To Help Palestine, Be Pro-Israel Too
by Ira Chernus
THREE VIEWPOINTS ON the Gaza war fill the U.S. mass media: pro-Israel,
anti-Israel, and neutral or even-handed. All three are harmful to the
suffering people of Gaza. The one view that can help them is the one
that barely gets a hearing. It's pro-Palestine, pro-peace, AND
It's easy enough to see why support for Israeli policy hurts the
Gazans. U.S. political leaders are heavily influenced by the view
that's usually called "pro-Israel," equating support for Israel with
support for its government's war policies. Even if our leaders might
want to take a different approach (and it's doubtful how many really
would), they fear the political repercussions. So they don't put U.S.
weight behind any effort toward a just peace.
As long as that one-sided view prevails at the highest levels, the
U.S. cannot be the kind of neutral broker that most Americans want us
to be. According to columnist Glenn Greenwald, a recent poll shows 71%
of the public here wanting the U.S. to support neither side. But our
politicians consistently tilt toward Israel, pushed on by the overly
loud voices that see Israel always in the right and Hamas in the
Yet a neutral, even-handed approach in the U.S. news media is
dangerous for the people of Gaza too. It treats Israel's massive
high-tech firepower, which has killed over 500, as somehow equivalent
to Hamas' aimless, largely ineffectual rockets that have killed five.
That gives Americans the impression there's a fair fight going on
between two equally violent and equally suffering sides. Most people
conclude that if neither side is the good guy, it's none of our
business and we should just ignore it. At least they themselves ignore
the conflict. That gives the "pro-Israel" lobby and the U.S.
government a freer hand to follow a one-sided course.
Even for the minority of our people who want to be politically aware
and involved in the Middle East, the even-handed view makes a
realistic approach difficult, because it ignores or masks so many
crucial facts beyond the disproportionate violence.
Israel, not Hamas, broke the recent truce, both by attacking Hamas on
November 4 and by imposing an economic strangle-hold on Gaza. Israel's
blockade left the people of Gaza desperately lacking in food, fuel,
electricity, medical supplies, and other necessities for weeks before
the current attack began. Israel has consistently ignored Hamas
truce offers. Instead, helped by the U.S., it has tried to destroy the
Hamas government, which Palestinians democratically chose to rule
them. Israel, helped by the U.S., has also consistently inflamed
tensions between Hamas and Fatah and blocked their efforts at
creating a unified regime.
Anyone who does not know, or ignores, those crucial facts can hardly
hope to frame a just resolution to the conflict. Yet all of that
background simply disappears from the supposedly even-handed approach
in our news media.
That might seem to leave only one fruitful approach: Stand up for the
Palestinians, condemn Israel as the aggressor, and demand that it stop
its attack immediately. It's understandable that Americans of good
moral conscience might take such an approach. But from a practical
point of view, it will not do the Palestinians of Gaza any good. It
might even harm them more.
Political action that is merely "pro-Palestinian" allows the mass
media to portray the engaged public divided into two neat
camps-pro-Israel and anti-Israel-as if those were the only two
options. Of course the mass media like simplistic pictures of two
protest groups, diametrically opposed, on opposite sides of the
street. It boosts their ratings. But it also lets supporters of
Israeli policy feel even more justified, saying that "everyone who's
not for us is against us."
It also encourages the average American to assume that there is no way
out of this mess except to choose sides. In that case, since most know
only what the political leaders and mass media tell them, they will
choose the Israeli side.
Most importantly, action that is merely "pro-Palestinian" makes it
harder to achieve the only political goal that really counts here in
the U.S.: getting our government to take a different direction. There
are some members of Congress and some mid-level staffers in the Obama
administration who are not locked into a knee-jerk pro-Israel
position. They are open to the possibility of using U.S. influence to
change Israeli policy. The only way to set that change in motion is to
encourage these "movable" figures in the government to speak out for a
But that would be very risky for their own careers. If they appear to
represent a stridently anti-Israel view, they won't get anywhere --
except perhaps ushered out of the government entirely. So they need
political cover. They have to be able to urge a new U.S. policy as a
pro-Israel policy. Then they have at least a chance of making some
headway against the existing pro-Israeli tilt.
Fortunately for them, and for us, a genuinely pro-Israel policy -- one
that cares about the peace and security of the Israeli people -- will
and must oppose the militaristic policies of the current Israeli
leadership. The only way for Israel to achieve peace is to recognize
the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to their own fully
independent and completely viable state in all of the West Bank and
Gaza -- with no Israeli settlements or security roads or military
personnel left in Palestine; with the Palestinians left alone to have
whatever government they democratically choose, even a government
devoted to Islamic principles; with no surreptitious Israeli policies
undermining the political and economic success of the Palestinian
state; with the Israeli people living in peace and safety, within the
borders of June 4, 1967 (with minor border rectifications mutually
agreed upon, if necessary); with the Palestinian people compensated,
both monetarily and by formal Israeli apology, for the injustice and
suffering they have endured for sixty years.
This is the truly pro-Israel policy. It's the only one that can
break down the wall -- both literal and psychological -- that
Israeli Jews have created to separate themselves from their neighbors.
It's the only one that can give Israel peace and security and release
the energies of its people to realize the Zionist dream, to fulfill
the highest aspirations of the Jewish people. It calls for the Jewish
people to give up nothing that is truly their right and due.
It's also pro-Palestinian and pro-peace. It opens the way to
productive cooperation between Jews and Palestinians, living side in
two secure states, not merely in grudging toleration but in genuine
friendship and mutuality.
If enough of the "movable" people in congress and the Obama
administration start making that argument, both in public and in
private, U.S. policy will begin to change -- very slowly, to be sure,
but it will change. And that will produce fundamental change in the
Middle East. Regardless of what Israeli leaders say to win votes at
home, in fact they need U.S. support to continue their policies of
occupation and force.
So even if your only goal is to relieve the suffering of the
Palestinians, the best strategy right now is to avoid the appearance
of being a one-sided "pro-Palestinian" advocate. The best strategy is
to declare that you are pro-Palestine, pro-Israel, and pro-peace.
Demand an end to the Israeli occupation and a guarantee of full
independence for Palestine, but at the same time insist over and over
that you support this program because you want the best for everyone
in the region, Israelis as well as Palestinians.
This is the program being advocated by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom , J
Street , and other Jewish peace organizations in the U.S., as
well as by Gush Shalom and other Jewish movements in Israel, which
can still bring thousands into the streets to demonstrate for peace
and justice. The best way to help the Palestinian people now is to
forge a powerful alliance between these groups and the many groups
advocating Palestinian rights, recognizing that ultimately we all want
the same thing.
Ira Chernus, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of
Colorado at Boulder, is the author of American Nonviolence: The
History of an Idea . Having written extensively on Presidents
Dwight D. Eisenhower  and George W. Bush , he is now writing a
book tentatively titled "Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Origins of the
National Insecurity State." He can be contacted at