Reprinted with Permission (emphasis mine)
Engaging With Israel: Challenges and Opportunities for American Jews
Discussion with Peter Beinart at CCAR Convention, New Orleans
March 30, 2011
By: Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
Chevre: This feels really good. It has been seven years since I have addressed so many rabbis in one place at one time. Thank you for inviting me.
Thank you also to Peter Beinart. It is good to see you again. You are among friends here. We cherish debate. And we welcome, and thank you, for these opportunities to dialogue together.
You can hear variations of the following conversation every day in our rabbinical work: A rabbi asks a congregant: “How are things going at home.” “In a word,” the congregant responds: “Good.” And in two words, the rabbi asks: “In two words, “not good.”
There are some good points that Peter raises. Let me briefly address these first:
One: Peter is right to emphasize that values matter. Jews, especially, cannot retreat from the struggle for human dignity, decency and democracy. Nor can we overlook our own misdeeds, even if they are painful to admit.
Furthermore, the high moral ground is not merely the most pleasing and values-compatible place to be, it is also a matter of national security for Israel. The perception that Israel is a decent and moral country is the key ingredient of American political support.
Two: I agree with Peter that in the long run, continuing Israeli rule of Palestinian-inhabited territories is untenable. Israeli leaders from Rabin to Sharon, from Barak to Olmert and Netanyahu – have all cautioned that the very nature of democratic Zionism is threatened. They have all, therefore, agreed to a two-state solution.
Three: Peter is right to emphasize that settlements are an important component of the Palestinian/Israeli dispute and a two-state solution will require dismantling some settlements.
Four: Peter is right to point out that we must pay close attention to the next generation of liberal Jews.
Five: Peter rightly encourages us to reflect more deeply on whether the “Jewish Establishment” – whatever that means – is, in fact, as broadly representative as we thought.
So – what is not-so-good in Peter’s analysis? I will highlight four points:
One: The Jewish Establishment
As I read it, the main assertion of his important article, entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” is that the Jewish Establishment bears central responsibility for pushing Jews – especially young Jews – away from Israel.
Fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster – indeed have actively opposed – a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank.
Come on: You mean to tell me that if we only criticized Israel more our Jews would be less alienated from Israel; that the reason they are becoming alienated is because we are all marching in lockstep with some neo-conservative philosophy that has overtaken American Judaism?
There is alienation occurring; there is a distancing taking place, but it is not because of AIPAC or the American Jewish Committee or the Jewish Establishment. It is because of what we rabbis confront every day.
Anyone who has spent any time with liberal and progressive Jews knows that identification with Israel tends to be in direct proportion to identification with Judaism. Identification with Israel is the consequence of Jewish identity, not its cause – especially for younger Jews. American Jews identify with Israel if they identify with Judaism. If they do not identify with Judaism they tend not to have strong feelings for Israel.
There are studies that support this – I draw your attention to some recent surveys: the Brandeis group: Still Connected; Cohen and Kelman, Beyond Distancing, Barack-Fishman: Reimagining Jewishness, and Ukeles Associates’ Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today.
While the data are mixed, there appears to be a certain consensus that the roots of alienation have practically nothing to do with the Conference of Presidents or the ADL – but rather – that assimilation is the root cause of alienation.
What we are experiencing in our individual synagogues is occurring throughout the country: a fight to keep Jews affiliated and a shift in the attachment of those who are affiliated from the communal arena to the personal sphere – a form of religious identity that is the norm in Christian America.
What did we think? That year after year and decade after decade of assimilation would not eventually take its toll and finally express itself in multiple ways? The discussions we are having about the URJ and its future are a reflection of these mega-trends.
To suggest that these historic changes are occurring because of AIPAC or the Jewish establishment is wrong. The so-called Jewish Establishment does not create Jews nor is it responsible for their alienation. All that the Jewish Establishment does is to harness Jewish energy that has already been created and leverage that energy towards broader goals.
Among the key forces that actually creates Jewish identity is us: synagogues. And therefore – with respect to Jewish identity and attachment to Israel, rabbis, collectively, have more influence on future trends than the national Jewish Establishment.
In the United States groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel…
So what? That is their job – to lobby for their views. I have heard a lot of scolding from the opponents of AIPAC too – actually more.
AIPAC is a broadly representative body of that part of American Jewry that is politically, religiously or institutionally active. If it is influential it is not because they patrol the mean streets looking for unruly liberals, but because they broadly represent Jewish opinion on Israel and do an effective job. We ourselves, Reform rabbis and leaders of the URJ, are on the AIPAC board.
You can say a lot of things about us, but you cannot credibly claim that we have been snookered or intimidated by a cabal of neo-conservatives who have silenced our voice, and this is what is causing progressive Jews to become alienated from Israel.
Two: Red Lines
I believe in pluralism; I believe in dialogue and I believe that the Jewish community is better served when it has the broadest possible organizational representation: And even if I didn’t believe this – so what? Can anyone prevent Jews from talking and organizing?
But I have red lines.
- If Jews, in the name of Judaism and the Jewish community, advocate boycotting Israel;
- if they lobby for UN and international sanctions against Israel;
- if they propose divestments;
- if they pressure Congress to reduce foreign aid;
Then – the organized Jewish community – what Peter calls the Jewish Establishment – must oppose these forces with everything we’ve got. Scolding them is the least of it.
First: because these views are marginal in the Jewish community.
Second: because these views threaten the very existence of Israel. I draw the line at restricting Israel’s right or capacity to defend itself.
And third: these views are morally outrageous, especially if you express them in the name of the Jewish people.
Not in my name.
Anti-democratic regimes are boycotted not democracies. Libya should be sanctioned, not Israel. Myanmar should be boycotted, not Israel. Divest from China if you care about human rights, not Israel.
The idea of an international order might be good in theory. In practice, when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, the UN often resembles a den of iniquities producing a din of inequities.
Until Gadaffi’s bloodbath, Libya was a member in excellent standing of the UN Human Rights Council. 155 states voted Libya in. The Goldstone Report emerged from this forum. The flotilla investigation emerged from this forum.
In January, a month before the outbreak of violence in Libya, the following members of the UN Working Group reviewing Libya praised Libyan human rights efforts: Algeria, Qatar, Syria, North Korea, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Venezuela, Cuba, Egypt, Iran and Myanmar.
And it is democratic Israel that should be boycotted?
In the midst of revolutionary uprisings exploding in the Arab world, the UN Security Council voted on condemning settlements. Are you kidding? Many Jews urged the Administration not to veto the resolution and allow it to pass.
Freedom forces are fighting to break the shackles of authoritarianism in the Middle East and in the midst of all this the UN is attacking the region’s only democracy: and Jewish organizations, in the name of the Jewish people, are lobbying for American support for the resolution?
These revolutions sweeping the Arab world lay bare the preposterousness of the argument that we have been subjected to for so many years: that Israel causes the anger on the Arab street.
It is now clear for all to see. The primary cause of the anger on the Arab street is corrupt Arab regimes that cannot deliver food, medicines and decent standards of living to their populations. You mean to tell me that a few apartment complexes in Gilo – or Maaleh Adumim – or even Ariel – is what caused the Egyptian street to revolt? You think that the Libyans in Benghazi care about the Jews in Efrat? If Israel plays any role at all – it is that Arabs look at Israel and ask themselves: why over there and not over here?
How preposterous it all seems now. While brittle Arab regimes were oppressing hundreds of millions of their own citizens there was barely a blip in the international community; the moment the streets explode, the UN votes to condemn Israel?!
It is reflective of the mass confusion of our era when we allow a small democracy fighting for its life in the world’s worst neighborhood to be savaged as if it were an anti-democratic dictatorship; savaged by forces that are themselves anti-democratic dictatorships and who perversely appropriate the very language of human rights that we progressives developed over centuries of hard struggle.
It is not the language of liberal Zionism that has been drained of meaning, as you write, Peter; it is the language of human rights that has been drained of meaning.
Three: Context Matters:
Oscar Wilde attributed to Thomas Carlyle the idea that you could write an entire biography of Michelangelo without mentioning the artistic works of Michelangelo.
Reality is so complex, said Carlyle, and so fragmentary, and history is so simplified, that you could write a history of Michelangelo’s dreams, a history of his medical conditions, a history of the mistakes he made – but never actually mention the sculptures of David and Moses or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
And such a biography might be true in every last detail, but the net effect would be to portray a false impression of Michelangelo.
This is what often happens when activists – Jews and non-Jews – speak about Israel. By obsessive focus on Israel’s failings, by singling Israel out as if she alone has such failings, even if these failings are real; by refusing to take into account the unique context under which Israel labors – these accounts become distorted and deceitful.
It is not “shaa don’t talk;” not at all. It is that if all you talk about is Israel’s failings, you are distorting the reality. And it is not enough for us to say that we are simply repeating what many Israelis themselves say.
When Haaretz writes an editorial or when a member of Knesset gives a speech, or when Israelis protest on the streets, these are processed through a shared context of love for Israel and a strong Zionist identity. The identical words here are understood in an entirely different way.
We know this from our own personal lives. It is one thing if our spouse or partner tells us what they consider the truth about our failings in the privacy of our home. It is quite another thing if our partner were to say the identical words at a board meeting that was convened to discuss our contract – let alone – if these statements were to appear on the front page of the local newspaper.
And let us not be seduced by the rather condescending argument that we are helping to save Israel from itself. I think that Israel has done a pretty good job saving itself in the past six decades.
It is not a political tactic: By joining those who speak only of Israel’s faults and not the enormous contributions that Israel has made to the welfare of Jews and the world; by allowing unimpeded Israel-bashing masquerading as justice, human rights and international law, we distort reality.
And it is our role – and certainly the role of the Jewish Establishment - to put the discussion about Israel in proper and more balanced context. If not us, then who? Life is about context. Truth is about context. In Israel this context is already taken into account when people protest and assert rights. But abroad, the context is often dominated by Israel’s enemies.
Even if you were to concede that Israel has made mistakes, surely it is not Israel’s fault alone that there is no peace. After all, it takes at least two to make peace. You cannot make peace only with yourself. Often people talk about how Israel should do this and Israel should do that as if it is in Israel’s power alone to shape events. As we speak the Palestinians refuse even to negotiate with the Israeli government.
Most Israelis are desperate for peace. Is it that Israelis like sending their children to fight and die in wars? Surely, there is some fault on the other side as well, no? And isn’t that also part of the context?
There is a campaign to delegitimate Israel. To deny this is to deny reality. There is a campaign to weaken Israel. There is a campaign to portray Israel in the most negative light possible. This is an existential threat to Israel – a far greater threat than apartment complexes in Efrat, which in any case, will remain in Israel upon the permanent resolution.
We rabbis, the Jewish Establishment, and all others who define themselves as pro-Israel – cannot place ourselves in circumstances where we actually give aid and comfort to those who seek Israel’s destruction, or weaken Israel in any way, especially in its capacity to defend itself.
4. Liberalism and the Youth
Because [the younger generation’s] liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.
As a liberal, I recoil at the characterization that the liberalism of the Jewish establishment is fake, and it is the youth who represent true liberalism.
I was once in college. Some of us are not necessarily proud of the positions we held in our salad days, when we were young and green in judgment. As important as the youth are to the future of the world, they are not always right, as each of us is not always right; and they are not decision-makers in a complicated world where theories meet the ultimate test of reality, and thus, over time their positions often change.
Mark Twain wrote:
When I was fourteen my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
Peter, himself, has changed his thinking dramatically in the last seven years.
In fact, seven years ago, when Peter was the editor-at-large of the New Republic, he might have been able to give my speech this evening. Seven years ago, in 2004, he wrote an important essay entitled: “A Fighting Faith: An Argument for a New Liberalism.”
Peter wrote these soaring and inspiring words:
Islamist totalitarianism…threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism’s north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.
Now, like anyone, Peter is entitled to change his mind. Still, his argument seven years ago did not constitute fake liberalism. It was real; it was compelling – and it is the liberalism we need today more than ever.
Israel is on the front lines of the free peoples of the world facing down what you, Peter, called Islamist totalitarianism. It threatens Israelis like no other people in the world. It is right across the border, coming ever closer to the heartland, casting a deepening shadow over the Middle East and slowly surrounding the Jewish State. And as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be Jewish liberalism’s north star.
Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam and other threats to Israel are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that Jewish liberals face an external enemy more grave and more illiberal than Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman should be the litmus test of a decent left.
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