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.

Searching for Keith Ellison

December 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

I published an op-ed in Ha’aretz today on Keith Ellison’s DNC bid, and why I think the perfect candidate to lead the Democratic Party would be an Ellison who isn’t actually Ellison. The op-ed can be found on Ha’aretz, and the text is reproduced below.

Keith Ellison has a real Israel problem.

Many pro-Israel groups had been skeptical of his candidacy to lead the Democratic National Committee from the start due to concerns over his past affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his criticism of Israel’s use of force in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks.

But the revelation of a 2010 audio clip of Ellison charging that American foreign policy in the Middle East is governed primarily by Israeli interests has significantly complicated Ellison’s efforts to lead the DNC. The Anti-Defamation League, which had initially taken a wait-and-see approach to Ellison, responded to the clip by calling his words “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” Making the case that Ellison is within the reasonable boundaries of being pro-Israel is far harder now than it was before.

When taking everything into context, the DNC will be better off without having Ellison at its helm.

The Mearsheimerian allegations of Israeli control over American decision making is indeed, as the ADL says, disqualifying, even if Ellison meant it as an example of American Jewish success that American Muslims should seek to emulate. Ellison’s past defense of Louis Farrakhan from charges of anti-Semitism should also not be given a free pass or chalked up simply to youthful indiscretion. It has been evident for decades to anyone with basic comprehension skills that Farrakhan is a repugnant and unapologetic anti-Semite, and defending him personally cannot be waved away as misguided or an error in judgment.

The concerns about Ellison are valid, and given the growing strains within the Democratic Party over Israel, having a figure at the helm who raises alarm bells within mainstream American Jewish organizations is bad for the party and bad for the American Jewish community at large.

There is a tragedy though in how this saga is playing out, because nothing would be better for the pro-Israel cause than having a Keith Ellison at the DNC who is not Keith Ellison. Much has been made about both Ellison’s background and Ellison’s specific statements, but it is only the latter that should sink his DNC bid. Not only should Ellison’s background not disqualify him, it is actually beneficial. That someone like Ellison has worked so hard to be seen as pro-Israel only demonstrates the strength of Israel’s case and shows how support for Israel can remain broadly bipartisan going forward.

Ellison is not a figure whom anyone would normally expect to be a supporter of Israel. He is an African-American Muslim who did not grow up in a particularly Jewish area of the country, came of age after 1967, when Israel’s image as a David began shifting to that of a Goliath, did not have any prominent Jewish mentors, and has a background in radical politics. As a student, he was harshly critical of Zionism and its legitimacy.

Given this biography, one would expect Ellison to be a loud voice in Congress criticizing Israel given every opportunity, and to perhaps even lead an anti-Israel movement akin to what has become common within Britain’s Labour Party.

Yet Ellison unambiguously self-identifies as pro-Israel, supports a two-state solution without reservation, has repeatedly said that Israel has a right to defend itself and expressed the importance of protecting and maintaining Israel’s security, and there is no evidence that he has ever supported or advocated for BDS.

That is not to say that there are not worrisome aspects to Ellison’s record on Israel, from his 2014 vote against emergency Iron Dome funding to his naive misunderstanding of the lengths to which Hamas will go to maintain its arsenal of rockets in Gaza. Nobody will ever accuse him of being Scoop Jackson, and it obliterates the bounds of credulity to suggest that Israel has no better friend.

But the fact is that in supporting two states, in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, and in rejecting BDS, Ellison falls within a wide pro-Israel tent. That someone with his background embraces these principles is the best case for Israel that Democrats could possibly make. It shows that those who spend time marinating in a toxic anti-Israel stew can be convinced of the importance of supporting Israel through greater exposure and education, and it gives a green light to those who genuinely want to support Israel on most fronts but are uncomfortable with some of its more hawkish policies to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In Ellison’s case, this has to be weighed against the parts of the ledger where he disregarded overt and purposeful anti-Semitism and spouted an ugly conspiracy theory about an Israeli veto over American foreign policy, and it should not come out in his favor. But it does not alter the reality that a different Ellison is what Democrats need.

The shifting demographics of the U.S., and particularly those within the Democratic Party, make future bipartisan support for Israel murkier than it has been in decades. The ubiquity of social media that broadcasts every Israeli misstep and the constant news cycle that keeps Israel in the crosshairs are not going away, and they complicate political support for Israel in real ways.

Having someone lead the DNC who embraces Israel despite not being an obvious candidate to do so should be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. Democrats should be looking for a new Keith Ellison who isn’t actually Keith Ellison.

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.

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