LAMAR HANKINS | MIDDLE EAST | Hamas, Israel, and the Palestinians

Israel’s Wall in Bethlehem, West Bank. Photo by Montecruz Foto / Creative Commons.

To criticize Israel’s government and policies is not antisemitic.

By Lamar Hankins | The Rag Blog | December 5, 2023

I am reluctant to write about Israel at this politically- and emotionally-charged time because there is little respect for free speech in our country, which has long been known for free speech.  Groups and individuals — right, center, and left — want to cancel the right of free speech for those with whom they disagree.  I am also reluctant to broach the subject with Jewish friends and acquaintances for fear of damaging our relationship, even though I have always made clear distinctions between the State of Israel and being Jewish.  To criticize Israel’s government and policies is not antisemitic.

I try to approach the world through logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than through authority, tradition, or religious or political dogma.  With that in mind, and with compassion for those being harmed on all sides, I realize that if I don’t discuss Hamas, Israel, and Palestinians, I leave the discussion up to those who are willing to distort history and current affairs to suit what too often is informed by prejudice, false information, and fear.  But my biggest difficulty today is sorting out fact from fiction.

And we can’t separate fact from fiction without understanding what has happened and is happening from the perspective of the other.  We must understand the experience of Israelis and Jews and Palestinians, both Hamas supporters and all the rest.  Understanding the other’s perspective does not mean that we excuse unconscionable behavior.  But without understanding the other’s experiences, their emotions, and the realities of their lives, there never will be a just peace in this part of the Middle East.

So let me begin by discussing what most of us agree about.

Hamas’s horrendous attack on Israeli civilians, and taking of hostages on October 7 was an act of terrorism.

Hamas’s horrendous attack on Israeli civilians, and taking of hostages on October 7 was an act of terrorism.  Israel has a right to do what it can to protect its citizens from further attacks and deal with those killers.  

This is where views about that situation begin to diverge.  The terrorism of Hamas doesn’t mean that Israel has the right under widely-accepted tenets of international law to kill Palestinian civilians in Gaza and elsewhere in retribution for the acts of a terrorist organization, or to consider non-terrorist Palestinians who are killed as just collateral damage necessary to root out Hamas.  That is a crime against humanity, nearly universally condemned after World War II.  

Perhaps Israeli leaders believe that such atrocities are okay because they were accepted, if not ordered, by the God of what we non-Jews call the Old Testament.  Ancient religions and promises by Yahweh cannot be allowed to provide justification for crimes against humanity.  Likewise, there are no religious or moral grounds that justify retribution by Palestinians who share Hamas’s decision to engage in terrorism to combat the terrorism committed daily against all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.  The international consensus opposes such inhumanity by all parties no matter their religious or political beliefs.

It seems to me that we should all be able to agree that those in Gaza have been held for decades by Israeli policy and actions in what amounts to a giant internment camp from which they cannot leave or enter by choice, and in which they are often subjected to horrendous conditions, such as those identified by the journalist Dahlia Hatuqa writing in The New York Times: “Under the 16-year siege of Gaza, Israeli administrators have controlled access to electricity, food and water, at one point determining the number of calories Gazans could consume before sliding into malnutrition.”

The campus disputes

After the recent Hamas terrorism in Israel, I began to get regular email from Hillel International, the largest Jewish organization on U.S. college campuses.  After reading an October 25 email from Jillian Lederman, Chair of the Hillel International Israel Leadership Network, I had a new concern.  She writes, “Jewish students on American campuses have been bombarded with shocking displays of antisemitism, misinformation, and justification of violence” since the October 7 Hamas attack.

I hope that we can agree that antisemitism is not acceptable, nor is it justified by the way Israel treats Palestinians.

I hope that all of us can agree that antisemitism is not acceptable, nor is it justified by the way Israel treats Palestinians, which I believe is uncivil, inhumane, and criminal.  Judging from their public comments, some members of the Israeli government have no respect for Palestinians as human beings, in spite of the fact that about 20 per cent of the Israeli population is Palestinian or Arab.  One Israeli government leader referred to Palestinians as “human animals” unworthy of any consideration as human beings.  This includes the one million Palestinian children living in Gaza.  Perhaps this disrespect derives from another fact about which there seems to be widespread disagreement: that about 600,000 to 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and land after Israel was formed in 1948.

Lederman’s email goes on to say that the period since October 7 is “the most devastating period for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”  In terms of lives lost in one incident, this is true, but it fails to recognize that antisemitism has been rampant in the U.S. for most of its history, including during World War II.  The free speech we have long praised makes it possible for bigots of all stripes to say whatever is on their minds.  That is why in the U.S. speech is considered free.  Each of us is entitled to say what we believe, even when it is demonstrably false and even when it is painful for others to hear.  Any limits on speech are constitutionally very narrow.  This freedom is also the reason that Hillel and its supporters can speak back to the bigots, though fear may keep many of them from doing so, which is why non-Jews must also speak back to bigots.  

Another part of the First Amendment gives us the right to associate with one another freely.  Hillel is using this right, as well, to organize and work against the hatred that is represented by Hamas and the antisemites among us, while trying to protect Jewish students from harm.  I join them in their efforts.

Students are no better at sorting fact from emotions than are most politicians.

What has happened on many college campuses in the ensuing weeks since Hamas’s terrorism and the beginning of Israel’s callous and deadly response indicates that students are no better at sorting fact from emotions than are most politicians in the U.S. and in Israel.  Antisemitism has grown on campuses, leading to great fear by many Jewish students, who have as much to do with the Israeli government’s atrocities toward Palestinians as my generation had with my government’s atrocities toward the Vietnamese and Cambodians.  

In more recent years, what my government did in Afghanistan (and in Iraq, for different reasons) seems to have set the pattern for Israel’s response to a terrorist attack.  The parallels with Afghanistan are many:  19 members of a terrorist group killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City in a terrorist action.  Those terrorists were members of a small group named al Queda, whose leaders were living in Afghanistan at the time.  Instead of negotiating for them to be turned over to the U.S., we attacked that country, killing nearly 200,000 people over 20 years, while letting the terrorist leaders escape until a tactical team of American troops killed the leader in Pakistan nearly ten years later.

Now, Jewish students want to silence those who are making antisemitic statements.  Pro-Palestinian students want to silence Jewish students for their remarks supporting Israel.  Neither group understands the purpose or philosophy of free speech.  Both groups should be speaking more, in civil tones to one another, not less.  Those who engage in violence or the threat of violence should be dealt with appropriately by the authorities.  But someone needs to encourage dialogue, rather than posturing.  Columbia University’s recent decision to suspend the university’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), for the remainder of the fall semester, does nothing to encourage that dialogue.

Supporting Palestinians and a State of Israel

Many years ago, a friend explained to me that to many Jews (perhaps most if not all) having a State of Israel as a place of refuge was important to her mental and physical well-being.  Indeed, the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine (the Roman name for Judea) has been developing in modern times since the 1880s, when both religious and secular Jews, especially in Europe, began advocating for one in reaction to rising antisemitism.  I don’t remember what led to the conversation with my friend, but as long as I can remember, I have supported both the need for a secular State of Israel, and Palestinian rights to be free from abuse, theft of land and property, and harassment.  What I have infrequently supported is the governance of either Israel or Palestinians (about whom there is more to consider).

I was gratified to read a column by Bethany Rentsch, a former teacher of Palestinians in the West Bank.

I was gratified to read a guest column in the October 25 Austin American-Statesman by Bethany Rentsch, a former teacher of Palestinians in the West Bank.  What she learned from teaching English in Nablus to Palestinian children in grades three through eight and knowing their parents “is that although Hamas is a terrorist organization, few Palestinians adhere to their terrorist ideology.”  While some may question Rentsch’s experience with families in Nablus, citing polling data and voting among Palestinians, none of the polling or voting deals with support for Hamas’s “terrorist ideology.”  And only a plurality of Gazans supported Hamas in the last elections held over 16 years ago.

Voting is always tricky to interpret.  As an independent, I have voted in Republican primaries, for example, to support more moderate Republicans, though that hasn’t worked out well in Texas. The Palestinian voting history is much more complex than mine.  I suspect that polling in the midst of terrorist actors may not accurately capture the views of Palestinians.  The possibility of being killed by terrorists for giving a wrong answer to a polling question casts doubt on the validity of such polls.

After explaining that Palestinians are a stateless group, scattered throughout the Middle East and around the world, Rentsch discussed an opinion piece by American college English professor Moustafa Bayoumi. “He explains the double standard of this most recent war, specifically false-equivalence in the narrative we hear about Palestine and Israel.” She goes on to quote Bayoumi’s concerns regarding Israel and Palestinians: “They’re not equal. One dominates while the other is dominated. One colonizes. The other is colonized. [There is a double standard in place that] hides the massive asymmetry of power between the state of Israel and the scattered population groupings that make up the Palestinian people.”

Rentsch concludes with the thought that Palestinians, too, “are suffering from Hamas’ insidious violence and Israel’s latest bombardments. Like the lives of Israelis and Jewish people — and all souls — Palestinians deserve understanding and protection, too.”

That support [for Hamas] was strategic for Netanyahu, grounded in his desire to prevent a two-state solution.

Part of that understanding must come to terms with Israel’s support and funding of Hamas.  That support was strategic for Netanyahu, grounded in his desire and his Likud party’s desire to prevent a two-state solution, as he said to his party in 2019:  “Those who want to thwart the possibility of a Palestinian state should support the strengthening of Hamas and the transfer of money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy.”  He believed that support for Hamas and its extremists would split Palestinians between the Hamas camp and the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, thus weakening Palestinian power.  That support for Hamas should be called into question as many Israelis don’t understand the failure of Netanyahu’s security apparatus in Israel to prevent the infiltration of perhaps 3,000 Hamas terrorists responsible for the October 7 attack.

Supporting Israeli war-making

Being a Jew, whether religious or secular, does not mean that one is responsible for the policies of the increasingly religious, right-wing Israeli government.  Those in the U.S. who are responsible include most of the political class — those who have provided the war-making capacity of Israel, largely for domestic political reasons. 

Sadly, there are Jewish groups in the US, such as the Democratic Majority for Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that cannot abide any criticism of Israel.  While I can’t understand such views because it is demonstrably true that Israeli policy targets Palestinians for mistreatment, both large and small.  It even has subjected visiting well-known African-Americans to discrimination.  In the recent case of writer Ta-Nihisi Coates, the discrimination was based on a false notion of his religion (which he explained in a recent interview).

Even the rights of Palestinians in Israel are degraded and degrading: Most of the land in Israel cannot be transferred to non-Jews; Palestinian refugees expelled after 1947 have no right to return to Israel, unlike Jews anywhere who have never lived in what is now Israel; family reunification between Israelis and residents of the occupied territories who are married to one another is forbidden; along with 65 Israeli laws that have been identified that discriminate against Israeli Palestinians and those living in the Occupied Territories by The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

But on the more hopeful side, there are Jewish peace and humanitarian  groups in the U.S. and in Israel.

But on the more hopeful side, there are Jewish peace and humanitarian  groups in the U.S. and in Israel, similar groups among Palestinians, and joint Israeli-Palestinian peace and humanitarian groups.  They oppose the apartheid and otherwise inhumane policies of the religiously extremist, right-wing Israeli government.  See, for example, Yesh Din, B’Tselem, Al-Haq, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, Standing Together, and the international human rights groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, along with many others.

While supporters of Hillel and of Israel (a group that includes me and many others) mourn the losses on both sides, we should also use our free speech to seek just solutions for all parties to the conflict.  There is no moral justification for what Hamas did, just as there is no moral justification for killing innocent Palestinians, including to date nearly 5,000 Palestinian children, who are trapped in harm’s way.

A friend sent me a video of a 37-minute discussion between Gabor Maté and his daughter Hannah Maté recorded late in October about the current Israel-Palestinian conflict. 

Gabor Maté is a Hungarian-born Jew whose maternal grandparents were killed in Auschwitz the year he was born, 1944.  He is a Canadian physician and psychotherapist who favors a compassionate approach to addiction, trauma, stress, and child development. Maté says in the conversation with his daughter that based on Jewish history, the way some people respond to the atrocity done by Hamas on October 7, including “the pain, the fear, the rage, and then the desire for revenge are totally understandable on the emotional side.”  He goes on to explain that the horrors Palestinians have experienced as a matter of routine for decades need understanding, as well, even though it is not in any way a justification for what happened on October 7.  He reminds us that these conflicts did not begin on that date.  Maté seeks mutual understanding and compassion for the historical experiences of both groups to ameliorate the conflict.

Recently, The New York Times sponsored a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between seven panelists, all of whom are familiar with the history of efforts to resolve the conflict; they represent a broad spectrum of opinion and experience on the subject.  One of the panelists is Omar Dajani, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, who from 1999 to 2001, served as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel, participating in the summits at Camp David and Taba, and who currently sits on the board of A Land for All, an Israeli-Palestinian peace group.  He had this to say:

[A]t this juncture we are talking about parity. There are roughly seven million Palestinians and seven million Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And so what we have to figure out is how we live together in this space. There’s really not an alternative.  At present, the frame for how we live together is that some five million people in that space just don’t have political rights and also have deeply constrained civil rights and very limited access to social and economic rights, including health. That is an unsustainable frame.

He believes it is necessary for the international community “to intervene constructively to design a mission that could work.  But in view of how far apart these parties are, I can’t imagine how we make any progress without such a step.”

Unfortunately, the recent resignation of Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, because of the inaction by the UN regarding the killing of Palestinians by Israel, makes action by the UN unlikely.  His letter of resignation details the UN failures to assure human rights for Palestinians.  Mokhiber confirms that under international law, what Israel is doing to Palestinians falls squarely within the definition of genocide as that has been understood by the United Nations since 1948.

If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict proceeds as it has for the last 75 years, the result will be more deaths of Israelis and Palestinians.  The U.S., the UN, and other countries need to use their influence for good by taking whatever actions are needed that could lead to a resolution of this conflict.  For now, I see a few “better angels of our nature” making an appearance about this troubled part of the world.  But we need more, many more, to step forward if further bloodshed is to be averted.

[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, has a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Houston. Hankins is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as an Associate Exit Guide and contributor to the Good Death Society Blog.

Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Lamar.

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4 Responses to LAMAR HANKINS | MIDDLE EAST | Hamas, Israel, and the Palestinians

  1. Allen Young says:

    Lamar Hankins’ essay is thoughtful and measured. I support J Street, a pro-peace and pro-Israel organization that opposes Israeli expansionism (and other aspects of the right-wing regime there) and advocates for a two-state solution to this conflict. Some people want to give up on a two-state solution, but I think that is surrendering to violence and hatred which abound on both sides. The governments of various nations, including the USA and China, support a two-state solution. I believe that a significant portion of the Jews and the Arabs living in the region want a two-state solution, but they seem to lack political strength at this time. Let’s hope this two-state solution can happen, despite the current horror in Gaza. Don’t give up.

  2. Lamar Hankins says:

    Euro-Med Monitor said preliminary statistics show that the daily death toll prior to the humanitarian truce ranged between 300 and 350 deaths per day, but has now risen to more than 500 since Israel resumed its attacks for the sixth consecutive day.

    This brings the total number of Palestinian deaths in the Gaza Strip since 7 October to 21,731, including 8,697 children and 4,410 women as well as those missing and trapped under the rubble who are now presumed dead. The number of injured people has also increased to 4,016.

  3. S says:

    Notice that for other oppressed groups, if you are a postmodern leftist, the standard is you have no authority to say anything about their situation or plight unless you are identified as being from one of those groups.

    This, for some, is a matter of taste, good graces, and/or a confession of ignorance, but for others it is taken firmly as an ideology that persons who live outside of the oppression simply can’t speak without further aggressing against oppressed persons.

    “Knowing” thus becomes a matter of lived experience, not a detached or objective subject matter study. And if you don’t know you have nothing to say. Thus passion trumps empiricism, logic, and all the rest of the western academic pantheon.

  4. Lamar Hankins says:

    From the author:

    I probably don’t understand what S means by the above post. Nevertheless, to be clear about my position, I am speaking out about Palestinian oppression because it is my government that is oppressing Palestinians or enabling that oppression through its Israeli surrogate. If I don’t speak out, I am unlikely to affect my government’s policies regarding Israel and Palestinians. I am speaking out about antisemitism in the US because it is my fellow Americans who are engaging in antisemitism and oppressing and endangering the lives of Americans who are Jewish. As a humanist, the lives of Jews and Palestinians are of equal value. As a citizen of the world, oppression in all its forms concerns me.

    If my response to S is not on point, perhaps S can clarify where I have missed the meaning of the post.

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