I’m undertaking a new Jewish identity project: I’m going to start reaching out to prominent American Jews to talk about what makes them Jewish and when they got inoculated with Zionism. And below is one of my favorite statements by a Jewish journalist about his identity as it touches on his perceptions of what’s good for America and good for Israel.
Eric Alterman of the Nation is an important liberal, and he made the statement two years ago at the 92d Street Y, and I’m deeply grateful to him for his honesty. It was a panel called “Why we need a liberal Israel lobby,” where Alterman brings up the question of dual loyalty. Alterman is eloquent (if misguided) on the idea that he has dual loyalty. And then he is honest, if again misguided, I believe, on the extent to which the only players at the peace table are Israel and the United States, and Israel must agree to the terms for a Palestinian state before it can exist. And that means the U.S. compelling Palestinians to accept their “historic position,” even if this will anger Arabs across the region. And here I’d remind you that Alterman is on the left in this whole conversation in the U.S.; he actually criticizes Israel now and then.
I dig this speech out now for a few reasons. Because I have a genuine scholarly side, and I happened on this panel the other day and finally transcribed it and was blown away. Because Jack Ross’s new book traces the rapid and absolute inscription of Zionism inside Jewish American life of which Alterman, who was sent off to Israel at 14, Zionism “drummed into” him, is a perfect example even inside the Thoughtful liberal media. Because Alterman was lately hired as a columnist by the moderator of the debate, Jane Eisner of the Forward (and by coincidence, I just got emails from a couple of folks about Alterman opposing one-state in the Forward).
But mostly because I think arguing over Jewish identity, a fight over Jewish identity and Zionist identity and what it means to the American and Jewish future is absolutely crucial to world peace… I want more debate, not less.
Here’s Alterman in his own words (the video is below, it’s at 33 or so):
Alterman: You know, one of the touchiest words you can say when you’re discussing Jews and Israel is the word dual loyalty. It’s sort of one of those words that American Jewish officialdom has ruled out of the discourse. If you say dual loyalty, you’re playing into the hands of anti-semites, because it’s been a consistent trope among anti-Semites that you can’t trust Jews. etc. etc. And I find this very confusing because I was raised dually loyal my whole life. When I went to Hebrew school, the content of my Hebrew school was all about supporting Israel. When my parents who I think are here tonight sent me to Israel when I was 14, on a ZOA [Zionist Organization of America]-sponsored trip… [laughter/backtalk] that was a bad idea, yeah– it was drummed into me that I should do what’s best for Israel.
I was at the Center for Jewish History not long ago where I heard Ruth Wisse, the Yiddishist professor at Harvard who happens to be the Martin L. Peretz professor, instruct a group of young Jewish journalists that they should think of themselves as members of the Israeli army. That in Israel young people have to serve in the army– well, they didn’t have to serve in the army, but they should think of themselves as members of a Jewish army, supporting the Jewish people, supporting Israel, putting aside their intellectual qualms and concerns about things. Like [the recent elevation of Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman.
Now it so happens that because so few people are willing to say this, and there’s certainly good historical reasons for this, I end up being quoted by Walt and Mearsheimer as the only person saying, I am a dual loyal Jew and sometimes I’m going to actually go with Israel, because the United States can take an awful lot of hits and come up standing. Whereas if Israel takes one serious bad hit it could disappear. So there’s going to be some cases where when Israel and the United States conflict I’m going to support what’s best for Israel rather than what I think is best for the United States.
The big fiction that permeates virtually all discussion and I bet you even in J Street, but certainly amongst official organizations is That there’s no such thing, that there could be possibly anything that could be both Good for Israel and Bad for the United States or vice versa. Every single speech you go to at AIPAC or the AJC says, thank god that our interests and values are perfectly aligned and We support a strong Israel and we support a strong United States. No– that’s not always going to be the case. They’re two different countries with two different strategic interests and different points of view on certain things.
Lieberman is bad for everything as far as I understand the world. He’s in the long term detrimental to Israel’s interest, and he’s certainly not in the United States interest, which has a strong interest in maintaining peace and stability in that region. And so in this case, there isn’t really a conflict in my saying, look if the Israelis are going to elect a government that’s detrimental to my interests and Israel’s interests… I’m going to do everything I can to convince them to elect a different gov’t. Just the way the Palestinians elected a bad thing by electing Hamas…
[Alterman then describes Israel’s role in founding Hamas, a “terrible mistake as many countries historically have made a terrible mistake.”]
As a friend of Israel and a person who’s concerned with the long term health and happiness of the Jewish people. I’m going to say I’m not going there with you guys, I have no trouble doing that.
Eisner: Can you imagine a time where you would feel that dual loyalty and go with Israel?
Alterman: I just said, there are many occasions.
Eisner: Can you give us an example?
Alterman: Off the top of my head. Well look, to me the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simple in the following regard. It’s complicated in most regards. But it’s simple in the following regard. The only people who can deliver peace, who can deliver a state to the Palestinians is the Israeli public… You can’t force Israel to make peace against its will. Israel will only make the concessions necessary to peace if they believe that the Palestinians are sincere about making peace so I can see that saying to the Palestinian leadership or saying to the Saudi leadership or Egyptian leadership, look we need to do a lot of unpopular things in Palestine to demonstrate to the Israeli public that the Palestinians have finally accepted their historic position and are now ready to make the peace that the Israelis can trust– now I’m not saying we’re anywhere near that situation, I’m answering your hypothetical question– that might make the United States a great deal more unpopular in the Arab world. It might increase terrorism in the Arab world…
Here’s a much simpler example actually. I think that bin Laden and 9/11 were to some degree inspired by U.S. support of Israel. I think a great deal of the terrorist attacks and the sort of pool of potential terrorists who want to attack the United States are inspired by the United States support for Israel. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support Israel for that reason. I’m saying, Dammit if that’s the price we have to pay, then I’m willing to pay it. I’m just saying Let’s be honest about it. Let’s not pretend that it’s unimaginable that the two states can be in conflict because if these two states happen never to be in conflict it would be the only time in history that ever happened, and yet we all treat it as if it’s a given.