On Nov. 3, J Street U Vassar, a student organization committed to discussing a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the context a two state-solution perspective, hosted an event featuring Gershon Baskin, one of the foremost activists on the subject of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Aside from establishing his own research organization, and negotiating with Hamas, he recently wrote a book, titled, “The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas.”
As a recent high school graduate from Long Island, Baskin was first inspired to learn about Israeli-Palestinian relations while on a study-abroad program in Israel sponsored by Young Judaea, a Zionist youth group he had been involved with in his high school. “It dawned on me,” said Baskin of his Zionist education, “I just spent the whole year in Israel and I didn’t have a single conversation with an Arab the whole time I was there.”
After looking into the history and politics of the Middle East to understand the place in which he wanted to spend his life, Baskin became involved in the political relationship between Israel and Palestine, and, after discussing the issue with supporters of both Palestine and Israel, was troubled by the perceived close-mindedness of many of the people with whom he wished to engage in a constructive dialogue. “I was actually looking for dialogue, but how can you dialogue with someone who doesn’t even recognize that you have a right to exist?” wondered Baskin.
Having developed a passion for Israeli-Palestinian relations during his two years living in a Palestinian village in Israel, Baskin found his first job in the Israeli government as the first civil servant for Jewish-Arab relations, working within the Ministry of Education to help establish the Department for Education for Coexistence and Democracy as well as the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence before the First Intifada in 1987.
The speaker stated that violence in the region, both rhetorical and actual, has developed since the First Intafada. Baskin sees the conflict as resolvable, even now, with the strain the recent atrocities of this year have put on Israeli-Palestinian relations, as long as compromises are made by both parties.
He said, “But an agreement is still possible because the parameters of the agreement are still there, based on the 22 [to] 78 percent split, and the Palestinians have been even, I would say, magnanimous in that they’ve said they’re willing to accept the principle of territorial swaps. Even though they say settlements are illegal by international law, they understand that no government of Israel is going to be able to remove 600,000 people.”
He continued, “So they’ve said that they’re willing to engage in territorial swaps that would enable Israel to annex some of the settlements in exchange for equal territories inside of Israel proper for the Palestinians. The whole thing is Palestine anyway, so there’s nothing sanctified, holy about the Green Line,” remarked Baskin. The speaker is referring to the geographical line established by the 1949 Armistice Agreements that demarcates the borders between Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. “We can go beyond the Green Line and we can actually make a zigzag border, in which Israel could annex about four percent in exchange for equal territory and keep 75 to 80 percent of the settlers where they are under Israeli sovereignty,” he said.
Some of the means that may be used to forge a solution to the need for balance between the Israeli need to protect itself against regional threats of terrorism and the Palestinian need for sovereignty, suggested Baskin, include joint security mechanisms and joint command operations, as well as a binational water utility agreement, which would guarantee denationalized water provisions to all people in the region. He explained, “We’re going to have to develop partnerships because if peace is going to be real,” he suggested. “It can’t be built on walls and fences, on barbed wire. It’s going to have to be built on cooperation.”
Despite his frequently mentioned love for Israel, Baskin encouraged criticism of, and action against, the deeds of Israel. He also stated the importance of understanding these critiques independent of accusations of anti-Semitism, a term that he found dangerous to introduce into the discussion.
A major part of his efforts to respond to the injustices of the Israeli government against the Palestinian people is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS Movement), which intends, as its names indicates, to put political and economic pressure on Israel to end military occupation of Palestinian lands. This movement has proven central to conceptions of Vassar’s relationship to the conflict. Last semester, in response to the administration’s official refusal to support an academic boycott, professors noted the BDS movement on several occasions. For example, they noted, “Nor can we ignore that many icons of the anti-Apartheid struggle–such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu–support the BDS campaign today” (The Miscellany News, “Open letter in defense of academic freedom in Palestine/Israel and in the United States,” 3.1.14).
This distaste, Baskin argues, will only prompt change in Israel’s policy. “The Israeli people are eventually, sooner, not later, are going to wake up and understand that the pressure can be removed by ending the occupation,” Baskin posited. “Israel can no longer find a way to justify and sustain the occupation of the Palestinian people and the prevention of granting the Palestinian people the same liberty and freedom that the Israelis demand for themselves. It simply cannot be justified anymore, and certainly not when Israel keeps building settlements, which has just ticked off the entire world.”
The J Street U Vassar event, which was cosponsored by the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU), as well as the VC Dems, the Vassar Student Association, and numerous academic programs, was organized to provide a voice that had been deeply engrained in the politics and the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and who could offer firsthand experience and insight into potential directions and solutions for the future.
VJU President Jeremy Brick ’15 believed that the event could be beneficial to discussions of the conflict on campus. He wrote in an emailed statement, “It could provoke a productive, not necessarily controversial, but intellectual exchange about the subject, especially since it will be coming from a man who is ingrained in the constant negotiations that occur daily with regards to the conflict.”