Fletcher alumnus Daniel Sokatch composes a ‘literary GPS device’ for navigating fraught territory
Few countries evoke as strong a reaction as Israel, whether in public discourse or personal conversations. Daniel Sokatch, F99, realized that many observers shy away from such discussions, deterred by the volatility of the subject, or because they feel they don’t know enough to understand the debate.
“Over the past 20 years, I have seen the tenor and tone of the discourse around Israel become more and more vituperative, emotional, illogical, and intimidating for people who are just trying to figure out what is going on,” says Sokatch. “I wanted to try to create a literary GPS device that would enable thoughtful, open-minded people to try to navigate—or at least acquire the tools to navigate—this fraught, emotional conflict.”
The result is Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted. The book is also for “the compassionate and the caring,” says Sokatch, the chief executive officer of the New Israel Fund, a U.S.-based progressive organization that advocates for equality among all citizens of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Is it possible to succeed at an objective analysis of the history of such a geopolitical and religious hot spot? Based on reviews and the book’s reception, Sokatch thinks he’s gotten pretty close—to his delight, a British reviewer called it “irritatingly evenhanded.”
“Very few people have tried to challenge the substantive information in the book,” Sokatch says.
The guide begins with the mid-19th century birth of Zionism—the movement to establish and support a Jewish national homeland in the vicinity of the biblical Land of Israel—and continues to current controversies, including West Bank settlements; the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement; and the thorny intersection of antisemitism and criticism of Israel.
It weaves documented information with Sokatch’s own personal and professional observations. He works hard to contextualize the views and actions of Israelis, Jews outside Israel, Palestinians, and others in the Arab world, and to acknowledge messy, conflicting realities. The creation of Israel following the Holocaust and the Second World War, Sokatch says, “was the salvation of European Jewry and also the catastrophe of Palestinian Arabs. Both of those things are true.”
Sokatch focused on the Middle East at Fletcher, and the “Fletcher ethos” has been vital to his professional perspective, he says. “International conflicts are never solved because of how emotional you feel, how much you want to deny the other person's story. Only by unpacking that story and understanding that story can you ever hope to move anything forward.”
The final chapter of the book, “The Case for Hope,” contains short profiles of three activists in Israel. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, an observant Jew, and a Sudanese political asylum-seeker, they are working to create a shared future for everyone in Israel. “My intention in writing the book, in addition to giving people that literary GPS,” Sokatch says, “was to sort of show some kind of peaceful future for Palestinians and Israelis who live in that place, in a situation where no one’s going anywhere.”