What Being Pro-Palestinian Means To Me as An American: I'm Not Anti-Israel, But I Must Speak Up

Two years ago, I spent three months in Israel as a student on a study abroad program. Upon arriving, an Israeli security person approached me between passport check and baggage claim to ask me a few routine questions, including, "Do you intend to have any contact with Palestinians during your stay?" I said no. I didn't know any Palestinians at the time, and it seemed like the obvious answer. After all, I had been told that people have been turned around and sent home for answering yes.

I went to the country determined to keep an open mind about the ongoing political conflict between Israel and Palestine. As a religious studies major, I was used to hearing all sorts of different narratives, and I'd always done my best to take those ideas on their own terms, without judgment. Even though nothing could have quite prepared me for the sheer number of competing narratives that surround the conflict between Israel and Palestine, I still prided myself on my ability to hear all the different opinions and interpretations without deciding that one was more valid than the others. I wasn't going to be one of those Americans who feels like they have a right to pass judgment on a situation they are not part of, especially since I was neither Jewish nor Muslim. I wasn't taking a side.

I maintained that mentality for a long time — my carefully cultivated neutrality. But with the events unfolding now in Gaza, I've come to realize that my ideological allegiances have shifted whether I want them to or not. In the face of the current situation, neutrality no longer feels like a responsible course. I am now pro-Palestinian.

calling the situation between Israel and Palestine a "conflict" is in and of itself a misnomer. The balance of power is so completely skewed that the word no longer really applies. "Conflict" implies that both sides have a chance.

I should clarify a few things before I continue: First and foremost, the fact that I say I am pro-Palestinian does not mean I am anti-Israel. I completely sympathize with the need for a Jewish state, especially given that anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in many parts of the world, and will always remain a possibility anywhere. I also know that there are many, many Israelis who are committed to finding peaceful solutions to the conflict, and that most Israelis support a two-state solution. I also do not support Hamas and am aware that they are anti-Semitic, endorse violence, and have a fair amount of blood on their hands.

There is nothing simple about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and there never will be — the history, the international influences, even the very terms we use to talk about it, are incredibly complicated. And because the issue is so nuanced, I know many smart, otherwise engaged young people who have opted to disengage from having an opinion on Israel-Palestine altogether.

But I can't, in good conscience, do that any longer. Instead, I try to approach the issue by looking at who has relative power and how they are using that power (the same sort of approach that made me a feminist). And the unambiguous fact is that Israel has a virtual monopoly on true power in this conflict — and America is helping to fund that power.

When children are killed while playing on the beach, when hospitals are knowingly attacked, when schools are bombed; when the civilian death toll for the month in Gaza reaches 100, then 200, then 300, then 400, then 500, then 600, then far, far beyond, and when you know America is helping pay for these military strikes — at some point you just wind up on a side whether you intended to be on one or not.

We have reached a point where trying to remain neutral actually does more harm than good. In many cases, remaining neutral amounts to the same thing as supporting those with the power; neutrality by those outside the situation gives those with power a de facto sanction to continue using it as they have been. And the way that Israel uses its power more often than not makes peace more difficult to achieve.

While studying the modern history of Israel during my time abroad, our class took a tour of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. By then, I'd been to the West Bank a few times, enough to realize the State Department's warnings, at least at the time, were largely ridiculous. I had never felt unsafe there, and the people were almost universally friendly and happy to see American tourists. They don't get many tourists.

The Israeli settlements were nothing like the West Bank houses I'd seen so far — they were bigger, nicer, sleeker. They reminded me of a suburban subdivision back home, though the architecture was completely different. Our Jewish guide told us that he refused to move to a settlement for ideological reasons — he believed them to be a threat to the peace process that he is committed to. But even he has been tempted, he tells us. Housing costs are high in Israel, but the government makes it cheap to move into settlements. It's a deeply troubling thing to think about, and standing in the midst of this very physical cause of strife and conflict was unsettling.

Every year, more and more settlers move into the West Bank. Every year, more and more Palestinians lose their land. We are at the point where people already speculate that even if the West Bank and Gaza were made into a fully autonomous state, the land area might be too small to support an independent nation. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. If settlers keep coming, though, someday it will be.

When I hear stories on the news about Palestinian rockets launched out of Gaza, I often think about those settlements, the ones that are illegal under international law, but that no one is halting. I think about how it must feel to wonder if it is already too late for your country, which hasn't even been born yet, to support itself. I think about the map I once saw of Palestinian villages depopulated during the Nakba — the Palestinian name, meaning catastrophe, for the original Israeli conquest in 1948. I think about what it must feel like to have politicians claim that people who left their homes to flee from an oncoming army were willingly giving up their right to the land. I think about the hundreds of Palestinians in "administrative detention," meaning they are held without charges, a trial, or a release date. I think about the fact that many Palestinians don't have and can't get either a passport or a pass allowing them to enter Israel; there is no way to leave.

When I hear stories about Gaza rockets, I think about what it takes for these flares of blind destruction to feel like a viable course of action. And then I think about the state-of-the-art weapons that Israel fires back in response. I think about the Israeli military jets I saw patrolling the Israel/Jordan border. I think about the tank museum outside Jerusalem, where an informational plaque informs you that the shock wave from a shell will kill you if the shell passes within a foot of your head.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As the journalist Ferrari Shepherd observed recently, calling the situation between Israel and Palestine a "conflict" is in and of itself a misnomer. The balance of power is so completely skewed that the word no longer really applies. "Conflict" implies that both sides have a chance.

I know that there are plenty of Americans who feel that it isn’t their place to get involved in this conflict, to take sides, and to a certain extent, I understand that. In many ways, international opinions over this conflict have only made things more tense, made peace more difficult. But as long as the United States government continues to supply Israel with over $3 billion in military aid each year — about a quarter of Israel's entire defense budget — staying neutral does no one any good. Staying neutral allows the status quo to continue.

I hope someday that the balance of power becomes more equitable. That Israel uses more restraint, that Palestine gains more autonomy, and that the two sides can get down to the hard, hard work of trying to create a sustainable, mutually-beneficial peace. I hope that we get back to the point where I don't have to root for one side or the other because we are in a situation where it makes sense to root for both; a situation where neither Israel nor Palestine is fighting for survival, but where both sides are fighting to coexist peacefully.

We just aren't there yet. And so here I am, on a side.

Image: Emily Gerdin/Facebook