and 9% are in Lebanon. In the West Bank, refugees constitute about one-third of the population while in Gaza they comprise over 80% of the population.[11]

Israel and the PA have been arguing endlessly about this issue as a matter of principle without examining by surveys how many of the refugees and their families actually are intended to return to Israel if this option were to be available to them. What needs to be done is twofold: first, Israel needs to recognize that it has a shared responsibility with the Palestinians to solve the problem. Israel needs to honestly confront history, refute myths and acknowledge the role it played in the creation of the refugee problem. Second, there is a need to identify the population, establish the numbers, and after mapping the refugee population conduct a survey among them that would include the following options:

  • Return to Israel;
  • Return to the West Bank;
  • Return to the Gaza Strip;
  • Emigrate to third countries that would commit to absorbing a certain quota (appeal will be made to countries that receive immigration on a regular basis to participate in this settlement effort);
  • Remain where they are. President Donald Trump has started to put pressure on several Arab countries to grant Palestinian refugees living in those countries citizenship.[12]

The 1948 Palestinian refugees will be able to settle in Palestine. The rest of the world is legitimate to set immigration quotas for absorbing Palestinians who apply for settlement in their designated choice of country. Unification of families should be allowed in Israel on a limited quota annual scale. But massive refugee return to Israel will not be allowed. This dream should be abandoned. An international tribunal of reputable historians and international lawyers, including equal representatives of Israel and Palestine, will determine the level of compensation. If needed, Israel and Palestine may establish an international relief fund to which humanitarian countries that wish to see the end of the conflict contribute.

Termination of the conflict– following the signing of a comprehensive agreement covering all issues and concerns, an official statement will be issued declaring the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Four Party Permanent Team – Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Jordan will maintain a permanent organization that will meet periodically to discuss concerns and resolve problems amicably. This forum will discuss issues such as the Gaza ports, economic development, water, tourism, security controls along the Jordan River, security concerns in Sinai, counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism.

International Arbitration– Difficult issues that won’t be resolved by direct negotiations will be delegated to a special arbitration committee. This special committee will have an equal number of Israeli and Palestinian delegates plus an uneven number of international experts. Only experts approved by both parties will be invited to serve on the arbitration committee. The committee will include lawyers, economists, human rights experts and experts on the Middle East. Their resolutions would be final, without having the right of appeal. Both Israel and Palestine will commit to accept every decision of the arbitration committee. One model to follow might be the arbitration committee comprised to resolve the Taba dispute between Israel and Egypt.


To resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is a need for courageous leaders on both sides who seize the opportunities presented to them and make the most for their peoples.

To erect peace, it is essential to have trust, good will and security. It would be far-fetched at present to hope for peace in the short term. We should have little illusions about peace, at least so long as Hamas is determined to wipe Israel off the map. Israel does not even appear on Hamas maps. Israel should aspire to enter a long-term interim agreement; to build trust; evacuate isolated settlements; consolidate economic conditions for Palestinians; bolster security on both sides; stop enlarging existing settlements; dismantle checkpoints to make the lives of Palestinian civilians easier; develop the nautilus Iron Dom against rockets and other anti-rocket mechanisms. Finally, international cooperation is required to lift the existential Iranian threat.

[1] Tamar Hermann and Ephraim Yaar, “Is the Two-State Solution Still Relevant?”, The Israel Democracy Institute(September 5, 2018),



[4] Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967,

[5]U.N. Security Council Resolution 338 of October 22, 1973,

[6]UN Security Council Resolution1397 (March 12, 2002),

[7]For pertinent maps, see See also West Bank “Settlement Blocs”, Peace Now,

[8]See Protocol Concerning Safe Passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip Signed in Jerusalem on October 5, 1999,

[9] Analysts: Jerusalem deal boosts Jordan in Holy City, Ma’an News Agency(April 3, 2013),

[10]See Daniel Bar-Tal, “Challenges for Constructing Peace Culture and Peace Education”, and Salem Aweiss, “Culture of Peace and Education”, both in Elizabeth G. Matthews (ed.), The Israel-Palestine Conflict (London: Routledge, 2011): 209-223, 224-246.

[11]Alan Dowty, Israel/Palestine(Cambridge: Polity, 2012): 243.

[12]Yasser Okbi, “Report: Trump furthers program for Palestinian refugees in Arab countries”, Jerusalem Post(September 15,2018),

Identity as Socially Constructed

[I have been reading Francis Fukuyama’s book on identity– I know, go ahead and laugh at how boring I must be but I like political theory–and he makes the case for human behavior being governed by more than rational expectations. His conclusions about identity being central to the understanding of groups is similar to my own recent work. Fukuyama explains how concepts such as respect, pride, and dignity – related to what Scott Atran calls sacred values –are more important when it comes to solving political conflicts. People will behave non-rationally and even against their own interests to maintain a sense of identity and respect. Considerable research with the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as other groups, support such conclusions. Below is a statement of mine from recent publication to appear in Communication Monographs. Building a theory of communication and ethnopolitical conflicton

The self in identity theory is reflexive and thus can consider itself an object to be named, categorized, and classified. The standard definition of identity as “the psychological attachment to an ethnic group or heritage”  is foundational. But the definition must be extended to include ethnic identity not as fixed categorization, but rather as a fluid and dynamic understanding of self and ethnic background. A discursive approach to identity construction locates the key agency in symbolic and cultural systems that have their own effects and logic. For example, the contemporary discourse of ethnicity might include colonialism and its attendant messages. Groups such as Hutus and Tutsis, Continental Indians, or Palestinians have spent a generation or more constructing concepts of the self by refracting messages from colonial powers back onto themselves. Moreover, these supra-messages about power, agency, identity, and control make for a line connecting colonialism to contemporary ethnic violence.

Contemporary theories of identity have drifted away from universals based on Western values of independence and individualism, and become more fluid and flexible recognizing porous boundaries and multiculturalism. Political conflict groups compete directly for the dominant and most legitimate identity. Moreover, political conflict and identity are significantly intertwined such that the development of one group identity invalidates the other.  That is, this negative interdependence means that the two identities compete directly for political, narrative, and historical acceptance and the success of one disqualifies the other. This is descriptive of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where both groups narrate a similar history that is ideologically polarized. In the case of intractable conflicts this identity conflict continues from one generation to the next passed on by the discursive apparatus available to groups.

Ethnicity is the social construction of an origin story as the basis for a collectivity. The origin story includes claims of territorial rights, physiognomy, and culture. Ethnic groups are “imagined” communities (Anderson, 1991) because they assume a commonality but all members do not interact in the concrete manner of a material community. They are in deep comradeship with vast numbers of people with whom they have no direct contact.  Ethnicity is descent-based with membership requirements based on the symbolic practices of defining boundaries, territory, language, and culture. Yet ethnicity can also be based on commonality of experience because it constructs a unity out of differences. Where race assumes the other is fixed and self-evident, ethnicity positions people in historical and cultural context. Ethnicity is a set of socially attributed characteristics that have identitive value.

Ethnic identity is the result of taking personal experiences and extending them to group experiences. This is how the process of comradeship begins with unknown others. We translate private experiences into the principles of politics. So, one’s upbringing and family are assumed to signify a larger abstract collective. Or if I, and a few people like me, have a particular historical experience then that experience becomes relevant to all others who share something with me.

More on this later.


Ideologues in Charge in Israel: What Can Palestinians and Israeli Arabs Expect Next?

What does the latest political shift to the Right within Israel’s ruling coalition portend for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs ? Signaled by the May 26th appointment of two-time Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister, this shift to the Right is at present more symbolic than policy-oriented. But in a country where there is a powerful relationship between rhetoric, symbols, and political-military action the situation could change quickly.

For Israel’s Jewish majority, not much in their daily lives will change. But for the country’s Arab citizens, who comprise some 20% of the state’s eight million inhabitants, political and military decisions made by a more ideologically-driven government ruled by extreme nationalists will have serious implications. And while it is is too early to predict what the implications will be for the Palestinians — both within Israel proper and within the Territories — one doesn’t need the gift of prophecy to see that the fallout will be negative.

In the first few days of this latest shift rightward there were indications of what both the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians can expect. Netanyahu’s appointment of Lieberman put a governmental stamp of approval on the inflammatory rhetoric and harsh military measures that Lieberman advocates.

Lieberman, who served in the Israeli Army as a corporal, replaces decorated general Moshe Yaalon. Yaalon, like almost all of Israel’s previous defense ministers, is a career soldier. Lieberman, in contrast, is a career politician. And Israelis from an array of political parties are wondering if this signals a move away from military professionalism to ideologically-driven decision making. Organizing among his fellow Russian immigrants to Israel Lieberman founded and led his party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) in the late 1990s. Their first campaign slogan was “no loyalty, no citizenship,” a reference to what Lieberman deemed the questionable loyalty of Israeli Arabs.

Though outgoing Defense Minister Yaalon was a member of the Likud party, Prime Minister Netanyahu, leader of the party, dismissed him from his post in order to bring Lieberman’s party into an expanded coalition and increase the government’s parliamentary majority. Yaalon, who joined the Likud as a result of his disillusionment with the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, was perceived as ‘tough’ on security issues, but he was very much a pragmatist. Lieberman and his allies on the Right — including the religious right — do not strike observers as either realists or pragmatists, but as ideologues.

Announcing his resignation Yaalon said: “I fought with all my might against phenomena of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society that threaten its fortitude…. these forces are trickling into the military. Senior politicians in the country have chosen incitement and divisiveness of the Israeli society instead of unifying and connecting.”

What was Yaalon referring to in these remarks?

His Israeli audience understood that the extremism Yaalon referred to is both the overall escalation of extremist rhetoric within the country, and, more immediately, the support by Lieberman’s secular party and by politicians of Settler-affiliated Jewish parties of extreme violence committed by settlers and soldiers. In March, in an encounter in Hebron, an Israeli soldier subdued and captured a Palestinian fighter who had attacked another Israeli soldier. And after the fighter was subdued he was shot in the head and died. This was contrary to the IDF’s official code of conduct, and the soldier was subsequently charged with the shooting and ordered to stand trial. In April a military court charged him with manslaughter.

General Eisenkot, the army chief of staff, made a public issue of this enforcement of the military code. The right-wing reaction was well-described by The Jerusalem Post: “Politicians – including Lieberman – rushed to the support of the soldier, and criticized Eisenkot and the army’s decision.”

Though the IDF and its chief of staff have a permanently high approval rating among Israeli Jewish society, Lieberman’s criticism of Eisenkot was widely echoed and supported. Some even wanted to declare the accused soldier a national hero. This was the context within which Yaalon commented to reporters a few days after his resignation that “Israel had lost its moral compass.” By celebrating the action of the soldier, Yaalon implied, Israel was jettisoning its moral code.

In Israel one expects a comment of this sort from a spokesperson of the country’s beleaguered Left, but not from a Likud minister.

Lieberman’s support of extreme measures comes as no surprise to students of Israeli politics. Among the most egregious of his many rhetorical attacks on Palestinians, and on the Arabs of the other Middle Eastern states, was a statement he made in 2001 when he was serving as Minister of National Infrastructure, one of the many government posts he has held. At the time, Israel and Egypt, though nominally allies, were at odds over Egyptian support for Yasser Arafat and the PLO. According to a 2009 article in The Telegraph, “in 2001 he (Lieberman) was quoted as telling a group of ambassadors from the Former Soviet Union that if Egypt and Israel were ever to face off militarily again that Israel could bomb the Aswan Dam.”

Last year, at an election rally in the coastal city of Herzliya, then-Foreign Minister Lieberman threatened Arab-Israeli citizens who were “not loyal to the state.” He said: “Those with us, should receive everything in terms of rights…those against us, it cannot be helped, we must lift up an axe and behead them – otherwise we will not survive here.”

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi of the “Arab Movement for Change” party called for an investigation and referred to the pugnacious Lieberman as the “Jewish Islamic State.”

Tibi, a Palestinian physician who has called for an international boycott of Israeli institutions, has long-been a thorn-in-the-side of the Israeli right and the rightward-trending political center. Lieberman’s secular-nationalist party has long-called for Tibi’s expulsion from the Knesset.

Tibi describes himself as “Arab-Palestinian in nationality, and Israeli in citizenship” and has directly challenged both Lieberman’s rhetoric and Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel as the “home of the Jewish people.” Tibi has called on Israelis to conduct the affairs of state as a “state of its citizens” and not as a state that has an ethnic Jewish character.

But what does it mean to say that Israel is “a Jewish state” and what are the implications of that “Jewishness” for its non-Jewish citizens ? This question has, of course, been raised many times since the 1948 establishment of Israel — but Netanyahu’s recent rhetoric, which Lieberman has taken to a new level, demands that the Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish State” — not, as Tibi and his Arab and his Jewish supporters would suggest, a “state of its citizens.”

In the last two decades, since the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the ascendance of right-wing rhetoric and policy, Israel has moved far beyond the possibility of being a “state of its citizens.” It should come as no surprise then that a recent poll conducted by American social scientists shows that “Israeli Arabs generally do not think Israel can be a Jewish state and a democracy at the same time.”

And it is in this unequal confrontation between the supporters of Tibi and the much more powerful supporters of Lieberman and Netanyahu that lies one of the glaring paradoxes and contradictions of Israeli society.

Within the borders of ‘official’ Israel, parliamentary democracy of a limited sort still operates. And the Arab citizens of Israel have legal rights — though they are not always honored. That democracy does not extend into the Palestinian Terroritories and the Golan. Unlike the Israeli Arabs, the Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan are essentially stateless in both international and local terms. Under Lieberman’s influence, the army and other arms of the security state will likely be given more leeway and be subject to less civilian control than before.

Two factors highlight the essential contradiction between Israel’s claim to be democracy and the actual political situation within the country and the territories it controls: the second-class status of its Arab citizens, and its forty-nine year subjugation of the populations of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan. These contradictions have long been masked by the illusion that the Israeli occupation is ‘temporary’ and that therefore a two state solution is possible.

In the 1970s and �?80s such a solution was rendered difficult by Israeli settlements and the Palestinian response to them, and in the mid-�?90s a possible two-state solution was rendered null and void by the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But illusions die hard, especially for American policy makers.

Today, in 2016, the US-driven solution to the outcome of the 1967 War — the much-vaunted two-state solution — looks like nothing but a mirage.

The policies of Lieberman and his allies — some of whom are now speaking of Lieberman’s aspiration to become the country’s next prime minister — would seem to confirm this, and doubtless comes as a major disappointment to Arab citizens, Palestinians under Israeli control, and to many Israeli Jewish progressives who have had the courage to stand up for the rights of their fellow-citizens and stateless Palestinians.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middelbury College and a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary. His new book is “Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity: Seven Twentieth Century Converts.” (Lexington Books, 2015)


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary.

Listening, Civility, and Dialogue

Once again given the condition of our political structure and deteriorating relationship between people holding different political opinions we have been hearing a lot more in the news about the civility. Some political figures have stated outright that civility and taking the high road is for suckers. Others recognize its importance. Below is some theoretical and practical advice for improving civility, which is not just “being nice.” It is a significant communicative skill that is directly related to successful resolution of problems.

Key Communication Elements of Civility and Dialogue

Conflict! I’m interested in the efficacy of communication and write regularly about how communication works and why it is fundamentally and by definition the best way to elicit change. One of the most important contemporary questions is how differences engage one another; how do individuals and groups with incommensurate realities and significant cultural variation manage their relationship? One way is intergroup dialogue which has been written about but remains an ethereal concept considered by many to be an idealized form of communication that is difficult to achieve. I remain resolute in my conviction to continue to discuss dialogue as a pragmatic and achievable form of communication that is not overly romanticized. Dialogue is a particular type of communication designed to solve problems that require mutuality, cooperation, and change. In these terms – mutuality, cooperation, and change – are not niceties but theoretical requirements.

Intergroup dialogue is really about action. It’s about how you collaborate with others across differences with the goal of social justice and problem solving in mind. Solidarity-based communication is that between similar people working on a similar problem. The interaction is cohesive and reinforcing with goals of stimulation and accomplishment of objectives to bring about any desired change. But bridging discourse, as termed by Dryzek, is between people of who are different and trying to find ways to manage the differences between them, trying to reach across information, cultural, and intellectual divides. Most important dialogue struggles with bridging discourse and it is of course the most difficult.

There are a variety of perspectives and approaches to dialogue, but one of the most thoughtful and theoretically well-developed perspectives is critical-dialogue as described by Nagda, Gurin, and others. These authors have identified four communication processes that are particularly important and pertinent to the dialogic process. Each of these four is required and part of the challenge of establishing conditions for successful dialogue. You can read more about these processes here.

  1. Engagement: This is primarily the requirement that dialogue be taken seriously and individuals be personally involved and committed. These are not the conditions for social loafing; dialogic contact with somebody of difference, when the problems are real and significant, needs the participants to engage in the full range of committed communication. Participants must take risks, assert themselves into the story, and do the hard work of listening empathically as well as critically without overweighting one.
  2. Appreciate differences: Politics is essentially the management of differences. Solving problems in general conflict resolution is the same. Differences are fundamental and the goal is not to eliminate them but to manage them. For this reason, an appreciation for differences is crucial. Democracies in particular use the communication process to manage differences. There is simply no peaceful resolution to problems without understanding the perspective of others, creating trust across differences, and even trying to participate and when appropriate adopt differences. Again, the goal is not simply the aesthetic appreciation of differences but the pragmatic issues of empathy, understanding, and the ability to argue and communicate in a manner that resonates with the other.
  3. Critical reflection: Again, the unreflective and rigid presentation of self is always limited by the boundaries of the self. Critical reflection is the ability to examine one’s own assumptions including finding those places characterized by bias, stereotypes, and distortions related to how the other is perceived including unfair sources of power and manipulation. Any genuine attempt to solve problems requires participants to think critically about their own patterns of communication and thought processes. Moreover, participants in dialogue must be able to recognize the sources of bias and inequality in both themselves and others but in particular themselves.
  4. And finally, building associative relationships: Participants in dialogue groups must build something together. As often as it has been said, and as easy as it sounds participants in conflict must eventually explore common goals to develop new associative relationships that are conducive to resolving intergroup conflict. There is plenty of research that supports the impact of intergroup dialogue. Its goal is to foster the bridging of differences and these four communication patterns of the mechanisms that accomplish these goals. True enough they require additional research and operationalization but these form the foundational theoretical underpinnings

How to Save Democracy

People have lost the ability to listen“ – How to save democracy

One could think that democracy is lost. The populists are on the rise; not only in Germany or Europe but in the entire world. This is the picture that is often drawn by the media and Mark Warren, Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia, Canada, says this too. This is the „fear“ part of democracy and one which is sadly often the one more present in our minds. So what is the „hope“ part of democracy?

To discuss this question, how we can combine representation and participatory innovations, four professors from four different countries came together and took part in the panel Conceptualizing the Future of Democracy: Combining Representation and Participatory Innovations. Mark Warren, Rainer Forst (Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt), Jane Mansbridge (Harvard University) and Anne Philipps (London School of Economics and Political Science) are all experts in their fields and have been looking at democracy for a long time now. While they all agree that we have to change something about the way in which we participate in democracy, they have different approaches with different emphases.

Mark Warren says that the next step towards combining representation and participation is to do more „barefoot“ political theory. To advance newer democratic innovations, he together with Archon Fung (Harvard University) founded participedia, a website on which democratic innovations are crowdsourced.

Rainer Forst advocates for transnational solutions. He thinks that the crisis democracy is faced with is a justification crisis and that transnational parties could solve this as they are „a major form of combining representation and participation“. The challenge they face is to find common interests among the people; according to Forst the „essence of democracy“.

On the other hand, Jane Mansbridge claims that a system of recursive interaction as an ideal would be best for democracy. As an example she mentions townhalls which she considers very effective: if there was a system where randomly selected constituents spoke to their representatives on important topics, the idea of a direct democracy would be more included in an indirect democracy. However, this recursive interaction doesn’t necessarily mean that the constituents are all approached individually; Mansbridge says that parties play a very big role in bringing like-minded people together and forming political opinions. To overcome our differences, we have to understand the deeper interests of the people we negotiate with and maybe we can compromise on these rather than the actual demands (e.g. when someone is against immigration, maybe the underlying reason are economic fears which could maybe be solved in accord with immigration).

Anne Phillips feels like this is a good idea but that, also through social media, „people have lost the ability to listen“. In her opinion, alternative devices of democracy lack resilience. And if, compared to the economic power, democracy is very feeble, this would mean a further weakening of democracy.

All in all, the panel gave some really interesting insight into why democracy is in a crisis right now and what we have to do to make this situation better and save democracy as a whole.

Recent publication and theoretical statement

Below is the address for my most recent publication. An abstract precedes it. I have been working in this area for my entire career and tried to make some arguments about the nature of ethnicity and some relationships between ethnicity and communication. I emphasize the word “building” in the title because I intended the article to contribute to the development of theory rather than stand alone staking a theoretical claim. I hope it stands as a contribution to both conflict theory, ethnicity, conflict management, and identity.

Don Ellis

Building a Theory of Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict


Coherent theoretical development of theories of ethnopolitical conflict has been slow and scattered. Moreover, the role of communication has been seriously neglected. I theorize ethnopolitical conflict along two dimensions: the level in which the conflict is entered (macro state-level, mid civil society level, and individual level) and the type of communication most characteristic of the level (bargaining and negotiation, intergroup relations and intercultural communication, identity theories and deliberative processes).  Additionally, the article makes the case for a social constructionist perspective on ethnicity, and develops a relationship between communication and ethnopolitical conflict. Finally, theories of communication are posed as mediators of social systems that couple the communication systems of two conflictive groups in order for them to increase commensurability.


Israel’s Nation-State Law Must Accommodate its Minority Populations

The below is from the Jewish News Service (August 31, 2018). It is an important issue with respect to future treatment of Israel’s minority groups and diverse populations. Israel must reassure the Jewish nature of the state (thus the nation-state law), but it cannot disadvantage and alienate its minority populations. The Druze are very good example of this because they are so supportive of the state.  The issues below will continue to reverberate throughout the discussion.

Druze remain upset over Jewish nation-state law

Israel’s minorities are expressing concern because they perceive the new law as favoritism for Jewish citizens at their expense.

Israel’s new nation-state law that passed  last month has caused a great deal of controversy, particularly with Israel’s minorities and, in what came as a surprise to many, the largely pro-Israel Druze community.

Israel’s minorities are upset because they perceive the wording as favoritism for Jews at their expense. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to tamp down tensions and come to a solution since the passing of the law by meeting with Druze leaders, but the tensions and bad feelings remain. That was capped off by a Saturday-night rally in Tel Aviv on Aug. 4 that highlighted some of the community’s major concerns.

Weeks ago, Netanyahu said after a flurry of meetings with Druze leaders that they were “voicing the genuine sentiment in the community, and we are going to seek a solution.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif (second from left), at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 27, 2018. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.

The prime minister and supporters of the new law see it as necessary to maintain the Jewish character of the state as it continues to come under attack by the activist liberal High Court, the Palestinians and Arab-Israeli citizens, foreign-funded NGOs, BDS groups, international media outlets, foreign governments, and left-wing and Arab political activists and parties that want to implement a version of U.S. democracy, detaching the state from its Jewishness.

‘Needs amending for all minorities’

Dolan Abu Saleh, the mayor of Majdal al-Shams, a Druze town located in the Golan Heights, told JNS that in his estimate, more than 90 percent of the Druze are against this law.

“It is not only Druze, but other minorities are against it. Even if the state fixes the law to appease the Druze, it still will remain a problem since it needs amending for all minorities,” said the mayor.

Dolan Abu Saleh, the mayor of Majdal al-Shams, a Druze town located in the Golan Heights

The Druze faith is an esoteric offshoot of Shia Ismaili Islam that does not allow conversion into or out of the religion.

Today, Israel is home to a significant and influential Druze minority, who unlike Muslim Arabs, are drafted and proudly serve in the Israeli military, police and government. Roughly 150,000 Jews, less than 2 percent of Israel’s population, live mainly in northern Israel in the Galilee, Carmel and Golan Heights regions.

For minority groups like the Druze, who have experienced centuries of persecution under Muslim rule in the Middle East, there is a general anxiety over the new nation-state law that promotes the Jewish character of Israel.

According to the law, “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.” Arabic is demoted from an official language alongside Hebrew to one with a “special status.” Another feature is the promotion of Jewish settlement in the land.

While much of the law is symbolic, minorities are worried that it will have practical applications.

Abu Saleh went on to argue that the law would limit the authority of the High Court in Israel when it comes to minorities. “Jewish extremists,” for example, could mobilize against a minority city on a land issue for example, and the state could cite this law in order to act in favor of the Jews, he asserted.

Before this law, there was a “positive feeling,” continued Dolan, describing relations between Druze and the Jewish majority.

“I very much want that Israel remains a state for all its citizens, and I know that this law will hurt first the state itself, and has the potential to increase cause conflict between Jews and minorities,” said the Druze leader.

Asked what a possible solution, he replied that the law needs to be revoked. “The potential for internal conflict will grow” if it stays in place, he opined.

Members of the Druze community attend a special Plenary Hall session about Israel’s new nation-state law at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Aug. 8, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The law has also touched a nerve in the Jewish sector, with some feeling that the Druze are being ungrateful. Some supporters of the bill see the Druze opposition as misplaced since in the end it will not change anything for them on the ground or in any practical way.

In reaction to the strong Druze opposition to the bill, Netanyahu said on July 29: “The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, with full equal rights for all of its citizens. This is the meaning of the words ‘a Jewish and democratic state.’ ”

He continued: “We have determined the personal equal rights of Israeli citizens in a series of laws, including Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, laws that ensure full equality before the law, beginning with the right to vote and be elected to the Knesset, and ending with all other personal rights in the State of Israel.”

“Already there are proposals to replace the flag and the anthem in the name of equality, as it were. There is opposition to the idea of a nation-state in many countries, but first of all in the State of Israel, something that undermines the foundation of our existence, and therefore, the attacks emanating from left-wing circles that define themselves as Zionist are absurd and expose the nadir to which the left has sunk,” added the prime minister.

‘If the law doesn’t change anything, then why is it needed?’

The main issue not being addressed: that Israel is an ethnic state, like others in Europe, based on a dominant ethnic group and or religion. This leads to a situation where minorities can feel that they are playing second fiddle to the majority culture. The root of the Druze objection to the law is that they seek a U.S.-style democracy that does not explicitly endorse a specific religion or ethnic group, whereas the Jewish majority does want a Jewish state.

Yet some pro-Israel minorities support the new law. Capt. (res.) Shadi Haloul, head of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association who also runs a pre-military preparatory program for Jews and the Christian Arabs, said approved, stating it actually cements the rights of minorities.

According to the report in Israel Hayom, he also stated: “Just look at what has happened to the Maronite Christians who are being persecuted in Lebanon, as well as other minorities there. As soon as Israel stops being the state of the Jewish people, as some in radical left and in the Arab parties want, we will no longer be able to enjoy the freedoms and security Israel provides us.”

Still, for many Druze, it appears that such arguments are not swaying them at the moment. Jamal Kheir, the owner of a hotel in Peki’in, a mainly Druze village in the north near Beit Shean, told JNS in an interview that the concern in the Druze community is real. He concurred with Abu Saleh’s assessment that more than 90 percent of Druze oppose the law.

As many as 50,000 Israelis and Druze protested in central Tel Aviv on Aug. 4 after the passing of the law, chanting “equality for all.”

“The Druze are not upset about what is written in the law, but what is not written in it. There needs to be a special place for the Druze,” said Kheir.

“We helped the Jews when they were weak, before the state even existed,” exclaimed Kheir.

“The law needs to be totally canceled and rewritten with a paragraph on the Druze,” he suggested, stressing that the current law “goes against Druze rights.”

Jamal Kheir, the owner of a hotel in Peki’in, a mainly Druze village in the north near Beit Shean

As to the argument that some supporters of the law make—that it is more symbolic and does not change the current situation in reality—Kheir rejected that argument, saying, “If the law doesn’t change anything, then why is it needed?”

Regarding the suggestion that the Druze will forget about the law in a few months and relations will go back to normal, Kheir insisted that this wouldn’t be the case. “The Druze will not forget about this. There is Facebook, and everyone is commenting about this on social media. There are former army officers involved in WhatsApp groups; it is very serious.”

Questioned about Netanyahu’s efforts to solve the problem, he responded, “If Bibi wants to give Acamol [an Israeli over-the-counter pain medication], it won’t work.”

“For the Arabs we are traitors,” he said, “and for the Jews we have become Arabs. And this bugs us.

The Nation-State of Israel

The below is from Bret Stephens of the New York Times, August 11, 2018. I reprint it here  because it states the issues clearly and more accurately than many of the responses to the original bill. The nation-state bill needs to be improved and adjusted in a few areas but it is not a narrow minded document dripping with nationalism and anti-democratic sentiments.

Anyone who follows the news from Israel knows that the Knesset last month passed legislation that takes the Jewish state a step closer to apartheid and outright theocracy. For instance, the bill explicitly authorizes Jewish-only communities and requires secular courts to adopt Jewish ritual law in certain cases. It also promotes the settlements.

Actually, the nation-state bill, as the legislation is known, does none of that. Nearly all of its most controversial provisions were stripped from it before passage. But you’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise based on the reaction to the bill — reaction that is far more revealing than the bill itself.

Among the planks of the legislation: Hatikva” is Israel’s national anthem. Hebrew is its official language. Jerusalem, “complete and united,” is its capital. The flag and menorah its official symbols. The Sabbath its day of rest (with non-Jews having their own days of rest). Israel is open to Jewish immigration. Above all, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

If you’re shrugging at most of this, you should: The bill’s purpose was to codify into Israel’s Basic Laws — akin to a constitution — aspects of Israeli identity long taken for granted by Israelis and outsiders alike.

The bill has some more controversial features. It gives Arabic — the native language of roughly one-in-five Israeli citizens — “special status” as a language, which has no practical effect but is a demotion from the official status it enjoyed since the days of the British mandate. It contains language that might impede efforts to foster greater Jewish religious pluralism in Israel, including egalitarian prayer spaces at the Western Wall.

It also places a “national value” on the “development of Jewish settlement,” which means towns and communities in general but sounds like — and by no means excludes — West Bank settlements. And it notably fails to mention the word “equality,” which has a prominent place in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

All this can plausibly be described as a mostly symbolic codification of Israel’s Jewish character in the face of persistent efforts to deny that character. Or as part of a broader global turn toward more nationalistic forms of politics. Or, as Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” an excellent new biography on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tells me, as “a rabble-rousing poke in the eye to Israel’s minorities drafted to excite Bibi’s far-right base.”

What the bill is not is the death of Israel’s democracy — it was enacted democratically and can be overturned the same way. It is not the death of Israeli civil liberties — still guaranteed under the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and visibly reaffirmed by the large public protests following the bill’s enactment. And it is not apartheid — a cheap slur from people whose grasp of the sinister mechanics of apartheid is as thin as their understanding of the complexities of Israeli politics.

Nor, for that matter, is it anywhere remotely as noxious as what is happening in other Western democracies wrestling with competing claims between national identity, civil liberties and cultural pluralism. In Denmark, The Times reported last month, “starting at the age of 1, ‘ghetto children’ must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in ‘Danish values,’ including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language.’”

Whatever else you think of Israel’s nation-state bill, this is undoubtedly worse. So where are the calls to boycott, divest and sanction Denmark?

Which raises a deeper question concerning the nation-state bill: Why the over-the-top reaction? In an interview with Haaretz, British philanthropist Vivien Duffield, who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli causes over the years, declared “I hate Israel” after the bill’s passage, then reached for the apartheid analogy.

Shoddy reporting about the bill from some of the usual suspects furnishes at least part of the answer. Ordinary liberal distaste for a conservative Israeli government furnishes another part.

And there are plenty of good reasons even for Israel’s friends to dislike the bill as unnecessary, provocative, divisive and a transparent bid by Netanyahu to shore up his popularity in the face of corruption allegations and a military quagmire in the Gaza Strip.

But if liberal Americans haven’t (yet) given up on the United States in the age of Donald Trump, liberal Jews shouldn’t be giving up on Israel on account of an overhyped, underwhelming law whose effects would be mostly invisible if they hadn’t been so loudly debated. Countries we love will inevitably do things we don’t like or fail to understand. The same goes for people.

However else you feel about the nation-state bill, reserve your serious outrage for the things that deserve it. An estimated 542 Syrian civilians were tortured to death last month by the Syrian regime, according to the Syrian Network For Human Rights. Did you know that?

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