Jonathan Weisman’s op-ed in the New York Times about the so-called “schism” between American and Israeli Jews is certainly not a new doomsday prophecy. Sure, the specific arguments against Israel have been updated, but the piece is a bad cliché, the latest in a long history of half-baked indictments that distort Israel’s reality on the ground. It is this sort of dishonest and conceited take on Israel that has contributed to a disconnect among a segment of young American Jews.
Still, according to the most recent polling, 92% of American Jews (about 75% of whom are liberal) identify as pro-Israel. While Israel may not be a central issue for American Jews on Election Day, and while specific disagreements will always exist, Israel still very much matters and is a big part of their Jewish identity.
Obviously, the hot button issue is the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. Most American Jews (75% as per consistent polling) realize that Israel doesn’t have a genuine peace partner among the Palestinians, whose goal remains not the withdrawal from occupied territory, but Israel’s destruction. That view is certainly at odds with Weisman and other Jewish critics of Israel, who are embarrassed by this peace deficit (tied to the relentless claims of Israeli “oppression”). For this reason, we should focus on the three paragraphs Weisman devotes to it.
He expresses a maddening frustration at the lack of a two state solution, which he trendily labels a “stalemate over Palestinian rights and autonomy”. This is the latest catchy framework with which to blame Israel and justify, or at least contextualize, the anti-Israel BDS movement.
The demand directed at Israel goes like this: give the Palestinians their own state, or rights (citizenship in Israel), or face consequences. This is a ludicrous demand, and a vile threat.
First, Israel’s offers to create a Palestinian state have been rebuffed by a Palestinian leadership that has, since the early days of Oslo, been outspoken in its desire to use the peace process as a Trojan Horse, to exert global pressure on Israel and to ultimately destroy it. There are certainly pro-two state solution Palestinians, but they have no political home. Without such a Palestinian power structure, there can be no deal or unilateral West Bank pullout. Platitudes about “there’s enough blame to go around,” or “extremists on both sides” may sound wise and nuanced to the uninformed, but are ignorant and offensive to those who’ve reviewed and weighed all the evidence.
Second, the claim that Palestinian “rights” can be realized with Israeli citizenship is based on a false premise: that Palestinians are willing to abolish their own society to live in a shared one with a large Jewish population. As a helpful reminder, Israeli society and Palestinian society are quite distinct, based on several major cultural markers, not due to any forced separation by Israel. Framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one about civil rights, though perhaps well intended by some, is based on a propaganda ploy to simplify the issue, and to repackage Palestinian rejection of Israel as a noble and relatable rejection of Israeli “racism and apartheid”.
As Rashida Tlaib recently commented on the matter, “separate but equal doesn’t work.” Powerful words, but dishonest. Yet it is Tlaib and Ilhan Omar (the two newest members of Congress) that Weisman cites as the “new voices” emerging, who are “willing to speak openly about Palestinian rights and autonomy.” Open they certainly are. Omar has infamously tweeted that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Tlaib’s anti-Israel activity includes accusing Zionists of dual loyalty, symbolically replacing Israel on her congressional office map with “Palestine,” speaking at anti-Israel rallies decrying Israel’s “illegal occupation of Palestine” (I’ll go out on a limb and presume she wasn’t referring to just the West Bank) and associating with radical anti-Israel activists. Of course, both Tlaib and Omar endorse BDS, which Weisman dishonestly implies is merely a response to a stalled peace process.
By soft-pedaling Israel’s opponents and the uncompromisingly anti-Zionist BDS movement as well meaning, and driven by peace process frustration, Weisman unwittingly reveals why many, if not most, Israelis view with distrust and derision the American Jews who lecture them about peace.
I identify as a liberal and am disgusted by Trump, yet I can’t imagine holding any Israeli in contempt for their approval of an American president who’s supportive of positions Israelis see as matters of life or death. I have a hard time believing Israelis support Trump for his statements about women or the environment. More to the point, and very understandably, Israelis’ first priority is national security and personal safety.
Similarly, it’s ridiculous to believe that Israelis support relations with Hungary’s Orban for his authoritarian rule, or the Philippines’ Duterte for his policing methods, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro for his anti-LGBT positions or Russia’s Putin for, well anything. But there’s something called realpolitik, and Israel is too small, too threatened by its neighbors and too often thrown under the bus by traditional “allies” like Germany, France, the UK (imagine if Israel hater Corbyn becomes Prime Minister) and even the US to be so choosy about forming new alliances.
The older generation of American Jews, Weisman tells us, “looks past Israeli actions that challenge their values.” He forgot to include the younger generation. Most young liberal American Jews, like me, don’t lose sleep over Israel’s less than progressive alliances or its conservative politics. We have our values challenged not by bad optics, or mistakes Israel makes and tries to fix, but by things that matter in the real world: dishonest reporting about Israel, the unquestioning embrace of anti-Zionism by a growing number of progressives, or the bizarrely gullible whitewashing of Israel’s enemies.
Also challenging our values are American Jews like Weisman who publicly defame Israel. Or those Jews who sabotage Birthright trips to publicize how clueless we all are. It seems that a small minority of Jews can’t find a megaphone loud enough to blare how far Israel has strayed, under the delusion they’re saving Israel from itself. Perhaps they fear being labeled one of the “bad” Jews.
Israel’s democracy continues to grow (the most recent global democracy index had it sandwiched between Belgium and France – how validating!). It leads the world in LGBT rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, life-saving tech and assistance to developing nations. It’s integrating, and investing in, its Arab population as never before and it’s forming new alliances with countries like Chad, Mauritania and Oman.
There will always be critics who focus on the negative. Israelis do that too. They’re also not happy with the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold over marriage, and embarrassed when a conservative rabbi in Haifa was reprimanded for performing a non-sanctioned one. Yet Israelis continually rank as one of the happiest nations on earth.
Israelis, as self-critical as they are (American Jews – take note), can also smell when criticism is patently BS, when it’s based on lies and half-truths. For example, when critics, such as Weisman, refer to Netanyahu’s 2015 campaign appeal to his base that “left wing organizations” were bringing “Arab voters (his political opposition) to the polls in droves.” While his statement unacceptably appealed to people’s baser instincts (for which he later apologized), it was in fact based on truth: former Obama administration officials outrageously campaigned in Israel to unseat Netanyahu, focusing on getting out the vote for certain sectors of Israeli society likely to vote against Likud. That Netanyahu’s “Arabs” comment got all the media attention, and the election tampering charge got next to none speaks volumes of the bias working against Israel, even from its supposed best friend America.
Many Israelis are also well aware that foreign governments, often through NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations), try to tamper with Israeli democracy and with assisting Palestinian political stunts. Israel a few years ago passed the NGO Transparency Law requiring NGOs receiving most of their funds from foreign governments to disclose those details. In response to the chorus of foreign critics blaring that this was Israel’s slide away from democracy and toward authoritarianism, many Israelis rightfully scoffed.
Israelis are aware that their critics, internal and external, make hysterical and hyperbolic claims, like “reform Jews have been roughed up at the Western Wall.” Or when an American rabbi, quoted by Weisman, reads to his congregation the words of an Israeli who fears a “threat to my life” from fellow Israelis. Seriously?
Toward the end of his litany against Israel, Weisman, perhaps to show he is being even handed, stumbles on to the heart of the matter with this token but honest line about Israeli security:
“American Jews don’t serve in the Israeli military, don’t pay Israeli taxes and don’t live under the threat of Hamas rocket bombardments.”
That’s right! We don’t live in Israel and are far removed from the Israeli security calculus. We don’t have to deal with the consequences of critics’ naivety and short-sightedness. Still, we support Israel.
Sometimes the optics in Israel aren’t ideal. Sometimes we might be uncomfortable by what this or that Israeli says or does, especially when virtually every news agency rushes to (mis)report it. But there are practical, political matters for Israel’s survival that we as American Jews should slow down and think about, study and learn.
Israel isn’t being abandoned, not by American Jewry or Diaspora Jewry generally, who feel the threat of increasing anti-Semitism all around them. The claims of a schism aren’t just wrong, they’re vile wishful thinking for those who resent Israel’s particularism, its confidence and its stunning success. Perhaps most of all, they resent Israel’s universalism and progressivism because, more often than not, it puts America’s to shame.