Truth In Advertising

February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment

There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.

Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself. 

Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.

Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.

Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.

Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.

Why the Israeli Government Ignores American Jews

January 28, 2016 § 4 Comments

Israel has an American Jewish problem. This problem manifests itself in different ways, but it seems unquestionable that varied segments of American Jewry do not support Israel in the all-encompassing and largely uncritical way that they once did. This can be seen nearly anywhere one looks, whether it is on college campuses where J Street student groups dominate the scene, or in the string of articles by American Jews – including this American Jew – that take the Israeli government to task on a number of issues, or in the criticism from prominent Jewish intelligentsia that left former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren so disappointed in his memoir. This is not to say that there are not large segments of American Jews whose relationship with Israel has remained the same over time, and making broad characterizations about an entire group is always going to miss the nuance inherent in a detailed examination. But suffice it to say that Israel’s status with American Jewry writ large, while still very strong, is not quite as strong as it once was.

Yet, in ways large and small, the current Israeli government oftentimes gives the impression that it just doesn’t care. Take the Iran deal, for instance. The Jewish community in the U.S. was bitterly divided over its merits, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of his government gave the impression that anyone who cared about Israel must oppose the deal, which divided the American Jewish community even further. The prime minister then insisted on coming here to campaign against it before Congress over the objections of myriad American Jewish groups – reportedly AIPAC included – who knew that the speech and overall campaign would put American Jews in an uncomfortable position. None of this, however, managed to change Netanyahu’s calculus, and so events proceeded apace. Other examples abound as well. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S. is controversial, to say the least, among many American Jews, and yet Netanyahu is content with the status quo. The overwhelming preponderance of American Jews are not Orthodox and are alienated by Israel’s position on religious issues that affect them directly, from conversion to being able to pray at the Western Wall in an egalitarian tradition, but such issues are consigned to the sidelines. One of the things that was so remarkable about Netanyahu’s recent partial about-face on the NGO bill was that it came after weeks of hammering away by American Jewish groups (although there is no evidence that this was dispositive, rather than pressure from Western governments). So why doesn’t the Israeli government care what we think?

One important factor is of course the one that I wrote about last week, which is that American Jewish organizations – in contrast to ordinary American Jews – are more willing to give the government leeway on most issues. The Israeli government knows that even if support is softening among significant numbers of American Jews as individuals, the organizations are going to remain a lot less critical of the government. This is an enormous mitigating factor, and there is no question that for very practical and understandable reasons any Israeli prime minister cares more about what AIPAC’s position is on an issue than the position voiced by your representative American Jew on the street. The irony is that so long as American Jewish groups are more supportive of Israel than American Jews, the wishes of many American Jews will be subsumed to the wishes of the organizations tasked with representing them.

There is another important factor that has nothing to do with groups but with demographics. The group most supportive of Israel in the U.S. is Orthodox Jews, who have the strongest ties to Israel that are inculcated in a variety of ways, from day schools that put a premium on Zionism to students spending a gap year in Israel before college. As the Pew study demonstrates, the farther away from Jewish observance and Jewish identity one gets, the less supportive of Israel one tends to be. Israeli officials look at the rising intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and the growing proportion of Orthodox Jews in urban centers such as New York, and assume that the numbers are on their side. What looks like a growing trend of eroding support for Israel becomes little more than a squall that Israel only needs to wait out for the next couple of decades, since the intermarried and non-observant will likely cease to have much Jewish identity and a more Orthodox American Jewry is a more supportive American Jewry. This thinking is erroneous on a number of fronts – among other things, it ignores the influence disproportionately wielded in American Jewry by pockets of non-Orthodox Jews in places like Wall Street and Hollywood and also assumes that Orthodox Jews will remain uniformly supportive of rightwing Israeli policies forever – but it does explain a lot about why American Jewish voices often go unheeded.

So is this a battle cry for American Jews to abandon Israel until the Israeli government becomes more felicitous of its desires? Absolutely not. Any Israeli government has to worry first and foremost about its own constituents – who in this case are more politically conservative and more religious than their American Jewish brethren – before it worries about Diaspora Jews. More saliently, there are some small but encouraging signs that things may be changing a bit, from Netanyahu’s new position on the NGO bill to the reports of an emerging deal on egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The relationship between American Jews and Israel has often resembled a one-way street since the state’s founding, and it is naïve to believe that this will change wholesale overnight, but if the Israeli government’s sudden responsiveness on the NGO and pluralism issues were affected by American Jewish concerns, it reiterates the importance of keeping our voices up. Even if unrequited love is more often than not going to continue to be American Jewry’s lot in life, we should make sure that we are heard in order to make a difference wherever we can and continue to give the Israeli government a way of listening to the American Jewish community’s disparate parts rather than just the ones that reinforce its current policies.

Liberal Jews Without Liberal Organizations

January 21, 2016 § 4 Comments

Why are American Jewish organizations predominantly silent on Israeli illiberalism? This is the question posed and answered by J.J. Goldberg in a much-discussed piece this week on Martin Luther King Day tying the American Jewish organizational voice on Israel to the breakdown of the black-Jewish partnership on civil rights. Goldberg’s theory quickly summed up – and you should really read the piece in its entirety if you haven’t yet – is that the biggest factor in how American Jewish organizations relate to Israel today is the collapse fifty years ago of the alliance between blacks and Jews on civil rights. As black activists increasingly called for blacks to fight for their civil rights by themselves, and as Jews got to a point where their own equality seemed secure, Jewish organizations that were built to fight for civil rights needed another battleground. This coincided with the Six Day War, which imparted the lesson that Israel was living in a neighborhood where its neighbors wanted it gone and could be wiped out at any time, and American Jewish organizations thus pivoted to devoting their time to supporting Israel as their primary mission. Despite the liberal bent of American Jews, they are passive on the Israel issue because they learned to live without a collective voice that was connected to group self-interest.

There is a lot to mull over in Goldberg’s piece and many typically keen insights. He makes a strong historical argument, but as strong as that argument is, I am not sure that the fracture in the civil rights movement is what is primarily driving today’s dynamic. To begin with, Goldberg rightly points out a number of organizations that do not fit into this picture of checking their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel, and their number is not insignificant. Furthermore, the three most prominent Jewish organizations that were involved in the civil rights movement were the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League. The American Jewish Congress has all but folded and the ADL is one of the organizations that Goldberg identifies in his piece as not being afraid to speak out on Israel today, so the historical institutionalist argument that he sketches doesn’t appear to apply in scale to the organizations operating today. In addition, the organization that most people would point to as driving the American Jewish organizational stance on Israel is AIPAC, which does not fit into Goldberg’s theory.

I would instead point to two other variables that I believe are causing the dissonance between a very liberal American Jewry and a far less liberal American Jewish organizational stance toward Israel. The first fits into the structure of Goldberg’s overall argument about a crisis in mission leading to a new focus on Israel, but rather than point to civil rights, I would point to the decline of Judaism itself. As traditional religious observance waned over the course of the 20th century, Israel was elevated into a religious cause that became for many American Jews their primary way of expressing their Judaism as a religion, as opposed to their embrace of Judaism as an ethnicity or a culture. Support for the Jewish state became de rigeur at synagogues of all denominations, prayers for the Israeli government and the IDF were adopted into the Shabbat morning liturgy, and Israel itself became intertwined with Judaism so that it became a focal point of the American Jewish religious tradition. Support for Israel was the equivalent of fasting on Yom Kippur or holding a Passover seder; even if your religious observance was minimal, Israel was a part of it. For many American Jews, Israel was what bound them to Judaism, rather than the religious practices of their parents and grandparents. For Jewish organizations that needed to stay relevant, pivoting to supporting Israel was an obvious move, and naturally any organization devoted to advocating for something is going to be reluctant to be overly critical, even when there are things taking place that are particularly unpalatable.

The second variable is political trends in Israel. In the twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis have only once voted a left of center prime minister into office, and Ehud Barak did not last even two years. Going back even further to the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, which marked a revolutionary shift in the Israeli political landscape, Rabin’s election in 1992 was the only other time since then that Israelis have voted a Labor prime minister into office (Shimon Peres’s first term in 1984 was part of a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir and Likud). In other words, for nearly four decades Israelis have displayed a clear rightwing preference when it comes to their leaders. Is it any surprise then that American Jewish organizations, both those that deal primarily with Israel issues and those that don’t, take those cues and reflect what is taking place in Israel itself?

This is not, incidentally, applicable only when a rightwing government is in power in Israel. When Rabin began the Oslo process, AIPAC did in fact support it, even if begrudgingly. The major American Jewish organizations that now seemingly fall in lockstep behind the Netanyahu government were not out front challenging the Rabin government on its priorities, even though he represented a major break from the previous fifteen years of Israeli government policy. It would be fascinating to see what American Jewish organizations would look like with regard to Israel policy were Israel to spend an uninterrupted decade under the control of left of center governments; my instinct is that American Jewish organizations are shaped by the structural environment of Israeli politics in a significant way and would presumably change with the times.

There is no question that the priorities of the bulk of American Jews appear out of sync with the priorities of many American Jewish groups. I think that Goldberg is definitely onto something in looking back at historical trends and moments that shape today’s environment, but I would point to a different set than the ones that he has identified.

Donald Trump’s Hanukkah Message

December 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

It was fitting and ironic that Donald Trump chose this week of all weeks to issue his monstrous missive calling for all Muslims – including citizens who have traveled outside of the country for work, vacation, or any reason at all – to be barred from entering the United States (you can read IPF’s official condemnation here). After all, this week Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the most minor of religious holidays on the Jewish calendar but the one that is actually most connected to religion. Casual observers know Hanukkah as the holiday that celebrates the miracle of oil that burned for eight days rather than just one, but Hanukkah is actually about the power of religion and the duality of that power, demonstrating that religion can be a force that motivates the good as well as the bad. In seeking to discriminate against an entire class of people on the basis of their faith and their faith alone, Trump demonstrates why the Hanukkah story is so important, both as a guide for how to respect religious difference and as a cautionary tale.

Hanukkah is the story of a Jewish revolt against the Syrian Greeks that was precipitated by a religious crisis. The Greek empire sought to impose cultural hegemony throughout all of the lands under its control by spreading Hellenism, and Judaism for a variety of reasons was viewed as incompatible with Hellenistic principles and ideals. Hellenism glorified the perfection of the human body, an idea that was challenged by the ritual of circumcision; Hellenism exalted the emperor as a deity, which Jewish monotheism could not accept. This fundamental clash led to the first recorded religious persecution in history and the denial of rights based solely on religion, a move which backfired on the Seleucids when the Hasmonean revolt dislodged them from Judea entirely and led not only to Jewish religious freedom – the purpose of the revolt to begin with – but Jewish political sovereignty as well.

The U.S. has a long record of protecting religious liberty, but it also has an unfortunate history of singling out entire classes of people, whether it be slavery and Jim Crow or internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Trump’s demagoguery harkens back to this latter darker legacy, and it is heartening to see nearly wall to wall condemnation of his comments. If the Hanukkah story can be distilled to its essence, it is about the downfall of an empire that singled out members of a religion on the basis of religious heritage alone, and Muslims can and should take heart in this Jewish story that has a universal message. Aside from being flat out morally reprehensible, Trump’s proposal would weaken this country rather than strengthen it.

There is another side to the Hanukkah story that is relevant here as well. As I have written about before, the epilogue to the Maccabean revolt did not have as happy an ending. The new Hasmonean kingdom of Judea emulated its predecessor’s tradition of religious intolerance and sought to forcefully convert its various subjects to Judaism or face expulsion, a policy that led to overreach, civil war, and the eventual subjugation of Judea by the Romans. It was a useful lesson that religion is not an unqualified force for good, and that fundamentalism and zealotry lead to chaos and destruction in ways that are predictable as well as ways that are unforeseen. It also bears noting that the Seleucid program of religious discrimination provoked a nationwide revolt, and pushed many ordinary Jews who would not have been inclined to fight under normal circumstances to go and take up arms in order to defend their religion from attack.

Many people have noted that Trump’s anti-Muslim broadside plays precisely into ISIS’s hands by giving the group a powerful recruiting tool. When perfectly ordinary and law-abiding Muslims are demonized because of the actions of a radical and demonic few, it increases the chances of the former group supporting the latter group out of a sense of tribal solidarity. One of the worst possible scenarios for Israel is for ISIS to train its sights on Israel and turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a much wider religious war, not because ISIS itself represents a serious military threat to the Israeli state but because the power of religion to radicalize and mobilize large numbers is unparalleled. The more that someone like Trump demonizes Muslims writ large, the greater the chances of that happening. The U.S. and Israel are often lumped together by extremist groups, and Trump has vowed to visit Israel and his self-claimed good friend Bibi Netanyahu later this year. There are all sorts of universal reasons for Americans who care about religious freedom and combatting prejudice to denounce Trump’s gambit, and there are more particular reasons for Jews who care about Israel to denounce it as well. Let’s absorb the many messages of Hanukkah, from religious tolerance to religion’s dangerous and unharnessable energy, and realize that Trump has now added moral and strategic bankruptcy to his long and undistinguished record of financial ones.

When Zionists Boycott

October 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Last weekend, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl, professors respectively at Harvard and Chicago (which has made for a dangerous combination in the past), arguing for a boycott of Israel. Levitsky and Weyl, both self-identified as progressive Jews and lifelong Zionists, argue that because their support for Israel is predicated in part on the Jewish state embracing universal values of human rights, their observation that the occupation of the West Bank has become permanent dictates a boycott. They write that the purpose of a boycott is to pressure Israel into altering its strategic calculations and change its behavior; in their words, “Until Israel seriously engages with a peace process that either establishes a sovereign Palestinian state or grants full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state, we cannot continue to subsidize governments whose actions threaten Israel’s long-term survival.”

Given the pedigree and prominence of the authors, this particular call to boycott Israel has caused some consternation and drawn a variety of harsh responses, with some points of substance but mostly loud verbiage questioning the authors’ fitness to comment on Israel or diagnosing their allegedly selfish emotional motivations behind writing the op-ed. If you are looking for another ad hominem attack against Levitsky and Weyl or an investigation into their psyches, you needn’t read any further since one will not be forthcoming in this space. I am more interested in demonstrating why I think the particular arguments they make are inapt and figuring out how they arrived at the view of Israel that they espouse.

I am passingly acquainted with Levitsky personally from my days at Harvard, but I am intimately acquainted with his influential and excellent work on competitive authoritarianism. Competitive authoritarian regimes are ones where the authoritarian government holds elections that can theoretically result in the opposition coming to power, but the process is not free and fair and is heavily weighted in the regime’s favor. This work on competitive authoritarianism is part of a wider literature in political science recognizing that not only are elections not a sufficient condition for democracy, but that in many cases elections are part of a wider system of placing a democratic veneer on authoritarian government. A competitive authoritarian regime may look like a democracy but behind the scenes is actually working to unfairly perpetuate its own rule; think about Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey for a current snapshot of what that looks like.

I bring this up because in reading Levitsky and Weyl’s argument, it jumps out at me that they are taking Levitsky’s work on competitive authoritarian regimes and superimposing it – inappropriately, in my view – on Israel. From their vantage point, Israel is denying basic rights to Palestinians in the West Bank, growing the settler population, mistreating its Arab minority, and generally using its advantage over the Palestinians to ensure that they live in permanent subjugation. Much like a competitive authoritarian regime holds elections that can theoretically result in a change in government but only if the opposition overcomes the significant hurdles and unfair disadvantages that the ruling party places in its path, Levitsky and Weyl see Israel periodically engaging in a peace process that can theoretically result in a Palestinian state but placing too many hurdles in the way of such a process being successful. In short, while never explicitly writing it, Levitsky and Weyl view Israel as engaging in competitive authoritarian behavior in a number of ways.

It is thus unsurprising given Levitsky’s research showing that competitive authoritarian regimes with strong ties to the West respond to pressure to democratize that he and Weyl came up with the prescription that they did. They are convinced that by isolating Israel from the West and placing its financial and diplomatic ties to the U.S. in jeopardy, it will create sufficient pressure to get Israel to take the peace process seriously and step back from the brink in ending the occupation. As they write, “We recognize that some boycott advocates are driven by opposition to (and even hatred of) Israel. Our motivation is precisely the opposite: love for Israel and a desire to save it.”

I take the authors’ professed love for Israel at face value, but the problem with their plan to address Israel’s behavior through boycotts and sanctions is that their misdiagnosis of the situation leads them to prescribe medicine that will not cure this particular disease. One of the defining characteristics of authoritarian states is that the power to alter course is entirely in the hands of the regimes; not only is there an extreme power imbalance with respect to the opposition, but the regime holds all of the cards in terms of opening up to democracy and competition. Levitsky and Weyl proceed based on an assumption that pressure on Israel will ipso facto lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and the end of an Israeli presence in the West Bank because it is in Israel’s power to do so at will given the right set of incentives. While many, including me, do not view the current Israeli government as in any way serious about the two state solution, the fact remains that successive Palestinian leaders and governments have turned down Israeli offers of statehood without so much as a counter response. This is not a scenario in which Israel can snap its fingers and create a new reality, or one in which Israel is solely to blame for the situation that exists. Israel can and should do better, particularly when it comes to settlement activity, but it does not automatically follow that a boycott of Israel will address the problem at hand, and that is without even factoring in Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Levitsky and Weyl address head on the common critique that boycotting Israel constitutes a double standard by acknowledging that, no, Israel is not the world’s worst human rights violators, but that they also feel far more invested in Israel’s future fate than they do of other states. As someone who spends his time working on Israel rather than on Bulgaria or Comoros, I empathize with this position, but it again overlooks a crucial reality. While Levitsky and Weyl may be motivated by genuine concerns, their course of action ends up being discriminatory in effect if not in intent far beyond their limited scope. It’s one thing for them to care about Israel more than they do about China, but it’s another to actively work to ensure that Israel is treated worse, particularly given the international environment that seizes upon such efforts to argue that Israel is in fact the world’s worst violator of human rights. Just because Levitsky and Weyl acknowledge that Israel is not a rogue nation without parallel does not mean that such understanding will extend to those with a very different agenda who seize upon their call to action.

I understand the frustration with the Israeli government, with the settlement enterprise, with illiberal trends in Israeli society, and with a Jewish state that speaks for Jews everywhere irrespective of whether all Jews want to cede to it that authority. But Israel is still a democracy, and to view it as an authoritarian actor that is susceptible to pressures that work on authoritarian states leads to poor policy prescriptions. A boycott is the wrong approach, both morally and practically, and Levitsky and Weyl’s op-ed is an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

Diaspora Jews Are Not Israel’s ATM

October 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

The eminent Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri published a long essay in Ha’aretz last week arguing that the failure of Oslo can be attributed to the fact that Israel views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between two national movements while the Palestinians view it as a struggle against colonialism, explaining the inevitable failure of negotiations. The piece deserves a long response of its own as there is much to unpack, but Avineri published a companion op-ed yesterday arguing, among other things, that given how negotiations are doomed to fail, Israel should ask Diaspora Jews to shoulder the costs of relocating and compensating settlers inside the Green Line. I am very much on board with relocating and even compensating settlers in order to get them out of the West Bank as expeditiously as possible. It is the other part of this formulation with which I take issue. To quote Avineri directly:

One could initiate, possibly with the support of Diaspora Jews, a generous plan for evacuation and compensation for settlers in the West Bank who would be willing to return to Israel in its pre-1967 borders. The right in Israel has managed to recruit Jewish donors around the world for expansion of settlements and for purchasing land and buildings in East Jerusalem. Why can’t the left follow suit and mobilize moderate Diaspora Jews in order to achieve something concrete – not just declarative – in order to further alternative policies? Perhaps even J Street could help in achieving something positive, not just criticizing Israel’s policies?

In 2010, as a forest fire spread out from Mount Carmel and caused enormous devastation, the Jewish National Fund called on American Jews to donate money for firetrucks and basic fire fighting equipment. Jeff Goldberg wrote an excellent post pushing back on this campaign, asking “What sort of country — what sort of wealthy country — schnorrs for basic public safety equipment?  At some point, Israel is going to have to learn to stand on its own, and fund its national security and public safety needs without the help of Diaspora Jewry.” Goldberg’s point was that some causes are legitimate and just – such as schools and hospitals, or aiding the victims displaced by the fire – and others are Israel asking someone else to cover for its self-imposed mistakes, a category to which chronic underfunding of firefighting services most certainly belongs.

I couldn’t help but recall this episode when reading Avineri’s call for Jews around the world to bail Israel out of its predicament. I find his suggestion to be both morally and practically problematic and downright offensive. It speaks to the worst of Israeli instincts, and illuminates the crux of the divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.

I believe that American Jews should support Israel to the extent that they believe strongly in the need for a Jewish state (which I certainly do), and that a strong and healthy Israel benefits not only Israelis but Jews worldwide. Nevertheless, there is a distinction between supporting Israel and Israeli Jews in need, particularly in the early days of the state when Israel was not in good economic shape, versus funneling money to a state that brands itself as the Start-Up Nation and boasts of its economic strength and innovation in order for it to disentangle itself from a set of self-imposed policy disasters. The former, which would include things such as JNF campaigns to plant trees, assist in resettling Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and donating to victims of terror, are clear cut examples of supporting the Zionist vision. They involve building a Jewish homeland and helping Jewish brethren in need who have been placed in situations beyond their or the Israeli government’s control, and I have no problem at all with Israel turning to Diaspora communities to help support such initiatives.

In contrast, the latter is a clear cut example of American Jews being used as suckers. As it is (and you will excuse the simplified stereotype here), oftentimes Israelis view American Jews as little more than piggybanks who should provide money but keep their mouths shut. Asking Diaspora Jewry to provide the funding for an overtly political predetermined course of action only reinforces that corrosive dynamic, particularly given that Israel is an OECD country that ranks 19th on the UN’s Human Development Index and 25th in GDP per capita according to the World Bank and can more than afford to cover the costs of its own internal policy decisions. More saliently, asking non-Israeli Jews to shoulder the financial burden for the evacuation of the West Bank encourages the Israeli government to pursue bad policies such as settling the West Bank under the assumption that there will always be a safety net from American Jews who won’t abandon the state under any circumstances and will pay to reverse Israeli mistakes. It creates a dangerous moral hazard that incentivizes risky behavior, and perpetuates a culture of dependency on outsiders. It is a terrible idea that makes Israel look like a third world country and diminishes the vision of a strong and independent state.

Furthermore, there is a logic of unintended consequences involved that Avineri fails to consider. From my perspective, the support of rightwing American Jews in the settlement project has been an unmitigated disaster that has only perpetuated bad policies, and in some ways has even rendered the Israeli government impotent. There is little to prevent Sheldon Adelson or Irving Moskowitz from pursuing their own goals precisely because the Israeli right has relied on outside money, and a government that wanted to prevent further building in the West Bank or Silwan would have a difficult time shutting things down because funding is coming from other sources besides the government. Just because Avineri wants to gin up financial support from Diaspora Jews for a policy that is in my view a good one doesn’t make it a good idea. There is no predicting how these types of things develop down the line, and there are likely to be unforeseen consequences that arise. Introducing more outside funding into the equation in response to unhelpful outside funding on the other side isn’t going to balance the ledger, but will instead contribute to a further spiral out of control.

I agree with Avineri that Israel should be evacuating the West Bank and relocating settlers. I agree that marshaling the moral and rhetorical support of Diaspora Jews would hasten that along. But treating Diaspora Jews as dollar signs and watering down Israeli ownership of its own policies is an unwise suggestion.

IPF Column: Why IPF Is Important

October 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ll be writing an Israel Policy Forum column every Thursday and cross-posting it here. The first one just went up and the original can be found here.

For my first column as IPF’s new policy director, I thought I’d explain why I decided to join IPF and what I hope to do with this space in the weeks and months ahead. Some readers may know me from my writing and analysis in other places, but for those who don’t, before coming to IPF I was the program director of the Israel Institute, an organization dedicated to expanding the study of Israel in universities and think tanks around the globe, and I have been writing about Israel in a variety of academic and policy journals, magazines, and blogs for years. Having seen the full array of research and approaches to analyzing Israel in both the academic and policy worlds, I have a strong sense of the diverse views people of all stripes have about Israel’s challenges, policies, and decision making. There is little question in my mind that we are at an enormously important moment for two crucial issues – the direction of Israel’s future identity and the direction of the U.S.-Israel relationship – and IPF is a perfect organization from which to explain and analyze these trends, and to influence the direction in which they head.

For years now there has been lots of overwrought analysis about the death of the two state solution. Each passing year brings new facts on the ground, new attacks on Israeli civilians from Gaza, newly expanded or constructed settlements, and newly hardened attitudes on both sides to compromise and empathy for the other party. We frequently hear about each ignominious milestone marking the last chance for two states and that Israel and the Palestinians are at the point of no return. I do not, and never have believed, that this is true, for the simple reason that as bad as things get – and I don’t mean to imply that the situation is not dire on many fronts – the two state solution is the only viable one that exists. A bi-national state would devolve instantly into civil war and mass violence, and a state in which Israel annexes the West Bank but does not grant full rights to its non-Jewish citizens will collapse under the weight of international sanctions and opprobrium. In the long term, the only possible path is separation from the Palestinians, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Nevertheless, the short term is still a frightening thing to ponder, and I am not nearly so confident about precisely how Israel manages to right the ship. Just because two states is the only viable solution does not automatically mean that it will come to pass. Taking stock of the current environment, Israel is becoming increasingly nervous about its regional security environment (in some ways that I think are justified and in others that I think are not) and thus more reluctant to make any concessions that upend the status quo; becoming more entrenched in the West Bank both physically and attitudinally; facing what looks to me to be the beginnings of a third intifada brewing in Jerusalem over the status of the Temple Mount, which is the most nightmarish of scenarios; experiencing more political gridlock with each successive election and attempt to build a sustainable coalition; undergoing largescale social changes that are transforming the makeup of the IDF and society at large and causing new conflicts over the religious-secular balance, military and national service, immigration, and what it means to be a Jewish state, among other things; and facing the most serious international push in Israel’s relatively brief history to delegitimize the state and turn Israel into a pariah subject to sanctions and boycotts in a variety of forums. Given all of these pressures and the multitude of responses from the Israeli government and different actors within the system, I don’t know anyone who can say with any definitive certainty what Israel will look like in ten years, and whether the balance of being a Jewish and democratic state will tilt in one direction or another. Israel’s very identity is in flux, and tracking where it goes is going to be one of the most engrossing issues of the next decade.

Not only is Israel at a crossroads internally, it is also in the midst of real upheaval regarding its ties with the United States. The U.S. has been Israel’s patron for decades and oftentimes seems like its only true friend in the international arena, and the relationship has been beneficial to both sides on a variety of fronts. The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been rocky, to put it charitably, and it has influenced the ways in which political elites in both countries view bilateral ties, and the way in which American Jews view Israel. No serious observer without a partisan axe to grind believes that strong U.S.-Israel ties are going away anytime soon, but certainly there are different degrees of strength, and it is an open question as to what the future holds. While bad blood between the president and the prime minister is often blamed for the hiccups in the relationship, the truth is that there are real and serious policy differences between the two governments that transcend the current occupants of the White House and Beit Agion. What does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like if there is robust military and security cooperation but the political relationship suffers? What happens if Israel is subject to a sustained campaign of boycotts from the European Union? How are bilateral ties affected as Israel develops closer ties with China and as Russia increasingly becomes an assertive player in the Middle East? What will be the effect of Israel rapidly becoming a partisan issue in Congress? Most crucially and interestingly, what does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like as the relationship between Israel and American Jews is transformed? None of these questions are easy, and they are going to consume those who care about the U.S.-Israel alliance and those who have spent their lives both in and out of government sustaining it.

While I have spent, and will continue to spend, much time writing about these issues as objectively as I can, I have always been open in my view that Israel must remain both democratic and Jewish, that the U.S.-Israel relationship must remain strong for both sides’ benefit, and that the only way to ensure these outcomes is via the two state solution. IPF is an organization that is dedicated to these principles and has advocated for them through educational initiatives and marshaling the American Jewish community to get behind them. I am excited to be part of an organization that has the ability to influence the direction of these issues about which I feel so strongly.

I hope to use this space going forward for a number of things, from arguing in favor of the solutions that I and IPF as an organization believe are the most viable, to opining on Israeli politics and the American Jewish scene, to analyzing American foreign policy in the Middle East. We will also be launching a blog that will be updated more frequently than this weekly column, and featuring voices that are newer and perhaps not as familiar to some, along with more timely posts on issues in the news. IPF has the infrastructure and resources to be a unique and credible source for information, analysis, and commentary on Israel, American Jewry, and the U.S.-Israel relationship, and I want to help strengthen and expand IPF’s reach and credibility. So if you’ve read this far and like what you’ve seen, please keep coming back and stay tuned for much more ahead.

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