Maddie Ulanow: Minnesota’s Gaza protests require less vitriol, more perspective

In the past two weeks, the Twin Cities have been rocked by protests both for and against the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Though St. Paul and Jerusalem are separated by more than 6,000 miles, with constant demonstrations and emotions running high, it is hard not to feel as though the conflict is close to home. Many Minnesotans have family and friends in Israel or Gaza, as do I; and so in this time of crisis, our instinct is to rally to support them.

Unfortunately, many of these protests have taken on a negative character, producing vitriolic rhetoric and presenting a front united not just in its support for Israel or Palestine, but in its denial of the humanity of the other side. When that happens, these protesters cease to be forces for good, no matter what their intentions. These tactics do not just fail to promote peace overseas -- they also exacerbate tensions and divide communities here at home.

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Examples of this dichotomy exist in both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities. For example, when Governor Dayton spoke at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota’s Israel solidarity rally last week in Minnetonka, neither he nor any other Jewish community leaders made any mention of Palestinian civilian deaths. When American Jewish leaders do discuss civilian casualties, they tend place the blame on solely on Hamas. "They [Hamas] are the terrorists,” Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and Dakotas (JCRC), told KARE 11 news. “If you want to address the source of the issue, take it up with Hamas.”

Hunegs is correct -- Hamas is a terrorist organization, and the rockets fired from Gaza constitute war crimes. Yet while they are deplorable, they do not justify the number of Palestinian civilian casualties. The tendency to blame Hamas alone is a mischaracterization of a situation which, in chalking each death up to self-defense or justified collateral, denies Palestinians their humanity. Further, this kind of rhetoric justifies the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza, both of which stand in the way of achieving lasting peace in the region.

Problematic rhetoric is also present in pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Like their pro-Israel counterparts, the Palestinian solidarity rallies both in Minnesota and nationally have failed to recognize Israeli casualties, and the terror of constant rocket attacks. Over a dozen Palestinian solidarity protesters were arrested outside Senator Franken’s office last week but did not acknowledge the political reality which characterizes the Israeli perspective, nor did they offer any specific demands, other than that the Senator “switch sides” on the debate.

Nationally and internationally, a number of pro-Palestinian protests have demonstrated a disturbing anti-Semitic character. Synagogues in France have been firebombed; in the Netherlands, protesters chanted “death to all Jews;” and in Boston, pro-Israel supporters were physically attacked by their pro-Palestinian counterparts, who chanted “Jews back to Birkenau.” Slurs such as these have no place in civil discourse.

This kind of vitriolic polarity cannot continue. American Jewish institutions must speak out, not just against the current operation in Gaza, but against Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. Leaders such as JCRC should not reflexively respond to any criticism of Israel by deflecting the blame solely to Hamas; as a community, we need to learn to be more critical of Israeli policies which not only violate the rights of Palestinians, but which ultimately threaten Israel’s future. It is possible -- necessary, even -- both to voice such criticism and to be pro-Israel.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators must also take responsibility for the character of their protests. Anti-Semitic protesters destroy the credibility of their cause and deny the humanity of their Jewish counterparts, while their lack of clarity in vision fails to promote any productive political outcome. As Rebecca Abou-Chedid, a board member with the grassroots organization Just Vision, has repeatedly stated: There is no place for anti-Semitism in pro-Palestinian activism.

Finally, both sides must learn to operate in the same political space. Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests need not exist in alternate realities. Our demands should be common: an end to war, an end to occupation, an end to terrorism, and respect for all victims of violence. We must call on our leaders to support negotiations, not to place blame for the purpose of scoring political points. #IfNotNow, a Jewish activist movement, has been holding vigils of this kind across the country -- including in St. Paul -- mourning all victims of the violence, and demanding that American Jewish institutions end their unconditional support for Israeli policy. We need more demonstrations, and conversations, like these.

Yet #IfNotNow does not have a monopoly on civil discourse. We all have a role to play. Moving forward, we must strive to make our rhetoric around Gaza constructive, rather than destructive. It is just as important here in Minnesota as it is in the Middle East that we recognize the shared humanity in those who disagree with us, and that we take responsibility for our own actions just as we demand responsibility from the “other side.” Only then can the demonstrations in the Twin Cities, and across the nation, serve any sort of productive purpose, or set us on the path to a lasting peace.

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Maddie Ulanow's picture
Maddie Ulanow