We often say that once Jews open their eyes, there’s only one way to go, left. Foreign Policy ceo David Rothkopf– who came from a family of Zionists, who has often stood up for Israel, who attacked Walt and Mearsheimer– finally visited the place late last year and couldn’t write about it because he had the awful feeling that the place had “passed its sell-by date.” Now he’s gone public, in a dialogue with his former college roommate Michael Oren; and hat’s off to Rothkopf for his courage and honesty.
There are some great ideas in what he writes below. The heart of his piece is this fabulous line:
“I find the response of Zionism [to modern historical challenges] to be exactly the wrong one.”
Let’s hope this opens up a mainstream conversation about Zionism.
Excerpts. First, Rothkopf is frank about Israel’s stiffnecked response to Palestinian compromises:
As you and I have also discussed, the opportunity has always been there for Israel to take a different course, embrace the idea of a Palestinian state, and lean in to the peace process precisely because you have known that the Palestinians would struggle to follow through. While this may seem cynical, it meant the risks would be low, the return would be high, and if peace resulted all the better. After all, in my view, demographics and economics and common sense all dictate that nothing could do more to secure Israel than the establishment of a flourishing Palestinian state.
But Israel didn’t lean in. And Rothkopf didn’t have a good time on his visit. Though he tries to say nice stuff.
I was only there a couple of days, and I couldn’t, of course, see much. Though I did get to speak with many people — from [former Israeli national security advisors] Yaki Amidror and Uzi Arad to (Haaretz editor) Aluf Benn to President Shimon Peres. These conversations covered a wide spectrum, and on that level, I came away energized and engaged. I loved the people even when I disagreed with them. I loved the nature of the debate, the willingness, the urgency with which virtually everyone I met discussed big critical issues. But in driving around Israel, in going to meetings, in listening to discussions at the conference I was at, even in looking at the landscape all around, I got a different sense … one that was entirely unanticipated.
Israel seemed old to me. Not old in the sense of antiquity. It seemed old like the core ideas that had brought it to life not as a country but as an idea and an ideal in my youth seemed so compromised, so battered by “realism” and self-interest, so undercut by political deals, that I couldn’t help but wonder if the country had passed its “sell by” date, that its freshness was gone and some of what was good was starting to turn. That sounds harsh, I know, and that’s one reason I haven’t written anything yet on my reactions…
Battered by self-interest. Good line. Rothkopf reflects openly. His father was a Zionist, he believed in Israel after the Six Day War, he stood up for Israel in the U.S. discourse. But he never went there before. Why? The same reason I didn’t. His life was here, in a society that has consecrated minority rights, not in the “garrison state.”
Reflex was my first instinct for supporting Israel. But it is not sustainable if you have a truly Jewish mind … a mind linked to a tradition of “struggling” with even the Highest Power. Ideas and beliefs have to be tested against a reality. Today there are other safe places for Jews in the world, notably America. Today there are other ways for Jews to live and be true to their traditions that don’t involve the harsher realities of a garrison state…
By the way, this is a conversation among Jews. I wonder how long that can last…
In all candor, I came away from my visit wondering if that dream had died or withered so that those who believed in it faced an urgent and stark choice: rethink it or accept that it will die and with it will go many of the aspirations we had for it when we were much younger (and that I sense you still have for it today)….
Rothkopf sounds a lot like Truman and John Judis here:
I’m no Zionist. I’m actually pretty deeply opposed to the notion of religion being in any way involved in either the governing of a state or the formation of its national identity…
I should be among the most supportive of Israel. Indeed, I still think I am in many respects. But, as a member of the U.S. policy community (if there is such a thing … a club that deservedly evokes Groucho Marx’s line that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would admit him), the fact that I feel Israel is increasingly diverging from what I thought it once was should matter. If the well-informed and well-disposed are concerned for the future of the country and troubled by settlements and apparent insensitivity to the fate of a population that is rapidly growing to be the majority population within your borders, then regardless of the flaws in my education or reasoning, it matters.
Notice that he describes Palestinians as the majority inside Israel’s borders. Dispenses with the ’49 armistice line, just as Palestinian solidarity folks do.
Again, this is a Jewish conversation. Rothkopf reminds us of the heart of the Israel lobby, American Jewish devotion to the place.
You may think my view of Israel was naive. It may have been. But it was also the foundation for the historical narrative. Policy, as you know well, is not driven by reason or facts, but by people, prejudices, expediency, habits, and inertia. Changes are hard to engineer. And when views drift from what they were and support wanes, it may well be not just that facts have changed but that narrative themes and emotional underpinnings of a relationship that are based more on perception than reality have shifted to a degree that makes them more important. And that has an impact on relationships. Generational shifts also play a big role in this.
I guess what I’m saying is that I think Israel has a real problem with losing the narrative that can’t be rationally argued away but needs to be addressed. I’m just a canary in the coal mine.
Rothkopf mentions the Palestinians at last, and though he stabs at Jimmy Carter, he addresses Jim Crow on both sides of the Green Line.
the core criticism of Israeli behavior is not about how Orthodox women are treated on buses or how Ethiopian immigrants are treated in Israel. It is about how Palestinians are treated both within Israel’s borders and within the Palestinian territories as a consequence of Israeli actions. You, better than anyone, are aware of the facts behind these critiques and know that you do not have to be a Jimmy Carter and loosely throw around terms like apartheid to feel that Palestinians are entitled to their own self-determination. Or to know that Israel’s needs should not have a greater claim on outcomes in that part of the world than those of Palestinians; that local resources, like water, ought to be shared equitably; or that the rights of Palestinian people to vote, to have their own state, to have claim to their own historical and cultural heritage should be inviolable as it is for any other people. Further, those rights — the very same ones that have been referred to here for centuries as inalienable — do not simply appertain to Palestinians in what we all must hope will soon become a Palestinian state. They also ought to pertain to Palestinians who choose to live in Israel.
Next, a beautiful disquisition on history. This is the answer to anyone who says it’s a dangerous neighborhood. Yes it’s a dangerous neighborhood, the world is a dangerous neighborhood, the human psyche is a dangerous neighborhood, and what is our role in stoking religious hatred and division?
As for the question of the separation of church and state, while I acknowledge many states do not share the views outlined in the U.S. Constitution on this point (and indeed, many Americans seem uncomfortable with the concept in practice), I am as clear and resolute on this as any principle I hold.
History is the story of the human catastrophe that results when states promote religious ends or use religious criteria to guide their governance. As we have often seen, the embrace of religion into the identity of a nation, while being sold to the people as something unifying and elevating, is often something else. It is exclusionary. It is about finding a way to achieve cultural and ethnic “purity.” It is an idea that should be more anathema to Jews, given our history, than to any other group. I find the response of Zionism to be exactly the wrong one. It suggests we have seen how others have abused religion by intermingling it with governance and national identity and the only protection is to do the same thing ourselves…
This is also good. Dear Michael, we can’t hold the elite fort anymore. The grassroots are driving the conversation (as I have said). And even as he dismisses Walt and Mearsheimer, Rothkopf embodies their idea; for when he says “guys like me” are “essential” for Israel, he is describing the importance of Jews to the Israel lobby.
You can refer to it as a problem among “elites.” It is not. It is a problem among important communities that are essential to the coalition that has provided support for Israel in the past and will be just as important in the future. You know that. It is not just the rise of J Street. It is not just liberals and the Walt-Mearsheimer anti-Israel Lobby Crowd. It is guys like me. You know, guys who grew up in New Jersey who were captivated by the story of a Jewish state that was in a way “ours,” who were lifted up by the heroism of the Six-Day War, guys who admired the stories of turning the desert green. You know guys like that, right? You were one.
Guys like me. That means Jews. (Enough already. You gotta open up the window and let me breathe.)
I haven’t read the Oren letters, I’m sure I would lose my breakfast. Rothkopf’s letters should be celebrated. He says he is for a two-state solution and tolerates the idea of “a Jewish state.” But how long before that idea also crumbles in the face of the harsh reality of the eternal occupation, and he says, I’m not going to support your religious state any more. Because at bottom he rejects Zionism, Oren’s definition of Jewish peoplehood tied to a Jewish state.
Therefore Israel cannot be the Jewish state. It can be a Jewish state. But even should its people choose that path, for it to be a moral state, it must be one that guarantees the rights and prerogatives of every citizen equally regardless of religious orientation, gender, ethnicity, etc. It is hard to say Israel does that now.
I’ve barked at Rothkopf a lot over the years. As he admits here, he’s been an Israel lobbyist. I celebrate his clarity and courage. Let’s hope he hosts more forums that lead the American discussion, and not just the American Jewish discussion, away from the narrowminded claims of his father and roommate, forever.
Thanks to Nima Shirazi.