An Open Letter to Ayelet Waldman, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon & Geraldine Brooks About the Palestinians
Your recent and much-publicized participation in Breaking the Silence’s tour of the Palestinian West Bank, as part of your project to publish essays by well-known writers about what they saw on that tour, reminds me of aspects of the prison-reform movement in the US.
To justify their otherwise laudable platform of promoting alternative sentencing options and improving prison conditions, for example, criminal justice reformers often argue that external circumstances, such as racial prejudice and poverty, are major causes of an individual’s criminal behavior. Some go so far as to excuse law-breaking as the inevitable product of such external circumstances.
Your activities parallel those of prison-reformers. In this case, the “prison” you visited is called the West Bank. You see how bad it is for some people and, laudably, you want to tell the world. But while there’s no doubt the people living in the West Bank are victims, you should know that they are not victims of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory — since there never was a country called Palestine, or any other Arab nation in that region. They are victims of decisions made by their leaders and in many cases by their own choices.
Indeed, the history of the former British Mandate from 1917 to the present reveals that the Arabs who call themselves Palestinians are largely responsible for the situation they are in today. They committed the crime, but most don’t want to accept the responsibility for their role or pay the price.
The crime the Palestinians committed was to side with those who would not accept the decision of the United Nations in 1947 to grant the right to establish a Jewish state to Jewish residents of the former British Mandate. Most of the Arabs living in that territory went along with the many Arab states that attempted to destroy the new nation. Later, they went along with Yasser Arafat and then with his successors, hoping that his plan to empty the entire region of Jews would succeed. Now they blame Israel for that plan’s failure. In essence, they are blaming the prison guards and ignoring their own history of active hatred and indiscriminate violence. They are scapegoating others for their bad choices.
Prison reformers traditionally have a hard time dealing with crime victims. Victims are not sympathetic when they hear complaints about inadequate representation or lousy prison conditions. Victims hear reformers say someone other than the offender is responsible for that person’s being locked up. Racism or poverty is at fault, for example, not their decision to commit the crime.
Prison reformers also have a hard time talking to prison guards. They fail to recognize that it is hypocritical to advocate for policies that recognize the dignity of the convict without also advocating for the people who guard them. Prisons need guards, and unjustly they are the first to be blamed if something goes wrong.
That same understanding is owed to the men and women of the Israeli police and military. They would rather not be stationed at checkpoints or patrol dangerous areas, but they are needed as long as the Palestinians fail to negotiate a peace with boundaries that assure Israel’s survival and that requires them to drop their desire to drive the Jews into the Mediterranean.
The problem with blaming crime on racism and poverty is that not all victims of prejudice or people born into strained circumstances commit crimes. In fact, the majority who face those obstacles overcome their circumstances and are law abiding.
The problem with blaming Israel for the circumstances of those living in the West Bank is that not all Arabs fled Israel in 1948 or afterwards. Approximately 1.7 million Arabs live in Israel today with full citizenship rights. They get free education and medical care but, unlike Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs don’t have to serve in the army. Do Israeli Arabs have legitimate complaints? They do, but they live in a society where grievances can be voiced and can lead to positive change. Is that true for residents of the West Bank?
When you write your essays about your experiences, I hope you don’t fall for the scapegoating narrative –– the one that blames someone else for the situation the Palestinians have created for themselves. I also hope you write about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and how it incentivizes violence by paying families of those who commit acts of violence. I hope you interview the families of moderates who were killed because they opposed the PLO. I hope you’ll interview Israeli Arabs who prefer to remain in Israel rather than move to the West Bank. I hope you don’t fall into the trap of loving the convict to the detriment of his victim or the people who have to guard him. I hope you’ll be clear-sighted about why things are not good for the residents of the West Bank and whom is to blame.