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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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.

Hold Democrats Accountable On Israel Too

July 28, 2016 § 6 Comments

I have been unsparing in my criticism of Republican positions on Israel this campaign season, and particularly those held by the (no longer presumptive) nominee and his team of one-staters. I make no secret of the fact that I see Donald Trump’s views on Israel as incoherent at best and a dumpster fire at worst, and the fact that Republicans have, despite some laudable exceptions, quietly acceded to Trump upending years of established Republican – and largely bipartisan – policy on Israel is not their finest moment. If Trump loses, one of the most entertaining sideshows of the next few years will be watching his currently eager but future shamefaced supporters walking back not only their laudatory expressions of support for him personally but the absurd positions they embraced on his behalf, and hopefully the more-hawkish-than-Bibi position will fall under this umbrella. The Republicans have the problem that they are becoming comfortable with positions on Israel that are absurdly unrealistic and will damage Israel in the long run, but events at the Democratic convention are demonstrating that the Republicans are not alone. If the Republicans are hurting Israel by emboldening its most extreme instincts, the Democrats are doing so by giving those who possess the extreme instincts legitimate cause for concern.

On Monday, speaking at an event on the sidelines of the convention, Representative Hank Johnson stridently criticized Israeli settlement activity. The problem is that in doing so, he referred to Israeli settlers as termites; made the blanket assertion that Israelis are not building their own neighborhoods but that, in his words, “you see one home after another being appropriated by Jewish people who come in to claim that land just because somebody did not spend the night there;” and falsely charged that Israel has banned Palestinians from displaying the Palestinian flag. I understand why Johnson is upset at Israeli policies in the West Bank, and I share his frustration. What I don’t share is his view that it is appropriate to compare Israelis to vermin or to just make stuff up in order to paint a bad situation with an even darker brush. On Monday afternoon, Johnson tweeted an apology for his “poor choice of words,” referring to comparing Israelis to termites, but that actually misses the point. It is the exaggerated charges that are the truly damaging aspects of what Johnson said. Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton and Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders dislike Israel’s settlement policy, and it is reasonable to expect Democratic politicians to criticize it given their voters’ preferences. But whipping people up into an ignorant frenzy by insinuating that the bulk of settlement activity consists of Israelis lurking in the weeds, just waiting for Palestinians to spend a night out of town and then taking over their houses, is grossly irresponsible. Israel’s settlement policy – which, yes, sometimes involves building on privately owned Palestinian land – is bad enough on its own that it doesn’t need to be embellished, and it is this type of rhetoric that gives cover to the farthest right of Israel’s rightwing by allowing them to claim that criticism of Israel is little more than lies and hate.

Yet more extreme behavior was on display Tuesday outside of the convention hall, as a rowdy group of louts burned an Israeli flag and chanted “long live the intifada,” no doubt demonstrating their desire for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their commitment to two states for two peoples. Now, this is not activity sanctioned by the Democratic Party and so to blame it on national Democrats is simply unfair; in fact, the flag burners appear to have been part of a larger group protesting Democratic policy more widely. But just as there is something about Trump that draws white supremacists to him like moths to a flame, the fact that those on the left advocating for ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews think that they will manage to get a sympathetic hearing from people attending the convention in Philadelphia says something. These kinds of views must be unequivocally denounced, and putting Cornel West – who has accused Bibi Netanyahu of war crimes and talks about “the role of money and lobbies” when discussing Israel policy – on the Democratic platform committee sends a message of a different type.

I do not mean to suggest an absolute equivalence here where both sides are suffering on the same level. On the Republican side, we are dealing with a nominee and a platform whose Israel policy is off the rails, while on the Democratic side we are dealing with a misinformed backbench congressman and some unwashed protestors who are left with burning flags on the wrong side of the convention’s security fence. One party has abandoned the bipartisan consensus on two states while one is still holding the line. That doesn’t change the fact that there is a worrisome undercurrent in the Democratic Party that views Israel as disproportionately bad, and it should and must be called out. Comments like Johnson’s or moves to welcome the BDS movement under the Democratic big tent are wrong on their own, but they are also ultimately damaging by reinforcing the narrative on the right that nothing Israel does will ever be enough, and so better to just damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. It is easy to see how Republican policies are driving Israel away from two states. The fact that it is harder to see how some movements within the Democratic Party are accomplishing the same doesn’t mean that it is less worthy of opprobrium.

Send In The Clowns

July 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

There is a quip that a camel is a horse designed by committee, a witticism that never seemed truer than it did this week. In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Republican Party Platform Committee introduced a new plank on Israel that dropped all references to the two-state solution – references that had been included in every Republican Party platform since 2004 – and made clear that it is taking its cues from Donald Trump. Much like other Trumpian policy positions and pearls of wisdom that emanate from the candidate and his advisers, this one is destined to wither on the vine. But let’s not allow the moment to pass without fully acknowledging its myopic foolishness and what it says about how out of touch with reality the GOP platform delegates are.

The 2012 Republican platform was unequivocal in its support for Israel and its security, and in its appreciation of the shared values between Israel and the U.S. And yet, somehow it did not see the following lines as contradictory to any of that: “We support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state with secure, defensible borders; and we envision two democratic states – Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine – living in peace and security…. The U.S. seeks a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, negotiated between the parties themselves with the assistance of the U.S., without the imposition of an artificial timetable.” Republican support for two states was not an accident, and in fact the first president to explicitly call for a Palestinian state was George W. Bush. Republicans have long understood that the two-state solution is the only secure long-term path for Israel, which is why they have embraced it despite serious and valid reservations over whether an independent Palestine will be a viable or peaceful Israeli neighbor. The excising of all mentions of two states is not neutral or innocuous; it is a purposeful reversal of policy, no matter how advocates for the new platform position attempt to spin the development. Removing long-standing language is an active statement, and by cheerleading this process along, Trump and his henchmen are putting the GOP in conflict not only with American policy, but with Israeli policy as well.

In 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.” In November 2015, he said, ““I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.” It is one thing to debate over how best to get to two states, whether it is feasible at the moment, what conditions must be in force in order for a Palestinian state to become a reality, and what the timetable should be. It is quite another not to endorse two states in any guise and to tacitly promote a one-state catastrophe. Netanyahu falls under the first category, and the Republican platform now falls under the second. Make no mistake – there is no world in which this can be considered a rational pro-Israel position.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: one state means the end of Israel as both Jewish and democratic. That David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt – Trump’s two Israel advisers, both of whom work as corporate lawyers and whose expertise in Israel policy seems to extend as far but no farther than the fact that they are Jewish and have spent time in Israel – are reduced to peddling mythical statistics in service of denying this simple truth only demonstrates the delusion at work here. The entire fight against the BDS movement is predicated on the very idea that one state means the end of Israel as we know it, so that the Republican platform can in one breath denounce BDS for seeking to destroy Israel and then with the next encourage a one-state policy is a truly acrobatic feat of cognitive dissonance. And is there even a need anymore to tackle the chimera of the “sustainable status quo,” a concept that Netanyahu has rebuffed both publicly and privately and one against which the near entirety of Israel’s security establishment has revolted? Smart Republican Israel hands such as Elliott Abrams understand the importance of preserving the two-state solution, and yet the Trumpkins have managed to drown out decades of GOP expertise and experience by employing their common follow-the-leader tactic of acting upon whatever half-baked thought pops into their heads.

But let’s set all of this aside. Let’s assume that the experts are all wrong, and that either the status quo can continue forever or that Israel can annex the West Bank with no devastating adverse consequences. Isn’t there a constant refrain from the pro-Israel community about not imposing outside solutions on Israel and yielding to Israelis to determine their own destiny? I do not say this sarcastically; I am in full agreement and very much on the record as believing that Americans can and should express their preferences to Israel, come up with helpful suggestions, and make their best arguments as to why they should be implemented, but ultimately it is up to Israelis to elect their leaders and for the government of Israel to set its own policies. Yet in this instance, the government of Israel has stated its policy preference for a two-state solution and has been clear that a one-state outcome must be avoided at all costs, and the Republican platform has actively decided to contravene that policy. Not only that, it has actively decided to contravene it out of a desire to establish “a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel,” apparently ignorant of the fact that this does the precise opposite. It is unclear to me why hawkish policies that seek to impose unwanted solutions on Israel should be viewed any differently than dovish ones.

Ultimately, platform committees don’t matter in the real world, as much as the delegates desperately want to believe that their hard work is making a difference. I’ll bet that all nominees would fail a well-constructed multiple choice test on their parties’ platform language, and I can guarantee that no president has ever made a decision in office based on what the party platform encouraged or dismissed. Nevertheless, it is disturbing to see the base of the Republican Party be led so far aground by a bloviating, ignorant clodpate and his merry band of troglodytes. Consider Greenblatt’s comments to the Jewish Week: ““My view is that we should look at a single-state solution — and any other options on the table. Don’t take two states as a given; it is quite old. Maybe the Palestinians — after having suffered through the leadership they have had and seeing Israeli Palestinians who live a safe and free life — would also like it.” Not only is this a guy who has clearly never spoken with a Palestinian – and possibly never spoken with an Israeli who doesn’t vote for Habayit Hayehudi – the shallow fatuousness of the analysis beggars belief. Yes, there are indeed Palestinians who would like to see a one-state solution, but they are not the fellow travelers of Greenblatt’s fever dream hallucination. There is a reason that even Netanyahu, who clearly does not relish the prospect of relinquishing the West Bank to say the least, has reluctantly come around to the view that it will ultimately have to be done. There is a reason that two states has become the widespread consensus position, both in Israel and the U.S.

On second thought, perhaps the fact that Trump’s team is driving the GOP into the wilderness on Israel is a good thing. I can think of no better way for the one-state delusion to be discredited for good than for Trump and his coterie of Chelm court jesters to embrace it.

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.

Being More Pro-Israel Than Israel

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.

Truth In Advertising

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.

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