My mom got a call this fall from a political surveyor who wanted to know if she was anti-abortion. She answers the question this way: “I’m not anti-abortion, but I am pro-life.” And the political surveyor probably just about dropped the phone from his gaping mouth. How could she possibly be pro-one thing but not-anti-its opposite? Even more shocking is her oft-stated comment, “I’m not anti-abortion, but I’m not pro-abortion, either.” Because how could anyone be psyched about going out and aborting some fetuses? It’s a fact of life. There are shades of grey.
Recently, I’ve found myself in this same dilemma, but on a topic much more divisive, at least in the New York academic community. Of course, I’m talking about Israel and Palestine. Having decided to take my history seminar in the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department, I am at times horrified by the statements I read that have permeated the history American Middle East Policy. If you’re pro-Arab, then you must be anti-Israel. If you’re anti-Israel, you must also be anti-Semitic. And maybe—MAYBE—if we were right in the throes of it, on the West Bank in 1967, that would be at least accurate of not logical. But 40 years and 5600 miles away, I think we should have enough distance to break these terms down a bit more.
I, for one, am certainly pro-Arab. I like Arab food, I like Arab culture, and I certainly like many many Arab people. Heavens knows I’m pro-Palestine; the Palestinian people have suffered from oppression and abuse for 60 years now. I have a hard time understanding how anyone can NOT support a people who have been denied basic human rights like freedom of movement and access to potable drinking water. I want those things even for people I don’t like.
But here’s the shocking thing: I’m also pro-Israel—as in Eretz Y’Israel. I accept the historical arguments. The Jews have historically gotten screwed time and again and, after facing a decade of ethnic cleansing, needed a safe space to call their own. Would I have gone about it as was done in 1947? Probably not.
What I am not is pro-Israeli expansionism, pro-Bibi (Netanyahu), pro-settlement, pro-terrorist, or anti-Semitic. And yet somehow, these labels tend to get thrown around in tandem with what I do believe. The language, in this case, makes things especially messy. Israel refers both to the Biblical Jewish “homeland” and the state apparatus in place there. Jew is used to reference both a religion found worldwide and the particular group of people who inhabit that chunk of land between Lebanon and Egypt.
As the conflict in Israel Palestine rages on more than 60 years later, as the U.S. gets increasingly involved in the Middle East, and as more and more innocent civilians get caught in the middle, I think its increasingly important that we use our language specifically. That we talk through things carefully. There are shades of grey. If someone tells you he is pro-Arab and you jump to the conclusion that he is, therefore, anti-Semitic, well…. That says a lot more about you than about him.