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.
December 15, 2016 § 1 Comment
The extraordinary battle that is currently unfolding between President-elect Donald Trump and the intelligence community is unprecedented in the United States. While undoubtedly presidents and the CIA are not always on the same page – and presidents have certainly come to regret relying on CIA assessments that turned out to be inaccurate – the outright dismissal of intelligence agencies by the soon-to-be commander in chief is a first. The ideal situation in democratic countries is for intelligence agencies to be divorced from politics so that political considerations do not interfere with intelligence assessments and intelligence agencies are not tempted to wield their significant power in the political sphere. In picking a very public feud with the CIA, Trump is playing a dangerous game, and looking to Israel yields some clues as to where this skirmish may go as Israel has more experience with the fusion of politics and intelligence than the U.S.
The first lesson from the Israeli experience is that intelligence agencies are able to constrain the policies of an elected leader with whom they do not agree. The infamous but not widely remembered Lavon affair of 1954 is a prime example. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett initiated peace talks with Egypt out of a desire to use it as a stepping stone to a wider regional peace, but in doing so he ran afoul not only of his predecessor David Ben Gurion, but also of hardliners within military intelligence. A large portion of both the military and intelligence establishments were skeptical that any deal could be struck with Egypt and were particularly wary of the surging Egyptian nationalism championed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the midst of the negotiations, Israeli military intelligence – possibly at the behest of Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon or possibly at the behest of the head of Israeli military intelligence – planned a false flag operation to set off bombs in Cairo in an attempt to sow chaos and convince the British to remain in Egypt, thereby delivering a blow to Egyptian nationalist aspirations. The plot was exposed, but the damage was already done; Sharett’s outreach to Nasser was successfully thwarted, his term as prime minister was short lived, and the renewed Israeli hardline policy toward Egypt later contributed in part to the 1956 Suez crisis. In this case, Israeli intelligence actively set a course different from that of the Israeli prime minister and won, which is a lesson that Trump may want to keep in mind as he appears determined to set a more conciliatory policy toward Russia while the intelligence community unanimously views Russia as harmfully meddling in American internal affairs.
The lesson from Israel regarding intelligence agencies thwarting an elected politician’s priorities is sharpened if intelligence officials believe that they are being marginalized or mistreated, which is where the comparison to what Trump is doing is particularly germane. Rather than reaching back into the history of the mid-20th century, there is a contemporary Israeli case upon which to draw. The debate in Israel during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term of his current tenure about whether the IDF should attack Iranian nuclear facilities was conducted under the enormous shadow of the well-known and unsettlingly public dispute between Netanyahu and his military and intelligence chiefs. IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, and Mossad director Meir Dagan were all vigorously opposed to a strike on Iran while Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argued in favor. That there would be a dispute between the elected political leadership and the appointed security leadership is not an uncommon or unreasonable phenomenon. However, when Dagan felt that Netanyahu was ignoring the Mossad’s conclusions about the prospects of an Iranian bomb – the Mossad believed that it was not imminent while Netanyahu was insisting in speeches that Iran was about to go nuclear – he took his concerns public in a way that was meant to paint Netanyahu into a corner. On Dagan’s last day on the job, he briefed a group of Israeli senior journalists to hammer home how big of a mistake he believed Netanyahu was making in forcing a confrontation with Iran, and then upon retiring made a series of speeches in which he dubbed a strike on Iran “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard. Dagan’s successor, Tamir Pardo, continued Dagan’s legacy of constraining Netanyahu on Iran, publicly declaring that Iran was not an existential threat and that people used that term too loosely; this was the thinnest of thinly veiled barbs directed at Netanyahu, who was describing Iran in precisely such a way.
But there is a corollary to this, which is that intelligence agencies that try to impose their will on political leaders may find themselves undermined at the first opportunity. This can take the form of micromanaging intelligence officials themselves, but it can also take the form of casting aspersions on the entire intelligence apparatus as biased or suffering from misguided views. Netanyahu and his political allies have done this with regard to the Shin Bet over its alleged blind spot with regard to the Palestinians, disparaging former Shin Bet chiefs who warn of the dangers of a continuing Israeli presence in the West Bank as delusional leftists. In this case, it is not a set of analytical conclusions that have been challenged, but the competence of Shin Bet heads more broadly. As the current coalition chair David Bitan said this past summer about Dagan and a host of former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs, “Something happens to you over the years in these positions…over the years the heads of Shin Bet and Mossad become leftists.” This quote will sound familiar to those who have been listening to Trump dismiss the CIA wholesale and insist that because it was mistaken about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction it must be mistaken about Russia over a decade later. In addition, as a result of his past clashes with Dagan, Pardo, Diskin, and others, Netanyahu has made sure that the current intelligence chiefs are people with whom he had close ties prior to their appointments and who are less likely to challenge him. This is one of the reasons that the ever-present friction between Netanyahu and the IDF brass no longer seems to invade the intelligence sphere. It is a reminder that intelligence agencies may win battles with their political overseers, but oftentimes the politicians will make those agencies pay for it down the road.
The upshot of all this is that keeping a country and its citizens safe and formulating successful national security policies is far harder when the politicians and the intelligence professionals are waging a war not against a common external enemy but against each other. In Israel’s case, the perception that Netanyahu and the intelligence community are in opposition undermines confidence in both, and will likely lead to greater and potentially disastrous interventions of the political arena in the intelligence arena and vice versa. Let’s hope that Trump and those in his circle realize the dangers associated with confronting the U.S. intelligence apparatus so that the same mistakes born out of the Israeli experience can be avoided.
December 13, 2012 § 9 Comments
Commentaries about Hanukkah abound this year, from Hilary Krieger’s reminder in the New York Times that the holiday is about more than miraculous oil and plying children with presents to a typically obtuse Mondoweiss piece by Avigail Abarbanel decrying any celebration of Hanukkah as hypocritical because Israel is occupying the West Bank (but don’t worry, since Mondoweiss never conflates Judaism with Israel as we all know that criticism of the latter in no way ever has anything to do with the former). Tying in Krieger’s argument about what Hanukkah is really about with Abarbanel’s clumsy attempt to bash Israel over the head got me thinking that there is indeed a connection between Hanukkah and modern day Israel, but it is not the one that Abarbanel advances about Israeli behavior making Hanukkah unfit to be celebrated.
As Krieger points out, Hanukkah is actually about a revolt that paved the way for Jewish independence and freedom of worship, and the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights is only ancillary to the main story. Making Chanukkah primarily about lights burning in the Temple is the equivalent of celebrating on New Year’s Eve not because the calendar is about to change but because a giant ball is going to drop in Times Square. The reason Jews originally celebrated Hanukkah was because it represented the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel for the first time since the Babylonian expulsion four centuries earlier. Following hundreds of years of Judea being ruled by foreigners – Persians and Greeks – the Hasmoneans carried out a successful revolt against Judea’s Syrian Greek overlords and established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for a century before one side in the Judean civil war made the mistake of inviting the Roman general Pompey to settle things, which led to a Roman siege of Jerusalem and eventually Roman control over Judea. Hanukkah certainly has an important religious component in that it celebrates the end of Greek religious persecution – which, for those interested, is the only recorded instance of forced religious coercion by pagan conquerors in the ancient world – but just as vital is the celebration of Jewish political sovereignty and the establishment of a Jewish kingdom that was independent rather than a client of a larger empire. To me, Hanukkah has always been about this rather than about lights remaining kindled in the Temple.
Krieger mentions Maccabean religious zealotry and attacks on neighbors, and argues that these elements to the story require some Jewish introspection, as occurs on other Jewish holidays. The story is actually a lot more interesting than she details and requires vastly more real estate than the New York Times op-ed page provides. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Seleucids, they embarked on a mission to expand the borders of their new state. After the Seleucid empire broke apart, the Hasmoneans seized the opportunity to conquer the regions neighboring Judea, including the Galilee, Idumea, and Samaria, expanding into what is modern day Syria and Jordan. This expansion was not benign, however, as the Hasmoneans were not only looking to conquer territory but to create an explicitly Jewish kingdom. This meant forcing the local populations that they conquered to submit to conversion (which included being circumcised) or face expulsion, which was not exactly a great set of options. Over time, this enlarged kingdom became harder to defend and to govern, and the Judean political class divided into factions and civil war ensued. In many ways, what happened is reminiscent of Jack Snyder’s imperial overreach, and Jewish sovereignty was eventually snuffed out by the Romans.
So what’s the relevance of all this to modern day Israel? The reason Israel holds such meaning for many Jews around the world is because it represents the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the historical Jewish homeland for the first time since the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks in the Hanukkah story and established the kingdom of Judea. In a sense, Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday most intimately connected to Israel and the Zionist dream, precisely because it mirrors the struggle to create the Jewish state and because it is a holiday that has powerful political meaning behind it rather than a holiday that is purely a religious one. Hanukkah represents Jewish political and military power and Jewish political independence, and it is something to be proud of and grateful for if you are Jewish and have any sense of Jewish history at all. The Hasmoneans and their fellow 2nd century BCE Judeans were able to establish a state despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, and it is tough to look at the Hanukkah story and not see the parallels to David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and the other founding fathers of Israel.
Ultimately, however, as great as it must have been to establish Jewish sovereignty after centuries of foreign rule, the Jewish state in the Hanukkah story collapsed under its own weight due to poor decisions and infighting. So too, there are many dangers looming in Israel’s path, some of which are out of its control and some of which are very much of its own making. It should be obvious to everyone, particularly as the possible beginnings of a third intifada are just now emerging, that hanging onto the West Bank is a failed policy that is hanging around Israel’s neck like an albatross, and it is one that will continually put Israel’s status as a Jewish democratic state at risk. The more that Israeli policies anger Western states that do not have the same base of support for Israel that exists in the U.S., the more Israel will rely solely on the U.S., and that in itself will endanger Israeli sovereignty as it will become harder for Israel to chart its own independent path. Just as ancient Judea expanded beyond what it could reasonably control and descended into destructive factionalism and eventually civil war, modern day Israel does not quite appear to be in such dire straits but resembles this scenario in enough of a way as to be unsettling. Hanukkah should not prompt one to reject any celebration of the holiday because Jews once fought against foreign occupiers and Israel is now occupying the West Bank, but it should certainly prompt a recognition that there are some lessons to be learned from ancient Jewish history. Just like the Hanukkah story of the kingdom of Judea, which began so triumphantly but ended tragically, Israel is also currently headed down a path that it desperately needs to find a way around so that Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is not once again interrupted.
May 9, 2012 § 4 Comments
One of the benefits of the unity coalition deal that Bibi Netanyahu struck with Shaul Mofaz and Kadima is that it strengthens Likud. Kadima’s dropping poll numbers and its new participation in the coalition mean that it will likely merge back with Likud before the next elections, which sets up Likud to gain more seats in October 2013 than it would have in September 2012. From an electoral standpoint, Likud is poised to come close to its 1981 highwater mark of 48 seats if Kadima dissolves and it is in an extremely strong position.
From a structural standpoint, however, Likud is not doing so well. Netanyahu presides over a fractious party that contains a serious split between the older generation of Likud princes and the younger generation of hardliners. Bradley Burston noted the sharp change in tone from previous Likud conventions, in which the head of the party was treated like a king, to Sunday’s Likud convention packed with mutineers who excoriated Netanyahu for not being sufficiently rightwing. Bibi was unable to even secure the position of convention chairman, and it must be a haunting irony for him that he strides the Israeli world like a colossus but cannot manage to impose the same iron will over his own party. Potential challengers like Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon attack him on his right flank and make all sorts of veiled threats over perceived insufficient support for settlements, keeping Barak in the cabinet, and other issues on which Netanyahu is believed to be wobbly and not fully trusted. It is a maxim of Israeli politics that it is the right that brings down the right, and surely this is a fate that Netanyahu does not want to suffer, explaining his current flirtation with a bill that would override the High Court’s order to demolish Ulpana. Part of bringing Kadima into the government is that Netanyahu will have some space to maneuver should he want to tack to the center on selective issues.
Ultimately though, Netanyahu is going to face a choice over how far to go to placate his hardliners, and that may come sooner rather than later as the High Court’s Migron and Ulpana orders come to call. In light of all this, I will not be shocked if at some point before the 2013 elections we see Netanyahu move to kill off his own party and form a new one. This move is of course not without precedent in Israeli political history; Ben Gurion did it when he felt he had insufficient support from his Mapai colleagues leading to the creation of Rafi and then Labor, and more recently Ariel Sharon did it when he broke away from Likud to form Kadima in order to carry out the Gaza disengagement. Netanyahu is in a similar situation to Ben Gurion in that he clearly does not have an ideal level of support within the Likud ranks, and if he decides that he wants to make a serious move toward peace with the Palestinians he will find himself facing Sharon’s dilemma as well. Netanyahu is also now perfectly poised to form a new party from a position of strength since he would take all of the Kadima members with him should he bolt Likud to form a new party and would take more than half of the Likud MKs as well.
I don’t think this is something that anyone should expect to occur as it would be a huge gamble, and Netanyahu is historically not a gambler. The deal with Kadima though demonstrates a newfound propensity toward bold moves, and creating a new party would eliminate the various Likud thorns in Netanyahu’s side. I think the salient question on this issue is how serious Netanyahu is about making real strides on a Palestinian state. As I have noted before, Netanyahu is in many ways a prisoner of his party and his coalition. He has now solved the latter problem, but has not solved the former one. If Netanyahu does indeed have some more moderate inclinations aching to escape, then cutting off his rightwing flank and forming a new party is the obvious, and maybe only, move to make. Again, this is all theoretical at best and a little too pie-in-the-sky to probably occur, but given the utter surprise that greeted all analysts of Israeli politics on over the past two days, nothing can or should be ruled out anymore.