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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov, Associate Professor ofe Political science, Carleton University,posted March 10, 2011

Last year, I spent a good deal of that week trying to decide whether the kinds of messages promoted by the organizers are hateful – as many critics suggest -- and therefore demand an unequivocal response. I have concluded that IAW’s agenda is altogether unhelpful in pushing for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I also differ from those who view it as anti-Semitic.
To work this out, I turned to another heated policy issue for some guidance: the debate over abortion.  

I am passionately pro-choice. But I also realize that while I jealously wish to guard the physical autonomy of women over their bodies, I would never call pro-lifers misogynist. Pro-lifers are concerned with a separate set of rights. Pro-lifers claim that women have options that fetuses do not have. So while the issue is, in some senses, one over competing rights, the rights of each can be mutually accommodated to a certain degree. (Those who favour choice believe that women’s rights over their bodies are not sufficiently accommodated by making abortion illegal; hence their pro-choice position.)

The aims of the IAW organizers include a wholesale return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes inside Israel. While this option would have deleterious effects on the core identity of Israel as a Jewish state, IAW activists are ultimately fighting for the rights of the Palestinian refugees.  While Zionists understandably wish that the rest of the world uncritically accepted Israel’s existence, it is not very controversial to say that the creation of the State of Israel came at the expense of the Palestinians.  

Demanding a full right of return for these refugees and their descendants would negate Israel’s ethnic particularistic identity, but would not inherently threaten the individual rights of Jewish Israelis to live and prosper. (Whether an Arab majority would physically persecute a Jewish minority is not something we can unequivocally assume, unlike those who claim that a one-state solution would be murder and mayhem.)

Here is where I conclude that IAW is not anti-Semitic. However, here is where I also see it as deeply flawed. 

Israel will never give up its core identity as a Jewish state. Demanding that the Palestinian right of return be actualized is a non-starter. The IAW movement wishes to galvanize boycott, divestment and sanctions not until Israel withdraws from the West Bank and a two-state solution is reached, but until Israel agrees to accept every Palestinian refugee back inside its borders. 

What is troubling about this message is that a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not necessarily be respected by the IAW movement, something I realized when one of the organizers of Students Against Israeli Apartheid came to speak to my class. 

What I also realized is that the IAW position is squarely antithetical to the narratives approach I advance in my research and teaching. That approach is fundamentally pragmatic in its prescriptions: legitimize the experience of each side, and help shepherd the actors toward a mutually-acceptable solution. In the Israeli-Palestinian domain, I see only one solution that will at least minimally satisfy both sides, given their material and identity requirements: two states living side by side. 

IAW is in part a reaction to decades of policy inertia in the Middle East. The more settlements Israel places in the West Bank and the more inhuman the blockade on Gaza, the more frustration there is in the region and worldwide about Israeli intentions, and the more likely those concerned about Palestinian suffering will use dubious labels like apartheid. These labels are intended to shock the complacent into action.

Conversely, the Palestinian rocket response from Gaza into Israel following the 2005 Israeli withdrawal has made Israelis squeamish about withdrawing from the West Bank. This is where a narratives approach comes in; third party activists can acknowledge these subjectivities and help both sides move towards a solution.

While deeply problematic in its ultimate agenda, the existence of IAW should not obscure the need to take action on the peacemaking front. To this end, I am eagerly anticipating the tentative arrival of J Street U – the campus-wing of the new U.S.-based lobby billing itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” into Canada. (Initial events were hosted recently in Ottawa and Montreal) . 

This addition to the political spectrum will give Jewish students the confidence to feel emotionally connected to Israel while having the tools to speak out against unhelpful Israeli policies – such as the Israeli government’s troubling announcement of 1600 new housing units being built in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the region. Broadening the spectrum of Israel activity on campus will give students enhanced political literacy, and will dampen the polarizing discourse currently dominating campus life.

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