Israeli Jews won’t change that reality by ignoring it.
In a tiny West Bank village not long ago, a teenage girl slapped a heavily armed soldier outside her home. The prevailing sense among 7 million Jews was that she was a violent renegade, a kind of apprentice terrorist. But almost 7 million Palestinians saw her act as effectively, or at least relatively, nonviolent. They viewed her as fully justified and, indeed, heroic.
This clash of completely irreconcilable perceptions reveals the fundamental realities between Israel and the Palestinians. This week, Israel released Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old Palestinian, after she had served eight months for “assaulting” an Israeli soldier. Her 15-year-old cousin was allegedly shot in the head with a rubber bullet by Israeli occupation forces during a demonstration, after which there was a confrontation with the soldiers outside her home. That’s when the slap occurred.
Why would a teenager slap a soldier? Why would she be lionized and vilified internationally for doing so? Because her people and the Jewish population of Israel do not operate on equal ground. One side has every reason to try to change that, but many on the other side are content to ignore the disparity.
If the 20th century taught us anything, it is that people cannot long abide living in a condition in which they have no power, no agency and no self-determination. This is why the European colonial project broke down so completely. It’s why segregation in the American South could not survive. It’s why apartheid in South Africa simply collapsed.
In the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, variously known as Eretz Yisrael, historical Palestine or mandatory Palestine, two peoples live in equal numbers. However, one group in it has all the power.
A small group of Palestinians are Israeli citizens, making up a manageable minority of about 20 percent. They face lots of official and unofficial discrimination, but they have many of the basic rights of citizens.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinians, however, are not citizens of Israel or any other country. They do not have any say in the government that effectively rules them, or any influence on the laws, regulations, bureaucracy or courts that determine their fate. They cannot travel more than a few miles in any direction without the permission of a hostile occupying army.
They have no vote. They have no passport. They have, simply, no meaningful rights.
In a world of citizens, Palestinians are the only remaining large group of stateless people. This is particularly striking because most of them are not refugees and are living in their own towns and villages.
Young Palestinians like Tamimi have never known another reality. They have grown up in an environment where they know that another people control their lives completely and that they are utterly powerless. Their parents have no real authority. Their fathers are routinely subject to all manner of arbitrary humiliations in front of them.
Some try to rationalize these realities. They blame the Palestinians themselves, the Arabs or others. And yet this fundamental reality of basic empowerment for Jews versus near-total disempowerment for Palestinians is still the essence of lived reality. This is the basis of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. That no one can deny.
No people disempowered to this extent will ever be able to accept that status. Nor should they be expected to.
Yet, increasingly, many Jewish Israelis and Americans are beginning to assume that Palestinians can and should remain effectively powerless for the indefinite future. Not because they have any substantive rebuttal to anything I’ve said about the inhumane treatment of the Palestinians. But simply because they see it as convenient for Israel.
Practically speaking, there are only two ways for Palestinians to gain any structural authority over their lives. They could have an independent state. Or they could become full and equal citizens of Israel or some other entity.
There is no third path to basic human rights. The alternative to those options is the formalization of Israeli apartheid. Yet this is what many are now openly promoting.
The Wall Street Journal this week responded to Tamimi’s release by printing a sort of Rosetta Stone for this perspective. In it, Daniel J. Arbess, an American investor, presumes to offer her “advice.”
Dismissing this brutal reality as a “so-called occupation,” he effectively offers her and other young Palestinians a deal: They can enjoy some measure of integration “into Israel’s thriving economy and culture of innovation” with “self-determination” for “local communities” (whatever that means).
Here’s the catch: The “Jewish character of the state” will be guaranteed under “any demographic circumstances.” So even if Palestinians become a majority, as they probably soon will, they will still somehow have to live in a “Jewish state.” Arbess clarifies that a central feature of any such arrangement will be sustaining “Jewish control of immigration and other policies of national identity and security.” Again, apparently under any demographic conditions.
Arbess isn’t hiding his demand for perpetual, guaranteed, Jewish supremacy in all of the land, with or without a Jewish majority. In effect, Palestinians can get some secondary economic benefits and localized political crumbs if they surrender any hope for dignity or self-determination.
This sounds a lot like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s notorious, and preposterous, vision of “economic peace” with Palestinians receiving a “state minus.” In effect, of course, it means Palestinians will agree to live as “humans minus.”
There are disturbing signs from the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, Jared Kushner, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, that the Trump administration shares such a vision, and that any administration “peace plan” will, in effect, embody it as well.
But “economic peace” is an absurdity because this is a political conflict, not a squabble over money. Even disputes about land hide what lies, very obviously, directly underneath: power.
It’s no good saying Jews should know what it means to live without power, and under someone else’s whims and control. People don’t work like that; suffering is rarely ennobling. As ever, the powerful do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
But the same dynamics of fundamental human psychology mean that Palestinians, alone among all the peoples of the earth, will not uniquely agree to live in a formalized, fundamental, structural condition of radical disempowerment.
Would Arbess, Netanyahu or the others ever agree to that for themselves or their families? Would they ever dream of asking Jewish Israelis to? To ask the question is to answer it — possibly with a slap.