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Emotion, Reason, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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Secretary Kerry's renewed push to find a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be fraught with difficulty, but it is necessary. As long as the United States is complicit in maintaining the unjust status quo, Americans will continue to have enemies across the Middle East and elsewhere who seek to inflict harm upon us, whether through terrorism or other means.

Kerry's efforts will undoubtedly unleash a vitriolic debate in the United States and abroad. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for some who are vehemently pro-Israel to brand as anti-Semites anyone who may question the policies of the Israeli state. Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and President Jimmy Carter are a few notable recent victims of such attacks. Though questioning the strength of their arguments is warranted, no one has presented good evidence that these men are anti-Semitic. Many also label Jewish people who criticize Israeli policies as "self-hating Jews," an issue discussed by Richard Forer and Isi Leibler, among others.

Such accusations tend to stifle reasoned debate. By generating broad fear and anger through defamatory attacks on personal character, those who do so shut down civic discourse on perhaps the greatest source of instability in the Middle East. By scaring good ideas and legitimate questions into silence, such people are ultimately harming Israel and America, in addition to Palestine.

Powerful emotions are understandable in this debate, but they are often unhelpful. Anger tends to lead to snap judgments and misperceptions about danger. Dr. Michael Austin argues that "One of the difficult things about anger is that it can cloud our judgment. Our reason can be overcome by anger, such that we think we're motivated by justice when in fact something less noble is our true motive."

With these pitfalls in mind, it is important to distinguish between Israel and Jewish people. It is also important to distinguish between the policies of the Israeli state and the existence of the state itself. Careless talk can elicit the kind of anger and fear that lead to accusations of anti-Semitism. Likewise, those who would accuse others of anti-Semitism must be careful, lest they engage in slander and libel.

There is evidence that Israel's subjugation of the Palestinians is fueling a rise in anti-Semitism around the world because many wrongly view Israeli policies as representing Judaism instead of the interests of a nation-state. For example, one recent OSCE study found that anti-Israel attitudes fueled anti-Semitism in Norway.

Israel does not speak for the Jewish people as a whole, but its actions appear to have negative consequences for Jewish people everywhere, whether or not they support the policies of the Israeli state. It is hard to imagine a more tragic irony.

Jews have endured persecution for centuries. The Holocaust was a heinous crime against humanity. We must always keep these things in mind and acknowledge Jewish suffering. We must also be vigilant against genuine anti-Semitism and efforts to persecute Jews. But Jewish people are not the only ones who suffer persecution, and the Israeli government -- like any government -- is capable of perpetrating injustices.

The Palestinians have suffered unjustly at the hands of the Israeli state. Palestinians and others have certainly sought to inflict harm on Israelis, but the enormous power imbalance in the Middle East -- reinforced by massive American military and financial support -- has given Israel relatively free reign to take unilateral action over the decades, with devastating consequences. But not all Jewish people support Israeli policies; not all Israelis support Israeli policies; and not all Israelis are Jewish.

Choosing one's words carefully is important simply because the stakes are high and emotions are powerful. Some who criticize Israel and its policies are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, but any intellectually honest person knows that not all of them are.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is long and complicated, but the root of the conflict is about territory, not religion. It goes back to the influx of Jewish people into the Levant in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the struggle over land that ensued. Over the decades, the actions taken by the Ottomans, British, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans have gotten us to where we are now.

Jews and Muslims have historically lived together in relative peace, both in the Levant and elsewhere. In fact, although Jews were not treated as equals under Islamic rule, they generally fared better than under Christian rule over the centuries.

Today, Palestinians in the West Bank are treated as second-class citizens. Israel curtails their freedom of movement, expression, and action, despite years of peace and cooperation in the West Bank. Former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's peaceful statebuilding efforts were stymied by Israel, America, and inept Palestinian leadership.

Gaza, though no longer occupied by Israel, is essentially a massive outdoor prison. Israel's ongoing blockade of Gaza amounts to collective punishment; it impoverishes Gazans and is an act of war under international law. Some Gazans sporadically fire rockets at Israel, and Israel typically responds with greater force. Hamas foments violence and refuses to recognize the Israeli state. The Palestinian leadership is divided.

These are some of the key observable facts. Whoever bears more blame for getting us to where we are, whatever the resolution may be, the status quo cannot continue. Unless we can honestly and openly debate American, Israeli, and Palestinian interests from a place of reason, it is hard to see how any of us will know peace.