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‘Occupation Über Alles’

Until American progressives accept that the occupation is not the central issue for Israelis, we're going to have a hard time reunifying the Jewish people
All That's Left activists stand in front of a banner reading, 'We need to talk about the occupation,' at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv, October 24, 2018. (Steven Davidson/ Times of Israel)
All That's Left activists stand in front of a banner reading, 'We need to talk about the occupation,' at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv, October 24, 2018. (Steven Davidson/ Times of Israel)

Let’s begin with what we know.

First, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is humiliating for the Palestinians and it is callousing of Israel’s soul. No matter what one’s theological viewpoint — God gave us the land, God did not give us the land, God is not part of this equation — there can be no doubt: the current situation demeans the Palestinians and challenges our morality. Just ask lots of the soldiers who have served there, even those who did not witness anything particularly terrible: you can smell the humiliation everywhere. Not a single one of Zionism’s great thinkers ever envisioned or sought anything like the situation in which we find ourselves. We should end this, and separate from the Palestinians, as soon as we can.

Second, we’re asking the wrong question about the occupation. “When will Israel end the occupation,” or more commonly among many American Jewish progressives, “What can we do to pressure Israel to end the occupation?” are the wrong questions. The right question lies emblazoned on the other side of that same coin: “When will the Palestinians declare an end to their desire to destroy Israel, so Israelis might be more willing to consider making territorial and security concessions?” As long as the Palestinians insist that they are committed to destroying Israel (see Article XIII in the Hamas Charter), why would any sane Israeli depart the West Bank without guarantees that Hamas will not take over that territory, too, turning it into another Gaza, with the results we saw this week? Our conversation about making the situation better would be infinitely more useful if we spoke about the Palestinians and their role in this mess at least as much as we speak about the Israelis.

But for a very long time, American Jewish progressive leaders have not wanted to do that. And they still do not. Consider, as just one example, this Facebook post by Rabbi Jill Jacobs on November 14, 2019, the very same day that Israeli parents were comforting and sleeping with their terrified and distraught children on the concrete floors of bomb shelters. She wrote this post in response to a painful column in the New York Times by a George Washington University student named Blake Flayton about anti-Semitism among progressives on American university campuses, and she explained who was to blame for that hatred of the Jews. The culprit? Israel, of course, and the occupation. Note that the Palestinians play no role in her narrative and bear no responsibility. The Palestinians have no agency — only Israel is responsible. I am sure that Rabbi Jacobs genuinely believes that this narrative is what’s needed to improve the lives of those of us who live in the region and the plight of young American Jews struggling on increasingly hostile American campuses. But what I believe she does not understand is that views like hers, given how oblivious they are to Israelis’ reality, lead many Israelis to have no interest in what American Jews think about them, when what we need is precisely the opposite.

Third, and as a result of the above, those who know anything about Israel know that there are very, very few Israelis who proclaim “end the occupation now.” I imagine that some American progressives explain that by believing that American Jewish moral sensibilities are more finely honed than those of Israelis. More rational observers, though, would do well to note the following: Benny Gantz, should he ever become prime minister, will not change Israel’s policy regarding the Palestinians. And American Jews will then discover that the problem was not Bibi (of whom I’m no fan, don’t get me wrong), but the situation itself. Even Bougie Herzog, who ran against Bibi in 2015 representing the left-leaning Labor Party, did not advocate a different policy regarding the Palestinians.

Micha Goodman, whose excellent book, Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War has aroused much discussion among Israelis about the occupation, does not discuss how to end it. If anything, he argues (as he summed up in his article in The Atlantic, “Eight Steps to Shrink the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”) that the most we can do at present is to minimize its humiliating impact on the Palestinians.

Or consider Commanders for Israel’s Security, founded by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amnon Reshef, a highly regarded hero of the Yom Kippur War and joined by almost 300 high ranking former Israeli officers who are worried about the status quo and are vehemently opposed to annexing the West Bank. Yet even CIS, probably the most high-profile group in Israel advocating a change in Israel’s policies, is not suggesting an end to the occupation. They acknowledge that that’s out of the question for the time being; what they propose is making sure that Israel does not take steps now that would preclude an eventual separation from the Palestinians.

Because the vast majority of Israelis believe that, grinding and terrible as it is, the occupation isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future (very likely not in the lifetimes of anyone reading this post), and many American Jews cannot abide an Israel that they see as an occupying power, the rift between our two communities is growing wider and deeper. And because I believe the Jewish people can ill-afford this chasm, it seemed important to me to enable us to have a deeper conversation, in which we acknowledge what we have long been unwilling to say: American Jews and Israelis have become very different sorts of communities. One is universalist and one is particularist. In one, Judaism is a religion while in the other it is a national project. We have different attitudes to being active players in history, to the role of religion in the public square and many other divergent views. It is not that one is right and one is wrong — we have just grown apart and have become very unlike each other. Therefore, I suggested in my newest book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel, that if we understood how differently we each see the world, we might be able to have conversations with and about each that were less critical, and more devoted to learning from and being challenged by the very different expressions of Jewish life on the other side of the pond, even if we continued to disagree about certain policy issues.

Of course, that argument cuts against the standard explanations for the rift between the two communities. Conventional wisdom has it that the divide between American Jews and Israel is due to Israel’s often reprehensible rabbinate, the nation-state law — but most of all, the occupation. But I argue that given that relations between American Jews and Israel were explosive long before the occupation or the nasty Rabbinate or the Nation-State Law (there was showdown between Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann in 1921 over whether Zionism was about building a state or a community, a massive brouhaha in 1950 between Ben Gurion and the AJC’s Jacob Blaustein over whether Israel was now the center of the Jewish world, and many American Jewish leaders were enraged when Israel captured Adolph Eichmann in 1960, since Eichmann had not killed any Israelis, obviously, so it was not Israel’s role to grab him, they said), there have to be other fundamental causes for the rift. My purpose in We Stand Divided was two-fold: to illustrate what some of those causes were, and to suggest how we might move the conversation away from a focus exclusively on the occupation, which is not going to change for now, and to highlight other more interesting dimensions of our relationship. It is possible, I believe, to change and deepen the conversation, without any of us having to give up our political, cultural or moral commitments.

Perhaps naively, I didn’t believe I was writing a controversial book. I thought I was illuminating certain long-forgotten chapters of the long and complex history between the two communities, and illustrating how different have become the visions of Judaism in our two communities. But what I have discovered since the book was published a couple of months ago is that assailing Israel for the occupation is not simply a part of the conversation for American Jewish progressives, but rather, it is the central pillar of progressives’ political and moral orthodoxy. We might call their worldview “Occupation Über Alles” — “the occupation above all else.” And therefore, not surprisingly in retrospect, reviews have pretty much reflected the political divide. Writers from the center and the right have given We Stand Divided positive reviews, while those on the left have been far more critical.

Reviewers on the left have every right to critique the book, of course. One would have hoped, though, that they could do without casting accuracy and intellectual integrity to the wind. Judith Shulevitz, who reviewed We Stand Divided for the New York Times, is emblematic of those American Jews who will not give up the orthodoxy of occupation-centric discourse about Israel, but who is also willing to jettison accuracy in order to throw her darts. Because We Stand Divided does not place the occupation front and center as the main subject for discussion, it was not surprising that she would fire away at the book. (You know that when the New York Times calls you a “prolific defender of Israel” and adds that you work at a “stoutly Zionist liberal-arts college in Jerusalem,” what follows is not going to be pretty.) But that accuracy wouldn’t matter in the pages of the New York Times was more disappointing.

Here are just a few examples of what the Times considered “fit to print,” emblematic, I fear, of the lengths to which certain portions of the American Jewish political spectrum will go to avoid changing the conversation about Israel, even if they have to jettison truth.

  • Shulevitz writes that “Gordis’s biases are nothing compared with the louder silence that echoes through this book. …. Astonishingly, Gordis reduces the Palestinian question to a footnote ….”

But on page 36, for example, smack in the middle of the page (which sure doesn’t look like a footnote to me), I have a sentence that says “… millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation – even if it is an occupation that Israel did not seek and has tried to end – is … a threat to Israel’s moral and democratic core.” Did Shulevitz intentionally lie, or did she just not read the book carefully before she wrote her review?

  • Shulevitz writes of “Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the brilliant, charismatic founder of Revisionist Zionism, whom Gordis calls Zionism’s ‘guiding spirit.’” And then she says that I’m wrong, because Jabotinsky was not Zionism’s “guiding spirit.”

But her sentence is actually, well, again completely untrue. What my book actually says is: “In what would become the guiding spirit of Israel’s political right in decades to come, Jabotinsky said, ‘The only way to obtain such an agreement, is the iron wall, which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure.’” In other words, I never said that Jabotinsky was Zionism’s “guiding spirit,” but rather, that one of his ideas became the guiding spirit of Israel’s political right. That assertion is incontrovertibly true, so to take it down, Shulevitz has no choice but to radically misrepresent what I said.

  • My positive nod towards Jabotinsky elicits another gross inaccuracy. “And here is where the author’s partisanship comes to the fore. Revisionism is Zionism in its maximally militaristic form.”

That’s just ignorant. Does Shulevitz know nothing about the Lechi, which broke away from the Revisionist Irgun because they thought Revisionism was too soft on the British and the Arabs? The Lechi was far more militaristic than the Irgun. Does she not know that it was Revisionists who critiqued the Zionist left for paying insufficient attention to the Arabs’ genuine love of their land, which, said the Revisionists, was no less genuine than the Jews’ love of the Land of Israel? A bit of homework would have enabled her to hone her argument.

  • No stone gets left unturned in Shulevitz’ desire to suggest that any read of Israel that does not place the occupation front and center is a misread of Zionism. “Zionism was never one thing or its opposite. It was a vibrant, contentious stew of ideologies and their representatives,” she said, but then says, “Gordis alludes to Zionist plurality but downplays it.”

If she’d spent five minutes on Google, she’d have discovered that my history of Israel, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, has an entire chapter entitled “A Conversation, Not an Ideology: Zionist Divisions at the Turn of the Century.” Would she have me just reprint that chapter in everything I write? Wouldn’t she then have criticized my repeating myself?

The examples abound, but the point is clear. We Stand Divided does not blame our complex and fraught relationship primarily on the occupation, so if a book can be born in sin, it is, as far as Shulevitz is concerned. And therefore, even accuracy can be cast overboard in the drive to “take it down.”

Needless to say, Shulevitz has no suggestion as to how Israelis can end the occupation without endangering their children. Yet she feels comfortable speaking about “the abuses” of Israel’s foreign policy; obviously, as she lives in New York, the specter of the West Bank turning into Gaza isn’t her problem. I will confess that, particularly this week when Israeli parents had to comfort their distraught children who had run time and again to bomb shelters and had to try desperately to sleep there on the concrete, it felt to me fundamentally immoral for her to suggest that we should endanger our children in Israel so she can assuage her conscience in Manhattan.

That immorality aside, her complete misread of Israeli society is astounding. Because Shulevitz, like many American Jews, cannot abide Israel’s militarism, she retains hope that a “a new Israeli government may reverse the previous one’s extremely right-wing foreign policies.” Yet that simply illustrates how thin is her understanding of Israel’s politics and its people. As I argued in the Times not long ago, a Gantz government is not likely to change Israel’s foreign policy almost at all; if anything, Netanyahu has been quite war averse, and Gantz might well not be. If Shulevitz knew more about Israel, she would know that the occupation has not been a campaign issue in any of Israel’s recent elections — even for the left-leaning parties. Is that because Israelis by the millions are morally calloused and need American progressives to teach them ethical thinking? Or is it, perhaps, because while American progressives are embarrassed by Israel, Israelis are largely proud of their country, and before anything else, they will do whatever is required for it — and them — to survive?

These, then, are the questions we must ask ourselves. Can Israelis learn to see in American Judaism an extraordinary project that has in many ways succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, that has brought feminism to Judaism, pluralism to Jewish discourse, creativity to Jewish ritual and much more? And can American Jews come to see Israel for the extraordinary success that it is, recognizing that though they might well wish reality was otherwise, Israel’s job is not to satisfy an American-style progressive quest for virtuousness, but rather, to be a haven for the Jewish people, to survive and to perpetuate what is without question the greatest revival of Jewish national, cultural and intellectual life that the Jewish people has witnessed in 2,000 years?

My bet in writing We Stand Divided was that we can, actually, learn to have this kind of conversation, and in so doing, to enrich our thinking in both communities. I still believe that is possible, even if among some Israelis and some American progressives, no progress will be made. The rest of us, though, need to roll up our sleeves and get to work, before the notion of a single Jewish people is nothing more than a vague and romantic memory.

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel," was published in September 2019.
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