An interesting media report caught my eye last week: “Actor Kal Penn, a former aide in Barack Obama’s White House, wants fellow Democrat Chuck Schumer ‘out of office’ after the Senate Democratic Leader delivered a pro-Israel speech in Washington this week.” Penn is known as a comedy actor (Harold and Kumar) but his reaction to Schumer’s remarks was not funny at all. It was exceptionally aggressive and astonishingly ignorant.
In reaction to Schumer’s “pro-Israel” speech, Penn tweeted the following: “New York is a beautiful state with incredible people from so many faiths & backgrounds. Instead of using his office to bring people together & really make a difference, @SenSchumer is making speeches to divide us. Looking forward to the day he’s out of office – Kal Penn (@kalpenn)” What happened that got the worst out of him to the point he welcomes the political demise of one of his own party’s main leaders? What did Schumer say to deserve this wrath? Where is Penn coming from? How could Schumer’s support of Israel be more important to Penn than his leading role in opposing President Donald Trump? Schumer’s fault was that he simply stated the facts.
Whether Penn likes it or not, the fact is that the Palestinians foolishly and habitually rejected all three major opportunities to bring about a territorial solution to the conflict: they rejected the Clinton proposal in Camp David in 2000, prime minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza pullout in 2005 was answered with a barrage of 14,000(!) rockets and, finally, in 2008 a total dismissal of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching proposal.
If Penn does not trust Senator Schumer’s memory, all he need do is read the memoirs of two-term Democratic president Bill Clinton about the Camp David Summit of 2000. If this is not enough, he is more than welcome to read Dennis Ross’ account of the Camp David negotiations and the Palestinian rejection.
And if this doesn’t get the job done, he should read former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s book, in which she refers to the 2008 Palestinian decline of the Olmert proposal. Moreover, we now know that Olmert told the Palestinian leadership that if it did not make a deal with him, it might have to wait a generation or more before another opportunity arose. Yes, it is hard to come to terms with this harsh and frustrating reality.
Penn is the sort of liberal whose main concern is feeling good about himself. The most important thing for people like him is to be on what can be perceived as the morally right side – reality be damned. In the “good old days,” the depths of the Palestinian intransigence would have been essentially incomprehensible to well-meaning Americans, who believed that any conflict can be resolved given good will, mutual understanding and a willingness to compromise. Now, after eight years of unyielding Republican opposition to Obama and the turning of American politics into a zero-sum game, even liberals like Penn ought to have some sense of our predicament.
In many ways, Penn’s harsh reaction represents an entire generation of people fatigued by the conflict. They are yearning for a “quick fix” and “fair” solution. Their view of the conflict is simplistic and tends to ignore its complexity. Moreover, they view the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the defining issue of the Middle East (thus ignoring tens of other national, tribal and religious conflicts), and wholeheartedly believe in the “moral equivalence” formula. Taking sides in the conflict is “dishonest” – as it threatens to break some sort of imaginary “togetherness” – and the hell with the historical truth.
The hypocrisy of this position can be easily exposed: would Penn angrily respond if Schumer were to accuse Israel of responsibility for the stalemate? Of course not. People like Penn perceive Israel only in the context of its dispute with the Palestinians.
Israel has no meaning or purpose beyond that. How sad.
Here’s a suggestion to the myriad of Jewish organizations out there: extend an invitation to Kal Penn to visit Israel, where he will find many like-minded people, who support co-existence, peace, civil liberties, women’s rights, gay rights, freedom of the press, etc. – and yet believe that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
It is not a zero-sum game. One can still be a “good liberal” while acknowledging the self-defeating decision-making of the Palestinian leadership. It’d be a wonderful opportunity for him to learn that Israel is not a “conflict” but rather a pluralistic country with real, vibrant debate, real aspirations and dreams and, above all, real people who care.
The author is a former Israeli consul general in New York and a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University’s School for International Relations.