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.

Advertisements

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.

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Handshake Scorned

August 18, 2016 § 13 Comments

Israeli athletes have had a rough reception from some of their fellow competitors at the Rio Olympics. First, members of the Lebanese delegation barred Israelis from boarding a bus to the opening ceremonies. Then a Saudi judoka pulled out of a match due to injury as soon as it became clear that she would be facing an Israeli competitor in the next round. But the ultimate statement came last Friday following Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby’s defeat at the hands of Or Sasson, when El Shehaby refused to shake the Israeli Sasson’s hand. El Shehaby was booed by the crowd following the breach of judo etiquette, and following a “severe reprimand for inappropriate behavior” from the International Olympic Committee’s Disciplinary Commission, El Shehaby was sent home. The incident created an uproar back in Israel, but ultimately a snubbed handshake is, after all, just a snubbed handshake. It isn’t the details of this episode that matter, but the larger lessons that it imparts.

If nothing else, the absurdity of the entire thing should settle once and for all that Israel is subjected to a unique standard. This doesn’t mean that Israel should be absolved from blame for its actions or policies that deserve to be criticized, but only one country’s athletes are treated this way. For some perspective, there are North Korean athletes competing at the Olympics, but nobody even hints that they should be treated as outcasts because of their government, and rightly so (and if you for some reason think that the government of Israel and Bibi Netanyahu are more worthy of criticism than the government of North Korea and Kim Jong Un, please just stop reading now since you are wasting your time). And deciding that Israeli athletes do indeed deserve to be held responsible for anything Israel does will not necessarily end only in discourteous behavior and lack of sportsmanship, as testified to by the 1972 Summer Olympics terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich.

The handshake snub also says something about identity and nationalism, and illuminates the dilemma faced by many American Jews, particularly college students and those who travel in progressive circles. El Shehaby is Egyptian, and he represents a country that has a formal peace treaty with Israel; in fact, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has never been more robust. Yet, his refusal to shake hands with Sasson was an act on behalf of standing up for the Palestinians, a group with which he clearly sympathizes because of a shared identity. This shared identity is so strong that El Shehaby was willing to accept an official reprimand and risk sanction, neither of which serves Egyptian interests, in order to support his Palestinian compatriots. Many American Jews feel a similarly strong bond with Israeli Jews, and their identity is intertwined with support for Israel. So when the price of entry into progressive circles is a demand that American Jews renounce Israel, it creates a genuine crisis of identity, since Judaism and Zionism cannot always be so easily untangled. In criticizing El Shehaby’s actions, nobody has demanded that he withdraw his support for the Palestinian cause. It would be nice if American Jews were granted the same basic level of understanding.

The fact of the handshake itself also obscures a greater barrier that must be overcome. I have seen a number of people grant that El Shehaby behaved poorly, but justify it based on the fact that had he shook Sasson’s hand, he would have put himself in danger back home. It does not speak well for a society that would de facto criminalize a handshake based on national identity, and that should be the basis for a critique rather than the basis for a justification. But more importantly, that nearly four decades after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the establishment of diplomatic relations, simply shaking an Israeli’s hand would place an Egyptian at risk of physical harm demonstrates better than any other example why mere government-to-government relations are not enough. The Israeli government points to its cooperation with Arab states as proof that it is breaking out of its regional isolation, but acceptance is more about social attitudes than it is about state relations, since the former will never follow the latter but the latter will follow the former. Without routine interaction and habituation over time, the structures in place that make Israelis feel so isolated will not come down, and it doesn’t matter how much Israel helps the Egyptian government fight ISIS in the Sinai or how much intelligence Israel shares with the Saudi government. It is the same reason that the anti-normalization campaign mounted by Palestinians against Israelis is a far greater threat than BDS, since once it becomes common for Palestinians to treat Israelis the way Egyptians do, all hope of any lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the societal level will really be gone.

One concluding thought: it would be an interesting social experiment to see if an Egyptian or Iranian judoka would refuse to shake hands with an Arab Israeli athlete on the grounds of supporting the Palestinian cause. After all, if Israelis are being shunned because they are held collectively responsible for the actions of their government, then this should apply across the board to all Israeli athletes. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who support what El Shehaby did as a legitimate and relatively harmless form of political protest, and who claim that this has nothing to do with Jews but is solely about Israel, would feel differently about El Shehaby snubbing an Arab from Umm al-Fahm rather than a Jew from Jerusalem.

Playing the Blame Game

April 7, 2016 § 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Dithering Over Dani Dayan’s Diplomacy

March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment

There was a revealing debate that played itself out in the pages of Ha’aretz earlier this week after the Israeli government announced that it was appointing Dani Dayan to be the consul general in New York. For those unfamiliar with him, Dayan is the former chairman of the Yesha Council, a position that is the de facto leader of the settlement movement, and he has become in many ways the international face of the settlements through his willingness to write, speak, and engage with foreign audiences. Prime Minister Netanyahu had initially appointed Dayan as Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, but the Brazilian government was not willing to accept his credentials due to his settlement advocacy, so Dayan is now headed to the U.S., where many are looking at him askance.

Bradley Burston captures why Dayan is walking into a situation where he is already behind in the count, cataloguing the new consul general’s rejection of the two-state solution and his desire to annex the West Bank without any corresponding plan to grant the Palestinians living there any political rights. Burston consequently thinks that the American Jewish community should, like the government of Brazil, refuse to accept Dayan’s appointment and demand that he be replaced with someone who reflects American Jewish politics and values and is more in line with the outlook and communal mood of the majority of American Jews. As Burston writes, “To a Jewish community with grave reservations about the consequences of the settlement enterprise and its destructive impact on democracy and economics in Israel, and on peace, security, and human rights throughout the Holy Land, Israel is sending a man who declared, ‘The settlements of Judea and Samaria are not the problem — they are part of the solution.’”

Burston’s colleague Chemi Shalev takes a different tack. Shalev argues that the right way to approach Dayan’s appointment is not by looking at his audience, but by looking at his client. In Shalev’s view, since Dayan is being sent to New York to represent the government of Israel rather than the other way around and since Dayan accurately reflects the government’s views, he is in some ways the perfect envoy. Rather than pretending that the Israeli government embraces policies that American Jews would like to see, having Dayan as consul general in New York will make it clear that the government is not really interested in two states and put an end to the notion that the Netanyahu government is going to eventually come around.

I side with Shalev in this debate for a number of reasons. First, I don’t think it is appropriate to judge Dayan as a diplomat before he has even spent one minute in the job, and it is possible that he will surprise. I have observed Dayan in action on a few occasions, and while there is no question that he is an inveterate rightwinger, I found Burston’s description of him as vindictive and quick to anger as oddly off-base. Having watched Dayan address rooms where he is not only the most rightwing guy there but the only rightwing guy there, he is actually extremely diplomatic; he listens to the other side and then responds in a respectful and cogent way, with a heavy dose of humor. A diplomat isn’t supposed to nod and agree with everything his interlocutors say, but to listen well, argue well, and behave diplomatically. Perhaps Dayan’s intemperate and ill-timed comments on J Street being “un-Jewish” will turn out to be representative, but my limited observations of him point to the opposite.

More saliently, Shalev is right about what Dayan is here to do. A diplomat is supposed to reflect and advance his government’s positions rather than mold him or herself to fit the place where he or she is sent. The fact that Dayan may not be popular with American Jews doesn’t change the fact that he is a perfectly appropriate representative of the current government, and in some ways it would be more insulting to send a consul general to New York who would constantly dissemble and tell American Jews what they want to hear. There is a line between respectfully presenting unpopular positions, and obnoxiously asserting that you know better than everyone else. Some of Israel’s senior diplomats fall into the latter category, which is what makes them so ineffectual, but I don’t think Dayan is of the same ilk.

But the real lesson of Dayan’s appointment is a deeper one. His appointment is the clearest message that the Israeli government has sent yet that it does not view its policies as a problem, but rather the way in which they are presented. Dayan will not pretend to be anything but a rightwing one-stater who views the two-state solution as naïve and unrealistic. He will perfectly represent the current Israeli government as an unapologetic realist who views the bulk of American Jews as out of touch with the reality of Israel’s situation and neighborhood. Yet, the Israeli government sincerely seems to believe that forcefully and consistently presenting this message will change minds here, and that American Jews will eventually come around. Dayan as consul general lets us know that the Israeli government is blind as a bat to the damage caused by its policies, and that it is the naïve party here by assuming that it has a messaging problem rather than a policy problem. Israeli diplomats don’t need to be more forceful in pushing their message; they need a different message to push.

Nothing could illustrate this point better than yesterday’s news that Senator Pat Leahy and ten House Democrats have sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry asking that he review U.S. military assistance to Israel and Egypt in light of alleged gross violations of human right by both countries. The fact that a relatively miniscule number of legislators signed a letter questioning military assistance to Israel will not matter in the scheme of things, but what is remarkable – and a bad harbinger of things to come – is that eleven members of Congress saw no problem lumping Israel with Egypt on the subject of human rights. It is a grossly inappropriate comparison, even if the intention was not to equate the two but to link their aid status as a legacy of the Camp David agreement, and there is no universe in which Israeli missteps are on the same plane as Egyptian killings and torture of political opponents. But Israel is not in Congressional crosshairs because its message needs to be more finely honed. It is in Congressional crosshairs because its policies in the West Bank are corrosive and inevitably lead to actions that no democracy should commit and that sully Israel’s reputation. This letter is a consequence of Israel mistakenly believing that it only has to explain itself better and give no quarter to its critics in order to make its problems go away. I wish Dani Dayan all the luck in the world, but he is sidling up to the table having already been dealt a losing hand.

Donald Trump’s Purim Costume

March 23, 2016 § 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Peoples, One Tribe

March 17, 2016 § 2 Comments

I meant it when I wrote last week that I could easily mine the Pew study of Israeli society for a year’s worth of material, but I’ll try to make this week the last post on the subject for awhile. Perhaps the most interesting part of the study to me is the section comparing Israeli Jews and American Jews. As Dov Waxman noted in a long breakdown yesterday on Matzav, there is a yawning chasm on many issues between Jews in Israel and Jews in the U.S., to the extent that anyone looking at the numbers without any identifying information on the two groups would have a difficult time guessing that they were members of the same family, so to speak. What issues the two groups of Jews differ on is fascinating in itself, but the more fascinating aspect for me isn’t the what, but the why.

Breaking down the numbers, it’s clear that Israeli Jews tilt more towards the political right than their American counterparts, but it isn’t political differences that illuminate what is going on. Rather, Israeli Jews and American Jews are separated by a fundamental difference in worldview that transcends the political sphere. It is much more of a philosophical divide that is driven by the divergent historical and present day experiences of Israeli Jews and American Jews. For shorthand, let’s call this divide universalism versus particularism.

American Jews are very well integrated into the larger American milieu. Because of this, they view their Judaism as part of a universal system where wider rules and values are more important than in-group relationships. They are unquestionably happy about their heritage – 94% are proud to be Jewish and 75% feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people – but the history of Jews in America is one of cultural assimilation. While anti-Semitism will always exist everywhere, the United States in 2016 is largely devoid of it, and Jews face very little discrimination overall (I reserve the right to revisit this point should we face the apocalypse ushered in on January 20, 2017, by President Donald J. Trump). American Jews are not treated as a minority, and are not thought of as one in many circles. American Jews themselves do not behave as religious minorities in their willingness to transcend group boundaries in unusually large numbers. The intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox American Jews is over 70% and 44% of married American Jews currently have a non-Jewish spouse; American Jews are likelier than any other religious minority group to have close friends of another religion and only 32% say that all or most of their close friends are Jewish; and American Jews are generally much less religious than their Israeli counterparts. The universal perspective of American Jews makes their Judaism less omnipresent and in some ways less important, so that even while being proud of their Jewish heritage it does not dominate their identity. As Michael Oren pointed out in his memoir Ally, it is no accident that alone among minority groups, American Jews place the “American” clause first.

Israeli Jews have a much more particularistic worldview that is rooted in Israel’s reality. Israelis live with a siege mentality emanating from the fact that they are in a neighborhood that does not accept them, which makes group relationships and solidarity more important. Furthermore, the fact that Israeli Jews are a majority in their own country creates a bubble filled with constant reminders that they are Jews, which reinforces the tribal sense that external hostility creates. Judaism shapes Israeli identity in a way that is almost impossible to replicate in the current American Jewish experience, and thus Israeli Jews are more attached to their Judaism. Israeli Jews are more observant and theologically religious by every measure than their American cousins, and view their Judaism as such a dominant and influential presence that more Israeli Jews describe themselves as Jewish first than as Israeli first (46% to 35%). Israeli Jews do not see themselves as ensconced in a wider system in the way that American Jews do; their Judaism is necessarily a narrower one that is not focused on what Judaism has to offer to the rest of the world. The history of Israel’s creation and fight for existence, along with its ongoing quest for legitimacy and normalcy, lead to a Jewish community that is more inward looking and bound by elements that are unique to Jews.

This is seen most acutely when comparing the responses of Israeli and American Jews on what it means to be Jewish. Both rank remembering the Holocaust as first on the list of essential parts of being Jewish, but after that the answers diverge. For American Jews, four out of the next five responses have nothing to do with Judaism as a religion or culture, but espouse universal values that can apply to anyone (leading an ethical life, working for justice and equality, being intellectually curious, having a good sense of humor), with the one outlier being caring about Israel. Israeli Jews prioritize items that are exclusively Jewish, with observing Jewish law coming in third at 35% (only 19% for American Jews), living in Israel coming in fourth at 33%, and eating traditional Jewish foods sixth at 18%. When Israelis were not limited to the eight choices provided by Pew but were allowed to mention anything they wanted, Israeli Jews’ priorities were even starker. The biggest group of 53% gave an answer in the category of providing Jewish education to or sharing Jewish traditions with their children, and the second biggest group of 45% gave an answer in the category of following religious traditions or being religious. While American Jews and Israeli Jews share a religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage, what it means to be Jewish is vastly different for them.

The direct implications of this are difficult to foresee, although it has the potential to affect everything from the U.S.-Israel relationship to the practice of Judaism itself. One element that is encouraging is that both groups rate the importance of caring about Israel highly – 33% for Israelis, 43% for Americans – and more crucially, the two groups care about each other. 68% of Israeli Jews say they have something in common with American Jews, 75% say there is a common destiny, and 59% view American Jewry’s influence on Israel as good. As Joel Braunold wrote in Ha’aretz, these results show that American Jews and Israeli Jews aren’t yet sick of each other. While the way in which the two sets of Jews view their Judaism seems like it is at odds, Israeli views on American Jews ratifies and demonstrates the need for continued engagement, not shying away from controversial issues while being careful not to impose on Israelis, and jointly working toward the best version of Israel that can be.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with American Jews at Ottomans and Zionists.

%d bloggers like this: