When we published our Understanding the Settlements Primer and Discussion Guide a few months ago, we knew we were dealing with a touchy – perhaps the most touchy – issue dividing Israeli society and the American Jewish community when it comes to Israel. The primer was in the works for a long time precisely because of the amount of wordsmithing necessary when dealing with such a contentious issue. When we issued the primer, our press release gave just that context -
“The recent announcement of the government of Israel regarding settlement expansion has renewed public discussion on settlements and sparked numerous news stories in the mainstream press and the Internet. The David Project’s primer addresses this ongoing controversy by providing readers with a deeper, more holistic view of this issue. It is designed for Jewish groups—young Jews in particular—to go beyond the headlines and sound bites.”
A month ago, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the well-known, recently retired president of the Union for Reform Judaism, dedicated an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz to our primer. Yoffie called it “a carefully-worded 11-page document that reviews the history and geography of settlement and surveys the current state of the settlement movement. It avoids inflammatory language and sweeping generalizations and summarizes concisely Israel’s side of the settlement debate.” He goes on to write “…the leaders of [T]he David Project should be applauded. Their cautious, scrupulously fair review is a model of truth-telling and balance on a difficult, emotional topic.” And even advises “everyone to read it.”
But Yoffie also concluded that the primer can only be read one way. The one possible conclusion? “That Israel’s settlement policy is a disaster.” And this too:
"This is the simple, brutal reality: Settlement policy is Israel’s Achilles heel. As we see from this report, it cannot be explained to those outside of Israel for the same reasons that for 45 years, Israelis have been unable to explain it to themselves.”
Interesting takeaway, though I doubt this was the intention of my colleagues who wrote this fine report. Their goal was, as our press release had stated, simply to “provide the context necessary for individuals to gain a more nuanced understanding of this polarizing topic.” Yoffie, a supporter of Israel with a liberal ideology, read the document in a way that fit his worldview. This, of course, is completely legitimate. But I hope that conservative readers who hold Israel dear could do the same.
But this op-ed published last week in AlJazeera (hence the title) by Mark LeVine caught us off-guard. LeVine, a Middle East Studies professor at UC Irvine has a problematic record when it comes to Israel. He has defended the Irvine 11 and has been accused by some pundits of being anything from a collaborator to Israel-hater or even Jihad supporter (see here and here). Putting his background aside, I was intrigued by the amount of time he took to deconstruct our primer, and more so by his conclusions.
Whereas Rabbi Yoffie saw the primer as the epitome of fair scholarship, LeVine claims it only “reinforces existing misconceptions about the origins, dynamics and possible future disposition of the settlements at precisely the moment when clarity is most desperately needed.” He says:
“The pamphlet's arguments are subtle but they are all oriented to a single aim - muddying the waters about the nature of Israel's settlement enterprise, laying the conceptual framework for legitimising some settlements, and removing any fundamental Palestinian rights to self-determination so that whatever sovereignty might be offered is considered adequate to fulfill their ‘legitimate’ demands.”
Muddying the waters? Once again, this was not our intention.
These are two radically different readings of the same document. I’m extremely interested in hearing from students on campus and community members how our primer was received by them. Do you agree with Yoffie, LeVine or neither, and why? As stated, our goal was to start a discussion. Now discuss.