Author talks problems, passions around Israel 1

Commonpoint Queens will host a virtual book discussion with author Daniel Sokatch on Jan. 24.

Daniel Sokatch of San Francisco certainly could have chosen an easier topic for a book than a look at the complexities that Israel faces both internally and on the world stage.

“I’m a lifelong liberal Zionist who has devoted my life to the betterment of the country,” he told the Chronicle in an interview last week.

Sokatch will discuss his new book “Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused and Conflicted” in a virtual book talk hosted by Commonpoint Queens from noon to 1 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 24.

Tickets are $8 for members and $10 for nonmembers. They can be purchased online at commonpointqueens.org.

“I’m a person who has been close to Israel for most of my life, my entire teenage and adult life,”said Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, a nonprofit organization that works to support liberal Israeli civil society.

He said the group works to advance the rights, the standing of the LGBT community, women, minorities, Arab citizens of Israel, immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia, marginalized groups, human rights and environmental organizations.

A student of Middle Eastern history and a trained civil rights lawyer, he said it is increasingly challenging to discuss Israel in both Israel and the United States.

“Because it’s so emotional for people,”he said. “Because people have such strongly held, deep convictions about Israel without really knowing all that much about what they’re talking about.

“People feel that way because it’s attached to issues of religion, ethnicity and survival and justice and international relations,” he said. “All those things make it a volatile mix, one that more and more people, I think, are becoming polarized around with the ’Israel right or wrong’ crowd and the ’Israel is always wrong’ crowd.

“ ... I hope my book can be a toolbox to help people navigate a complex situation in a way that allows them to feel compassion and respect for all the parties in the conflict, who have legitimate claims.” He sees no way forward in the Israel-Palestine conflict except with the two-state solution.

“That is still the official policy of the U.S. and Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and the Arab League and the European Union.”

He said as with Israel and Egypt, Northern Ireland and other modern conflict resolutions, the process is likely to be messy and, at first, imperfect — and necessary, with a need to support moderates on both sides.

“There are lots of people on both sides who believe this is a zero-sum game, and ‘we’re gonna win, either by crushing you or waiting you out.’ I reject that dichotomy.”

He also believes Israel can succeed by holding to the ideals on which it was founded. He also said there is nothing wrong with criticizing the country for excesses.

“That’s what-aboutism,” he said. “It’s like saying ‘America has problems, but what about China? Don’t criticize what’s happening here because it’s worse somewhere else.’

“Do we want to compare Israel to Syria and Iran; Iraq and China?” Sokatch asked. “Or do you want to compare Israel to the countries Israel likes to be compared to, wants to be compared to and wants to be part of the community — the West, Canada, the United States, Australia, the European Union. Israel set out to grant in its founding documents equal rights to all citizens regardless of where they came from. It didn’t set itself up to be an ethno-national supremacist state like Saudi Arabia.

“And in this country, until four or five years ago, criticizing the government wasn’t considered treason,” he added. “It was considered patriotism. I think most people reject ‘America, love it or leave it.’ Some don’t.”

He does see hope.

“My hope is that my book will allow people to understand what’s happening, what’s happened,” he said. “Why, for Jews, this is such a critical part of our identity and who we are, and why that’s also true of the Palestinians. That’s the intent of this book.”

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