JACL has had a policy of nonengagement on international issues, particularly issues pertaining to Japan and Israel. The former likely derives from our history and desire to largely delineate the difference between us as Japanese Americans versus Japanese citizens. For some who are fourth or fifth generation, their connection to Japan is likely less than that to Mexico or Canada. And for some, the scars of incarceration have led to even a distancing from Japan.
The latter, as we have seen throughout the past 75 years of history and especially today, can be one subject to polarization and misinterpretation of intent or meaning from one’s words, which I am sure as I delve into this, will likely happen with what I write here as my own personal opinion and not speaking for JACL. I do hope it gives some perspective as to how I see this issue and how I hope we can have constructive conversation about it. I also offer the caveat that this one column is not enough to go into the complexities of the issues and the politics of the region, which I hope everyone is taking the time to better understand on their own.
In our recent statement in response to the murder of Wadea Al-Fayoumi, we spoke out on the domestic hate crime against an innocent 6-year-old as a result of enflamed rhetoric from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Unfortunately, many were left wanting for more, whether a stronger show of support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas, or calling attention to the plight of the Palestinian people both in their daily existence or made much worse under the barrage of Israel’s retaliatory attacks.
First, I begin with the existence of Israel as a nation in modern times, in fact only for the past 75 years since they declared their independence. Obviously, it hearkens back to thousands of years ago when the Jewish people occupied the same region before various ruling empires and other groups taking over led to the Jewish diaspora. Any Israeli will also be quick to point out that Jews never left the area, they were simply in the minority for those many years. And, of course, there is the role the Holocaust played in hastening the desire of much of the world to re-establish a Jewish homeland.
For Israelis, they view themselves as the rightful inhabitants of the land from a claim thousands of years old. They are just as much indigenous to the land as the Palestinians, who are the most recent residents for the past few centuries.
For Palestinians, they were obviously forced from their land in what is known widely as Nakba and segregated in the regions of the Gaza strip and the Western Bank or in another diaspora, scattered across other nations that would accept them, though that has been relatively limited, especially here in the United States. And there are those who remained in Israel, just as the Jews had previously remained.
The result with the occupied territories of Gaza and the Western Bank is what Amnesty International and others accurately describe as an apartheid system. They remain a people without a country, unable to claim Israeli citizenship, and no Palestinian state to claim as theirs. All resources in the occupied territories remain under Israeli control and can be leveraged against the residents, as is being done now with electricity and water access cut off for residents of Gaza. The devastation experienced by the Gaza strip since Oct. 7 is overwhelming and nothing less than a humanitarian disaster.
Despite talk of aspirations for a two-state solution, Israeli settlers have continued to move into the occupied territories of the Western Bank. The Israeli government now engages in actively defending and protecting these lands as Israeli, and the likelihood of them being returned grows less the longer Israeli settlers remain. These encroachments leave little hope for Palestinians that the occupied territories will be returned to the Palestinian people, certainly not with the previously presumed borders.
So, where does this leave us, both as Americans and for those of us in the JACL? What can we say? What should we say?
We need an end to the violence now. Calling for peace and a cease fire is a matter of humanity, regardless of whether it is an international or domestic issue. We can and should affirm the right for both an Israeli and Palestinian nation state with each having the right of self-determination. This does mean Israel has the right to defend itself, but within the constricts of proportionality and not to violate human rights or international law. Palestinians must have their own country, period.
While we may be supportive of one or even both sides, we also need to be critical when necessary. The attack by Hamas was brutal, but Israel’s response has far exceeded the deaths, injury and destruction of property.
Most of all, we need to have these conversations about what the vision for Israel and Palestine might be. For too long, we have ignored this issue as a country, and both people are paying the price. Even if JACL remains focused on domestic issues, we see that the impact of what is happening in Israel and Palestine ultimately does impact us here. The death of Wadea Al-Fayoumi was unnecessary, as are the thousands of deaths in the Middle East.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.