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Davis, California

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Column: The Israel question

Every week – at least for a weekly columnist – a decision must be made as to what to cover. Speaking as a political columnist, I find it easy to make a list of potential topics, but hard to choose just one.

The budget/taxing impasse continuing in Sacramento? No. As if the deadlock won’t continue into next week, next month and beyond. The need for reform of our state government? Ha, as if nobody has commented that the status quo in California needs to change.

Oh, oh, what about how high taxes and big government don’t help people like they’re supposed to? A very important topic, yes, but I think I should stay abroad for another week before I come back home.

Israel. Few foreign policy debates can so quickly become as heated as the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But precisely because it is so intractable, I think the situation demands a solid discussion on every college campus across America.

I had a rare opportunity to speak in person with the CEO of a pro-Israel international organization, Stand With Us, which has been around for about 10 years. Her name is Roz Rothstein, and I must admit when I first met her I was a bit surprised that such a seemingly unassuming woman was apparently such a force in the political world. But it didn’t take long for her to demonstrate the passion of her arguments.

“[Many college students] are likely missing some critical information and have formed an opinion based on one-sided propaganda,” Rothstein told me. “They probably don’t know how small Israel is, and they probably don’t know much about the ideology of Hamas or Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad, the terrorist groups that keep trying to kill Israelis.”

Rothstein is accustomed to speaking around the country in defense of Israel – sometimes to small groups, sometimes to larger ones. She presents a strong case for the Jewish state, and her organization points out some very intriguing facts that we may not be aware of.

For example, perhaps the primary contested territory in the whole conflict is the West Bank, in eastern Israel. The anti-Israel movement is incensed at the Jewish settlements in the area. What they neglect to point out is that only 1.7 percent of the land in the West Bank is occupied by Jewish settlements, a tiny fraction of the entire territory, and hardly an immense stumbling block for peace in the Middle East.

Israel pulled out of the Sinai region of Egypt in 1979, southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, all concessions in the name of peace. The West Bank is the next area of possible Israeli retreat, with negotiations starting up and breaking down periodically to determine the precise borders.

But it interested me that Rothstein kept returning the idea of the misconceptions of Israel.

“If [college students] consider themselves modern liberal thinkers, they would have to appreciate Israel’s amazingly progressive human rights for gays and women,” Rothstein went on. “They would be inspired about Israeli Arabs having more rights in Israel than in any other Middle Eastern Arab country.”

“If they knew about how Israel is often the first country to show up when disasters strike, as they did in Haiti and Japan, or that Israel cares about alternative energy and green issues like they do, they would take another look at Israel and want to know more.”

No one can be under the illusion that there are no opponents of Israel on our college campus. But such an important issue, often cited as a barrier to greater peace in the Middle East and a cause of terrorism around the world, is something that frankly isn’t debated seriously enough. Though sound bites and generic platitudes are often thrown back and forth, a real and heavy discussion of the facts is uncommon – quite a disservice to everyone, in my opinion.

Which brings me to my final point. In whatever facts we use, on either side of the debate, we must put them in context. If Israel is in Palestinian territory, we must point out how much. If Israel has taken over Arab land, we must admit how much has been given back, for compromise and for peace. If Israel has killed Palestinians in the conflict, we can’t leave out how many Israelis have in turn been killed. We must have, as college students so often say, an open and honest dialogue.

But the dialogue must be had.

Begin peace negotiations with ROB OLSON at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Such a liberal country, indeed. Such a country must encourage freedom of speech, of course. Ruh roh. I guess not. Why did Israel prevent Chomsky and Finkelstein (2 Jews and esteemed professors at prestigious American universities– the type of people whose visits you’d expect Israel to encourage) from entering Israel to speak at universities who invited them?? Their illegal blockade of Gaza is certainly very liberal as well.

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