How I Learned to Speak Israel: An American’s Guide to a Foreign Policy Language AND When They Speak Israel: A Guide to Clarity in Conversations about Israel

By Alex McDonald. Great Tree Publishing, 2021. 426 pages. $24.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

By Alex McDonald. Great Tree Publishing, 2021. 156 pages. $12.95/paperback; $3.99/eBook.

The recent installation of Israel’s most openly racist, far-right, ethno-nationalist government in its 75-year history has sparked growing concerns among U.S. Jews and Christians committed to peace, justice, and human rights for all. Yet many thoughtful observers have long argued that the problem with the State of Israel’s policies of ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and legal discrimination against Palestinians is not at all new. Alex McDonald, a Texas Friend who is one of the leaders of the Quaker Palestine Israel Network (QPIN), is among those who have long opposed U.S. support for these Israeli human rights abuses, which arguably go back to the founding of the state in 1948.

McDonald’s history of activism on this issue is the result of a dramatic personal shift in his own understanding of what is going on in Israel–Palestine. Like many U.S. citizens of his age, McDonald grew up feeling positive about the U.S. government’s diplomatic, military, and economic support for the Zionist strategy of addressing extreme antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere by creating and expanding a Jewish state in Palestine. In this, McDonald was not simply accepting of what he learned from the mass media, popular novels like Leon Uris’s Exodus, and the bipartisan rhetoric of political leaders in both the Democrat and Republican parties. He was also following the lead of renowned Quaker civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who, before his death in 1987, regularly denounced anyone who claimed that the State of Israel was “racist, fascist, imperialistic, and the like,” and advocated massive U.S. foreign policy and military assistance for Israel as something completely consistent with “a deep sense of solidarity with the Jewish people” and a well-deserved “appreciation of the State of Israel as a progressive and democratic society” (as quoted in I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters edited by Michael G. Long).

In McDonald’s book How I Learned to Speak Israel, he starts by describing such common pro-Zionist “American and Israeli narratives” that he used to subscribe to without question. He then goes on to share how these beliefs became increasingly untenable the more he learned about the situation in Israel–Palestine. In several early chapters, he describes the handful of news articles he ran across about events that challenged his pro-Zionist assumptions and sparked his decision to engage in deeper research into these troubling examples of Israeli policies that seemed to violate his deep faith commitments to peace, equality, and human rights.

His resulting research is fascinating, detailed, and well-documented. For the last decade, I have been on a similar trajectory of study and activism around Israel–Palestine and written extensively on this topic for Friends. I have also served as a Christian ally on the Steering Committee of the D.C. chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist Jewish organization that advocates in our nation’s capital for Palestinian rights. Yet while reading McDonald’s book, I found myself several times saying, “Wow. I never knew that!”

I recommend this book to all who want to become more knowledgeable and morally consistent in how they approach U.S. policy toward Israel–Palestine. There are chapters here that go back to the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate of Palestine, the United Nations Partition Plan, Israel’s so-called “War of Independence,” and its many “defensive wars” since. McDonald also explores the diverse Palestinian responses to having their country taken over by Zionist settler-colonialists from Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and the resulting apartheid state and Israeli human rights abuses that emerged after the founding of the State of Israel. McDonald also examines the long history of U.S. support for Israel as “America’s Greatest Ally” and includes an illuminating chapter on the impact of right-wing U.S. Christian Zionists on U.S. foreign policy.

McDonald ultimately concludes his eye-opening book with an impassioned “Call to Action” for anyone willing to pierce the thick propaganda fog of U.S. foreign policy language, which he calls “speaking Israel.” He explains: “Our first step toward responsible action is to know what is happening. . . . Our second step is to call out the misinformation and misleading framing . . . so that the light shines on the misleading messaging.”

For those ready to take this second step, I would also recommend McDonald’s short companion booklet When They Speak Israel: A Guide to Clarity in Conversations about Israel. He wrote this how-to communications guide to help human rights activists engage in meaningful conversations about U.S. foreign policy toward Israel–Palestine and become more effective in bridging “the gap between people who are concerned about Israeli policies and those who defend Israel’s actions.” As McDonald rightly notes, “Peace is not possible without conversations.”

Steve Chase is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and the author of Letters to a Fellow Seeker: A Short Introduction to the Quaker Way (QuakerPress of FGC), as well as the Pendle Hill pamphlet Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions? A Quaker Zionist Rethinks Palestinian Rights.

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1 thought on “How I Learned to Speak Israel: An American’s Guide to a Foreign Policy Language AND When They Speak Israel: A Guide to Clarity in Conversations about Israel

  1. Just from reading the book review, I sense a one-sided Israel-bashing mindset by both by both McDonald and Chase. Does McDonald mention the blatantly anti-Semitic charters of both Hamas and Hezbollah? Does the book mention the fact that Israel was the only country ready to recognize an independent Palestinian state in 1948 that was aborted by Jordon and Syria? Does it mention the fact that the PA charter called for the elimination of Israel before the 1967 occupation of the West Bank? If Israel is practicing apartheid why are over half of the medical professional students in Israel Palestinians? Are Chase and Mcdonald aware that the Jews residing in Ethiopia and Iran were on the verge of extermination when they returned to their historical homeland? Neither Mcdonald nor Chase seems to grasp the fact that demonizing one side, while overlooking the violence of the other does nothing to achieve the goal of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others living a safe and secure life in this troubled region.

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