Structuring Conflict in the Trumpian World

November 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

In the decade before the unfortunately named Arab Spring uprisings, political science on the subject of the Middle East was largely consumed with explaining the region’s persistent and seemingly exceptional authoritarianism. One of the best treatments of the subject was Yale political scientist Ellen Lust-Okar’s 1995 book titled Structuring Conflict in the Arab World. Lust-Okar looked at why political opposition groups in some Middle Eastern states would mobilize popular protests during economic crises while in other states they wouldn’t, and she developed a handy theory to explain the variance in behavior despite similar circumstances. While at first glance this topic has nothing to do with American Jewry and the nascent Trump administration, Lust-Okar’s book was the first thing that came to my mind when thinking about the way different Jewish organizations are responding to the challenges that President-elect Trump is presenting.

Lust-Okar’s theory on what made opposition groups decide to mobilize or not was that it wasn’t a function of the groups themselves, but a function of how the regime manipulated them. Middle Eastern authoritarian governments establish different relationships between the state and the opposition, and between opposition groups themselves, by creating unified or divided structures of contestation. In plain English, the state (wittingly or unwittingly) determines how opposition groups behave based on whether it favors some groups over others or treats them all as equally illegitimate. If the regime grants some political parties or groups legal status while making others illegal, the legal ones become reluctant to protest or join with the “illegal” opposition since they will be putting their own status at risk. Having the regime’s favor carries with it benefits, including most basically not being arbitrarily thrown in jail, so by playing it safe and not challenging the regime, the legal groups ensure that they will not be repressed or excluded from the system no matter what abuses the state carries out against others. On the other side of the equation, the illegal parties or groups are constantly looking to have the legal parties or groups join their protests in order to give them the imprimatur of legality and the safety of numbers. When the legal parties inevitably choose not join in order to protect their own status, it allows the regime to portray the protests as illegitimate and carried out by outlaws and rabble-rousers with invalid grievances.

I’ve been thinking about this while observing the way American Jewish organizations are reacting to the goings on surrounding Trump, his appointments, and his policies that will most directly impact Israel and Jews themselves. To get one important thing out of the way up front, I am not arguing that Trump is planning on banning groups he doesn’t like or that we are dealing with an authoritarian regime that will imprison opponents. But looking at the dynamic of opposition in non-democracies helps to understand the dynamic emerging here.

To be sure, every White House has groups it favors and groups it doesn’t. Every White House uses the divisions within groups to its advantage. There is nothing illegal or untoward about this, but it influences group dynamics in a way that can be extremely damaging to group cohesiveness. To take a recent prominent example, the Iran deal was divisive enough within the American Jewish community without needing an extra boost from the Obama administration, but the White House unquestionably made things worse in its appeals to Jewish groups and making the “it will make Israel safer” argument a big part of the sell. This is not to absolve other actors or place the lion’s share of the blame on the White House, since there was nothing more ultimately damaging or divisive than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, but the choice made by the administration played a part in fracturing the Jewish community as well.

What is already going on before Trump has even taken office, however, is orders of magnitudes worse. For starters, no Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who runs a site that traffics in the worst sort of anti-Semitic and bigoted tropes as Trump’s most influential domestic policy advisor. As Bari Weiss correctly argues, whether Steve Bannon is personally anti-Semitic is irrelevant given how much anti-Semitic filth he is responsible for spreading and promoting. No Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who has retweeted anti-Semitic messages as Trump’s most influential foreign policy advisor. That Mike Flynn may want a closer relationship with Israel should not matter when he feels comfortably at home with people who view Jews as the source of the world’s ills. Yet whether to support, oppose, or remain neutral on these appointments has become a controversy within the American Jewish community despite the fact that it should be clear-cut that they are completely outside the boundary of what we should deem acceptable.

Say what you will about the Obama White House, but it listened to and talked with everyone without regard to politics. When the previous White House Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk stepped down, one of the most complimentary missives came from ZOA president Mort Klein, who heads a group that is hardly a supporter of the current administration. Is anyone confident that the next White House will behave the same way? Will it listen to or deal with groups that do not share its views? My fear is that the Trump administration will look at how it so easily divided Jewish groups over an issue that should not even be debatable, and make the divisions even worse by rewarding groups that it views as compliant and freezing out groups that it views as intransigent. Once this structure of contestation has been set up, opposing the administration on anything will become that much harder, including on issues that directly threaten American Jewish interests or Israel.

American Jewish groups are not going to see eye to eye or march in lockstep on every policy issue, nor should they. It was eminently reasonable that some groups dedicated almost all of their time and energies to opposing the Iran deal while other groups to supporting it. Policy differences are not themselves destructive. But blatant anti-Semitism is not a policy difference; it is the reddest of red lines. We are creating in-groups and out-groups over an issue where everyone needs to be on the same side. As someone whose natural inclination is to more often than not side with pragmatism over absolutist principles, I innately understand the argument of not doing something that will foreclose any ability to have the president’s ear. Influence is often a result of being inside the room rather than shouting from a bullhorn outside it. But just as the television executives who went to Trump Tower on Monday thought that they were there to have a conversation with the president-elect and were instead berated for over an hour, I fear that we are falling into the same trap over an issue that is mission-critical to any Jewish organization irrespective of the precise mission. Do not allow Steve Bannon to become a litmus test that the Trump White House uses to determine which groups are “good” and which are “bad.” There is going to be lots to fight over and argue about during the next four years, providing us all with many opportunities to engage in Jews’ favorite pastime. If we cannot stand together at the outset when given such a wide and obvious target, then it is not going to be long before the wide and obvious target is us.

A Western Wall For All

November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.

I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.

The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.

Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.

Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.

Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.

Two-State Security

June 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

This column is part of IPF’s Two-State Security project launch, so please forgive the organizational self-promotion.

There are few such essential and simple concepts more in need of a rebranding than the two-state solution. It is routinely disparaged as a tired concept that has been tried and failed, one that requires iron political will and strong leaders on both sides when the reality of the current situation is leaders whose commitment to take the necessary steps is doubted by all. There is truth to this critique, but ultimately it is irrelevant. If a Jewish, democratic, and secure Israel is the goal – and there is no pro-Israel position that does not share all three of these characteristics – then two states is the only realistic way to get there, no matter the current circumstances. It is for this reason that IPF has launched the Two-State Security project, as an attempt to overcome one of the largest obstacles that exists in achieving a viable two-state solution.

Two-State Security is an initiative designed to address Israel’s very legitimate and very real security concerns surrounding a future Palestinian state and loss of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. There are many things that this initiative is not. It is not a call for a unilateral military disengagement, as was tried with varying degrees of success and failure in Lebanon and Gaza. It is not a call for an immediate return to negotiations with the Palestinians, which would almost certainly end in failure and make conditions for both sides even worse. It is not an effort to replace the current Israeli government or launch a campaign against Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is not an attempt to override the democratic choices of Israelis or to impose any type of outside solution on the two actual parties to the conflict. The only way this thing will get solved is through direct negotiations between the two parties, full stop. But the fact that the environment for this to work does not now exist is all the more reason to work on creative suggestions that will pave the way for the right environment to emerge, and that is what the Two-State Security project tries to do.

In the era of Oslo and Camp David, security was viewed as the easiest issue on the table to solve. The constant suicide bombings of the Second Intifada changed that irrevocably, and the rockets and tunnels bursting out from over and under the Gaza border have only added to Israelis’ convictions that security must be the primary issue to be dealt with if they are ever to alter the status quo in the West Bank. There will be no real movement toward two states until security is addressed in a comprehensive manner, and it belies the evidence to blithely assume that simply ending Israel’s presence in the West Bank will bring quiet to Israelis. An eventual Israeli pullback has to be managed in a way that creates the necessary safeguards and institutions to enable Israel to trust that a two-state solution isn’t going to fundamentally undermine the safety and security of its citizens going about their daily routines. If you take two states seriously, then you must take security seriously.

This project is based on two excellent and expert plans put out this week, one by the Commanders for Israel’s Security calling for a series of steps to be taken now that will improve Israeli security immediately and preserve the future path to two states, and one by the Center for a New American Security that is a comprehensive security system to be implemented in the future as part of a successful permanent status agreement. They are both the result of over a year of research, debate, thought, and writing, and I urge you to read them in full and check out the myriad of summaries and resources that we have put together connected to both plans. Like any plan that exists on any subject, they have strengths and weaknesses and people will argue over the wisdom and efficacy of the details, which is the point. Without a serious effort to spark these conversations now, the security situation will not improve, and more and more people will just resign themselves to the cliché that “there is no solution” when in fact that is the most harmful attitude to Israel’s future that can possibly be adopted. Ultimately, the key to a viable two-state solution is building the requisite political will, and this project is an effort to address one extremely crucial component of doing so.

The dirty little secret of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the status quo isn’t actually a status quo; it is a drumbeat of constant deterioration. If you are Israeli, your sense of security has plummeted in direct inverse proportion to Israel’s footprint in the West Bank. If you are Palestinian, your sense of dignity and sovereignty has plummeted in direct inverse proportion to ramped up Palestinian terrorism and violence. The notion that this can all be managed is based on a fallacy that managing it can keep the lid on the box, when in fact the lid is precariously close to being blown up entirely. Anyone who believes that Israel can be pushed out of the West Bank through terrorism, violence, and sanctions knows nothing about Israeli history, Zionism, or Jewish resolve. Anyone who believes that Palestinian nationalism can be simply quashed through a sufficient show of strength knows nothing about the history of the globe from the 19th century onward or how nationalism has proven to be a potent political force like no other. There are a million excuses that can be employed across the political spectrum for why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is permanently intractable, from Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s existence, to the settlements being too ingrained in the West Bank to ever be uprooted, to the role of religion on both sides, to neither side being ready to make the necessary compromises. All of these have merit, and none of them eliminate the need to try and find a way out. It doesn’t mean coming up with ideas that neither side will accept and trying to force them on the two parties. It means brainstorming proposals that can be part of a comprehensive solution that will ultimately be palatable to each side and can eventually be implemented. It is not pragmatic to be pie in the sky, but it is no more pragmatic to just sit on the sidelines and wait for a deus ex machina that is never coming.

No matter where you come down, you are taking a gamble. No security plan will ever be perfect, and there is no such thing as an ironclad guarantee. It’s why countries fight wars, companies break contracts, and couples get divorced. The question for Israel is which gamble for its future has better long term odds and a higher potential payoff – keep everything exactly as is and hope that terrorism doesn’t get worse and Palestinians and the world don’t push for a bi-national state, or figure out a way to extricate yourself from the West Bank and create as many systems and safeguards as possible to ensure the best security that can be attained. One of these is the obvious choice to me, but please read and engage with our Two-State Security initiative and whether you nod your head in agreement or shake it in disapproval, let’s get the conversation started.

Grasping At Straws

May 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

IPF has been very busy lately, and people are starting to take notice. Earlier this week, Ron Kampeas of JTA wrote an article previewing IPF’s activities in the months ahead, particularly the rollout of our Two-State Security initiative developed in conjunction with the Center for a New American Security and the Commanders for Israel’s Security (much more on this next week once it actually launches!), and noting the addition of a bevy of prominent American Jewish leaders to our board. Like moths to a flame, the mention of the phrase “two states” was bound to attract condemnation from the usual suspects, and Jonathan Tobin at Commentary was quick on the draw. Of our initiative, Tobin writes, “Buoyed by the bad press that the current Israeli government has been getting, these people think now is just the moment to push forward a peace plan that will help prepare the way for change despite the opposition of the elected leaders of the Jewish state.” He claims that what we are proposing is all unoriginal and has been tried before, and characterizes what we are doing as “based on the same bogus notion that Israel needs to be saved from itself and forced to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to preserve it as a Jewish state.” But the heart of Tobin’s argument is that what we are doing is misguided because the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected two states and that no plan will work unless a way is found to ensure that a Palestinian state in the West Bank will not become a terrorist enclave as exists in Gaza.

It’s a shame that Tobin did not wait until next week when the plans are actually released and he had been able to read them, since had he done so, he would have saved himself some time and wasted space on Commentary’s website. Tobin is attacking a ghost of his own imagination, as neither the CNAS report nor the Commanders for Israel’s Security report are peace plans. Neither calls for an immediate return to negotiations. Neither calls for sanctions or international pressure on Israel. Neither has a word to say about Israeli governments being too rightwing or not forthcoming enough, as Tobin alleges. Neither has been tried before in any guise, and the CNAS plan isn’t even a call to action now but is a roadmap for necessary security arrangements in the wake of a successful permanent status agreement. Most absurdly, Tobin attacks these plans as not being serious since they are “new peace plans about territorial withdrawals” that don’t deal with Israel’s security, when in fact both plans are precisely plans for Israel’s security. The title of the CNAS report is “A Security System For The Two-State Solution” and the title of the CIS plan is “Security First,” but hey, why let some pesky little facts get in the way of a good straw man?

I could keep on going, but this is all ancillary to the main point. Tobin’s basic argument is that because Palestinians have repeatedly rejected Israeli peace offers – a point with which I do not disagree – and will not accept Israel or the basic premise of Zionism, this is all a futile effort. The problem with this is that it is a Zionism of paralysis that places Israel’s fate in the Palestinians’ hands rather than in Israel’s. This is a very simple equation; if you believe that Israel must remain both Jewish and democratic, then the only way to get there is the two-state solution, and not coming up with creative ways to get there is an abrogation of responsibility. Shifting the discussion over to whether or not the Palestinians are prepared for peace is a nifty sleight of hand, since the rationale behind Israel’s presence in the West Bank is security and so the core of what needs to be done is to arrange for that security as best as Israel can. This has nothing to do with imposing a solution on Israel, and it has nothing to do with overturning the democratic will of Israeli voters. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s publicly stated position is that he supports the two-state solution under the right set of circumstances. Unless you think he is a willful and purposeful prevaricator, then well-researched and thought-out proposals that grapple with Israel’s genuine security challenges vis-à-vis the Palestinians and form the basis for discussions on how to arrive at right set of circumstances are precisely what we need right now.

I hope that everyone reads the plans once they are out next week, and that there is a vigorous debate on their details and feasibility. It is a much better use of everyone’s time and effort than debating an idea that nobody is actually proposing. The bottom line here is that if you believe that Israel can remain Jewish and democratic without two states, I’d love to hear how, and why you think that you know better than the elected government of Israel, which believes otherwise. If you grant that two states is a fundamental necessity, then ensuring Israel’s security is a necessary prior step before two states can happen. This initiative is designed to get to that spot, and how anyone who is pro-Israel finds this remotely controversial is puzzling to me.

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.

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.

Donald Trump’s Purim Costume

March 23, 2016 § 5 Comments

Thursday is Purim, the holiday that commemorates the story relayed by the Book of Esther of the near destruction of a diaspora Jewish community. Jewish kids all over the world will dress up like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish heroes of the story, and Jews will loudly boo and hiss at the mention of Haman, the story’s villain, whose plot to exterminate a Jewish community was foiled. Amidst all of this, the central character of the story, King Ahashverosh, will be largely ignored, but this year he shouldn’t be. If anything, this should be the Year of Ahashverosh, because if Donald Trump wanted to dress up for Purim, he could not pick a truer-to-form costume than that of the Persian king.

The Ahashverosh that we meet in the Purim story is a vain, superficial king, who lives in a palace festooned with gold and marble and is obsessed with throwing the greatest parties and having beautiful women at his beck and call. We know nothing about his policy preferences or what his thoughts are on the pressing issues of the day because he never expresses any. Everything is outsourced to his coterie of advisers, who are more concerned with the king’s image and how he is perceived than they are with any other matter. It is the king’s honor and public image that matter above all, and it is thus public slights that irk him the most, such as his wife Vashti refusing to obey his command to parade herself before his party guests. He is a preening, buffoonish, wholly undeserving king, someone to be laughed at rather than respected and someone who gives no indication that he is prepared or terribly interested in the deadly serious task of governance. He wants to be king because it’s good to be the king.

The main problem with Ahashverosh is not that he is evil – since he is not presented as such – nor is it his enormous ego and vanity. The main problem with Ahashverosh is that he is a know-nothing who is manipulated by his advisers and prone to taking drastic measures based on his mood or whatever information happens to be presented to him, whether that information is accurate or not. The initial decree to wipe out the Jews comes about when Haman tells the king that there is a group of subjects in the kingdom who are different from everyone else and don’t obey the king’s law, and casually asks if he can have leave to kill them all. Ahashverosh doesn’t ask for any more information, think about the consequences of the request, look into whether it’s feasible to wipe out a whole ethnic category of people for ten thousand talents of silver, or even bother to inquire about the group to which Haman is referring. He basically says, “Sounds good to me,” and goes back to his drinking. When Haman’s plan backfires because it turns out that Esther, Ahashverosh’s new queen, is Jewish, the king reverses his decree with about as much thought as he put into the initial one. Genocide, no genocide; the details don’t matter. Because he has never spent any time seriously contemplating issues more momentous than red wine or white, all that matters is the king’s mood and what he happens to be feeling at the moment.

Unfortunately for all involved, it is nothing but Ahashverosh’s whims that control the fates of all of his subjects and the fates of many others given his reign over a global superpower, and this is what makes him the central character of the Purim story. Haman can be scheming behind the scenes, and Mordechai can be engineering a plan to expose him, and Esther can use her relationship with Ahashverosh to tug on his heartstrings and bring him over to her side, but none of this is dispositive. Ultimately, everything comes down to the snap decisions of a sovereign who has no clear decision-making process, is surrounded by mediocre third-rate courtiers, has never exhibited an interest in anything but spending his wealth in the most ostentatious way possible, and is willing to make life-or-death decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of people based on information less extensive than what you find in a fortune cookie. Sound like anyone you happen to endlessly see on the news lately?

The AIPAC attendees who gave Trump a standing ovation following his speech because he managed to throw some red meat to a hungry throng – Iran is bad, the Palestinian Authority is badder, and President Obama is baddest – should think about the shallowness of this response. Leave aside whatever Trump has said about Israel before his AIPAC address this week, and just focus on what he himself chose to highlight in a prepared speech with a venue all to himself and a captive audience. Should American Jews or supporters of Israel be comforted by a presidential candidate who views sending his private plane to Israel – not that he was on it himself, mind you – following the September 11 attacks as some sort of grand gesture? Should we embrace someone who implies that Jews are so marginal and Israel so controversially toxic by congratulating himself for having “took the risk” of being the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade in that well-known hotbed of violent anti-Semitism that was the Upper East Side in 2004? Should we feel safe in our beds knowing that Trump actually manages to say with a straight face – and make no mistake, he delivered this line entirely unironically before the crowd started laughing – when referring to the Iran deal that he has “studied this issue in great detail…greater by far than anybody else,” suggesting that the overweening narcissist consumed by those who insult the length of his fingers genuinely sees himself as a nuclear arms control expert? Not only is it clear that Trump is a menace to democracy in general, it should be clear following his AIPAC appearance that his views on Israel itself are, like every other subject on which he opines, about as well thought out as those of my three year old son’s.

AIPAC members and supporters are supposed to be a sophisticated audience who study the issues, pore over policy details, and know their JCPOA from their QME. Yet, they stood up to laud a man whose actual knowledge on Israel-related issues runs about as deep as a puddle, which leaves whatever views he happens to hold today subject to change based on whatever was last whispered in his ear. As evidenced by the inane word salad that spilled out of his mouth when he met with the Washington Post editorial board, he cares about “winning,” what people say and write about him, punishing those who criticize him, and making sure to note when the other people in the room are good looking. Everything else – you know, actual policies – are just details to be improvised and maybe filled in later if he gets around to it. Do we really want to entrust the U.S.-Israel alliance and American policy in the Middle East to Ahashverosh come to life, a guy whose mood can be instantly determined by whether his baseball cap is white or red? The Jews of the Purim story avoided being victims of Ahashverosh’s id through sheer luck. The American Jewish community of 2016 can’t afford to take a similar gamble in the casino of Donald Trump’s mind.

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