A friend and former colleague from my days as a California lobbyist and governmental affairs consultant sent me a message the other day.  Other than for his professional involvement in government and politics, Joe [I have changed his name to respect his privacy] represents many–probably a majority– of American Jews over 45 or 50: traditionally and instinctively supportive of Israel; Democrat and liberal; affiliated with a synagogue when the kids were younger but not necessarily now; news regarding Israel from the local media, cable TV, the NY Times, and perhaps The New Yorker; some discomfort about and questioning of Israel in recent years.

Joe’s message:

Alan, I have a serious question that I would like to have your opinion on. Netanyahu is quoted as saying the Holocaust was not Hitler’s idea. As a Jew, I want to support Israel. I want to believe that Israel’s problems stem from individuals and groups that are vehemently anti-Zionist. But I keep hearing stories about Netanyahu’s recalcitrance to consider any reasonable peace plan and I hear so much about how non-Jews are treated poorly in Israel, that I have to question what is really going on over there. This statement  by Netanyahu [regarding the Mufti and Hitler] has me wondering if he is not teetering on the edge of paranoia. What’s up with this guy?

My response, with edits:

Wow, Joe. That’s a lot of ground to cover. To really do it justice, we ought to get together for lunch when I am back in Sacramento. In the meantime, I will give it a shot.

These are very complicated issues, with lots of history and context.  Most people draw their conclusions from reading the NY Times and watching CNN.  I understand why, but that does not do it justice.

ISRAEL:

You and every Jew have every right to be very proud of Israel.  Yes, it has many, many problems.  (Find me a country that doesn’t.)  But when you consider history, neighborhood, composition, threats, this place is really unbelievable.

About 8.3 million people.  About one million people from the former Soviet Union, not people steeped in democracy.  Millions of people or the children of people from Arab nations.  Not steeped in democracy, plus many are understandably bitter about their treatment in the Arab nations and when they first arrived here.  About 21% (1.7 million) of the population is Arab/Palestinian, many with torn, ambivalent feelings about their place in society.

We have bigotry, fear, racism, threats, terrorists, Iran nukes, children going off to war on a regular basis.  And, yet, we have a fully functioning democracy (with problems, of course).  Free press; an activist, independent court;  people (Arab Knesset members) standing up in the Knesset saying things that if similar things were said in Congress, would cause them to be run out of the country as traitors; gay rights, minority rights, women’s rights, etc. etc.

Yes, we have our bigots and racists, but we have myriad of people and organizations standing up and fighting for a free press, against racism and bigotry, and for peace.

Moreover, we have tremendous science, inventiveness, arts, culture, and the like.  With about 8.3 million people, we have a very disproportionate number of IPO’s, and we have the highest number of start-ups per capita of any country in the world.  Israel punches way above its weight in number of companies on NASDAQ.

Most books purchased per capita; second hightest percentage with post-secondary education, and on and on and on.  There is no other country just 67 years old that is doing as well as we are, and there are many older that do not measure up.

But this is not the U.S.  Too many American Jews judge Israel, its laws, its approach to issues, its handling of minorities, and the like, with an American liberal view of the right way of approaching these issues.  You cannot do that.  Different region of the world, different history, different cultures, different desires.  E.g.  American ideas of separation of church and state just don’t apply here.

Regarding Palestinians beyond the Green Line (1949 Armistice lines):  Very tough situation.  We do things wrong.  We make mistakes.  Given the situation, we overall do a good job.  But when you are dealing with 18-19 year old soldiers in life-and-death situations, bad things happen.  We need to keep working at it.  Or, optimally, we need a deal so we can get out of a lot of it.  Plenty of fault to go around but, at the end of the day, if they had wanted a country next to and not in place of ours, they could have had it several times.

I am a long time two-stater.  I am not uncritical of some of our mistakes.  But I think it is totally wrong to put all or most of the fault at our doorstep.  I have finally come to the conclusion that we should unilaterally pull out of some areas, keep troops and people where we want/need, recognize the State of Palestine, make them act like adults and take on responsibilities, and be open to negotiations on a state-to-state basis.

This will result in all kinds of problems like our major population centers and our airport being subject to attack, but for me it is better than the current situation.  Ironically, some people to the left of me disagree. They believe negotiation is the only way, even though efforts to negotiate have failed time and time again.

Problem:  For many American Jews, the dominant theme is American and Jewish universalism.  Liberal American Jews put inordinate emphasis on one aspect of Judaism, the modern (and somewhat erroneous) interpretation of tikun olam.

These values are great.  But here in the Middle East, with Israel as a nation, sometimes we need to put more emphasis on other aspects of Judaism: tribal, nationalistic, particularistic survival.  Sometimes the American Jewish lens does not see good things when it looks at some of what we need to do here to survive.

NETANYAHU AND THE CURRENT POLITICAL SITUATION

Contrary to most mainstream media reports in the U.S., the right did not have a smashing victory in the last election.  The basic split between the right and center right and the left and center left was about the same as the prior Knesset make-up.  Netanyahu managed to take votes from some parties farther right than his so that he could lead in putting together a coalition.  He then formed a very narrow right-wing government because several center and center right parties that were in his prior government stayed out.

Bibi has baggage that must weigh heavily upon him.  His father was one of the intellectual anchors of the Revisionist movement.  His dad, a professor, wrote a 1,000 page seminal book about the Inquisition and Jew hatred.  Bibi lost a brother in the Entebbe raid.  He was wounded in battle.  He very much sees the world against the Jews.  He very much feels that he is standing up for Jewish survival.  He is not entirely wrong.

Moreover, he is a politician.  He loves being Prime Minister and will do just about any maneuver to stay in office.  He is pretty good at maneuvering, at bobbing and weaving.  He often says what people want to hear and, later on, he doesn’t always have the gumption to follow through.  He sometimes overstates. Think of some–probably most ?–of the politicians you have known over the years.

Having said all of this, the constant blaming of Bibi as the cause of all problems, and the inordinate focus on his every statement, is way out of proportion.  For example, his miss-statement about the Mufti and Hitler, or his one-time campaign statements regarding the two-state solution and Arabs being bused to the polls.  Out-of-line? Yes.  But, in the context of what politicians say, worthy of being played over and over again all over the world?  I doubt it.

Why not a similar focus on Abbas saying “filthy Jewish feet” will not go on the Temple Mount?  Or Abbas saying every drop of blood spilled defending the Temple Mount is holy blood (although there is nothing to be defended; we keep saying we are not changing anything–as if it is provocative for Jews to pray there).

Or the imams who stand with knives on their pulpits and encourage their people to go out and stab Jews?  Or the Palestinian father (a teacher, no less) who had no qualms about posting a video of his three year old daughter with a knife and him helping her say she is going to go stab Jews?

See much coverage of any of that?

Bibi is not an ogre.  For a lot of reasons, the Obama Administration has been out to get him from the get-go.  From what I can tell, they ignored their best expert, Dennis Ross, in the first two or three years of the Administration.  They played it all wrong for Israel, for peace, for negotiations, for the U.S. Don’t take my word for it.  Ask Yossi Beilin, Oslo architect, Labor minister, Meretz leader, long-time peace activist.

Keep in mind that this right-wing Bibi halted settlements for nine months  to try to get Abbas to negotiations (as if someone who really wants a country needs to be bribed to come negotiate about it).  He released terrorist murderers from prison as a “gesture.”  Can you imagine how hard that is politically?  These are murderers of innocent women and children.

He came out for a two-state solution, something no PM from the right ever did.  In last summer’s war, when several powerful members of his coalition were urging him to destroy Hamas and re-occupy Gaza, he pushed back and refused.

On Iran, keep this in mind:  This was not a partisan issue here.  80% of Israelis were against the deal.  Labor and Yesh Atid were against it.  Some quibble with how Bibi handled the opposition, but everyone opposed the deal.

Israelis are smart people.  They also want peace.  They also care about their survival.  It is their kids in jeopardy from Iran, from terror, from having to serve in the Army.  They would love to compromise and not have their kids have to go on patrol, into the West Bank to find terrorists, to deal with life and death situations, into Gaza or Lebanon every few years, etc. etc.

It is really personal here.  Everyone has a kid or a nephew or niece who just served, is serving, will serve.  The soldiers often come home on weekends.  They are tired, scared; they have seen terrible things.  They have to make unbelievable decisions for 18 year olds.  It is not like the States where the wars do not have an up-close impact on most people.

When Kerry or Obama make some comment like Israelis are not willing to do the hard work needed for peace, or like Israelis have become comfortable and complacent and don’t care about peace and the Palestinians, it just makes me sick.  It is beyond insulting.  It is despicable.

Why, despite the fact that many Israelis do not like Bibi or feel his time is over, do they keep voting for him?  Several reasons:  1. They do not trust the opposition with security.  2. Many on the Left help him a lot by always putting all the blame on Israel rather than saying that sometimes the fault for not making progress has been the Palestinians’, at least in part. Israelis know that this is not true.  3. President Obama.  Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, and many others know that Israelis will make enormous concessions when they think it may lead to peace and progress AND when they know they have a real friend in the White House who understands and supports them and will defend them. Obama has made it clear to them he is not that.  4. The Palestinians. The hate, the denial of our connection here, the teachings to their children are just unbelievable.  You don’t hear much about this if you are getting your news from the mainstream media.  Here’s an essay on the attitudes and perspectives that we are up against, based on polling done primarily by Palestinian professionals.  5. The EU, the UN, and the world.

MEDIA:

As I have said, if you are getting your information from the mainstream media, you are not getting a true picture.

Here is an article that explains how they function:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/how-the-media-makes-the-israel-story/383262/

Here are two recent examples:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/msnbc-accused-anti-israel-bias-832690

http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/MSNBC-apologizes-for-using-inaccurate-maps-in-discussion-of-Mideast-conflict-427563

[I then went on to provide some suggested media sources and some suggested books.]

VISIT

American Jews have every right to criticize Israel.  Since they and their kids are sitting comfortably in the U.S. while Israelis and their kids are on the front lines, I think it is reasonable to ask that they display some humility, some deference, and that they put things in context.  This requires being educated on the issues, giving both sides, giving perspective and context.

I think it is also reasonable to expect that Jews who criticize really get to know the country if they can.  They should visit.  Not once, but often and really understand the place and the people.  Not only will it make them more informed, it will enrich them and make them more connected to the Jewish people and Israel, regardless of their politics.

We recently hosted some friends from the Southwest U.S. for Shabbat.  We are far apart on the issues–perhaps not on the solution, but on how to get there, who is to blame for our not having gotten there, and who now must shoulder the burden to get there.  But, they come often. They volunteer in co-existence activities, working on environmental issues with Palestinians and Israelis.  They criticize, but I believe they understand the need for context and humility in so doing.

I strongly encourage you to visit if you have not.  Many synagogues and other organizations offer terrific tours, particularly for first-time visitors.   You most often need not be a member of the congregation or other organization.  Then, come again.  Lots of people come for a month to two or three, rent an apartment, travel the country, volunteer, take courses, etc.  If I can ever help you with that, I would be happy to do so.

Regards,

Alan