Commentary | Why we must learn to hug the Jewish state

On the sentiments of the Israeli people

62 years ago, 3 years after Israel had achieved its independence, my father was born in the port city of Haifa. He often speaks of this period as a time of remarkable optimism. After centuries of persecution in the diaspora, the creation of Israel was a rebirth for the Jewish people. No longer would they have to shy away from their unique identity or accept a subordinate position in society. In the State of Israel, the Jewish people could finally enjoy a peaceful and normal existence. That was the hope, at least.

The early State of Israel failed to bring the normalcy that the Jewish people desired. Sure, my father listened to the Beatles and adored the stoner-biker flick Easy Rider, but he also spent his young adult years as a soldier protecting Israel’s borders, and he could not travel to any neighbouring country without risking his life. The Arab states viewed Israel as a demon in their midst and many openly expressed a desire to eradicate it from the world map.

On a bright morning in the autumn of 1993, the politics suddenly appeared to change. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed to mutual recognition in the celebrated Oslo Accords. This framework pledged a new, more cooperative Middle East, where an Israeli and Palestinian state could live side by side in peace and security. Rabin, considered one of the greatest Israelis in history, announced to the world:

“We, like you [the Palestinians], are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you in a clear voice: enough.”

The Oslo Accords were viewed by Israelis as an historic olive branch to the Palestinian people and the Arab world. At the climax of the Camp David Summit in 2000, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital. This did not appease all of the Palestinian demands, such as the right of return, but it was by far the most wide-reaching proposal in the history of the conflict. To the disappointment of many, Arafat rejected this compromise and did not offer any counter-offers. The peace process broke down soon after. This provoked a decade of violence in the consequent Palestinian Intifada (uprising).

For many Israelis, Arafat’s rejection at Camp David was an illustration of the world’s perennial unwillingness to accept the State of Israel. They see a long history of rejection that began in 1948, when the Arab states attacked Israel the day it declared its independence. Over the years, the region has remained equally hostile to the Jewish state. Although the faces may have changed, the threats to Israel’s security and its soul are perpetual.

I spent this past summer volunteering at an NGO in south Tel Aviv, helping poor Israelis from all ethnic and religious backgrounds to become self-sufficient. In my time at the job, I quickly discovered the directness and brutal honesty of the Israeli people. Shop owners, bank clerks, taxi drivers, and businesspeople opened up to me without any reluctance. Again and again, I heard the same views.

Israelis want to believe that this conflict will come to an end, that they will no longer have to send their teenage children off to fight, that the State of Israel can just be an ordinary nation. They are tired of losing friends and family members in this regrettable war of attrition, at the hands of a people who are really their cousins, not their enemies. They crave the fruits of a real, lasting peace. No one wants eternal strife. But after 65 years of rejection, and then the violent aftermath of Oslo, they also fear being fooled again. Israelis feel the world will always hate Israel, so it is useless to even try.

This thinking must change and it begins with us. If we want to see peace in Israel and the broader Middle East, then we must learn to hug the Jewish state. The trend of demonizing the State of Israel is counterproductive. It silences the moderate majority that makes up the country and gives voice to the belief of the Israeli right that the pursuit of peace is futile. Global movements like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) that ban Israeli artists, academics, and scientists from sharing their ideas with the world only reinforce the right’s argument that Israel is alone in the world.

After my experience this summer, I am convinced that Israel will never pursue peace out of fears of demonization, regardless of whether it is coming from its Arab neighbors or Western NGOs. Its people have been through too much turmoil to be pressured solely by international ridicule. If anything, backing them into a corner will only increase their resolve.

Israel will only make another serious attempt at peace if it is persuaded that the world is ready to accept it into the brotherhood of nations. A broad dialogue based on mutual respect, understanding, and an opportunity for normalized relations can convince the skeptical Israeli public that peace is possible in our times. After two decades of failed negotiations, over 70 per cent of Palestinians and Israelis still support the idea of a two-state solution. We must convince both parties that this idea can be implemented into a feasible, secure, and just reality.

The current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may represent the final opportunity to reach a lasting peace. Many obstacles stand in the way, including a divided Palestinian leadership and the influence of Israel’s pro-settlement lobby. As outsiders, we of course have little leverage over the negotiations themselves. We do have the ability, however, to reinvigorate the Israeli public’s confidence in the potential for peace. I urge any interested individuals to talk with Israelis on social media and to listen to their unique perspectives. If possible, check out the Facebook pages “Israel-Loves-Iran” and “Israel Loves Palestine,” and take part in these efforts to promote co-existence. Through dialogue, not demonization, Israelis may again feel ready to take a chance at peace. In that event, let’s hope its partners in the Arab world are equally as willing.


Daniel Lombroso is a U2 Political Science student. He can be reached at daniel.lombroso@mail.mcgill.ca.


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