As the bombardment of Gaza continues, and the civilian death toll rises above 1,500 — with children comprising one-quarter of the victims the world has become polarized. Supporters of Israel's actions invoke its right to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. Opponents argue that nothing justifies the mass killing of civilians and the destruction of essential infrastructure.
Unsurprisingly, Israeli society is polarizing as well. Even as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government has fully mobilized hasbara ("public diplomacy" or "spin," depending on your point of view) and hardens its position, peace activists are taking to Israel's streets. Israelis from all walks of life, and increasing numbers of Diaspora Jews, are speaking out, rejecting what they call Israel's frequent violation of international law and the injustice of what they describe as a two-tier system of citizenship and law.
In fact, once-unthinkable positions are emerging. Recently, for example, more than 50 Israeli reservists signed a petition declaring their refusal to serve, citing many forms of oppression but naming specifically the dual legal system that discriminates against Palestinians, and the "brutal" nature of the military occupation. They join a growing number of other former Israeli soldiers who have described in detail the daily injustice and humiliation to which Palestinians are subjected.
More broadly, many younger progressive Israelis, Diaspora Jews, and Palestinians have taken up, with increasing interest and hope, the idea of a secular, democratic, diverse society along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa. If this vision is not yet a solution, at least it promises a new conversation – one that poses a direct challenge to the right-wing Israeli establishment and its supporters abroad.
It is a challenge that the Israeli establishment would prefer to ignore. Following one of the most lethal nights of Israel's "Operation Protective Edge" in Gaza — and what many human-rights defenders have called a massacre — police, citing "security concerns," sought to prevent an estimated 10,000 people from gathering in the streets of Tel Aviv to oppose what organisers described as an illegal occupation and military campaign against the Palestinians. The protest went ahead, without violence.
Palestinians demonstrating at the same time in the West Bank were not so fortunate. Protesters there reported that Israeli police and soldiers confronted rallies with live bullets; by the end of the day's demonstrations, five Palestinian protesters were dead.
Despite the obstacles that Israeli peace activists face — including intimidation and violence by right-wing nationalists — their movement has persevered. Nonetheless, it is often easier for people trained to hate one another to connect in cyberspace rather than to come together in real-life settings. On Facebook, the page IsraelLovesPalestine, which has nearly 26,000 "likes," documents rallies, meetings, and other actions in support of Palestinians and in opposition to perceived Israeli injustices. The page PalestineLovesIsrael – with banner headlines reading "ENOUGH! STOP THE WAR" — has almost the same number of "likes."
But an active peace movement, in which Israelis and Palestinians recognise common interests and forge new discussions aimed at ending the decades-long conflict, may not be enough to stem growing extremism, particularly on the Israeli side.
According to an opinion poll carried out in July by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, more than 95 per cent of Jewish Israelis believe that Operation Protective Edge is warranted, while less than 4 per cent believe that Israel has used excessive force. Indeed, nearly 50 per cent of respondents said that they thought that insufficient force had been used.
Here, it is crucial to note the disturbing turn in the rhetoric used by some Israelis and Diaspora Jews to justify the military offensive in Gaza, examples of which are legion. A right-wing member of Israel's Knesset asserted that civilians in Gaza should be "erased," on the grounds that no one there was innocent.
The American comedienne Joan Rivers defended in crude terms the bombing of Gazan civilians. Tomer Siyonov, a friend of a dead Israeli soldier, recently told the Guardian that everyone in Gaza must be killed.
Just how dangerous is such talk? According to the Israeli historian Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, "In classic dehumanisation scenarios, whether in Nazi Germany or in Rwanda before the genocide, you refer to the enemy as rats and cockroaches, and that enables you to kill them on a large scale." Oren then adds, "We're not calling Palestinians cockroaches."
But it is not the choice of epithets that can lead people to endorse the mass killing of civilians. What matters is whether the rhetoric used by political leaders and major media outlets is framed in the context of a narrative that portrays the "other" as posing an existential threat. Hutus slaughtered close to a million Tutsis in 1994 not because they thought of Tutsis as "cockroaches," but because they were led to believe that the Tutsis would kill them first.
Such turning points in language both reflect and facilitate acceptance of the wholesale bombing of neighbourhoods, hospitals, and schools.
Someday, the details of Operation Protective Edge will be investigated and history will be written. But, before that happens, Israel has two moral paths open before it. One path, to be taken with all those committed to a just peace, leads to a higher form of community; the other leads to a very dark place. The soul of a nation is in the balance.