‘Seeing’ the Palestinians

by Benjamin Kerstein

As a result of a small thought experiment, I find myself less plagued by the idea that I may not “see” the Palestinians.

(JNS) One of the many accusations we Zionists encounter is that we do not “see” the Palestinians. That is, we “erase” or otherwise ignore the existence of the Palestinians and their suffering. Zionists and Israelis, the accusers claim, go about their lives blissfully ignorant of the Palestinians all around them in a subconscious act of racist erasure.

Sometimes this accusation is simply made in bad faith. Many use it as nothing more than a weapon of emotional blackmail, seeking to foster shame and a sense of personal and collective original sin among Zionists and Israelis.

In all cases, however, it is simply untrue, because it is impossible for Zionists and Israelis not to “see” the Palestinians.

Israelis, of course, are constantly reminded of the Palestinians due to the Palestinians’ insistence on committing terrorist atrocities against them.

But Zionists outside of Israel are hardly left unmolested. They are inundated with the claims of the Palestinian national movement, mainly through a compliant and sympathetic media. They couldn’t escape it if they wanted to.

This is not to mention the increasing number of antisemitic attacks and other forms of harassment committed by Arabs and Muslims in the name of the Palestinian cause.

In fact, I believe I can make the Palestinian case as well as anyone: Zionism is a form of racist settler-colonialism that sought to ethnically cleanse the indigenous Palestinian people; Israel’s 1948 War of Independence was a conspiracy to expel the Palestinians and steal their land; the occupation of Judea and Samaria is a system of constant violence and abuse; Israel continues its illegal land grab through the settlement movement; the IDF commits war crimes against the Palestinians as a matter of conscious policy; Israel in its entirety is an apartheid state; and so and so forth, into infinity.

It must be said that most thoughtful Zionists and Israelis have wrestled with these claims, as Jews tend to wrestle with almost everything.

Moreover, I am not entirely without empathy for the Palestinians. It does not give me joy that many of them live as refugees. I do not take pleasure in the fact that they have to wait at checkpoints. I know that when an army exercises control over non-citizens, there are bound to be abuses. I am not happy about the deaths of non-combatants in military operations. My reflex is to be sympathetic to any people seeking national independence—I wouldn’t be a Zionist if it were otherwise.

There is also the fact that Palestinian claims cut to the bone of any Jew. We have a long history of suffering, oppression, exile and dispossession. When others claim to have suffered such things as well—such as the Uyghurs today—we are naturally sympathetic. We want to stand up for the weak and downtrodden because we have often been the weak and downtrodden. It is easy to make us feel guilty when we are accused of being the oppressors and the persecutors.

I have even gone so far as to engage in a small thought experiment: What, I asked myself, if everything the Palestinians say about us is true?

This experiment helped me reach certain conclusions: First, even if we were as bad as the Palestinians claim—which we are not—we would still be a people like all other peoples. We would still have a right to self-determination of some kind in some part of our indigenous homeland. Our behavior at any given moment is irrelevant to that right, which is absolute.

Second, even if the accusations were true, Israel has tried multiple times to address them and reach some kind of reconciliation with those who believe we have wronged them. Each time, reconciliation has been rejected in the most violent manner possible. Many Israelis have paid with their lives for these attempts. To simply pretend that these attempts never happened or have no moral import defames those martyrs to peace.

As a result of this thought experiment, I find myself less plagued by the idea that I may not “see” the Palestinians, because I believe Israel has done everything it could to “see.” The extra mile was gone, and it did not work. It did not work because the Palestinians did not want it to work.

That was their choice. One must accept it, but they must accept that, as a result of that choice, their movement can make no moral demands on any of us. If there is to be a reconciliation, it will have to come from a different choice: The Palestinians must choose to see us.

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