getting it out in the open

While I haven’t been blogging very much for awhile (Facebook and Twitter have gotten the brunt of my thoughts, and I’ve been very busy with work travel, family, etc.), there has been a lot of back and forth in my own life lately about Israel. Most recently, Peter Beinart has been stirring things up with his comments about the Occupation and Zionism, in anticipation of his forthcoming book. I got to know Peter about two years ago through a really nice essay he wrote on the fact that younger US Jews are losing any connection to, and interest in, Israel. It really shook up the organized Jewish community here in the states, and I was glad to see that. So I reached out to Peter and he will be giving a set of lectures at my reconstructionist synagogue in PA.

But in reality, Peter Beinart and I are not entirely aligned on Israel. For all the talk out there of how he is a “traitor” to the Jewish people, a “self-hating Jew,” etc., the reality is that he is pretty moderate. He is an Orthodox Jew. He supports a two-state solution. He supports Israel, just not the settlements. He feels that any right of return for the Palestinians would be suicidal for Israel. And  he is very much against the BDS movement (boycott, divest, sanction) aimed at Israel.

In contrast, I am secular and atheist, support a one-state solution in principle, have no great interest in supporting Israel any more than any other well-off country (I feel much better when my family supports Sudan or other underprivileged nations), support the right of return for Palestinians to their homes in what is now Israel, and do support BDS. Since this stuff keeps coming up, and I’ve probably lost a few friends as a result of not keeping my views to myself (although I know I’ve gained far more friends as a result), here is a quick synopsis of my views on Israel, so as to avoid any confusion.

  • I believe that in the context of the times, when Jews were indeed being slaughtered throughout Europe and Russia, it was understandable for Jews to have wanted a place where they could be safe. The early Zionists were secular, and were not initially focused on Israel. Basically, any place where they could settle and be safe, including Madagascar and Uganda, was perfectly fine with them. Besides, for hundreds of years, most Jews declined to settle in Palestine, since it was not a religious compulsion (just the opposite; most rabbis felt that Israel could only be resettled upon the return of the messiah).
  • I reject any biblical justification for Jewish settlement in Israel. There is little or no historical evidence that most of the Bible ever happened, and it’s even been argued by folks like Shlomo Sand that there was never a true exile of the Jews from Israel at the hands of the Romans.
  • Israel is a fact on the ground. It was established by the UN, and isn’t going anywhere. So criticisms, and boycotts, of Israel can no more “delegitimize” Israel than a breath can collapse an 8,000-meter mountain. Only Israel can hurt itself. And boy, does it.
  • Israel is a beautiful country. I’ve been there. But it is also a very conflicted country, and one that does not provide equal freedoms or support to Israelis of Arab origin, women, Mizrahi Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, immigrants from Asia and sub-Saharan africa, Ethiopian Jews and Bedouin. It is not apartheid in the fullest sense of the word, but it comes pretty damned close to being that way.
  • Israel has also become more fascist in its approaches to its Arab population and anyone who isn’t among the majority Jewish population. Avigdor Lieberman is a fascist (there, I’ve said it). It’s no surprise that the current Israeli government is viewed favorably by racists and anti-Muslim gentiles like Geert Wilders and Marine La Pen. Then again, the Etzel (Stern Gang) were also fascists and looked to Nazi Germany for support (these extremist Jews were ignored, incidentally).
  • A two-state solution sounds great. But it has never ever worked for Israel or for Palestine. And it’s hard to see how current plans would permit a true Palestinian state to exist, given that it would be split into many parts by territory claimed by Israel. A one-state solution has its issues as well, but if both sides were willing to trust and respect the other, and offer equal rights, then it would be possible. Gandhi never wanted to partition India. It was partitioned, and millions died in the process, there have been several wars between India and Pakistan, and Bangladesh was not exactly an easy ride, either. In the end, Jews and Palestinians are interconnected in ways that are not really severable. The borders need to reflect that; Palestinian Jews , Muslims and Christians coexisted relatively (though not 100%) well for centuries. The fundamental conflict is not about religious differences, but about land.
  • I don’t care if Israel is a “Jewish state” if that means that it is a near-theocracy, a state dominated by one religion in which religious laws are invoked in many civil matters (such as marriage). To me,  a Jewish state is a Jewish homeland, a place where Jews can live without internal persecution. That does not require a Jewish majority, nor Jewish control. But it does require democracy and equal rights. Jews can live however they want to individually live under a Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian leadership. I’ve yet to see anything but a Christian leadership in the US, and Jews and Muslims have done well (although there remains a lot of persecution of Muslims in the US, and there once was a lot of antisemitism).
  • While there have been Jewish populations in other countries that understandably sought, and required, refuge in Israel, I also feel it is a shame that so many Arab or Muslim countries where there once were Jews are now largely or entirely devoid of them. Again, some of this certainly was due to antisemitism, as in Iraq and Egypt. But in other cases, such as Morocco (generally lacking in antisemitism), it was in part due to Israeli actions, and sometimes (as has been claimed for Iraq), even due to incitement by Israel. When Israel was a much more secular, even socialist, country, the ideal was for Jews to speak the same language, with the same accent/pronunciation, and for Jews to all make aliyah to “eretz yisroel.” Problem was, Jews lived (and still do, fortunately) all over, had different skin tones, different accents, languages, cultures, etc. So while Ben Gurion wanted Jews to emigrate to Israel, it wasn’t easy if you were a Jew from the Maghreb, the Kurdish areas, etc. You were a second-class citizen at best, and were made to feel unwelcome. The power was concentrated in the Ashkenazim. And if you think about it, having all the Jews migrate to Israel, so that they’re all in one place, makes it much easier for another Hitler to wipe them out, no? I think of that every time some Israeli leader exhorts French Jews or US Jews to make aliyah.
  • Iran is a huge violator of human rights, and a lousy theocratic government that oppresses homosexuals, Ba’hai, and many other groups. But it is not an antisemitic country (there are 25,000 Jews who, while they live somewhat separate lives from their Shia neighbors, are respected as members of another Abrahamic religion). Iran, despite its leader’s rhetoric, has not placed its Jews in concentration camps. So while I’m not going to defend a regime of which I’ve always been critical, let’s not beat the drums for another unnecessary war, either.
  • Which brings me to the lobby. No, Jews do not control the media, world financial markets or the press. We’re really not that powerful, and the notion of a “Jewish lobby” is at its core, antisemitic. But I think anyone who feels the Israeli lobby does not have a major influence on Congress and Mideast policy is deluded.
  • Let me also be clear that any comparisons between Israel and Nazis are wrong, stupid and even antisemitic. Israel, for all its faults, is not committing a holocaust against the Palestinians, nor is it anything close to a Nazi party. I do think one could make a good case, however, that the Israeli government has adopted some policies that many of us do feel are very close to fascist, if not fascist indeed. But fascist policies alone do not Nazis make.
  • The Holocaust pervades Israeli society. The significance of the Holocaust in terms of Israeli mindset and behavior cannot be overemphasized. But at the same time, the Naqba also needs to be acknowledged by the Israeli government, and Israel needs to come to grips with the fact that 1/5 of its population generally believes that Israeli Independence Day is a day of mourning, no less than some American Indians hate Columbus Day and perhaps even resent July 4th. And understandably so. At the same time, more Palestinians need to acknowledge, not deny, the Holocaust (and indeed, many of them have made major efforts in this regard).
  • Palestinians deserve their right of return. This won’t destroy Israel, but strengthen it. It makes no sense, nor is it compassionate, that I could decide tomorrow to emigrate to Israel and I would have citizenship rights on the spot, yet a Palestinian whose family left Haifa in 1948 could not do that, or even travel via Ben Gurion Airport (as a friend’s Palestinian husband, a distinguished economist, can’t do, for example).
  • Palestine is not a dirty word. Nor are Palestinians an “invented people.”
  • Birthright Israel and other “rah rah Israel” efforts to indoctrinate US Jewish youth, are misguided, one-sided and propaganda. I will never support stuff like that.
  • I support BDS for the same reason that I supported the boycott of apartheid S. Africa. This doesn’t mean that all Israelis are of one mind; many are against the Occupation just as there were S. Africans who were against apartheid and worked with the ANC and other groups against it. But boycotting is a nonviolent way to foment social change. It is not “delegitimizing” to support BDS. Israel’s own actions do itself an injustice far more than any boycott could. That said, I don’t support boycotts that involve academia or the arts; I like to think that the arts and academics are beyond politics. Indeed, both foster understandings of “the other,” so I just can’t support those boycotts. But outside of that, I’m fine with BDS.
  • I also do not support the Jewish National Fund (it expelled Palestinians and that was its raison d’etre), Hillel, the ADL (I used to, but it is now a right-wing and diseased organization), or AIPAC, and have my misgivings about J Street (they’re too wishy-washy and bought into the right-wing canards about BDS).
  • I wish Obama had threatened to defund Israel over the continued support and expansion of the settlements
  • All Palestinians are not terrorists. All Israelis are not oppressors.
  • Politicians in the US cannot criticize Israel and survive politically. Israeli politicians, however, can criticize Israel with impunity. Why can’t politicians in any country criticize Israel and have their opinion respected? Israel is more progressive than much of the Western world, in this regard.
  • Yes, Israel is not Syria. It does not torture and murder thousands of its citizens. But I’d like to think Israel lives up to a higher standard than “it’s not Syria.”
  • I’m not a self-hating Jew. No one, except for some people with major depression, hate themselves in the true sense of the term. Labelling people as Nazis, traitors and self-hating Jews merely shows that the organized US Jewish community is threatened by those who speak out against bad Israeli policies.
  • There is nothing of which I am aware in Jewish law that says one has to support Israel. Last time I checked, I was a US citizen. I don’t vote in any Israeli elections. I don’t receive support from Israel, nor do I pay taxes to Jerusalem. So I have nothing to do with Israeli policy, and resent the idea that if someone is Jewish, ergo they must support Israel. In the proudest Jewish tradition, many of us feel perfectly free to criticize what we don’t like about Israeli actions/policies. Unfortunately, many organized Jewish institutions do not understand Jewish tradition.
  • Is there a double standard regarding Israel? Yes, there is. But the fact that human rights abuses by Turkey, Iran, China and many other countries don’t command as much attention as the Israeli occupation still doesn’t make the occupation right. The argument that “well, they do it too” really is a weak one; we don’t accept it from children, right?

I could go on, but at least this is a start. I was trying to be as honest as possible and not leave any major issues off the table.

Please feel free to comment. And be forthright; I can take the criticism. But please, don’t start with the “self-hating Jew” remarks. It’s getting old.