Israel

Recent weeks have brought a steady stream of interesting reports about Israel’s internal politics and how those politics relate to the rest of the world.

To whit: Israel Roiled After Chomsky Barred From West Bank:

Front-page coverage and heated morning radio discussions asked how Mr. Chomsky, an 81-year-old professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could pose a risk to Israel and how a country that frequently asserts its status as a robust democracy could keep out people whose views it found offensive. …

The decision to bar him from entering the West Bank to speak at Birzeit, a Palestinian university, “is a foolish act in a frequent series of recent follies,” remarked Boaz Okun, the legal commentator of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, in his Monday column. “Put together, they may mark the end of Israel as a law-abiding and freedom-loving state, or at least place a large question mark over this notion.” …

Some conservative members of Parliament said they had no objection to the decision. “This is a decision of principle between the democratic ideal — and we all want freedom of speech and movement — and the need to protect our existence,” said Otniel Schneller, of the centrist Kadima party, on Israel Radio. “Let’s say he came to lecture at Birzeit. What would he say that? That Israel kills Arabs, that Israel is an apartheid state?”

In another three months, Mr. Schneller went on, some Israeli would be standing over her son’s grave, the victim of incitement “in the name of free speech.” People like Mr. Chomsky, he added, do not have to be granted permission to enter.

Chomsky, the Times feels it must clarify, does not speak out against the existence of Israel, but does criticize its politics and policies. In this sense, he is not entirely unlike various Israeli politicians and indeed the Israeli Supreme Court, who criticize the use of torture and policies verging onto (or perhaps into) apartheid.

The notion that someone could be banned from entering a liberal democracy simply because that person has criticized the nation’s policies is absurd. I hope Otniel Schneller is on the fringes of Israeli politics, because his remarks validate all of the major criticisms leveled against Israel by its allies in the West.

When candidates for public office woo AIPAC (the political action committee which acts on behalf of Israeli interests), they must view a short video which emphasizes that Israel is the only stable democracy in the Middle East. They must write an essay explaining how they will work to protect Israel because of its unique status as a stable Middle Eastern democracy. This is one of Israel’s great claims on American assistance (economic, diplomatic, and military). But situations like this with Chomsky strike at the heart of the claim to stable democracy.

More fundamental, of course, is Israel’s handling of the occupied territories, the land and people who will inevitably one day constitute a Palestinian state. There is no sense in which Israel’s handling of Palestine-to-be can be considered stable or democratic. Territories which were ceded to the Palestinian Authority in ratified treaties now host Israeli settlements guarded by IDF soldiers. What was meant to be a cohesive and independent state of Palestine is now an archipelago – what one official calls “the new Philippines.

For the last 60 years, Israel’s comparatively stable, relatively democratic governance was enough to keep it in Washington’s good graces, and a surprising number of American Jews were willing to buy into the absurd argument that criticism of Israeli policy must be beyond the pale – such criticism taken as a sign of self-hatred and incipient anti-Semitism. Criticizing the details of Israeli policy the way we routinely critique American political decisions was portrayed as a betrayal of those who died in the Holocaust and an act in concert with those who wish the eradication of Israel (and all Jews).

As Peter Beinart demonstrates in a remarkable essay in the New York Review of Books, that dynamic is changing. The whole essay is well worth reading, as it lays out in brilliant detail the shifting fault lines that Israeli outreach to American Jews must navigate. The Israel Beinart describes is unmoored from its founding principles of liberal democracy, so bound up in striving to keep Palestinians in subjugation that it risks losing its own soul. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the essay, though, is that this indictment of Israel is penned by Beinart, a former editor-in-chief at The New Republic and protege of that magazine’s rabidly anti-Arab publisher, Marty Peretz.

That Israel is losing young American Jews from so deep within its own ideological camp should be sounding alarm bells at AIPAC, and Beinart’s essay is as good a start as any to explaining why this shift is happening. I’ll quote the opening paragraphs, and let you read the rest:

In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel. In response, he unwittingly produced the most damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever seen.

The philanthropists wanted to know what Jewish students thought about Israel. Luntz found that they mostly didn’t. “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” he reported. “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word ‘they‘ rather than ‘us‘ to describe the situation.”

That Luntz encountered indifference was not surprising. In recent years, several studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing “a near-total absence of positive feelings.” In 2008, the student senate at Brandeis, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in America, rejected a resolution commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state.

Luntz’s task was to figure out what had gone wrong. When he probed the students’ views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, “they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” These young Jews, Luntz explained, “resist anything they see as ‘group think.’” They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, “young Jews desperately want peace.” When Luntz showed them a series of ads, one of the most popular was entitled “Proof that Israel Wants Peace,” and listed offers by various Israeli governments to withdraw from conquered land. Third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” When Luntz displayed ads depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends.

Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.

This is a rather remarkable divide between younger American Jews and older American Jews. While the description above roughly matches my general experience in discussing Israel with my own cohort (on the rare occasions when the topic arises), most of my parents’ generation is far more defensive toward Israel.

Compare the description above, for instance, with the New Yorker’s recent profile of Haim Saban, an American with dual citizenship in Israel who uses his vast fortune (earned in part by introducing the Power Rangers to the US) to promote Israeli interests:

His greatest concern, he says, is to protect Israel, by strengthening the United States-Israel relationship. At a conference last fall in Israel, Saban described his formula. His “three ways to be influential in American politics,” he said, were: make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets. In 2002, he contributed seven million dollars toward the cost of a new building for the Democratic National Committee—one of the largest known donations ever made to an American political party. That year, he also founded the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. He considered buying The New Republic, but decided it wasn’t for him. He also tried to buy Time and Newsweek, but neither was available. He and his private-equity partners acquired Univision in 2007, and he has made repeated bids for the Los Angeles Times.

He describes himself elsewhere as “a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” But what does it mean to support Israel. Beinart quotes Israel Prize winner and Hebrew University Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, describing certain ministers in the current Israeli government: “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post–World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.” Beinart adds: “With their blessing, ‘a crude and multifaceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.’ Sternhell should know. In September 2008, he was injured when a settler set off a pipe bomb at his house.”

Such violence, intellectual and physical, is inconsistent with democracy, inconsistent with the ideals that Israel and its supporters tout. And such violence is not constrained to Israel. Just this month, the house of Berkeley’s Rabbi Michael Lerner, an avid proponent of peace between Jews and Palestinians, was vandalized with posters and stickers attacking his political views.

Israel has long legitimately claimed the moral high ground in Middle Eastern politics. But there is a growing dissonance between Israel’s actions and the actions taken by those acting on its behalf (with or without the government’s knowledge) and the ideals Israel is meant to stand for. That disconnect fuels the generation gap Beinart describes, and too often cuts off what could be productive public debate. When groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a United Nations investigation all conclude that Israel engages in human rights abuses, it strains credulity to reply by insisting these groups harbor “anti-Israel bias” (as Beinart quotes an AIPAC spokesperson saying).

What, then, to do? I’ll briefly quote two bits from Beinart’s piece that suggest a positive direction:

In Israel itself, voices from the left, and even center, warn in increasingly urgent tones about threats to Israeli democracy. (Former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have both said that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it continues to hold the West Bank. This April, when settlers forced a large Israeli bookstore to stop selling a book critical of the occupation, Shulamit Aloni, former head of the dovish Meretz Party, declared that “Israel has not been democratic for some time now.”) But in the United States, groups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace. …

while American Jewish groups claim that they are simply defending Israel from its foes, they are actually taking sides in a struggle within Israel between radically different Zionist visions.

It’s possible to defend the right and even the necessity of Israel’s existence, while still disputing the policies Israel employs. Indeed, if one believes that Israel is destroying itself through its actions, speaking out against those policies is a necessary part of saving Israel. It is not anti-Israel to agree with former Prime Ministers Olmert and Barak that Israel’s actions in the West Bank are leading towards an “apartheid state.” Nor is it anti-Israel to fear, as Israeli party leader and Knesset member Shulamit Aloni does, that “Israel has not been democratic for some time now.” Noam Chomsky’s experience tends to bear out that claim, as do the experiences of residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

Comments

  1. #1 Elf Eye
    May 19, 2010

    Do you really think that “the land and people…will inevitably one day constitute a Palestinian state”? For that to happen, Israel will have to dismantle the settlements. Can you imagine Israel ever mustering the political will to take that step? I think it likelier that Israel will hold on to the land and that, after decades of struggle, like the Afrikaners the Israelis will have to acknowledge demographic reality and grant Palestinians there rights within a unitary state. In the end it will be impossible to sustain the contradiction of clinging to land while pretending that its residents are not citizens.

  2. #2 Elf Eye
    May 19, 2010

    Correction: “their rights” rather than “there rights.”

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