Sunday, June 28, 2009

Palestinians At Home and Abroad

There are occasionally news items that, interesting though they may be in and of themselves, also serve to crystallize our thinking about larger matters that are related to the specifics of the story involved only tangentially. As a result, and for all the larger issue is formally distinct from the smaller one, the two become allied in the mind of the public as the narrower story comes to feel as though it is a commentary of sorts on the larger one, as though it exemplifies the larger issue.

The brouhaha surrounding the Fulbright fellowships awarded to seven promising young Palestinians from Gaza to enable them to pursue graduate studies in the United States is a good example of how this works.

On May 30, the State Department withdrew the grant offers because, they said, Israel had made it clear that the students would not be given permission to leave Gaza. The fellowships would thus be wasted if they were earmarked for students who could not come to this country, and the students were informed both that the monies earmarked for them for this year were being reassigned elsewhere and also that they were free to re-apply in the future if they wished. This move on Israel’s behalf did not have universal support, however, not even in Israel itself. Indeed, Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Meimad MP (Meimad is a political party allied with Labor) and the chairman of the Kenesset’s Education Committee said sharply that he was opposed, adding that, in his opinion, “this policy is not in keeping with international standards or with the moral standards of Jews, who have been subjected to the deprivation of higher education in the past. Even in war,” Rabbi Melchior concluded, “there are rules.”

A few days later, on June 2, the situation reversed itself. The State Department recontacted the seven students, this time informing them that their grants had been reinstated. The American consulate in Jerusalem announced that it was working with the Israeli authorities to straighten thing out and, eventually, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry announced formally that the seven would be granted permits to leave Gaza after appropriate security checks were carried out.

That sounds like the end of the story. Grants awarded. Exit permits denied. Grants rescinded. Exit permits secured. Grants reinstated. The larger question of the right of Gazans to leave Gaza, of course, remains to be settled. Gisha, the Israeli organization devoted to militating for free movement for Palestinians under Israeli control, is pursuing a case in the Israeli Supreme Court intended to secure the right to study abroad for Palestinians interested in studying in the U.K. or in Germany, for example. But for the seven Gazans headed here to study, the matter appears settled.

For those of us who read these stories about Israel from the vantage point of full support for the Jewish state, and the deepest sense of allegiance to its values and faith in its destiny, however, stories like this provoke an odd set of emotions.
Do we believe in collective punishment? There is, apparently, no evidence that any of the seven students involved is allied even tangentially with Hamas or with any terrorist organization. Nor has any ever been indicted of a crime, let alone convicted of one. Still, they are part of a people that, in an apparently unrigged election, chose to be governed by a terrorist organization unapologetically at war with Israel and its people. The Palestinians of Gaza, by choosing Hamas to represent them, allied themselves with the dark forces of terror…but, of course, not all Gazans voted for Hamas. In the 2006 elections, there were about 1.3 million votes cast, representing about 77% of the electorate. Of those, about 44.5% went to Hamas. Another 41% went to Fatah, an organization that, having previously perpetrated some of the worst acts of terrorism ever, has now formally renounced terror as a means to achieve its ends. But I’m specifically interested in the votes that went to Hamas…and how the results of the election either do or do not require us to respond.

As Americans, we are by nature of two minds on the question. Surely, none of us wishes personally to be held responsible for all the decisions made by our own government. And yet…is that not the way of the world, that the citizenry of nations is deemed to bear some sort of collective responsibility for the deeds of those nations’ governments? As a nation, we didn’t imagine, after all, that every single resident of Hiroshima was a war criminal, yet we accepted the reasonableness of ending the war by annihilating the innocents along with the guilty, the babies along with the soldiers. Nor do we imagine that the majority of the Germans whose tax euros support the reparations payments paid out to survivors of the Shoah are, for the vast most part, the same individuals who perpetrated the crimes for which those payments are intended as some sort of after-the-fact redress. We accept that citizens are both individuals and members of the aggregate, members of the society to which they belong…and we also accept that the government a nation chooses to govern itself represents all of its citizens, including those that didn’t vote it into office. In the end, we want it both ways: we wish to be part of the whole and also not to be part of it, to be governed by our democratically elected representatives without actually assuming any real responsible for whatever ensues after those representatives assume the reins of power.

Thinking about the students of Gaza makes these issues even more difficult to unravel. I studied abroad as a young person and can say easily that that experience was the most formative (and the most life-altering) of my student years, and by far. Surely, creating a class of educated Palestinians who have been exposed to American life and values is a good things. And we Jews surely know from long personal experience that education has the power to transform people in a way that gifts of money, even in huge amounts, can never quite manage. If anything, we should be militating to bring more and more young Palestinians here and to Israel to study, to be exposed to Western society and values, to be taught how to imagine for themselves what the Palestinian future could be like. And yet…do we not also have an obligation to refuse a terrorist organization like Hamas, one that has the blood of countless Israelis on its hands, any sort of accommodation?

I raise these questions not because I personally know how to answer them unequivocally, but merely to suggest that we Americans need to tread cautiously and carefully, endeavoring somehow to find a way to invite individual worthy Palestinians to study here, thus possibly to become the educated leadership of a subsequent generation of Palestinian leaders imbued with liberal Western values, at the same time we refuse to appear to be overlooking the fact that the Palestinians have installed a government of unrepentant murderers to rule over them. Treating a government led by unapologetic terrorists as the legitimate voice of its constituency merely because it was duly elected is, I believe, unthinkable. (The Nazis won 43.9% of the vote in the Reichstag election of 1933, thus legally coming to power with a large plurality. But surely none of us thinks that detail somehow legitimized the unspeakable horrors that were soon to be unleashed on the world and on Germany itself by its own democratically elected government.) In the end, winning votes cannot be the sole criterion—there is also a bedrock obligation for elected governments to embrace human rights, human values, and human decency before they can claim true legitimacy. To none of the above could the Nazis lay claim. And I believe the same could be said of Hamas.

In the end, the question comes back to the seven would-be graduate students from Gaza. I personally am glad they’re coming. I hope they get a good look at our country, that they meet people who embody the finest of Western values, who abhor violence, who understand that peace in the Middle East will come from learning to compromise, from embracing co-existence, and from unequivocally renouncing terror as a means to any end. Israel, I believe, is ready. The question whether the Palestinians are as well. I see all the reasons not to grant Hamas any quarter in the forum of nations, but I can’t bring myself to think that educating young Palestinians in our ways can lead to anything other than enhanced prospects for peace in the future Israel and the Palestinians must inevitably share. (June 13, 2008)

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