Opinions | Having sympathy for Palestinians is not anti-Israel

Bernie Sanders’ bid to be president is over, and staunch supporters of Israel probably are glad to see him go. Though Sanders spent time living on a kibbutz in Israel, many American Jews have found his support for Israel dubious. He got into hot water calling Israel’s 2014 response to Hamas missiles fired from Gaza “disproportionate.” He then cited 10,000 Palestinian deaths in that conflict, even though the United Nations issued its estimate at 1,462.

As we face a Clinton vs. Trump election, it is no longer important for American Jews to get clarity from Sen. Sanders. But as a practicing Jew and a Zionist, I have been a bit unsettled by the Jewish American response to Sanders, and I think there is a lesson to take from all of this.

Many American Jews have opined that Sanders is anti-Israel. They base this on his expressions of sympathy for Palestinians and an advocacy for a two-state solution. These are two cardinal sins if a presidential candidate wants to secure the support of card-carrying members of AIPAC.

I can’t be sure what Bernie’s stance on Israel is. But if American Jews conclude that he is anti-Israel based on his sympathy for Palestinians and his support of a two-state solution, then something is very wrong.

I was born in Israel, I believe in the necessity for Israel to exist and I’m in total support of Israel’s military response to rocket attacks. And yet I’m sympathetic to Palestinian suffering, and I think a two-state solution is of the utmost urgency, not just as a solution to Palestinian suffering but for the good and welfare of the future of Israel.

But these statements would render me ineligible for AIPAC support were I running for public office, and would probably get me labeled “anti-Israel” by right-wing American Jews.

Frankly, I find Jewish criticism of those who sympathize with Palestinians worrying. Palestinians are a people living in Israel’s midst and they are suffering; sympathy for them is far from anti-Israel—it is the only Jewish response.

It is not anti-Semitic to be concerned with Palestinian suffering; it is un-Jewish to not be. Only once does the Torah command Jews to love their neighbor, but in 36 instances it commands that we love the stranger (presumably the non-Jew). How can we possibly think it Jewish to be indifferent to Palestinian suffering?

Israel has come a long way — from being the oppressed underdog awaiting annihilation on a day-by-day basis to a strong sovereign country capable of defending itself against formidable foes. Thank God that our reality is not a daily struggle for survival. But the time has come to face facts and work toward a peaceful future.

It is a fact, not anti-Israel, to acknowledge that the establishment of the State of Israel displaced roughly 600,000 Palestinians. I am not criticizing Israel here. This was an unfortunate consequence of Israel’s struggle for survival in 1948, when it defended itself from attack on all sides.

It is a fact, not anti-Israel, to acknowledge that there are roughly 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank living under Israeli occupation, and 1.5 million living as veritable hostages to the oppressive and highly anti-Semitic Hamas regime in Gaza. That’s 4 million people whose lives need to improve — a fact, not anti-Israel. How we got to this point is less relevant than how we will get beyond it.

We cannot continue this way forever. With every passing day, the world’s objection to Israeli occupation in the West Bank intensifies. Palestinian need for liberation grows ever more dire. Israel’s ambivalence toward Palestinian suffering grows more absurd. These are people who cannot claim citizenship to an existing country. Their passports cite a hypothetical country that has yet to be established. How can an entire people participate in the global community when they can’t even name the country in which they hold citizenship?

The Palestinians need a legitimate government that will take responsibility for providing them with a stable and safe existence. The longer Israel delays in recognizing a Palestinian state the more it jeopardizes its own existence.

I’m neither a government official nor a diplomat. If, for reasons beyond my understanding, a Palestinian state cannot be established in the foreseeable future, then Israel will simply have to extend citizenship to the Palestinian people, affording them equal rights and opportunities that Jews enjoy.

But to simply accept the abhorrent status quo is not an option. Certainly not a Jewish one.

To be concerned about Palestinians is not anti-Israel. And I’m tired of every public figure who speaks out in support of Palestinians to be labeled so. Or worse, to be labeled an anti-Semite.

Anti-Semitism exists; it’s a real problem, a once again growing problem. But if we, as Jews, build a reputation for mislabeling it, we will become the nation that cries wolf.

To compare Israelis to Nazis is anti-Semitic. To claim that Jews take pleasure in killing Palestinian children is anti-Semitic. To hope for a better future for Palestinians in which they can live side by side in peace with Israel is not anti-Semitic, nor is it anti-Israel. In fact, anything less than working toward that vision is simply not Jewish.

Ken Kaissar is an Israeli-American playwright and college instructor in New Jersey. A reading of his play “The Victims, or What Do You Want Me to Do About It?” will be presented July 19 in San Francisco. For details, visit www.goldenthread.org.