"American Jews are divesting from Israel…"

November 22, 2010
Richard Kuper

haaretz.comBibi, Tom Friedman, and U.S. Jews divesting from Israel

Many people who support Israel but oppose its policies feel slammed by the ‘It’s All Good! [and Palestinians Are All Bad] Faction’ if they criticize Israel, even when it’s warranted.

Bradley Burston, 8 November 2010

[First in a series. In part, a journal of a speaking tour hosted by J Street on the West Coast, and in part, reasons why I threw out my prepared remarks before I even got there.]

Ahead of a New Orleans address to the General Assembly [GA] of the Jewish Federations of North America, sources quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as having said that there is fundamental support for Israel within the United States.

“We may have lost Thomas Friedman, but I don’t think we lost America,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

I was getting ready to leave for the airport, when my wife caught me unawares. This was the first inkling I would have of something I was to learn again and again:

Where it comes to any issue of the Mideast conflict, and where it comes to questions relating to the complex relations between the U.S. Jewish community and Israel, you can either answer in three hours, or in one sentence. This was hers:

“You know what it is – American Jews are divesting from Israel.”

This is what I was to see in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Marin County, Portland and Seattle. It’s not that they’re getting involved in significant numbers in the divestment movement. It’s that American Jews are divesting emotionally. They are quietly – but in terms of impact, dramatically – withdrawing altogether.

Not just Jews. Americans. And the younger they are, that is, the more crucial they are to Israel’s future, the more likely they are to divest.

That evening before I left, we had just watched the Israeli version of Meet the Press, very often a dreary affair, soporific domestic politics, the perfect sound track for a late Saturday snooze. But this one was different.

This time the guest was The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. And not the coolly analytical pundit you’re used to. This time he was talking directly to Israelis, and directly to their prime minister. There was an urgency and a passion in his voice, in his gestures, his eyes, that suggested why this was different.

This time it was personal.

“You are losing the American people,” Friedman warned. “Not to dislike, not to opposition – they are fed up, fed up with the Palestinians, believe me, fed up with the Mideast in general.

“But they’re also fed up with Israel. When they see their president working hard to try to tee up an opportunity. All we’re asking is just test – go all the way to test whether you have a real partner.

“And you say ‘No, first pay me – let Pollard out of jail, have Abu Mazen sing Hatikva in perfect Yiddish, and then we’ll think about testing.’ It rubs a lot of people the wrong way.”

Given a consensus among Israeli analysts, rightly or wrongly, that the man they called the world’s most important commentator was speaking not only for himself, but directly for Barack Obama as well, you can bet that Benjamin Netanyahu was listening.

It says everything about the Netanyahu government’s attitude toward America, however, that what the prime minister heard was the polar opposite of what Thomas Friedman said.

“Israel doesn’t have to worry about me,” Friedman had stressed early in the interview. “At the end of the day, Israel will have my support – it had me at hello.”

But many Americans, Friedman continued “just are fed up with this conflict, and over time, that will become a national security problem for Israel, given the fact that the United States is your only friend.”

Long term, American emotional divestment, Jewish and non, may well prove more of a threat to Israel’s future than Ahmedinejad and his bomb factories, or Nasrallah and Mashaal and their rockets.

Netanyahu’s sanguine All Clear on grass-roots American support for Israel dovetails beautifully with pre-GA statements by Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky.

“Of course there are arguments about whether this policy or that policy is more productive,” Sharansky said in the course of a West Coast swing of his own, dismissing the earthquake engendered by Peter Beinart’s “Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”

“But basically there is no question that Israel is playing more and more a central role in the identity of American Jewry, and that American Jewry needs Israel as the best tool to guarantee its own survival as a Jewish [community].”

Sharansky’s proof? “I just spent two days in San Francisco and spoke to the leaders of the [Jewish] Federation there. The main task they face now is figuring out how to send all those who want to go to Israel on short trips and long trips.”

Sharansky is a brilliant man, a genius at chess and at foiling Soviet human rights policy and Israeli peace overtures. He knows and has taken advantage, as only an immigrant can, of every weakness of the Israeli personality. How ironic, then, that he should fall victim to one of the worst of them:

Ahbal Syndrome.

As the continued political survival of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak demonstrates, Israelis have a fatal weakness for the magnificent Ahbal, the omniscient blockhead, the ostentatiously intelligent person who knows everything except the one thing he really needs to know: Everything that he doesn’t.

What’s fatal about it? What makes Ahbal Syndrome, until recently Israel’s most closely guarded secret, the silent killer?

The one sentence answer: The Palestinians have figured it out, and American Jews are now catching on.

Question: What do the Palestinians know about Ahbal Syndrome that Netanyahu, Sharansky and Barak do not?

Answer: The Palestinians know what they have to do to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

Question: What’s that?

Answer: Nothing.

Question: You want to explain that?

Answer: The Palestinians know, and American Jews are catching on, that no matter how many non-Jews Lieberman forces to pledge allegiance to a Jewish and democratic Israel, no matter how many ways Netanyahu can require the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state which neither Egypt [peace treaty since 1979] or Jordan [since 1994] were asked to recognize – on that very day, 15 or 20 years from now, on which there are more Palestinians than Jews in Israel and the settlement-riddled West Bank – on that very day, Israel ceases to be, not only a democracy of any kind, but it ceases to be a Jewish state.

Question: You really think North American Jews care about that?

Answer: That’s what they’re telling me.

Question: What else are they telling you?

Answer: Many of those who support Israel but who oppose many of its policies feel caught in a bind, slammed by the Israel – It’s All Good! [and Palestinians Are All Bad] Faction if they criticize Israel when it’s warranted, and by the Zionists Never Deserved a State for Their Crimes Against the Palestinians Faction, when they dare declare support and, yes, love.

Question: What are you telling them?

Answer: Read Part Two, to be posted within a week. [now posted immediately below]

Thanksgiving, Tikkun Olam, and U.S. Jews breaking the Israel barrier

It’s in the direct interest of pro-settlement forces in the U.S. Jewish community to have an Israeli government which alienates as many young, energetic, moderate U.S. Jews as possible.

Bradley Burston, 22 November 2010

[Part 2 of a series on U.S. Jews emotionally divesting from Israel. In part, a journal of a recent West Coast speaking tour hosted by J Street]

Norah: It reminds me of this part of Judaism that I really like. It’s called Tikkun Olam. It says that the world is broken into pieces, and that it’s everybody’s job to find them and put them back together again.

Nick: Well, maybe we’re the pieces. And maybe we’re not supposed to find the pieces. Maybe we are the pieces.

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (Columbia Pictures, 2008)

On this, the eve of Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking a great deal about Tikkun Olam, human acts which repair the world, words and deeds and decisions which mend and put together what has gone broken, twisted, missing. At root, Thanksgiving is itself an act of Tikkun Olam. It celebrates the bridging of fierce differences, the coming together of seeming opposites, the idea that helping people in dire need takes precedence over barriers of creed and color.

Thanksgiving can also make it all too clear how broken the world has become.

A few weeks ago, I went to America in search of the fault lines of the Jews. As different as American Jews are from Israelis, and the differences are in many ways core-deep, the fault lines are strikingly similar. Here as there, the cracks which keep the Jewish people broken, keep us in pieces, extend to radically differing concepts of the forms Tikkun Olam should take, and radically differing reasons for giving thanks.

This is because the fault lines dividing Jew from Jew extend directly from the Green Line, the pre-1967 war border that divided Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s give these pieces a name. On one side are the Jews of the Wall. On the other, the Jews of the Gate.

The Jews of the Wall are that minority of Israeli and American Jews who sincerely and unshakably believe in permanent settlement in all of the West Bank. Over time, they have become the vanguard both of Orthodox Judaism and the secular neo-conservative Jewish right, whose power and influence, much of it monetary, has American Jewish institutions terrified of their own shadows.

Netanyahu GA - AP- Nov 8, 2010 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jewish Federations General Assembly as he gets heckled by young U.S. Jews in New Orleans, November 8, 2010.
Photo by: AP

The Jews of the Gate, meanwhile, comprise the majority of Jews in both America and Israel. They want to see a future partition of the Holy Land into two independent states, a democratic and internationally recognized state of Israel next to a sovereign and independent state of Palestine.

Before coming to America recently, I’d heard warnings from friends in the U.S. Jewish community that the very mention of J Street would spark nasty arguments, attempts to silence dissenting opinions regarding Israeli policies, behind-the-scenes sabotage by powerful pro-settlement donors and organizational professionals, perhaps cancellations of events. I had been warned, as well, that it was already too late. That young Jews of the Gate, liberal in outlook, open in faith, passionate about Israel but conflicted over its policies and disaffected by its explanations, had simply given up and gone, essentially leaving the field to the outnumbered but dogged Jews of the Wall.

In fact, when you consider it, it’s in the direct interest of pro-settlement and right-leaning forces in the U.S. Jewish community to have an Israeli government which alienates and repels as many young, energetic, moderate American Jews as possible. It’s in the direct interest of the powerful minority of pro-occupation, pro-settlement (let’s call them POPS) activists and communal officials, along with a Sharansky-driven Jewish Agency and a Lieberman-driven Foreign Ministry, to have these voices of conscience out of the way.

For the pro-occupation, pro-settlement American Jewish right, it’s not a problem that most Jews find the settlement enterprise repellent – it’s a godsend.

Following this visit, however, I find myself with renewed reason to be hopeful. More, this Thanksgiving season, to be thankful for. Because the voices of young American Jews of the Gate have never been stronger.

This month, when Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Jewish Federations of North America in what amounts to its annual State of the Jewish Community speech, a group of young Jews issued a remarkable, stunningly poetic counter-declaration to the general message of Everyone But Israel’s At Fault. While Netanyahu, the conference organizers and many of its speakers focused ire on foreign critics of Israel and – in an especially unfortunate McCarthyite phrase, “fellow travelers,” apparently a reference to Jews who question Israeli policy – for de-legitimizing the Jewish state, the message of the counter-declaration was that Israel’s Jewish critics see themselves and should be seen as part and parcel of the Jewish community.

Concurrently, Emily Schaeffer, a Boston-born American-Israeli human rights lawyer and activist, published an essay which clearly signaled to the wider Jewish community that the Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment movement – singled out by a senior Federation official as an existential danger to Israel – had a much more nuanced and complex side than the cartoon villains portrayed by invited experts to the New Orleans gathering.

As the Federation’s General Assembly heard plans for a new multi-million dollar Israel Action Network the Tel Aviv-based Schaeffer wrote than “just because a person supports BDS and aspires for major change in Israel does not mean that said person cannot love a million and a half aspects about the life, culture, landscape and even politics of Israel today and historically. Nor does it mean that Israelis need to boycott themselves (something that is neither possible nor part of the Palestinian call). The only thing that is black and white in the BDS movement is that the call will remain in effect until Israel — with a lot of help from its friends — ceases to violate international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Last week, after the Boston Globe reported that a Newton, Massachusetts synagogue had abruptly canceled an appearance by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, “because of vociferous objections from some members of the congregation about J Street’s politics,” the event attracted national attention, and an overflow crowd to the nearby elementary school to which the evening was hastily relocated.

“I deeply regret the inconvenience to J Street, and the difficulty that created for them,” said Rabbi Keith Stern, the congregation’s spiritual leader, who said a “small, influential group’’ within the congregation had strongly opposed holding the event. Stern, who attended the school appearance, said “I feel badly that people got so exercised here, through a gesture I really believed was about bringing an opportunity to the congregation.’’

These voices, and many others, have broken the Israel Barrier, the unspoken compact that states that acquiescence to occupation and settlements – without, G-d forbid, using the O word, or the S designation – is the U.S. Jewish community’s definition of apolitical, its gold standard for unity.

What I’ve seen in the past few weeks are unprecedented clashes between the two groups, a new desperation on the part of activists and string-pullers of the Jews of the Wall, and the nascent strength of the Jews of the Gate.

In New Orleans, when members of the Young Leadership Institute of Jewish Voice for Peace heckled Netanyahu and held up signs reading that occupation, loyalty oaths and settlements were delegitimizing Israel, they were manhandled, placed in headlocks, and their signs literally chewed to pieces.

A few days later in the Bay Area, an Israeli flag-draped member of a rightist advocacy group, San Francisco Voice for Israel/StandWithUs, disrupting a Jewish Voice of Peace meeting, pepper-sprayed two JVP members in the face and eyes.

The attack followed the May vandalism of the Berkeley home of Rabbi Michael Lerner, whose Tikkun Magazine had awarded its annual human rights prize to Judge Richard Goldstone. Among the vandals’ messages was one reading “Leftists and Islamofascists are Terrorists.”

It makes perfect sense. Just when the Jews of the Gate are engaging the wider Jewish community in fresh ways, the Jews of the Wall are ratcheting up their attacks on them. They thought they had them where they wanted them. Because they want them gone.

The Jews of the Gate drive them bats. Because the Jews of the Gate face the world. The Jews of the Gate face one another. The Jews of the Gate believe in the possibility of a future. They have broken the Israel Barrier. They are being true to what they believe. They are being true to their Judaism and their love of Israel. They are using the tools God gave human beings to repair the world. Their voices and their hands.

The Jews of the Wall, in their drive for uniformity, rabbinical authority, spiritual and genetic cohesion, stand for exclusion. They face the Wall.

They live the past. They translate compromise as surrender. They believe that God’s Arabic vocabulary consists of the word No. They will tell you that they believe in negotiations, but ceding any of the homeland would rend Israeli society to the point of the destruction of the Jewish state. They will tell you that the Arabs hate us, Iranians, the Turks, Barack Obama, that they will always hate us. Therefore we cannot withdraw. If God Himself tells us to, we cannot withdraw.

The Jews of the Wall believe that the entire outside world is hostile to them. The truth, one suspects, is the exact opposite.

They can’t bring themselves to say what they really mean: The Occupation must persist in order that the settlements grow, and the settlements must grow in order that the Occupation become permanent.

They cannot accept that the Jews of the Gate care about Israel no less than they. And that Israel belongs to the Jews of the Gate every bit as much as it belongs to them. The Jews of the Gate want to see a different Israel, a better Israel. There are many more of them than there are of the Jews of the Wall. And their answers to Israel’s problems, to the cliff up ahead are a great deal more reasonable and a great deal more realistic than Shut Up and Gun It.

It’s time for the Federations to come clean – they are, to a great degree, Jews of the Gate as well. Next year, at the GA, it will be time to invite anti-occupation people into the tent. Until now, they’ve never been able to bring themselves to say the word. They can’t bring themselves to name the disease. But BDS is a symptom. Flotillas are a symptom. Emotional divestment from Israel is a symptom.

Occupation is the disease.

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