On Thursday evening, the Hopkins chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted a talk with Josh Ruebner, author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s failure to broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Ruebner’s new book analyzes the President’s approach towards Israeli-Palestinian relations, emphasizing the way in which Obama’s perspective on the conflict has shifted during his presidency. Ruebner graduated from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 1999, where he earned a degree in International Affairs.
Senior Basmah Nada, a leader of SJP, spoke about the student group.
“The main objective of SJP is to draw awareness to the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. We encourage students that want to learn about and understand Palestinian people’s rights to advocate for the Palestinian voice,” Nada said.
Ruebner opened his discussion with an analysis of other emotionally-laden conflicts that have — more or less — been resolved. He talked about the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa, the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Northern Irish Conflict (also known as “The Troubles”) and the end of French rule over Algeria, but went on to question why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet to be resolved.
“So what’s behind this claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more difficult to resolve? Usually, the ones making this claim are those who are most invested in maintaining the status quo, and trying to justify the status quo,” Ruebner said.
Within a few moments of opening the discussion, Ruebner had established his position as both political analyst and activist. As the National Advocacy Director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition of over 400 organizations working to alter U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinian territories, activism is a significant part of his life.
Ruebner’s talk did not lack controversy.
“Israel engaged in a systematic and premeditated campaign of ethnic cleansing to drive out as many indigenous Palestinians as possible,” Ruebner said, referring to the Israeli War of Independence.
Ruebner also spoke out about the current status of Palestinians in the West Bank.
“They suffer from a whole bevy of discriminatory laws and informal regulations that make them — at best — second class citizens. It is somewhat analogous to the position of African Americans in this country under Jim Crow,” Ruebner said.
He used Israel’s unique land ownership laws as evidence of Palestinian subordination within Israeli society.
“If you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel and you want to rent land from the state, you are out of luck. Israel is the only country in the world that doesn’t control its own land use, what Israel has done is subcontract out the leasing of land to the Jewish National Fund,” Ruebner said.
Most Palestinians, however, are not citizens of Israel. Israel occupies the West Bank and Palestinians there live under military rule.
Ruebner went on to mention several limitations to Palestinian freedom of expression, including the criminal consequences of holding a rally with more than 10 people or writing political opinions in a newspaper that is considered hostile by the State of Israel.
After providing ample historical background, Ruebner addressed the peace process itself.
“As I wrote this book, I asked myself a question: ‘Did President Barack Obama enter the White House with a fundamentally different strategy than this failed US strategy of previous years, or did he continue this tradition of us acting as Israel’s lawyers?”
“The answer I came up with was equivocal,” Ruebner continued. “It’s clear that Barack Obama had natural empathy for the Palestinian people, and this empathy did not evaporate when he entered the white house. So what happened?”
He believes the answer to this question is a result of President Obama’s close alignment with the actions and beliefs of his political predecessors.
“Like every President since Richard Nixon, President Obama increased the number of weapons that we as taxpayers give to Israel to oppress the Palestinian people,” Ruebner claimed.
He went on to say that the laws of neutrality are broken when one country provides weaponry for another country. In a conversation with the press, Obama expressed his desire to provide additionally weaponry to the country of Israel. While this statement has yet to be confirmed, it is rumored that the president suggested an allocation of $40 billion worth of weaponry to Israel.
“The same time we face sequestration in this country, we can magically come up with forty billion dollars to give to Israel,” Ruebner said.
“Additionally, when he was faced by pressure from the Israel lobby, he chose not to fight. When the Obama administration was at its most insistent that Israel stop colonizing Palestinian land, the American Israeli lobby mobilized seventy-seven U.S. senators to stop criticizing Israel in this fashion,” Ruebner said.
He concluded his presentation by distributing postcards to audience members. The postcards, which were addressed to President Obama, were an appeal to terminate U.S. aid to the State of Israel.
“One thing we can do, in addition to sending these postcards, is to respond to what Palestinians are asking us to do — to help them lift the boot of oppression off of their necks,” Ruebner said.
Tarek Mas, a freshman who attended the event, believes Ruebner did a good job of explaining Obama’s transition from a position which was sympathetic of Palestine to one which was more supportive of Israel. When asked what he felt like was the most important thing for a “non-expert” audience to understand about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said it was the lack of equilibrium between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I believe mass media portrays the conflict as a level playing field, one in which Palestinians and Israelis possess comparable resources and military might,” Mas said.
The same sentiment was echoed by John Giesbrecht, a Baltimore native who also attended the event.
“It can be very one-sided, which is why it’s helpful to have people like Ruebner fill in the other side,” Giesbrecht said.
Louise Amadeo, another local Baltimorean, presented a different view.
“You really have to consider what it’s like to be in Obama’s position,” Amadeo said. “These crimes — they’re horrible — but I’m sure we do not know the full story of what’s going on.”