OpinionIsrael at War

Twelve tough questions and simple answers about Israel

I hope that all of you will use my answers as springboards for more formal and informal discussions.

Crowds of Israelis wave flags at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Crowds of Israelis wave flags at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Gil Troy
Gil Troy
Professor Gil Troy is an American presidential historian and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.

My good friend, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s CEO Gidi Mark, challenged me recently: “Can you offer short, punchy answers to some of the pressing questions our participants have—and some of the accusations being thrown at them?” Here’s my best shot…. 

I offer these back-and-forths—which represent my best effort, without speaking for Birthright or any other organization—with a massive disclaimer: Beware! Each question deserves a book on its own, not just a snappy, 100-word answer.  

I hope that all of you will use my answers as springboards for more formal and informal discussions clarifying where you agree—and where you disagree—with me, with Israel, with others. As defenders of democracy, we continue to benefit by arguing respectfully over difficult issues, while also having clear red lines distinguishing between good and evil.

1. Isn’t Israel an apartheid state? South Africa’s racist apartheid regime enacted 148 laws defining people as “white,” “mixed” and “colored.” No Israeli law ever defined anyone based on race or skin color. Israeli-Arabs enjoy equal rights. In the disputed territories, Palestinians and Israelis are often kept apart based on security and/or mutual preference. But apartness is not apartheid. The apartheid libel tries to racialize the Israeli-Palestinian national conflict. Israel’s enemies want to demonize and Nazify Israel, finding it guilty of biological racism. This charge deems Israel evil and worthy of the international death penalty, rather than a country in a complicated, painful border dispute.  

2. Isn’t Israel a settler-colonialist enterprise? “Colonialism” means settling a far-away land to extract resources or extend power. Calling Israel “colonialist” negates Jews’ indigenous ties to their homeland while rejecting Christianity too. Jesus emerged in a deeply-Jewish Land of Israel also called Judea. Jews are the original aboriginal people. They put the “in” in indigenous, being tied to the same land, praying to the same God, maintaining the same traditions and culture for millennia. Whether you’re religious and believe the Bible or historically-oriented and trust archaeological evidence—or both!—“Eretz Yisrael,” the Land of Israel, has always been central to “Am Yisrael,” the Jewish people.

3. Don’t Israelis have white privilege? There are light-skinned Palestinians, while most Israelis are dark-skinned. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is national, not racial. That statement acknowledges Palestinian national consciousness, not just Zionism, while calling out those who want to inject America’s racial dynamics into the Middle East simply to make Israel look bad. True, in a matter of decades, despite few natural resources, using their smarts and their sweat, Israelis built a strong country with a thriving start-up scene. Israelis shouldn’t apologize for succeeding. Moreover, there still are “poor whites” in Israel and elsewhere—maybe the term “white privilege” is problematic too. 

4. Why does Israel still occupy the Palestinians? In 1967, under attack, Israel won the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan from Syria and Jordan’s “West Bank,” what Jews called “Judea and Samaria” since biblical days. Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1979 hoping for peace. Israel started withdrawing from six cities in Judea and Samaria under the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, only to suffer waves of Palestinian terrorism that murdered over 1,000 innocents. In 2005, Israel disengaged—withdrew—completely from Gaza, only to see Hamas slaughter over 1,200 people on Oct. 7. Most Israelis keep wondering why Palestinians remain so preoccupied with trying to kill them.

5. Why is Israel committing genocide in Gaza? It isn’t. Genocide means trying to wipe out a race. For years, Gaza averaged a growth rate of 1.99%, the 39th in the world. Having started this war, Hamas is 100% responsible for every death, especially because its terrorists hide behind Gazans and Israeli hostages. Still, Israel has minimized civilian deaths in its just war of self-defense. Urban warfare, atop hundreds of tunnels, is treacherous. A U.S.-led coalition killed 10,000 innocents to defeat ISIS in Mosul. After Oct. 7, when Israel needed to protect its civilians from Hamas and deter others from massacring innocents, what else could Israel have done? 

6. Why can’t everyone just make peace in the Middle East? Israelis sing and pray for peace constantly. Israel made peace with Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Sudan and Morocco. Israel entered the Oslo Peace Process in 1993 and withdrew 100% from Gaza in 2005, trying to make peace with the Palestinians. Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy full rights. By contrast, the Hamas charter and most Palestinian documents call for Israel’s annihilation “from the river to the sea.” Chants to “Globalize the Intifada” endorse the mass murder of Jews. Israel is not perfect, but too many Palestinians’ apocalyptic ideology calling for the Jews’ destruction (not “just” Israel’s) is perfectly awful. 

7. Why does everyone hate us? Over 70% of Americans support Israel and like Jews. But a rabid minority, left and right, hates Jews. They even pounced on Oct. 7 as Jews endured unspeakable violence. That joy showed they hate that Israel is, not what Israel does. Some dislike Jews because we’re similar enough to fit in, yet different enough to keep sticking out. Unfortunately, every democracy has killed innocents in self-defense. But pro-Palestinian intifadists celebrate rape, maiming, purposeful killing and kidnapping. They burn the American and Canadian flags, disrupt national ceremonies and attack American icons. Which side would you rather be on? 

8. What about those who say, “I’m not antisemitic, I’m just anti-Israel”?  Jews confuse. If the Jewish people, believing in Judaism, created a national liberation movement “Judeanism” to establish Judea, few would claim: “I like Jews but hate Judeans.” It’s kind of like saying “I hate Italy, but like Italians.” Instead, Jews, following Judaism, established a national movement: Zionism, named for that legendary hill in Jerusalem. Then they created the State of Israel on the Land of Israel. And what happened on Oct. 7? Those who hate Israel killed with a traditional Jew-hating zeal while those who hate Jews used hatred of Israel to justify Jew-bashing. Most Jew-haters combine anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism and antisemitism, targeting all three simultaneously. 

9. Aren’t there many Jews who hate Israel and reject Zionism? Some Americans hate America too. But polls show that the overwhelming majority of Jews—young and old—see Zionism and Israel as central to their Jewish identities. Far more Jews support Israel and Zionism than believe in God or observe most commandments. True, a few outspoken Jews who attract lots of attention reject Israel. But those un-Jews are trying to un-do the core consensus most Jews have accepted—especially since the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. The consensus is that Judaism, Zionism and support for Israel are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

10. C’mon, don’t you have any criticisms of Israel? Of course, I do! Like most thinking citizens, I criticize every government frequently but never reject my country. Israelis are torn, facing hard dilemmas. Seventy percent want a new government but 70% applaud this government’s zero-tolerance-for-terrorists military strategy. I, like most, won’t criticize hostage families but fear that when Hamas refused to release the 18 women it promised to last fall, the abuse these holy women endured was too obvious and the chances of anyone being released through diplomacy plummeted. It’s complicated. But patriotism means loving your country because of its politicians sometimes but despite its politics always. 

11. What is Zionism anyway? Zionism, reflecting Jews’ love of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, understands that both the Jewish people and Jewish religion are rooted in the Jews’ homeland. Zionism is Abraham and Sarah, Deborah and David. It’s breaking the glass when you marry and singing “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the seder. Today, Jews have the right to establish their old-new state in their homeland, like 192 other United Nations member-states. Until 1948, Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement, tried rebuilding the Jew and establishing a Jewish state; today, Zionists defend the state when necessary, but work to perfect it, while dreaming about a better tomorrow always.

12. With Israel targeted by Hamas and other Gazans, terrorists in Judea and Samaria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran, even the Houthis from Yemen and the world, aren’t you worried? Sometimes, I’m not worried—I’m terrified! We’ve seen Gazans slaughtering our kids, Hezbollah rocketing houses up north and 320 Iranian missiles trying to eradicate us. In response, 200,000 Israelis rushed home, our crazy country mobilized heroically and you, our brothers and sisters abroad, cried with us, fought for us and supported us. We historians know how vulnerable Israel is and was even in the 1970s. So, worry, yes—but despair, no. Golda Meir said you can’t be a Zionist and a pessimist. I’m a Zionist. Knowing Jewish and Israeli history, I remain an optimist and am blessed by Zionism, today’s greatest Jewish renaissance project.

Originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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