The latest installment of the Israeli-Palestinian saga has had some new elements – Palestine’s recognition by the UN among them – but overall there remains the sense of interminable monotony. All political discourse is at least as much about renewing identity by taking positions on issues as it is about negotiation of ideas, but it’s generally only about the former when it comes to discussing this conflict in the States. Shifts in debate can be detected on a broader level — it seems that ever since the incursion into Gaza in 2009, there are a few rays of daylight between the popular American commentariat and Israeli foreign policy; if one takes the unambitious New York Times’ op-ed page as a weathervane, it seems that critique of the status quo is now possible. But still, the day-to-day blog warfare is something I have trouble stomaching. If you desire sustained critical appraisal, the Israeli press is far more useful then the American.
Rather than just complain about the poverty of discourse on the issue while the skirmishes carry on, I offer a modest proposal: Abolish the use of the prefixes “pro” and “anti” prior to the words “Israeli” and “Palestinian,” so common in all media reports. While the terms do happen to capture the irrepressibly tribal dynamic of the issue, they obscure more than they illuminate.
Assuming that observers, supporters and participants are operating in good faith in the struggle for peace (which, granted, many aren’t), distinctions in stance on Israel and Palestine should be along inclination toward certain means toward that end, rather than a wholesale endorsement of a nation’s actions. “Pro” and “anti” are often used not only in a way that expresses position crudely — they are also employed selectively in a way that makes progressive stances harder to defend.
If one is a fan of Israeli belligerence toward Palestinians, then they shouldn’t be “pro-Israeli” — they should be labeled Israeli foreign policy hawks, because they have faith in violence as an effective foreign policy measure. The commonplace conflation of hawkishness and being “pro-Israeli” implicitly suggests that Israelis who prefer to have the IDF used less often or not at all are less committed to national interests; a penchant for solving things with guns becomes patriotism. (I could’ve sworn I’ve seen this somewhere else.)
Conversely, criticism of Israeli force is often deemed “anti-Israeli,” a category that frequently is grouped together with the sentiment that Israel’s existence is illegitimate, or that it’s disintegration is desirable. What could be referred to with precision as critical of Israeli foreign policy or uncomfortable with disproportionate force and its “collateral damage” is rendered as tantamount to calling for the state’s negation.
The fact that “anti-Palestinian” is hardly ever seen compared to “anti-Israeli” should also provide a clue as to the hierarchy of legitimacy regarding violence in popular discourse. Too often attacking Palestine is about national security, and attacking Israel is hatred of Israel.
No intelligent, moral actor is pro- or anti- a state or institution regardless of what it does; they are in favor of or against certain values that underlie its conduct. Insofar as progressives see some formulation of coexistence as a necessary condition for a path forward in the region, language that divorces default stances on issues from identity can serve as a small step toward understanding that what should divide many shouldn’t be this arbitrary affinity for Israel or Palestine over the other, but differing notions of ownership and control and propensities for violence. Since in fact many people do just endorse their team unconditionally, repudiating the term “pro-” can strip them of a shield used against admitting the kinds of policies and ethics they endorse.
Using the terms “pro-” and “anti-” before Israeli and Palestinian are lazy shorthand that undermines the real range of opinions available to Israelis, Palestinians and others who wish to face the issues on the table. There is really no excuse for media outlets to use the term.