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.
May 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
It’s been a pretty terrible run recently for British politicians who like to wear their opposition to Israel as a badge of honor. The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, paved the way for the deluge in the course of defending his colleague Naz Shah – herself suspended for anti-Semitic ravings – with his fever dream conspiracy theory that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad.” This opened the floodgates, and now it turns out that fifty Labour Party members have been suspended for anti-Semitism and racism (although dollars to donuts the racism part of the Venn diagram that does not overlap with anti-Semitism is nearly non-existent), with surely more to come. This is before one even begins to mention Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who himself has a dodgy history of giving cover to Hamas and Hizballah, defending 9/11 conspiracy theorists who blame the attacks on the Mossad, and cavorting with Holocaust deniers.
The vitriolic rot is not limited to the other side of the pond. Right here at home, there has been Harvard Law student Husam El-Qoulaq asking Israeli MK and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni why she is “so smelly;” the questioner at the Bernie Sanders rally who asserted that “Zionist Jews” run the U.S. economy and control American political campaigns; the UCLA student who was initially barred from joining the student judicial board because her Jewish heritage would allegedly prevent her from fairly considering cases related to Israel activism and BDS; and countless others. All of this has naturally reinvigorated a long-running debate on whether anti-Semitism can be distinct from anti-Zionism – a topic I briefly weighed in on years ago – and how to oppose Zionism without it bleeding over into opposing Jews writ large.
The question is important both intellectually and practically, but it is the wrong question. The question of the moment shouldn’t be whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, but why anti-Zionism as it is being practiced is considered to be within the bounds of acceptability at all, irrespective of the anti-Semitism angle. Whenever someone draws an unwarranted spotlight these days for traversing the thin red line between denouncing Israel versus denouncing Jews, there is an immediate race to say that the offending comments or actions are not anti-Semitic, only anti-Zionist. The unsaid implication is that wholesale delegitimization of Israel is fine so long as it does not extend to Jews as a group, but it is unclear to me why this is somehow seen as a legitimate way of distinguishing cases; the virulence of many of these instances of anti-Zionism is just as ugly as straight anti-Semitism.
Go back and take another look at the various recent examples at the top of this piece. With the exception of the UCLA incident, one can pretty easily make a cogent argument that none of these are anti-Semitic. That doesn’t make them alright. We have arrived at a place where committed anti-Zionists must ask themselves not whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic or not, but whether anti-Zionism itself can be sustained in any real way that is not violently and offensively bigoted. Bigotry is the hatred and refusal to accept members of a particular group based on nothing but their inclusion in that group. The most widespread form of anti-Zionism, that seeks to boycott and hound Israelis no matter who they are or where they are, is bigotry, plain and simple. That it is directed at Israelis rather than Jews makes no difference. The laughable refrain that “Israel is the most brutal country on Earth and does not have a right to exist, but hey, I love Jews and have many Jewish friends, and by the way the best Jews are not Zionists” doesn’t send the message that you’re not anti-Semitic. It sends the message that you are a callous bigot, ignorant of history and any sense of factual proportion, who for some reason believes that hating Jews as a group is ok as long as you only hate the group of Jews who live in one particular place.
I will defend anyone’s right to criticize the Israeli government, and I exercise that right myself all the time (almost certainly too much for some readers’ tastes). The notion that some hold of supporting everything Israel does, right or wrong, is not one with which I identify. If the litmus test of what it means to be pro-Israel were applied to talking about the U.S., then literally every American I know would be classified as anti-American. I can understand – although I neither condone it nor agree with it – those who go further than mere criticism and boycott Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appearances because of their harsh disagreement with the Israeli government. But if you think that comparing Netanyahu to Hitler and Israelis to Nazis, or referring to Israeli politicians as olfactory nightmares, or barring Israelis from academic conferences around the world, is simply “criticism” that doesn’t cross a line of what should be acceptable in civilized company, you are badly in need of a history lesson, if not a lobotomy.
For the purposes of this exercise, lets give anti-Zionism the largest possible benefit of the doubt. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that claims to reject nationalism and decries Israel’s right to exist but at the same time endlessly shouts Free Palestine is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that lauds Hamas as anti-colonial freedom fighters while whitewashing its annihilationist rhetoric against Jews – not Israelis, but Jews – is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that has nothing to say about countries that forbid non-Muslims from entering entire cities or enact legislation based on religious law but that harps on Israeli immigration preferences for Jews is not anti-Semitic. Even if you grant all of that, it doesn’t make this anti-Zionism any less noxious, less offensive, less bigoted, or less dangerous. Anti-Semitism is a black scourge upon the face of human history, but the fact that it is singularly terrible does not make other forms of vile hatred any less worse than they actually are.
March 3, 2016 § 3 Comments
I consider myself to be unabashedly in the pro-Israel camp. I am glad that there is a Jewish state, I am proud that it is democratic, and I happen to like that state a lot irrespective of its characteristics, having spent a large chunk of my life living in and visiting Israel. Nevertheless, I don’t like the term pro-Israel because it draws unnecessary boundaries that oftentimes do Israel more harm than good by excluding those who do not deserve to be excluded. It effectively creates an alienating dichotomy through a standard of purity that is difficult for many, if not most, people to meet, including those who would not think of doing anything to malign, diminish, or delegitimize Israel. This is damaging enough when it involves Diaspora Jews creating an unnecessarily harsh litmus test for Diaspora Jews. It veers into Alice In Wonderland territory when it involves Diaspora Jews and non-Israelis of all stripes deciding that the government of Israel itself is not sufficiently pro-Israel.
Exhibit A: Last week, famed Israeli singer Achinoam Nini (who goes by the stage name Noa) was the subject of controversy over a Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) concert she is scheduled to perform at in Vancouver. The Jewish National Fund of Canada, which had been slated to sponsor the concert as it does every year, pulled out when it was announced that Nini would be performing due to the fact that, in JNF Canada’s view, “the entertainer that has been hired does not reflect, nor correspond to the mandate and values of the Jewish National Fund of Canada.” JNF Canada appears to have taken exception to the fact that Nini has been critical of Israeli actions in the West Bank and has lent her support to Breaking the Silence, and a number of prominent Vancouver Jews accused her of supporting BDS, a charge that Nini unequivocally denied. Not only did JNF Canada’s move prove unsuccessful in getting Nini’s performance cancelled, it backfired spectacularly when the Israeli embassy in Ottawa and the Israeli consulate in Toronto stepped in to sponsor the concert in JNF’s place. In other words, JNF Canada takes a more hardline view of who and what is considered to be so objectionably anti-Israel that it requires disassociation from the offending party or views than does the government of Israel itself.
Exhibit B: The Republican debates and victory (or pseudo victory) speeches on primary nights have been sprinkled with references to Israel and what it means to be an Israel supporter. With the notable exception of Donald Trump – a topic I can’t quite decide to write about or to avoid like the plague – the GOP candidates take a reliably right-leaning view on Israel that supports Prime Minister Netanyahu and his policies, and they use these expressions of support as a cudgel against President Obama and his Democratic heir apparent, whomever he or she may be. Nevertheless, the Republican support for Israel tends to veer into territory that is actually out of sync with the stated policies of the Israeli government or the overwhelming consensus of Israeli generals and security officials. When Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio state that their support for Israel requires them to rip up the Iran nuclear deal on their first day in office, this does not comport with the near-consensus opinion of the IDF and Mossad that the Iran deal is imperfect but has at a minimum temporarily removed the threat of a nuclear Iran. When candidates for president decry even attempting to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, they are implicitly trashing the current and past Netanyahu governments, which have engaged in negotiations multiple times. When Cruz dubs John Kerry the most anti-Israel secretary of state in U.S. history, as he did at the debate last Thursday night, he is going to be hard pressed to find one Israeli cabinet official or MK who agrees with him, and he contradicts numerous public defenses of Kerry by Netanyahu. It is silly to pretend that the current Israeli government is enamored of the Obama administration, but it is a surreal scene when the men fighting to be the Republican standard bearer are more hawkish on Israel than its own government.
I do not mean to suggest that there aren’t people or organizations legitimately outside the pro-Israel tent, since there are. Had Nini really supported BDS, then I would have no problem with JNF Canada pulling its sponsorship. If John Kerry opposed American diplomatic recognition of Israel, as George Marshall did in 1948, then perhaps Cruz’s hyperbolic hysterics would be justified. But when you brand someone as an unacceptable Israel-hater and the Israeli government steps in to counter the charge, it is probably time to rethink your priorities and worldview. Not only does it make for foolish optics, it makes for bad policy. The reality is that most people in the world, and even most Diaspora Jews, are not going to support the most hardline and hawkish positions on Israel, and so out pro-Israeling even the Israeli government is guaranteed to create an orthodoxy on Israel that is severely limiting. There are advantages to maintaining ideological purity, but winning a broad base of supporters is not one of them. In a time when Israel needs all of the friends it can get and is searching for relatable faces to present to the world, rooting out imaginary anti-Israel monsters hiding under the bed does Israel and its government no favors.
February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment
There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.
Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself.
Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.
Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.
Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.
Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.
May 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
After a Twitter exchange a couple of weeks ago in which he schooled Ali Abunimah on Zionism and social cleavages within Israeli society, I asked Dov Friedman if he would be willing to turn his thoughts into a guest post and he graciously agreed. Aside from being an early booster of O&Z, Dov is a preternaturally astute analyst, and when he decides to use his prodigious talents to write something longer than 140 characters, you don’t want to miss it. You should also all be following his Twitter feed @DovSFriedman since I guarantee that it will make you think on a daily basis. Without further ado, I give you Dov’s thoughts on the shortcomings of the anti-Zionist movement.
Were the anti-Zionist movement wiser—and less unmoored—it might recognize that it could make common cause with the left wing of the Zionist movement. In many respects, leftist Zionists have far more in common with pro-Palestinian voices than they do with Zionism’s far-right wing. The Zionist left awaits an Israel that abandons the settlement enterprise, that disaggregates Orthodox Judaism and the state, and that increases equality of rights among its citizens. Some in the pro-Palestinian movement have recognized that much progress can be made promoting liberal values and human rights before the groups philosophically diverge; however, the anti-Zionist wing of the movement has not joined them.
In theory, the potential for common cause explains why J Street has—shortsightedly—downplayed its Zionism in an attempt to create a “big tent.” Yet, with much to gain through joint action, the anti-Zionist wing perpetually radicalizes the debate, precluding any meaningful consensus on forcing accountability from a recalcitrant Israel. Organizations like J Street jeopardize potential constituencies to accommodate a movement that lacks a shred of interest in fruitful dialogue aimed to carve out common ground.
Last week, I exchanged messages with Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada and a prominent anti-Zionist writer who authored a book advocating a one-state solution. On the surface, the topic was a bizarre op-ed by Yaron London in Yediot Ahronot that Israel should deal with its Haredi issue by seeking to reduce—not integrate—the population. The piece is troubling and weakly argued—even among Israelis who harbor bitterness toward Haredim, it is not clear London’s argument would draw sympathy. Yet, Mr. Abunimah saw an opportunity and pounced. The op-ed was proof, he claimed, of “Zionist anti-Semitism” that dates back to “Herzl’s vile Jew-hatred.” In Mr. Abunimah’s view, London’s piece encapsulates societal feelings that Haredi, Ethiopian, and Palestinian populations are all threats to the Zionist vision.
I replied to Mr. Abunimah that his understanding was impoverished, partly because he derives a societal feeling from a singular op-ed, and partly because he conflates three issues with different historical origins and different societal discourses.
The Haredi issue is one of civic participation, national economic health, and the welfare state. Historically, the republican equation dictated that secular, educated Ashkenazi Jews traded military service for political and economic power. This began to change as Mizrahi and religious Israelis achieved military and societal status. The only non-Arab group that escapes national service is the Haredi community. Deepening the societal rift, the state devotes major resources to support this community that contributes neither to the nation’s defense nor to its coffers. The predominant discourse surrounding the Haredim is not London’s proposal to thin their ranks; rather, it is how to increase their participation in society—in terms of both national service and economic contribution. The Haredim are essentially a national issue.
The Ethiopian issue stems from racism, parochialism, and fierce protection of communal interests. Thus, Ethiopians, in essence, are the new Mizrahim. They are the new “marked” Israeli group. Particular social classes fear the pressures these new Israelis have placed on their economic prospects and communal interests—spurring some of the racism that can accompany class resentment. Certainly, Israel’s affluent, educated residents are less concerned with Ethiopian immigration than are Israel’s blue-collar families. If any critique is valid in this case it is a Marxist one. A rudimentary understanding of Israeli history and contemporary society would reveal the incongruity of the Haredi and Ethiopian issues.
This is all before we arrive at the Palestinians—who for Mr. Abunimah are the heart of the matter. Defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be well understood within the history of nationalism as an idea and within the development of 20th century international order on the basis of nation-states. To tie Israel-Palestine in with Israel’s Haredi and Ethiopian issues goes beyond poor analysis—it constitutes willful misrepresentation.
When evaluated closely, this misrepresentation is only the initial sleight of hand. If all three issues are one and the same, as Mr. Abunimah suggests, then not only has Zionism begat hatred of Palestinians—it provokes deep anti-Semitism as well! I wonder if Mr. Abunimah esteems his readers so lightly that he believes he can pose as the premier anti-Semitism watchdog. This from someone who advocates a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict which—as Gershom Gorenberg notes in his most recent book—solves the borders issue, shifts every other issue from an international to a national one, and risks civil war. Mr. Abunimah warps history and obfuscates the issues at hand to score a political point.
Yet Mr. Abunimah’s ahistorical misrepresentation was not the most mindless note I received that day; Palestinian activist Susan Abulhawa seized on my call for nuance in evaluating Israel’s societal issues by ignoring the debate over Haredim and Zionism completely. She simply posted pictures of IDF soldiers with crying Palestinian children. No context, no opening for discussion—Abulhawa was “justsayin.” What is there to say back to such deliberate non-argument?
And therein lies the tragedy. The anti-Zionist wing of the pro-Palestinian movement is so consumed with frustration—so aggressive in trying to “win” arguments—that it willfully distorts reality and proves immune to reasoned debate. In so doing, it fails—day after day—to recognize a true partner in achieving Israeli retrenchment and Palestinian self-determination in a better Middle East.
Dov Friedman is a research fellow in foreign policy at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.