I’d wanted to finish the “Does Israel Need a Culture War?” series last week. Sadly, when you’re living with cancer, the condition sometimes pre-empts the schedule. I’ll wrap it up next week. Meanwhile, a few thoughts derived from some recent email and personal encounters with Americans who wish Israel well, but fear that Israel has become Israel’s worst enemy, and has no intention of changing.
The composite gist of it.
American support for Israel used to be a 90/10 affair. That final ten percent could be safely dismissed as, for the most part, an unappealing collection of anti-Semites, ideological Arabists, all-purpose peaceniks, neurotics in search of a self-redeeming cause, plus a few genuine humanitarians and Americans with personal ties to Palestinians and the Arab world.
Now it’s beginning to look more like 20/20/60. Twenty percent, mostly on the religious and political Right, flauntingly pro-Israel, no matter what. The other twenty percent – “Israel: The Country We Love to Hate, Plus We’re Not All That Fond of Jews.” Then, sixty percent who’ve gotten sick and tired of it all and just don’t care to hear any more.
The findings of an exhaustive survey? Nope. In fact, no survey at all. Just the judgment of a couple people whose intuition I’ve learned to respect. And anyway, regarding the never-ending plague of surveys purporting to “prove” whatever, two caveats avail:
Opinion surveys have become scientific, indeed. But who paid, directly or indirectly, for all them scientifics? As always, who funds the piper calls the tune.
And also as always, “The answer you get depends on the question you ask.” No survey can be assessed without access to the entire questionnaire and the procedures that determine what questions are asked in what order.
That said, assuming the 20/20/60 split has any conceptual validity, it points rather clearly to how Israel and Israel’s supporters need to start talking to America.
The challenge: to reach as many of those Sixty Percenters as you can.
The first requirement is to be honest about the situation. Israel is damaged goods,and will be so long as Mr. Netanyahu remains in power. His attempts to manipulate American politics and his habitual hectoring have taken their toll. That pre-election mouth-off about how there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch and how Arabs – read here, citizens of the State of Israel – were daring to vote “in droves,” and the subsequent pseudo-emendations, as flippant as they were arrogant . . .
In fine, outside his ditto-heads on the American Right, Mr. Netanyahu is regarded with increasing distaste by many Sixty Percenters. Some, perhaps, simply can’t endure him anymore. How many, I wonder, have put their support on hold until he’s gone. And how many others, I wonder, have withdrawn their good will because they’ve realized that it’s not just Bibi and his crew. It’s the country that elects him, and gloats over how he “stands up to” America.
Perhaps not all Americans enjoy being “stood up to” by such a person and such a country.
The second task is to recognize that the effort does not begin anew every time you open your mouth at a cocktail party, or just because some Manhattan PR agency has gotten a contract to “rebrand” Israel and make it “fashionable” again. Decades of damage cannot be ignored or wished away. Nor can the stridencies of Mr. Netanyahu’s tongue brigades. But they can be, to some extent, bypassed.
Perhaps a good way to start might be recognition that it grows ever harder for those Sixty Percenters to regard Israel as America’s friend. A nasty, arrogant, manipulative, self-obsessed, demanding little spoiled brat of a country, perhaps. A source of a few limited benefits, perhaps. But a friend, with all that entails in terms of mutual respect and commonality?
I fear that the last few years have eroded that sensibility. But perhaps there’s a way to start to get some of it back. It requires that Israel and Israel’s supporters present Israel as a genuine friend. And that requires remembering that:
There is a difference, a vital difference, between “This is what we offer” and “Look how great we are.”
There is a difference, a vital difference, between “Shut up and do what we want” and “We’re in this together.”
And there is a difference, an absolutely vital difference, between “You owe us” and “We need your help to take our place among the nations.”
A strange idea. Demand less. Offer more. Lecture less. Listen more. Try a little courtesy. Then perhaps some of those Sixty Percenters will begin to listen anew. To you. And maybe, just maybe, in time the new style will begin to have some small effect on the reality.
PS. An old college friend spent a week in Israel recently as part of a study group sponsored by a major foundation. His assessment: “I came away with a higher level of confusion.”