What Type of Utopia Will Israel Be?

March 16, 2017 § 4 Comments

There is a scene in the sixth episode of the first season of Mad Men where ad man Don Draper is approached by the Israeli government to come up with an effective tourism campaign for the Jewish state. Seeking some insight, he asks his Jewish client-cum-girlfriend to explain why Israel is important and why tourists would want to go there. She explains that Jews have lived in exile for such a long time that having a country seems very important, and that even though she has no desire to live there, Israel “just has to be” because of the idea that it represents. After Draper remarks that it sounds like utopia, she retorts that the Greek definition of utopia can mean either the good place or the place that cannot be. While the last exchange is meant to be a comment on their relationship, it captures the current wider context of the churning relationship between Israel and American Jews.

The surge in visible anti-Semitism in the U.S. over the past year has American Jews on edge, and for many it has reinforced the importance of Israel and why it “just has to be.” More than ever, Israel resonates as a safe harbor of last resort and as a refuge against a world that historically has not accepted Jews. I understand this sentiment not from a theoretical perspective, but from a personal one. As a kid growing up in New York, I never experienced a second of overtly detectable anti-Semitism. I had a recurring debate with my dad where I argued that the Jewish experience in America marked the end of history for the two thousand years of the Jewish Diaspora in which persecution and anti-Semitism were the defining features. And yet in the last two months, my kids’ Jewish schools have been subjected to multiple bomb threats, and my corner of Washington suburbia has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti and invective. Like Francis Fukuyama, I was wrong in allowing the exuberance of a brief moment to overtake the wider sweep of history, and despite being someone who never questioned the importance of Israel in the first place, that importance for me has now literally been driven home. Israel does indeed represent an idea for Jews around the world, and while we pray that it never has to transform for us from an idea into a practical imperative, it requires an absolute defense of Israel’s legitimacy and security.

But while the idea of Israel is of the good place, it is sliding dangerously close for American Jews into the place that cannot be. This is because Israel’s inviolable commitment to Jews, rather than only to Israelis, is in question, and once that emotional shift takes place, it will be impossible for many American Jews to identify with Israel in the same way. It will not be a place that they view as the ultimate oasis in the desert, but as a tantalizing mirage.

The first factor that threatens to cause this shift is the Israeli government’s treatment of anti-Semitism. In speaking about his decision to go to Paris after the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher grocery store to show solidarity with French Jews, Prime Minister Netanyahu described his role as not only representing Israel but as representing the entire Jewish people. This is not a role that has been claimed by previous Israeli prime ministers; David Ben-Gurion, for instance, clearly made a distinction between representing Israel and representing Jews outside of Israel in his exchange of letters with Simon Rawidowicz in 1954-55, in what began as an argument over the usage of the word “Israel” and other terminology and resulted in Ben-Gurion rejecting any uniformity between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. It is a matter for wider debate whether Netanyahu can and should have a wider role beyond being a political leader, but if he wants to credibly make the argument, he must assume the expansive mantle consistently rather than only when it is politically expedient. To come to the U.S. in the midst of an outbreak of bomb threats against Jewish institutions and a maelstrom of angst from American Jews who have never felt personally threatened before and to essentially proclaim that all is well, not only negates any claim on Netanyahu’s part to represent Jews in danger wherever they are; it also calls into question Israel’s very commitment to Diaspora Jewry. For Jews who fervently support Israel as the ultimate Jewish project and as a powerful symbol against anti-Jewish repression, it is distressing to see an Israeli prime minister brush anti-Semitism aside and categorically declare that a president whom many American Jews view as part of the problem is actually the best friend that Jews have.

The second factor that threatens to perpetuate this shift is the attitude, encapsulated in Israel’s new travel ban against anyone publicly calling for boycotts of Israel or any area under its control, that views Israel not as a place for Jews but as a place for Jews who hold a certain ideology. I do not support BDS and am not even minimally sympathetic toward its aims, and I also do not support boycotts of settlers or settlements. Furthermore, Israel has an absolute right to determine what constitutes a threat to its security, and to screen people who enter its borders to guard against those threats. But what is justified is not always smart, and conflating tangible physical threats with amorphous ideological threats demonstrates the distinction. Keeping out the violent West Bank demonstrator is not the same as keeping out the middle-aged dad who loudly declares that he won’t buy Jordan Valley dates, and it this latter action that will cause the break between many American Jews and Israel. Even if, like Rachel Menken in Mad Men, you are a Jew who wants to visit Israel but do not want to live there, being stopped at passport control in the Jewish state because of your political views is the fastest way to make sure that any affinity you had for Israel disappears. Israel in that situation becomes a place that cannot be, no longer a safe haven for Jews or even just a place for Jews, but a state that has abandoned its core function and reason for being. The central Zionist argument that Jews need a homeland only works if Israel is indeed a homeland based on Judaism rather than a homeland based on a set of political leanings. In elevating threat perception to absurd heights, the new anti-boycott legislation ignominiously creates a bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the boycotters it is combatting.

Israel can indeed be a utopia for Jews around the world; not a perfect place that must meet an impossible ideal, but an anchor to which Jews can gravitate in times of need. If it does not take this obligation seriously, however, it will become a different kind of utopia; a place that demands an impossible ideal and that sinks under the weight of its own expectations.

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A Liberal Zionism for the Trump Era

March 9, 2017 § 5 Comments

There is always angst among liberal Zionists about what liberal Zionism is and whether it can exist in a particular political environment, but the combination of the Netanyahu government and the Trump presidency has amplified the usual Weltschmerz. As Israel turns farther away from liberal values, legalizing illegal West Bank outposts and imposing ideological tests on those who want to enter the country, and liberals at home reject Zionism while lionizing social protest leaders who are literally anti-Israel terrorists, liberal Zionism is in an even more difficult place than usual in looking to reconcile its competing impulses. To succeed, liberal Zionists will need to reconstruct their first principles rather than to try and fit square pegs into round holes.

There is no question that the current political moment is uniquely challenging. Liberal Zionism over the last quarter century has often been synonymous with a peace process that shows fewer signs of hope now than it ever has. It has put forth a vision for Israel that is rejected by Israelis who return rightwing governments to power in election after election. It has put forth a vision for Israeli society that is belied by data such as majority support for pardoning Elor Azaria and real currents of racist and anti-democratic sentiment. And this is before we arrive at the enormous implications for liberal Zionism of the Trump presidency. How are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who supports the fundamental tenets of Zionism but is so deeply illiberal? To complicate things further, how are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who represents values that they reject but whose initial policy toward Israel may end up looking a lot like what one would expect from a liberal Zionist president?

Liberal Zionism will have to develop a set of lodestars to survive the challenges it faces, some of which have to do specifically with Trump and some of which do not. One principle should be reinforcing the connection between Israel and Jews, but making sure that the obligation runs both ways. Liberal Zionism must be unwavering in its insistence that Jewish support for Israel’s bedrock safety and security does not exist on a higher plane than Israeli support for Jews’ bedrock safety and security. The increasing threats against Jewish institutions in the U.S. and the unnerving feeling that many American Jews are now experiencing for the first time in their lives of being cast as outsiders and interlopers is certainly related to the current political moment; whether it can be laid at the feet of President Trump is an infinitely more complicated proposition. Irrespective of the answer to this question, American Jews are grappling with anti-Semitism in new ways, and there should never be any doubt that the first and foremost priority of the Israeli government as it relates to the Diaspora is to insist upon the inviolable rights of Jews to live anywhere in the world free of harassment and danger. Zionism is about the right of Jews to national self-determination, but it was meant to address the problems of Jewish exclusion rather than to reinforce those problems in its own right. If an Israeli prime minister wants to claim the mantle of representing Jews worldwide, than Zionism must be outward looking to Jews outside of Israel’s borders as well as inward looking to Jews inside of them.

Second and relatedly, liberal Zionism cannot just support liberalism within the contexts of Israeli state and society, but it must also make the connection more explicit between Zionism and liberalism independently of what is taking place in Israel or the policies of the current Israeli government. This is vital not only for ensuring continued support for Israel, but also for ensuring American Jewry’s place in society. In a terrifyingly new development, the so-called “alt right” has a presence in the Trump White House and its vision of what it means to support Israel rests on upon a different pillar than traditional American pro-Israel positions. Historically, American governments and Americans themselves have supported Israel because they view Israel as a reliable strategic regional ally and because they view Israel as an ideological democratic and values-based ally. Liberal Zionism has been an easy philosophy to espouse precisely because of this connection between the U.S. as the leader of the free world – in other words, liberal democratic values – and Israel as an unwavering soldier in the fight to extend the free world’s reach across the globe. But the rabid pro-Israel position espoused by Breitbart and other alt right organs is not based on this view of Israel; it is instead based on identification with Israel as a state based on populist ethnic nationalism. This formulation ties support for Israel directly to its perceived rejection of liberalism rather than to its upholding of liberal values, and it explains why the alt right can support Israel to the hilt while also swimming in the cesspool of anti-Semitism.

This is dangerous for Israel, as it makes support for Israel contingent upon a specific set of policies rather than on the fundamental nature and existence of Israel itself – let alone the fact that the policies this support demands would only weaken Israel at home and abroad. It is also dangerous for American Jews, as it turns Zionism into an even more particularistic ideology in which only a narrow type of Zionism is acceptable. The motivating factor behind Herzl’s philosophical development of Zionism – that Jews are not regular white folks, but a minority deserving of protection that needs its own state – is thrown out when your embrace of Zionism only involves an embrace of Israel as an ethnically nationalist majoritarian entity rather than as a safe haven for an historically persecuted people. The devastating consequences for American Jews when this line of thinking is extended to its logical conclusion are glaringly obvious.

Finally, liberal Zionism must firmly and unabashedly embrace a renewed Zionism that harkens back to the founding Zionist ethos of taking responsibility for one’s destiny, and shaping history rather being shaped by it. One of the reasons that the marriage between Zionism and liberalism is a natural one is because both seek to better the world through active engagement with problems and to leave an active mark upon history rather than, in William F. Buckley’s famous formulation, to stand athwart history yelling stop. Complaining that there is no Palestinian partner and thus Israel has no choice but to maintain the status quo runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. Complaining that Israel’s adversaries engage in asymmetric and inhumane behavior and thus Israel need not hold itself to an elevated standard in its efforts to grapple with terrorism and rejectionism runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. In an age where standards of decency and morality are being redefined and even truth and facts themselves are now subject to debate, liberal Zionism must stand for something clear and concrete, and advance principles and proposals that do not depend on the actions or responses of others.

It is more important than ever to insist on belonging to both the liberal and Zionist camps, and not to allow membership in one eradicate membership in the other. Zionism has to transcend Trump, Republican orthodoxy, and traditionally hawkish positions on Israel. If it is seen to be the cause of a single party or a single political ideology, it will never recover. The danger of sitting back and allowing Zionism and Israel to be solely claimed and embraced by the right is real, and advancing an active and liberal Zionist vision that does not compromise its Zionism or its liberalism is as crucial a task as exists.

David Friedman Is A Symptom, Not A Cause

December 22, 2016 § 4 Comments

Many American Jews are apoplectic about President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel. A coalition of Jewish groups has come together to actively oppose Friedman’s nomination, and even more groups – including IPF – have issued statements ranging from outright opposition to grave concern. That Friedman represents a stark break from previous ambassadorial residents of Herzliya Pituah is glaringly obvious, but the ways in which this is true have either been lost or intentionally distorted by Friedman’s supporters, who are arguing against strawmen in their boosting of his candidacy. On the other side, those who oppose him most vigorously are – in my view – correct about how extreme Friedman would be as an ambassador, but are assigning him an importance that he does not warrant and are missing an opportunity to make a far larger and more important argument in the process.

Let’s start with Friedman’s champions. There is an odd conventional wisdom developing that opposition to Friedman is due to the fact that he is a lawyer and not a professional diplomat, a position that his supporters mock for its elitism and calcified thinking. Opposition to Friedman is primarily driven not by his biography but by his views (more on that below), but to the extent that people harp on his job, it is not because he is a lawyer who will serve as an ambassador; it is because he is a lawyer who will serve as an ambassador to Israel. Appointing friends or supporters as ambassadors is a timeworn practice, but when an American president does it, it is generally to places like the Bahamas or lesser Western European allies. It is not to extremely sensitive potential hot spots like Israel. Friedman would be the first American ambassador to Israel never to have previously served as a diplomat or worked in a foreign policy government job. No doubt Friedman is an extremely successful and talented attorney, but the skill set he has deployed in that job has little to do with his new one, and Trump’s own inexperience means that his ambassador cannot be a trainee. That Friedman’s supporters think his time spent in Israel as a private citizen or his work fundraising for the settlement of Beit El are as relevant as full-time diplomatic or policy experience is actually insulting to the Israeli government, as it sends the message that an amateur is sufficient as our official representative to our most important regional ally.

The truth, however, is that Friedman’s ambassadorial appointment is not particularly consequential. The U.S. ambassador is a crucial figure in maintaining U.S.-Israel relations, and Ambassador Dan Shapiro has done an excellent job extending that relationship throughout different segments of Israeli society, such as the Haredi and settler communities. But the ambassador’s job is to relay policy, not to make it. While Friedman may have had prime access to Trump during the campaign, his own priorities and preferences are now going to be filtered through Reince Priebus, Mike Flynn, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and others. Furthermore, Tillerson and Mattis in particular likely do not share Friedman’s policy inclinations of blowing up the two-state agenda or encouraging Israel to annex the West Bank. Israeli government officials also often have a direct line to the White House and do not need to go through an ambassador, which makes Ambassador Friedman not quite so important a conduit to Trump as campaign Israel adviser Friedman.

There is also the question of how effective Friedman will be if he has to embrace and defend policies to his left, which is a near certainty, and how effective he will be in dealing with the Israeli center and left when he has tarred genuinely centrist groups at home like the ADL as being beyond the pale of his engagement. In short, Friedman may end up being a relatively ineffective ambassador who will marginalize himself through his own positions and imperious attitude toward those who hold different views. He will be a deeply problematic ambassador, but not worth going nuclear over.

David Friedman will not be the variable that causes the death of the two-state solution. He is, however, a serious symptom of a segment of American Jewry’s ailment when it comes to Israel, and what he represents is certainly worth a knock down, drag out fight. Friedman is the personified distillation of the view that Israel need not seize its own destiny and should not seize its own destiny, and that everything in the end will be fine because the status quo can reign forever. He is the perfect envoy to represent Trump because he immerses himself in a post-truth environment where facts are secondary to the reality that you create for yourself. Ignore the warnings of every demographic expert about the population numbers because there is a solitary former Israeli diplomat who will tell you that they are wrong. Pay no heed to what the IDF says about the ticking time bomb of frustrated Palestinians in the West Bank because there are MEMRI videos of imams calling Jews apes and pigs. Marginalize groups like the ADL as extreme leftists on Israel because nobody in your Orthodox community pays them any heed. Cast aside the recommendations of the over two hundred generals that comprise Commanders for Israel’s Security because everyone knows that Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank would automatically create a terrorist state. Embrace every rightwing axiom and meme, no matter the contrary evidence, because your worldview always trumps any facts that can possibly be thrown your way.

The fight should not be about David Friedman. The fight should be about the approach that views Palestinian rejectionism as the only issue. It should be about the approach that maintains that Israel – alone among the entirety of states on Earth – has completely clean hands and is never in the wrong about anything. It should be about the approach that sees an Israeli civilian presence in the West Bank as enhancing Israeli security rather than harming it, and settlements full of women and children as a bulwark against phantom ISIS hordes about to pour over the border from Jordan. It should be about the approach that views Prime Minister Netanyahu as a brave leader who takes courageous chances for peace and is only searching for an appropriate partner on the other side, rather than as a politician who does the bare minimum in this sphere and demonizes those who criticize him for it as naïve leftists.

Many of these views have a kernel of truth to them, but those kernels are so deeply buried under an avalanche of opposing or mitigating factors that they miss the other part of the story by miles. So long as such attitudes are prevalent in many American Jewish circles, we will continue to get David Friedmans. So by all means get upset about his pending ambassadorship, but do not commit the error of thinking that prevailing against his appointment will signal anything but a hollow victory. Pushing back against Friedman is not nearly as vital as pushing back against the environment that has created him.

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.

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