Israel Is Politicized. Tell Me Something New.

April 21, 2016 § 1 Comment

Two important events took place in the last seven days related to Israel’s role in American political discourse. The first was last Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had one of the longest sustained exchanges on Israel that I can recall in any presidential primary debate. The second was the annual J Street conference, which hosted speeches by Joe Biden and John Kerry that were both critical of the current Israeli government to some degree. The conventional wisdom that has coalesced around the first is wrong, and the second demonstrates why. What they both point to is not that some mythical taboo about Israel has been broken, but that the extent to which Israel is politicized is changing and that the pro-Israel community will have to grapple with a new landscape.

After being asked about the U.S.-Israel relationship during the debate last week, Sanders made a number of points that have attracted attention, among them that Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 despite defending Israel’s right to defend itself; that Palestinians must be treated with dignity and respect; and that the U.S. has to say that Bibi Netanyahu is not right all the time. Many rushed to dub this an unprecedented expansion of the dialogue surrounding Israel in the American political system. An ABC News article called it “something that Mideast experts and advocates on either side have never seen someone in his position do before,” while CNN went even further, trumpeting that “Bernie Sanders is taking a sledgehammer to the political status quo on Israel” and that “he upended a long-standing tenet of American politics: that unflinching support for Israel is non-negotiable.”

There’s no question that Sanders’ defense of Palestinian rights was unprecedented for a presidential debate, and he deserves credit for taking a principled stand. But let’s not overblow the big picture; to suggest that he has smashed some redline on Israel and the manner in which the U.S. supports it takes a unique type of historical amnesia or outright ignorance. It reminds me of those who denounce the suppression of critical views of Israel in the midst of embarking on speaking tours or writing best-selling books doing the very thing that they claim is impossible to do. Let’s leave aside the current very public contretemps that have taken place between President Obama and Netanyahu – both of whom would no doubt guffaw at the claim that Sanders is unique in saying that Netanyahu is not always right – or the famed incident during the first President Bush’s administration when Secretary of State James Baker in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee blasted Israel for obstructionism and recited the White House’s phone number for the Israelis to call “when you’re serious about peace,” or when President Ford publicly rebuked Israel and announced a reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East due to frustration with the Israelis. Perhaps the nastiest moment between the U.S. and Israel came during the Reagan administration and the debate over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, when the White House and the deal’s supporters in Congress publicly decried Israeli influence and made the case that Israel was inappropriately attempting to subvert U.S. foreign policy for its own ends. In a foreshadowing of last year’s Iran debate, the Reagan administration repeatedly insisted that the AWACS sale would actually benefit Israeli security, despite the Israeli government’s insistence to the contrary. To argue in the wake of the Clinton-Sanders debate that we have now approached a unique moment, where politicians are for the first time doing anything other than providing Israel with a figurative blank check, is quite plainly abject nonsense.

In fact, Israel has always simultaneously been politicized while drawing bipartisan support. The question is not if, but to what extent, and that brings us to J Street’s annual gathering. J Street has done a very good job over the past eight years of building and selling itself as the home for Jewish Democrats, making the case that AIPAC no longer represents their thinking on Israel. While I have no doubt at all that AIPAC’s leadership continues to harbor, and always will harbor, bipartisan ambitions, and there is also little question that there are still substantial numbers of Democrats who are comfortable in the AIPAC fold, there is also little question that the monopoly AIPAC once enjoyed is now over. I find it hard to see J Street ever rising to AIPAC’s size or influence, but it has a permanent and significant niche. Biden and Kerry went to address J Street as a reward for the organization’s advocacy of the Iran deal, but do not expect this to be a one-time thing. Democrats are increasingly going to show up to both AIPAC and J Street, and it reflects the fact that J Street is in tune with much of the Democratic base.

This is also a function of Newton’s third law in action with regard to Netanyahu and the Republican Party. The symbiotic relationship between the two and the barely disguised effort on the Israeli government’s part to favor one side of the American political spectrum over the other was guaranteed to provoke a response. The form the response has taken is that Democrats are more comfortable criticizing Netanyahu, and J Street is happy to take a different approach to AIPAC on this subject and capitalize on the new political battle lines. Once the Republicans and Netanyahu dropped any hesitation at using Israel as a cudgel, the Democrats were going to drop their hesitation at using Israel in their own way, which means a tilt toward J Street. The battle to keep J Street out of the mainstream is over, even if AIPAC is still going to be the more obvious destination for many.

This ultimately means that the politicization of Israel will not only continue apace, but increase. J Street is a different sort of animal than AIPAC in that it is far more of an overtly political organization. I don’t mean this as a knock on J Street, since there is nothing wrong with being political, but it does mean that there are consequences for the structure of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. One need look no further than the debate in Las Vegas last month between J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks to see where things are headed. An AIPAC chief would never agree to participate in such a debate, but it is a simple fact that as more Democrats move toward J Street, AIPAC is going to look even more Republican than it already does to many by default. American Jews who legitimately care about Israel are going to divide even more starkly into two camps, and that means unification around a general platitude of being pro-Israel but harsh disagreement on the specifics and boundaries of what that means. Israel is being politicized, but if you think that a socialist candidate for president who criticizes Israel during a primary debate is the harbinger of a groundbreaking new trend, you haven’t been paying very close attention.

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The Slow Self-Immolation Of A Political Party

April 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Imagine a political party that finds itself in what appears to be a permanent bind. The elites who run the party and make up the senior elected officials represent an establishment rightwing view, and it is one that has been electorally successful for decades as it stayed within a national consensus that allowed it to attract a wider array of voters beyond its natural base. At the same time, many of the party’s voters have been steadily moving rightward and taking more extreme positions that are being embraced by people on an order of magnitude that would have been unimaginable a couple of elections before. The party honchos have not been unaware of this trend, and have been playing a timeless game in which they rhetorically support the more extreme positions of the base in an effort to keep them in the fold and win their votes, while rarely following through on the promises they make during the heat of a campaign. They are careful to give the base some small victories, but generally tend to pull back from the edge of the cliff of truly revolutionary proposals, always providing an array of excuses and promises that patience will pay off in the end, and that the eventual victory of remaking the country wholesale is just around the corner.

With each heightened expectation that is inevitably dashed, the base of the party becomes more upset and more radicalized. They eventually turn to even more rightwing movements that are seen as more authentic and more grassroots, and even though these more extreme movements are smaller and will never be able to win an election on their own outright, the effect is to push the larger and more establishment party to the right as it becomes terrified of being cannibalized by its more ideologically pure sibling. This of course only encourages the extremist base, and it creates a spiral in which the party becomes more extreme but can never go far enough to satisfy its most strident voters, and eventually the voters who happily kept returning the party and its standard bearers to national office turn on those standard bearers, branding their former heroes traitors to the cause and embracing new politicians who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how absurd or devastating the consequences of the proposed policies would be.

This is a rough portrayal of what has been taking place in the Republican Party, but it is also the story of what is right now taking place in Likud. The Likud establishment has been winning elections for decades, but the impatience of many in its base – particularly religious settlers – has led to challenges from smaller parties demanding greater fidelity to nationalist ideology, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi being the most prominent recent example. Prime Minister Netanyahu comes off as unapologetically rightwing to many American Jews, but the fact is that to the Israeli right, he is seen as too cautious and not viewed as a true believer. His rhetoric meant for the rightwing base has become more extreme over time, from the infamous election night warning about Arab voters coming to the polls in droves to his all but calling Mahmoud Abbas a terrorist, but it is never enough. The fact that he and his government have placed any brakes at all on settlement activity in the West Bank, let alone refused to seriously consider annexation, makes him and other Likud luminaries automatically suspect. And thus Netanyahu keeps on being returned to office, but each time the grumbling becomes louder and keeping his coalition satisfied becomes increasingly Sisyphean.

In the U.S., this trend has led to a Republican Party circular firing squad, where whomever or whatever emerges is going to be barely breathing politically. In Israel, however, the consequences have been more serious, since this trend is not only ensnaring one of Israel’s two historically major political parties, but the IDF as well. This has been laid bare by the fallout from the Hebron shooting, in which an IDF soldier shot and killed an injured and immobilized terrorist with a bullet to the head. Both Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot immediately moved to make sure that the soldier was detained and that a proper investigation was conducted, and Ya’alon forcefully condemned the soldier as one who had gone bad. The fact that they did not instead unequivocally support the soldier – who may yet turn out to be guilty of something less serious than murder, but whose actions were captured on tape and appear to be as ugly as it gets – was immediately seized upon by those on the far right, led by Bennett who accused Ya’alon of selling out the IDF. Netanyahu’s zigzag, from initially supporting Ya’alon and criticizing the soldier to then calling the soldier’s family and seemingly playing all sides, was sadly predictable. All of this was naturally followed by images circulating of Ya’alon’s face in the crosshairs of a rifle, comparisons to Hitler, and posters hung all over Tel Aviv calling on Eisenkot to resign and accusing him of failing to safeguard Jewish lives. The sad fact that Bennett is more representative of the public mood, as a majority of Israelis do not believe that the solider should have been arrested and investigated, does not make his conduct any less dangerous or reprehensible, since he is deliberately undermining the institution that is most trusted by the Israeli public in order to further his own political career. That Netanyahu is continuing to calibrate his own actions based on what Bennett does should finally put the notion to bed once and for all that Netanyahu is a leader rather than a man with his finger perpetually in the air testing the wind.

The IDF is what holds Israel together; once it has been undermined for short term political gain, there is no going back. And yet after years of treating its base as simplistic fools and seeing it boomerang in the faces of its leaders, the Likud is now haplessly watching by as its own defense minister is savaged for actually acting correctly and responsibly, and the IDF leadership is questioned for acting like armies in democratic countries act. That Republican leaders in the U.S. completely lost control of their own political vehicle and are now faced with the prospect of a nominee that many of them refuse to support – whether it is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz – is not a good thing for American democracy; no matter which party owns your sympathies, competition is both good and necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy, and the corrosion of the Republican Party is not good for the country. But ultimately, the damage is likely going to be limited to Republican institutions and not the institutions of the state. In Israel, the same cannot be said. Likud has been fighting a losing battle against its own Tea Partiers, whom it tacitly encouraged under the assumption that it could contain them, but the chaos is now spilling over and has the potential to bring the rest of the country down with it. When you wink at extremism while laughing at it behind its back, the joke is often on you. This time, it is coming at all of Israel’s expense.

Playing the Blame Game

April 7, 2016 § 5 Comments

Everywhere you look, there are signs that Israel and American Jews are drifting apart, whether it be the Pew surveys on American Jews and Israeli Jews, the involvement of American Jews in organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace that support the BDS movement, or the general angst about Israel that is becoming more prevalent in the American Jewish community. There is little question that from a 30,000 foot perspective, American Jews as a whole are in ways large and small more conflicted on Israel than they once were. So it is only natural to ask, who is to blame for this state of affairs? Is it Israel, for policies that are driving away American Jews, or is it American Jews, for shedding their sense of ethnic solidarity and their support for Israel along with it?

Dov Waxman – who wrote on this topic for Matzav a few weeks ago – has a new book out on the subject called Trouble in the Tribe, which elicited an interesting response in Mosaic from Elliott Abrams. Abrams characterizes Waxman’s book as distilling the conventional wisdom in liberal American Jewish circles, which is that rightwing Israeli governments, growing nationalism within Israeli society, and above all the occupation have turned off younger American Jews, and that only a shift in Israeli policies will turn this situation around (disclaimer: I have not yet read the book so I cannot definitively assess whether Abrams’ summation is accurate, but it seems to be from what I have seen). Abrams then goes on to argue that this conventional wisdom is wrong, and that the real driving force here is not Israel but American Jews themselves; as a sense of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish community has eroded, American Jews relate less and care less about their Israeli cousins. In Abrams’s words, “But the beginning of wisdom is surely to understand that the problem is here, in the United States. The American Jewish community is more distant from Israel than in past generations because it is changing, is in significant ways growing weaker, and is less inclined and indeed less able to feel and express solidarity with other Jews here and abroad.”

I vigorously agree with some of Abrams’ conclusions, and just as vigorously disagree with others. Abrams is certainly correct in my view that there is a crisis of Jewish identity in the U.S. that is backed by the Pew statistics, and that support for Israel among American Jews is going to continue to slide by some degree so long as intermarriage rates rise and the proportion of “Jews by background” versus “Jews by religion” goes up. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, and there is no reason beyond ethnic or religious solidarity to specifically identify with it and support it in a stronger or special manner above other democracies or U.S. allies. If Judaism is only ancillary to your identity, then you likely have no particular reason to care about Israel one way or another. In discussing this identity gap, Abrams writes, “A deeper analysis suggests that we are dealing here with a far broader phenomenon, and one in which sheer indifference may count as much as or more than critical disagreement with Israeli policies or an active desire to disembarrass oneself of association with an ‘ethnonational state.’” The point about indifference is a smart one, and it follows from an erosion of Jewish peoplehood.

But this same sentence penned by Abrams also demonstrates where he goes wrong. One can argue that a lack of Jewish identity leads to apathy about Jewish causes, including Israel, or one can argue that a lack of Jewish identity leads to active disagreement with Jewish causes, including Israel, but it cannot be both simultaneously. The former suggests someone who doesn’t care; the latter suggests someone who deeply cares. And this is where Israel itself comes in, because unless you want to argue that American Jews who are critical of Israel are all self-loathing – and to be clear, I do not think that Abrams is arguing this at all – then the fact that many of them are put off by specific Israeli policies is incredibly relevant. It actually points to the very opposite conclusion at which Abrams arrives, since the greater likelihood is that someone whose American Jewish identity is extremely important to him or her will react viscerally to Israeli policies with which he or she disagrees than someone whose Judaism is well in the background. Abrams’s mocking contention that American Jews today cannot possibly know more about Israel than their parents or grandparents is surprisingly obtuse; despite the fact that Bernie Sanders somehow got it into his head that Israel killed over 10,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge (Hamas itself puts the figure at 1,462, which is surely inflated too), American Jews today can read half a dozen daily Israeli news sources in Hebrew or English and literally get up-to-the-minute updates via Twitter, and they don’t like much of what they see. This is not the same phenomenon as Jews who are drifting away from Israel on the tide of assimilation.

Identity can manifest itself in different ways. Some American Jews who maintain a strong Jewish identity will support Israel right or wrong out of ethnic and communal solidarity. Others who maintain a strong Jewish identity will feel the need to criticize Israel precisely because their identity creates an unbreakable bond with Israel that makes them feel personally invested in and responsible for what Israel does. And somewhere on that spectrum will be others who feel ashamed and embarrassed by Israel and want to do everything they can to bash it, not out of affinity but out of hate. Finally, there is the category that Abrams importantly identifies of those who are simply apathetic because their Jewish heritage is relegated to the background. Some criticism of Israel is driven by anti-Semitism and blatantly discriminatory double standards, but much is not, and it also isn’t coming exclusively from those whose Jewish identity or sense of ethnic solidarity is weak. The point is that there are many moving parts here, and to draw a broad sweeping conclusion that applies to all of these segments of American Jewry misses the different phenomena that are working in tandem. To suggest that the effect of Israeli policies is negligible in driving American Jews away from Israel is either myopic or willfully blind, and it betrays a black and white vision of an issue that is slathered in shades of gray.

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