July 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website). What Cohen argues is that the relationship is being strained and slowly pulled apart by bad personal relationships between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel actively trying to prevent a deal between the U.S. and Iran by working Congressional channels, differing strategic priorities in the region, and a widening gap between the two countries’ worldviews.
In Cohen’s analysis, all of these factors mean that support for Israel in the U.S. will wane as the U.S. government finds it increasingly difficult to justify or explain bad Israeli behavior – particularly on the Palestinian front – and that the U.S. will no longer rush to defend Israel from pressure coming from Europe. Furthermore, Cohen foresees the politics of Israel changing in the U.S. as support for Israeli behavior among American Jews wanes and as Israel identifies more and more with Republicans, making support for Israel less politically important for Democrats.
Cohen astutely identifies a number of points of tension between the U.S. and Israel, and he is not exaggerating things such as the distrust between the elected leaders or the frustration among administration officials over Israel’s handling of settlements and peace negotiations. Nevertheless, I do not entirely agree with the analysis, and I think there are some angles that Cohen either misreads or leaves out, particularly on the strategic front.
First, while Obama and Bibi have long been and likely always will be at odds, this duo only has two more years to go, and that means that the relationship can be reset in a heartbeat. The low point of the George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir pairing was followed by the apex brought about by Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, so I am reluctant to predict any longterm trends based on the two men currently in office. If Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden end up winning the White House in 2016, their track records and both public and private comments indicate that the relationship with Israel will improve irrespective of what happens with settlements and the peace process, and that goes double for any Republican not named Rand Paul. That is not to say that U.S. frustration with Israeli settlement policy is a mirage or only resides in the minds of Obama White House officials, since it absolutely permeates a much deeper group of politicians and foreign policy bureaucrats who rightly worry about the consequences of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rather, it is a problem that must be considered in light of a larger strategic context (more on that below), which makes it important but not necessarily an ultimate driver of U.S. policy toward Israel.
Second, while it is absolutely true that support for Israeli policies among younger American Jews seems to be on the decline, the jury is out as to whether that support will increase as younger American Jews get older, and more saliently there is a question as to whether support for Israeli policies directly overlaps with support for Israel more generally. Furthermore, none of this may matter anyway if support for Israel among the general public remains strong, or if within the Democratic Party there is a gap between grassroots progressives and elite policymakers and opinion leaders. On the question of support among the general public, favorable views of Israel are at historical highs with a clear 55% majority of Democrats still holding favorable views, and historically Americans tend to sympathize with Israel versus the Palestinians at even higher than normal levels when Israelis are the victims of terrorism and violence, as was tragically the case this week. I am also not convinced from conversations with progressive politicians and thought leaders that they are on the verge of abandoning Israel wholesale, and there is a strong recognition among Democratic elites that Israel is not and should not be entirely defined by its settlement project, as deeply problematic as that project is.
Most importantly though, in his focus on divergent strategic goals, Cohen glosses over a newly strengthened recognition that Israel’s strategic value as an ally is going up. It’s clear that Israel and the U.S. differ on their respective threat perceptions of Iran, whether Iran should be contained, and whether Iran can be contained, but in seeking to contain the fallout coming from the rest of the region as it implodes, Israel is pretty much the only reliable ally left standing. Despite an American desire to pivot to Asia, the Middle East cannot be ignored just because the U.S. finds it thorny, as the recent crisis in Iraq demonstrates all too well. The U.S. is going to be involved to a greater extent than it desires, and as I heard from multiple Israeli foreign policy and security professionals and experts when I was there last month, the Israeli government is well aware that the country is an island of stability amid the chaos. Iraq is a mess, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, Egypt is teetering dangerously on the brink of becoming a failed state, Saudi Arabia is dealing with massive uncertainty amidst a succession crisis, Jordan has been in constant crisis management mode since 2011 and now has to worry about being overrun by ISIS, Turkey is dealing with all sorts of internal problems and has proven itself to be a notoriously unreliable and myopic ally with its disastrous flirtations with jihadi groups in Syria…the list goes on and on. Israelis are of the view that the U.S. almost needs them more than they need the U.S., and while this is overconfident hyperbole, it is based on a foundation of truth. U.S.-Israeli coordination is now more vital than ever, and this is a variable that is not going to change for the remainder of this decade given the Middle East’s unraveling. When I wrote two years ago that Israel was going to benefit from the Arab Spring as a result of its neighbors being too busy with their own domestic unrest to worry about making trouble for Israel, I didn’t anticipate the positive externality of Israel becoming an even more crucial American ally, but that dynamic has arrived.
I share Cohen’s concerns about Israeli policies, and anecdotally there seems to be softening support for Israel among younger Democrats. Ultimately, however, I think the political tension in the relationship is fleeting, and the genuine and widespread disappointment at Israeli settlement building is a long term problem that needs to be addressed but that for next few years will be outweighed by larger strategic concerns. Surveying the state of things, I am not nearly so confident as Cohen that the U.S.-Israel relationship is destined to be remade.
April 22, 2013 § 4 Comments
Last week I argued that supporters of Israel – myself included – would be better off dropping the “pro-Israel” terminology, and that one of the reasons that Israel is not viewed as a normal state is because Israel’s supporters create a Manichean dichotomy that inadvertently keeps Israel a state apart. My brilliant and talented Israel Institute colleague Margaret Weiss, who holds degrees from Princeton and Georgetown and was formerly a Research Associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, disagrees with me, and so today I hand over the reins of O&Z to her so that she can explain why I am wrong:
I agree wholeheartedly that the pro-, anti- terminology that is inevitable in any discussion about Israel does Israel more harm than good. I also agree that it is not very meaningful for one to reduce one’s thoughts about a country which, like all countries, is multi-faceted and complex, to the terminology of “liking” or “disliking” it.
But I think Michael is incorrect in pinning the blame for this categorization more heavily on the pro-Israel camp. He writes that “Israel is virtually the only country in the world in which its supporters press people to loudly declare this support,” but it is in response to the pervasive demonization of Israel in the world that Israel supporters have adopted the pro-Israel categorization. Through no fault of its supporters, the Jewish State is perpetually in the spotlight, to a degree that far exceeds the country’s size and influence in the world.
Michael also argues that “the pro-Israel delineation unnecessarily defines support for Israel according to an extremely high standard and creates a threshold that keeps people out who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be so situated.” In discussions with people who label themselves pro-Israel over the years, I can recall very few, if any, instances in which the individual had no criticism of the Jewish State. Nor do Israel’s supporters unthinkingly and blindly agree with everything that Israel does. Israel’s supporters understand that the label does not obviate criticism. At the same time, it is also clear that some, for political reasons, adopt the pro-Israel label while indicating through their words and actions that Israel would do well to remove itself from the map.
I also disagree that it is the fault of Israel’s supporters that Israel is not viewed as a normal state. Michael cites the expectation on the part of Israel’s supporters that the US should protect Israel at the UN with its veto power. But this expectation does not reflect the belief that there is never room to criticize Israel. Rather, Israel’s supporters know that even as dictators worldwide further restrict their people and people all over the world endure war crimes, torture and genocide, the UN focuses its attention on Israel. In 2012, for example, the UN General Assembly adopted 22 resolutions targeting Israel and just 4 on the entire rest of the world despite the crimes of the Assad regime against its people, to offer just one example. And this figure is representative of a trend in that body, dating back to the Zionism is Racism resolution of 1975. If there were any hope of the UN acting in a fair and unbiased manner, Israel’s supporters would not adopt such a black-and-white approach.
The difference between Israel and a country like the U.K. is that even Argentinians who hate the U.K. and want them to leave the Falkland Islands, don’t expect or want the U.K. to leave the U.K. The same cannot be said of Israel. In the unique case of Israel, some of its detractors believe the state should not exist, period.
April 16, 2013 § 8 Comments
Back when I was a college senior majoring in history with a concentration in medieval Europe, I decided to write my honors thesis on William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne of England. My argument was that contrary to the universally accepted view among historians of that era, William did not actually have a legitimate legal claim to the throne and that Norman historiography was concocted ex-post facto to make it seem as if he did in order to justify the Norman invasion in 1066. Given that the House of Windsor and all of their forebears trace their lineage back to William, in making this argument I was casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the English royal house, and yet nobody ever asked or cared to know whether or not I was pro-England. Such a question would have seemed ridiculous and would have carried no resonance, as nobody thinks of themselves in such binary Manichean terms when it comes to our former colonial overlords. Whether one enjoys vacationing in historic Albion or detests England for its damp weather and the English insistence on referring to potato chips as crisps, people simply do not divide themselves into pro-England and anti-England camps, and neither do they feel the need to loudly declare their proclivities as a way of staking out political and ideological territory. Despite the close connections between the U.S. and Britain at all levels of state and society, whether or not someone supports Britain is not a political issue.
I now spend much of my time writing and thinking about Turkey. Sometimes I write things about Turkey that are complimentary and sometimes I write things about Turkey that take its government to task, and yet not once has anyone queried whether I am pro-Turkey or anti-Turkey, nor have I ever felt pressured to mark myself as one or the other. I am vociferous about my love of the country, its people, its culture, its food, but I can’t imagine ever describing myself as “pro-Turkey” only because it would seem like a ridiculous category in which to place oneself. If I walked around proudly tying my identity to this notion of being pro-Turkey, what would it even signify? Would it mean that I approve of everything the Turkish government does? That there is something about the metaphysical properties of Anatolia that I favor? That I just happen to like baklava and su boreği? I can tell you which academics and policy folks are hawkish on China and which ones are not, or which prominent DC thinktankers believe that the U.S. has been too tough on Russia since the end of the Cold War and which advocate for an even tougher approach, but I have never heard them labeled as pro-China and anti-China, or pro-Russia and anti-Russia. There is a reason when it comes to states, we generally do not define ourselves in relation to them as pro or anti.
That is, of course, unless we are talking about Israel. Everyone by now is familiar with the way that anyone with an opinion about anything having to do with Israel is immediately placed into one of two categories out of which it is increasingly difficult to escape. You are either pro-Israel or anti-Israel, and rarely is there room for a gray area. This relentless push to categorize comes from both sides, but in many ways it is actually driven by the pro-Israel camp. The stridently anti-Israel camp plays its role in this – and a quick perusal of the comments section of any foreign policy magazine article on Israel will quickly reveal the way the terms “pro-Israel” and “Zionist” are hurled as epithets – but it is the pro-Israel side that does a more thorough job of drawing boundaries. Politicians, pundits, journalists, and others are dubbed with the pro-Israel seal of approval, and those who are critical are dismissed as anti-Israel. While this is generally seen as a winning strategy, in many ways it actually does Israel more harm than good. As someone who firmly and unabashedly identifies with the pro-Israel camp, this 65th Yom Ha’atzmaut provides an occasion to reassess whether this marking of territory is actually productive.
The rush to proudly declare people and groups as pro-Israel harms Israel in two ways. The first is that it perpetuates a view of Israel as somehow different and as a country apart, and not in the sense of being a shining city on the hill but as a constant outsider. Israel is virtually the only country in the world in which its supporters press people to loudly declare this support, whether it be through large displays of strength in numbers like the annual AIPAC Policy Conference or through the omnipresent and explicit pro-Israel branding of Jewish groups and organizations. It reinforces a notion of Israel as an oddity and conveys a sense of insecurity among its supporters, as if without these constant reminders Israel would wither away. This is in no way to minimize the enormous security challenges that Israel faces, as the challenges facing Israelis are both real and constant. Nevertheless, as long as the world is forcefully divided into supporters and detractors, the normalcy that Israel craves will forever be elusive. Israel is not viewed as a normal state because its supporters do not allow it to be viewed as such. It is one thing to personally identify with Israel, and another to work to bring as many people into that same fold who have no real reason to identify with Israel any more than they would other Western democracies. The grassroots effort to get politicians to declare their undying love and support for Israel strikes an odd note to my ears, as I am unaware of any similar move by supporters of other countries. It creates a certain mystique surrounding the Jewish state that has some benefits but also some significant negative externalities. As someone who first visited Israel as a two year old, has been back nearly twenty times, and has spent a year living there, I know why I strongly identify with Israel and feel a deep personal connection to the country. Less clear to me is why it makes sense to encourage politicians with no real personal connection to Israel to express the same sentiment. The perception of strength that it creates is a false one that actually ends up backfiring.
Second, the pro-Israel delineation unnecessarily defines support for Israel according to an extremely high standard and creates a threshold that keeps people out who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be so situated. For instance, if someone supports a strong relationship between the U.S. and Portugal, believes that the two should have tight military and diplomatic ties, would like to see visits by each country’s leader to the other’s country, but does not think that the U.S. should use its Security Council veto on Portugal’s behalf every time there is a resolution that unfavorably targets Portugal, we would say that this is a person who is favorably disposed toward Portugal. But because being “pro-Israel” implies a certain set of stances, including that the U.S. wield its veto in the Security Council to protect Israel from unfair treatment, someone who argues that Israel should have to fend for itself in the United Nations would find it difficult to gain the pro-Israel label. Similarly, someone who supports every public position advanced by AIPAC but also thinks that the U.S. should press Israel to return to the 1967 borders is guaranteed to be viewed as squishy when it comes to being pro-Israel because this position is seen as being outside the mainstream boundaries of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” The problem with this is that it consigns people who are sympathetic to Israel in most, but not all, situations to the outside of the club looking in, and in doing so alienates plenty of people who are inclined to give Israel more leeway than your average person. Marking boundaries strengthens in-group cohesion, but also makes your group smaller than it needs to be. It reminds me of the debate over whether having enumerated rights in the Constitution ends up being a good thing by clearly laying out lines that the government cannot cross, or actually unnecessarily limits the rights that citizens enjoy by implying that any rights not explicitly laid out do not exist.
If Israel is to ever be seen as just another country – and this would unmistakably be a good thing – the pro-Israel label needs to be left behind. When people no longer feel the need to shout their pro-Israel bonafides from the rooftops, it will be the proof that Israel has finally achieved normalcy, and that will do more for Israel’s security than a host of policy conferences will ever do. Let’s take the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day to rethink whether the term “pro-Israel” makes sense, and let people who are inclined to support Israel do it however they see fit.
December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments
I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.
I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.
The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding, and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.
Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.
None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least – is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.
December 7, 2012 § 3 Comments
After the controversy that erupted this week over the email sent by the rabbis of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to their congregants celebrating the Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations and their subsequent apology for the email’s tone, I was talking about it with my close friend and college roommate Ephraim Pelcovits and I asked him to write a guest post for me on the proper role of rabbis in politics. Ephraim is uniquely qualified to speak on this issue since not only is he one of the smartest and most erudite people I know, he is also the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in Manhattan, and so this is an issue with which he grapples on a daily basis. He has an interesting take on the larger picture at play here, and so without further ado here is Ephraim:
Behind my desk in my synagogue study sit three photographs: The first is of my two little boys, three year old Alexander giving his infant brother Lev a kiss on the cheek. That picture reminds me to hurry up and get my work done at the synagogue so that I can spend time with the two of them. The second photo on that shelf is of the sanctuary of a tiny, but wonderfully warm, Buffalo synagogue – Congregation B’nai Shalom – where I served as student rabbi my senior year of rabbinical school, and it reminds me of the enormous potential for rich communal life with incredibly limited resources. And finally, there is a third photograph, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – the great 20th century theologian and activist – marching in Arlington National Cemetery in 1968 together with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. While many American Jews recognize the famous photograph of Heschel and King marching arm in arm during the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965, I have deliberately chosen to display a more obscure photograph of these American heroes, protesting yet again, this time against the Vietnam War.
The reason that lesser known photograph speaks to me is because it shows these great religious leaders willing to speak out a second time – breaking with some of their closest allies – when their consciences told them that their country faced a second moral crisis. While many of Rabbi Heschel’s colleague’s supported his heroic efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights movement, quite a few of them – including his disciple and right hand man on his trip to Selma in 1965, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman – disagreed vehemently and publicly with his opposition to Vietnam. Heschel’s appearance at that rally in Arlington in Febuary of 1968 caused an uproar, when photographs of his Reform colleague Rabbi Eisendrath holding a Torah scroll in a cemetery, in contravention of Jewish religious law, appeared in the press. Heschel did not cower from these attacks, and instead argued that under these circumstances a Torah most certainly belonged in Arlington National Cemetery. In response, Heschel quoted a noted 18th century rabbi who had argued that, “a Torah should be taken by the community to the cemetery to pray…to stop a plague.” For King too, opposition to Vietnam was not easy, and he waited until his famous “A Time to Break the Silence” address at Riverside Church on April 1, 1967 to speak out against the war. That public attack on the Johnson administration tore apart his alliance with a president who had worked so hard to pass the Civil and Voting Rights Acts through Congress just a few years before. But as King put it in that address, “Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy… We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
Last Friday, my esteemed colleagues, the rabbinic leadership of New York’s second oldest congregation, B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) issued a letter in support of the Palestinian Authorities approved bid for enhanced status at the United Nations. My own feelings about the Palestinian delegation’s status change are more subdued and less celebratory then theirs were, but I certainly followed this vote with hopes and prayers that this latest diplomatic gesture would, against the odds, advance the cause of a peaceful Palestinian state for its people in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside the Jewish people’s homeland, the State of Israel. While neither the BJ letter nor the excitement about it in the press were particularly surprising to me, I was surprised at the reaction of my own congregants and family to the coverage of the letter in the New York Times. What I heard from them was dismay that these rabbis had spoken out on what they dubbed a “political” issue, one which they argued was beyond the purview of clergy. That repeated theme left me pondering Heschel and King, and why and whether their support for civil rights or Vietnam might be different than this situation? Was this rabbinic stance any different?
The US Tax code allows a far wider range of political activity by houses of worship than many people understand, including speaking out on specific social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But synagogues, churches and mosques may not endorse specific candidates nor engage in partisan advocacy, or risk losing their 501(c)(3) charitable status. Clearly the statement by BJ rabbis will not affect their synagogue’s tax status, yet there are several other questions, more important (or at least interesting to me) than parsing the intricacies of our tax code, which I try to consider before taking such a public stand on a controversial moral issue.
1. “Do I have a broad and deep understanding of the issue I wish to comment upon, and can I clearly filter my thinking about the issue through the prism of traditional Jewish study – which is my specialty as a religious leader?”
Here I look to Heschel’s example yet again, this time in his essay explaining his involvement in the anti-war movement, which he carefully grounds in Biblical and Rabbinic text. “There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.”
2. After considering this first question, I then ponder, “Will I be able to best address this issue via a public statement – a community letter or sermon – or might I do a better job of persuasion by discussing the problem with a smaller, more informal group, or simply by setting an example of the conduct I think is best?” Most of the time this is the course that makes the most sense to me, and which I choose to pursue
3. Finally, and this is most critical as I consider a thorny issue like Israel and Palestine, I ask myself, “Am I getting too far ahead of my community?” As a mentor once pointed out to me, “A rabbi should always be one or two steps ahead of his or her community – to keep pulling them forward – but if he or she gets further ahead than that, the community will be left behind. They’ll never be able to catch up with you.”
The rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun are deep thinkers whom I have no doubt asked these, or similar, questions of themselves before writing their letter to their community. While it is not a letter I could or would have chosen to sign and send to my community, I have no doubt that they wrote that letter with the same conviction that Dr. King had when he decided to speak out against the Vietnam War, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” May the hopes and aspirations that were expressed in that letter for peace and prosperity for all of the inhabitants of the Holy Land be speedily accomplished.
September 16, 2012 § 14 Comments
Maureen Dowd’s column in this morning’s New York Times going after Dan Senor and other neoconservatives has made a lot of people upset. Titled “Neocons Slither Back,” it employs a number of disturbing classical anti-Semitic tropes and images. After quoting from Paul Ryan’s hawkish foreign policy speech to the Values Voter Summit, Dowd writes, “Ryan was moving his mouth, but the voice was the neocon puppet master Dan Senor,” and later describes him as the “ventriloquist” for Ryan and Mitt Romney. In talking about GOP foreign policy, she says, “After 9/11, the neocons captured one Republican president who was naïve about the world. Now, amid contagious Arab rage sparked on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, they have captured another would-be Republican president and vice president, both jejeune about the world.” Senor is Jewish and the term “neocon” has become an unfortunate shorthand for Jews in many circles, and the idea that Jewish advisors are pulling strings behind the scenes and controlling world events and weak-minded actors is as classically anti-Semitic as it gets.
I read the column last night and have to confess that none of this crossed my mind at all until Senor’s wife, Campbell Brown, tweeted out this critique of Dowd’s column alleging that it was anti-Semitic, at which point I re-read Dowd and it came across in a new light. I never call things out as as anti-Semitic unless they are extremely egregious since I do not think it is useful to water down the term so that the charge rarely carries much weight anymore, so perhaps my radar for this kind of thing needs to be recalibrated. My original inclination was that Senor’s Judaism was incidental in this case, and that there is an important distinction to be made between criticizing Jews because they are Jewish vs. criticizing people who happen to be Jewish. I was willing to give Dowd the benefit of the doubt because that is how the column read to me and because I have never had any sense from stuff that she has written that she is anti-Semitic or goes after Jews in particular. There is, however, the unfortunate fact that many people use the term neocon as a code of sorts to refer to Jews, and Dowd did not stop at criticizing Senor but brought neocons writ large into the picture. So after thinking about it overnight, I am still not prepared to tar Dowd as an anti-Semite, but there is no doubt that the column is deeply troubling to many and rightly so.
There is an issue this raises though, which is to what extent certain criticism of Jews should be off-limits given the sordid history of anti-Semitism. Had Dowd written a column without the marionette imagery, or if Senor were not Jewish, the anti-Semitism charge would have never been raised, but has been given the combination of the specific type of criticism leveled here along with the idea of Senor manipulating his Gentile bosses. Does that mean that criticizing Senor for pushing a hawkish interventionist policy as part of his advice to Romney and Ryan is completely out of bounds? It certainly shouldn’t be if you are a liberal columnist concerned with the possible return of George W. Bush’s first-term foreign policy agenda. I also think that as Jews, we do not want to arrive at a place where people think that they cannot direct legitimate criticism at us just because we happen to be Jewish and they do not want to run afoul of anti-Semitism. Some criticism is anti-Semitic but much is not, and it will not benefit the Jewish community long term if we hurl around the anti-Semitism charge in any but the most clear cut case. I know there are many who will argue that Dowd’s column meets that standard and I understand why. I just think we need to make sure that if someone wants to call out a Jewish public figure’s bad actions or poor policy prescriptions, there is a way to do it without it turning into a maelstrom of bigotry charges. Dowd should have been a lot more careful and sensitive to what she was implying, but I genuinely believe that this was a case of her coming down on Senor’s ideas rather than his ethnicity or undue influence.
July 31, 2012 § 5 Comments
When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their controversial article on the “Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books in March 2006, they defined the lobby as follows:
We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that ‘the Lobby’ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them…
Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known. In 1997,Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People, but ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. ANational Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington ‘muscle rankings’.
When their argument was published in book form one year later, the definition remained the same, although “Lobby” was switched to the less conspiratorial looking “lobby” and “steer” was changed to “shape.” The point was clear though; the Israel lobby is made up of groups and empowered individuals who seek to influence the foreign policy process. Mearsheimer and Walt swore up and down that they were not indicting Jews or Jewish voters wholesale, but were seeking to expose the activities of a select “loose coalition.”
With that background information in mind, Walt wrote a blog post yesterday purporting to put Mitt Romney’s various remarks over the weekend while in Israel into context. According to Walt, Romney was engaging in a time honored bipartisan tradition of pandering to the Israel lobby, but -
The good news, such as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks about the “unshakeable commitment” to Israel, or even of their “love” for the country, they don’t really mean it. They are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their policies with the lobby’s clout in mind (as Obama’s humiliating retreat on the settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.
None of this is new or surprising, since Walt writes variations on this theme regularly. What is noteworthy about this particular Walt missive is that his definition of the lobby is far more expansive than usual. He opens by saying, “Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political tradition, especially in an election year…Whether we are talking about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various ethnic lobbies, it’s inevitable that politicians running for office will say and do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over.” So the expectation is that what will follow is an exegesis about how Romney has been trying to win over the groups, or even people, that Walt has previously identified as making up the Israel lobby.
That is not, however, what Walt does. Instead, Walt explicitly states that he is talking about Jewish voters. In the second paragraph, right after the sentences about lobbies that I quoted above, he states about Romney, “He wasn’t trying to win over Israelis or make up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel’s supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can, because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like Florida.” Lest there be any confusion that Walt is conflating the Israel lobby with American Jews, after referring to Obama and Romney tailoring their policies “with the lobby’s clout in mind,” he spends the rest of the piece talking not about ways in which “the lobby” punishes politicians who deviate from the party line by raising money for their opponents or running ads in their districts, but about how presidents Carter and Bush 41 saw their percentages of Jewish votes drop after pressuring or confronting Israel. He is not telling a story about what he has previously defined as the Israel lobby, but is telling a story about American Jews that he is calling a story about the Israel lobby.
Remember this next time someone claims that Mearsheimer and Walt are not indicting all American Jews with their theory, or are only focusing on a finite and defined set of groups. Walt’s defenders here will claim that because he and Mearsheimer argue that the Israel lobby influences public opinion, this is an extension of that argument, and that by pandering to the Israel lobby Romney and Obama know that they will affect how American Jews vote. Unfortunately, that argument won’t fly in this case. There is simply no way around the fact that Walt defines all American Jewish voters as “the Israel lobby” in his latest piece, and when he indicts Romney for pandering to the Israel lobby he means that Romney is pandering to Jewish voters. There is nothing wrong with pointing out what Romney is doing, but Walt is going to have a difficult time going forward explaining that when he references the Israel lobby, he is talking about “Zionists” or “pro-Israel groups” rather than Jews.
June 13, 2012 § 3 Comments
In many ways, New York is a quintessentially Jewish city. The enduring image of New York Jews was famously captured by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, and New York’s liberal, secular, hyper-educated Jewish population has for decades set the tone for American Jewry as a whole. According to a new survey, however, the stereotypical New York Jew is becoming an endangered species. New York City’s Jewish population is growing after years of decline, and the growth is being fueled by Orthodox Jews, and particularly Hasidic and black hat Jews who are conservative, do not have college degrees, and are relatively poor. Over at Commentary, Jonathan Tobin writes that this signals the end of American liberal Jewry since the New York Jewish community (the largest concentration of Jews anywhere in the world outside of Israel) and the American Jewish community itself are slowly dividing into two large blocs of Orthodox Jews and entirely assimilated and unaffiliated Jews, which means that the Jewish community will be more politically and religiously conservative.
On the religious aspect, I think Tobin is right, but I think he is overlooking two important points when it comes to where the American Jewish community is headed politically which makes his prediction of liberal Jewry’s demise premature. First, while the Hasidic and yeshivish communities – and to a lesser extent the modern Orthodox community – are unquestionably more politically and socially conservative than their non-Orthodox counterparts, they have a different set of concerns. As the New York Times notes, they take different positions than secular American Jews on abortion, gay rights, the peace process, and a host of other issues, but the question is whether they are going to be as active as the rest of the Jewish community in pushing these issues to the fore and putting their money where their mouth is.
My bet is that they will not. The ultra-Orthodox (for lack of a better term) care more about social services and government subsidies than they do about traditionally political issues because they are generally an impoverished group. The poorest place in the entire United States is Kiryas Joel, a village 50 miles outside of New York City populated almost exclusively by Satmar Jews. Kiryas Joel votes as one bloc, and so it is awash in federal and state grants and poverty assistance, and its residents care far more about making sure that this continues than they do about whether gay marriage is legal in New York or not. Kiryas Joel is a political microcosm for the ultra-Orthodox in general, and while they are undoubtedly as socially and politically conservative as you can get, they simply don’t have enough skin in the game to move the debate. The things they care about transcend and supersede their political conservatism, which is why local Democratic Brooklyn politicians such as Joe Hynes and Dov Hikind receive overwhelming support from the Orthodox community. They are a lot like the Israeli Haredi parties such as Shas or UTJ in this sense, since their number one issue is patronage and winning state benefits and everything else is secondary and thus perpetually fluid and malleable.
Second, Hasidic and black hat Orthodox Jews are uniformly insular. The divide between these two groups and modern Orthodox Jews primarily revolves around the issue of engagement with the outside world. Hasidim and black hatters purposely construct figurative walls around themselves so that they barely have to interact with the outside world or engage with people outside of their immediate religious community. They go to their own schools, marry within their cloistered world, and shelter themselves from the impurities of secularism by shunning tv, radio, the internet, and even basic news. They spend their lives inside a bubble of their own creation, and are not terribly interested about what is taking place outside the cocoon. If 95% of American Jews were Hassidic or black hat, the 5% who were not would still be the ones driving the perception of Jewry among the rest of the population because they would be the only ones engaging in politics, culture, and the general debate. In this vein, it doesn’t much matter how conservative the Orthodox are because they keep to themselves and aren’t really interested in impacting American politics in any way. When Tobin writes that the assumption of American Jews being secular liberals to the end of time has just been proven false, he is technically correct but missing the forest for the trees. The segment of American Jewry that engages with the world and is ubiquitous in the media and pop culture and donates money to political campaigns is still overwhelmingly secular and liberal, and that is what matters. American Jewry as a whole may become more religiously and politically conservative, but the silent majority is so silent as to render them essentially invisible.