This is one in a series of columns by Yakov Hirsch on Hasbara Culture, and its impact on discourse and politics in Israel and the U.S. You can see the other columns here.
This article will try to make sense of the vitriolic reaction by Benjamin Netanyahu and his defenders to the U.S abstention from UN Security Council resolution 2334 condemning settlements a week ago. There is no question that the Israeli response has been way over the top. And it’s not just a matter of a few undiplomatic slips of the tongue.
Uri Misgav is not alone in his impression (in Haaretz):
[T]he reaction of the prime minister, his ministers and courtiers…. looks possessed, irrational, contrary to Israel’s short-term and long-term interests.
This is how Henry Siegman saw it (in the National Interest):
Netanyahu’s ‘j’accuse’ against Obama and his administration is a concoction of… lies and deceptions…
It needs to be stressed that among serious Israel-watchers, there is no doubt about the good faith of Barack Obama and John Kerry. This is what Tom Friedman of the Times had to say:
I have covered this issue my entire adult life and have never met two U.S. leaders more committed to Israel as a Jewish democracy.
Obama and Kerry want the same thing that Jewish liberal Zionists want. The motivation of the Obama administration and of Kerry’s diplomacy at State is the dream of Israeli and Palestinian democracies living side by side in peace.
Now even if that is too idealistic a vision for the security-conscious Netanyahu government, why so much hostility venom and disrespect? From an official at the Israel Project:
Why isn’t the Israeli response more diplomatic? Isn’t it obvious that however wrong they are, Obama and Kerry want what they honestly believe is best for Israel? Why, none other than Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and no Hamas sympathizer, agrees with them.
Also, no one can miss an utterly bizarre element of the drama: the lack of gratitude from the Israeli government towards the United States. The 38 billion dollar check Israel just received has barely even cleared. “Ingratitude, Jewish sages teach us, is the absolute worst of traits. ‘Whoever rewards evil for good, Evil will not depart from his house,’ as Proverbs puts it.” (So informs Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev.)
Maybe the most curious aspect of the discourse is that the many concrete points Kerry made in his speech “defending” the American abstention are hardly ever addressed in the attacks on him and the president.
Consider the main thrust of the speech. Kerry said repeatedly that if things continue as they are, a two-state solution will no longer be possible to the Israel/Palestine conflict. So, Kerry was asking, What’s the plan, Israel? “IT’S EASY TO SHOUT AT UN; BUT WHAT IS ISRAEL’S POLICY IN WEST BANK? NADA” — as Seth Frantzman puts it.
That is the concrete issue Kerry framed: How is Israel not going to turn into an apartheid state? There are millions of human beings in the occupied territory who Netanyahu and his Education Minister and rival Naftali Bennett are making plans for without their consent.
But all we hear from Netanyahu’s people in response to Kerry’s query is talk of Syria and Hamas, fantasies about the beautiful relationship they are about to have with the Trump administration, and defamation of Obama and Kerry as betrayers and connivers. But little argument against the idea that Israel/Palestine face a one state future.
The answer to all these riddles is that we must try to understand what at heart is really the complaint of Netanyahu and his supporters against Obama and Kerry.
And this Netanyahu sentiment on the prime minister’s website is an important place to start:
“A deep and wide moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death while we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty while we sanctify compassion.”
In the Manichean construct of humanity that Netanyahu has cultivated, a simple question is asked of any actor or speaker: Are you with those “who sanctify life or those who sanctify death?”
From that perspective, Obama and Kerry are on the side of those “who sanctify death.”
And such is the power of Netanyahu’s social construction of reality for western listeners that once an idea, or a political position is defined as “taboo” a whole different type of discourse kicks in. For a leading Los Angeles rabbi:
From a former Israeli ambassador:
This ethnocentric innocence was perhaps best put by Elie Wiesel:
“How do Jews respond to violence? With retaliation? No. When the enemy is mad he destroys when the killer is mad, he kills. When we are mad we sing”
That is what needs to be understood from the attacks against Obama and Kerry: that dichotomy between sacred Israel and its unholy enemies to whose side Obama and Kerry have had the great misfortune of slipping.
Once the Obama and Kerry abstention was defined as “anti-Israel”—and it was, immediately and angrily– they are in a sense dehumanized. They go to the side of “them,” and the pro-Israel discourse reflects it. As Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America delicately put it:
“Obama has made it clear that he’s a Jew hating, anti-Semite”
To gain more insight into what this resolution has brought out in Israeli society, you must be mindful of an ideological theme cultivated by Benjamin Netanyahu:
“The will to destroy the Jewish people has not changed. What has changed is our ability to defend ourselves and our determination to do so.”
This is what the late, great Tony Judt called “macho victimhood.”
And as I have stressed before, this ethnocentric social construction of reality, what I call hasbara culture, is not just a parlor game for columnists and speechwriters and intellectuals. No, it is an experience of the world that they live and breathe. And the ethnocentric ideological reality of hasbara culture leaves little room for politeness and no room to try and see the other side.
Which makes sense when your opinion doesn’t just feel like an opinion to you, but feels like platonic truth. Look at how David Friedman, the man Trump nominated ambassador to Israel, doubled down when confronted with his shocking past statements about J Street being like “Kapos” in concentration camps. He had lots of time to think about it, and he just ramped it up:
Finally, are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.
It is my contention that if you give David Friedman a lie detector, it will disclose that this indeed is the way David Friedman thinks of J Street. And it is also the way Netanyahu supporters feel about Obama and Kerry.
This may be Netanyahu’s most impressive achievement. He has associated his politics and even himself personally with revered Jewish history and its hallowed lessons. Think of the reverential Netanyahu reception in Congress, with the nods to Elie Wiesel and the 6 million, and: “We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home.”
Inside Israel, Netanyahu has convinced a big part of that society to look on his political and even journalist critics as being “leftists,” which in Netanyahu’s construction of reality means being sympathetic with “those that sanctify death and cruelty.”
I would remind readers of what happened to Jimmy Carter when he issued virtually the same warning to Israel that the outgoing Secretary of State just did. We all remember Jimmy Carter putting his neck on the line and sticking the word apartheid in the title of his book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” as an intentional effort to sound the alarm before it was too late, ten years ago. Was the Carter book debated on its merits? Did the American Jewish community take up the challenge of the Carter book? Were synagogues across the country discussing the looming Apartheid threat?
We know what the Jewish community’s response to that book was. It was to attack Jimmy Carter, and with huge effect. He was dismissed and broadly discredited.
This is the reason why I have spent so much of my effort writing about the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Because Goldberg does for Jewish culture here what Netanyahu does in Israel. Goldberg is recognized as the most influential Jewish journalist in America, and it is his work as a “mashgiach,” or supervisor of what is kosher in the Jewish discourse, that makes him so important. (There is some irony that Leon Wieseltier, leading Jewish intellectual, friend of Leonard Cohen, and wannabe mashgiach himself, might be most remembered by Jewish history for pinning the Mashgiach label on Jeffrey Goldberg’s lapel.)
What was the “mashgiach”’s verdict on the Carter book? In an event at the Center for Jewish History in New York [archived November 5, 2007], Goldberg said that Carter is an anti-Semite. And note the motivation the new editor of chief of the Atlantic magazine assigns to the former-president.
“When you read it carefully, you realize that it is essentially a theologically based rant. The essential argument of his book is that Israel today plays the role the Pharisees played 2,000 years ago, during the time of Christ. And the conclusion I came away with was that Jimmy Carter never got the memo that evangelical Christians are supposed to like the Jews now, and he’s still stuck in sort of an old mode of thinking.”
The looming apartheid challenge facing Israel that Carter was warning about, and that Kerry is now echoing, was entirely missed when Jeffrey Goldberg did his “careful” reading of “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.”
Goldberg’s analysis of Carter took place in 2007 in front of a packed audience, there for the pleasure of seeing the denunciation of the Israel lobby book by Walt and Mearsheimer, to which the authors were not invited. When Goldberg makes these pronouncements, he is not offering just an opinion like anyone else, as he and his bosses sometimes claim. No: Goldberg issues verdicts in the Jewish community. And people on the other side of Jeffrey Goldberg’s sacred world view become taboo. His verdicts have helped to create a Manichean social construction of reality for those under the sway of hasbara culture, and there are many. And Jeffrey Goldberg ranges the entirety of sacred Jewish history to make his points, as he did when a Spanish music festival cancelled a pro-Israel performer in 2015 because of his work supporting the occupation.
These pronouncements are holy writ– as is the verdict Netanyahu issued on President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
That explains the discourse we are hearing now. Defamation and dishonesty are no vice when used to fight the purported enemies of the Jews.
When Netanyahu has enough people convinced that his political decisions are sacred, he becomes a very powerful politician indeed. That’s how to understand the Iran deal hysteria, and his ability to waltz into the US Congress to standing ovations while attacking the U.S. president. In the real world, South Korea lives a few stretches of barbed wire away from a neighbor led by a madman who is one impulsive decision away from destroying their country. And now and then, South Korea makes the papers. But in the social construction of reality I am dissecting, it is the hysterical Benjamin Netanyahu who can drive the world crazy for years about an “existential” threat that exists only in his, Jeffrey Goldberg and a couple of their friends’ heads. As far as I can tell, Jeffrey Goldberg has no other credentials to voice his opinion about what is and is not an existential threat to Israel other than what Ezra Klein calls his “fearful tribalism.”
But inside the world of hasbara culture, Jeffrey Goldberg’s being in the Jewish Defense League as a kid and then the Israeli army and agitating against “anti-Semites” his whole career, gives him the experience and wisdom to assess the extent of the Iranian threat to the state of Israel. “I see it as the biggest challenge to Israel’s existence,” Goldberg told the Washingtonian.
And he spread Netanyahu’s message far and wide.
And this opinion about how threatening the Iranian nuclear program was carried more weight in American political culture, under the influence of hasbara culture, than did almost all the US expertise on Iran.
But we can never know for sure where ideology ends and personal ambition begins with the narcissistic mashgiach. Goldberg’s ambition has brought a new side out in the freshly-coronated editor-in-chief of the Atlantic: He has made an effort to rid himself of the Netanyahu yoke. And two days ago, he tweeted J.J Goldberg’s article in the Forward about the U.N vote.
This JJ Goldberg article has no hasbara culture. It is his usual sensible article. Articles like these have traditionally been ignored by Jeffrey Goldberg. Because J.J. Goldberg articles deal with the real world, not hifalutin ideological principles with ancient enemies lurking everywhere, which is Jeffrey Goldberg’s standard fare.
What’s happening is that Jeffrey Goldberg is positioning himself for the new ideological playing field that is forming by the day under Trump. He must turn the Atlantic into the principled opposition to Trump. And it is a bit much for the Atlantic magazine to have an affirmative action type exemption on coverage of the Israel-Trump love fest.
Just the fact that Jeffrey Goldberg is not retweeting this big article at the Daily Beast about the UN’s persecution of Israel tells you all you need to know. Goldberg thinks it best to keep a safe distance from Israel for now. Now is not the time to loudly celebrate Israeli virtue and pick fights with Zionism’s ideological opponents.
In one more week’s time we will have a better sense of the new Jewish and Israeli political, ideological, cultural and moral landscape that is forming. It is then that Israel army sergeant Elor Azaria will be convicted for manslaughter for the point-blank execution of Abd al Fatah Al-Sharif as he lay on the ground in occupied Hebron that morning last March, caught on video.
The public response to that verdict will tell us how many in Israel agree with a notion central to hasbara culture: that sending Azaria to prison for his act would be (as Minister Bennett put it), “a moral mistake that blurs the lines between good and evil.”
The ideological divide in the Jewish world after that verdict next week will echo the divide over the UN resolution; and as Goldberg knows, you must not be caught on the wrong side. Hebrew University sociologist Eva Illouz perfectly describes the stakes, in an article in Haaretz today titled “An Earthquake in the Jewish world.”
I do not know if we are close to a Jewish Reformation, but I am sure that a part of the Jewish organizational world today resembles the state of the Church before it was challenged by Martin Luther. It displays the same mixture of fundamentalism, politics and money, a mixture that nowhere in the history of mankind has elicited respect or elevated the spirit.
To disconnect the fight against anti-Semitism from human rights as the Israeli right and Orthodox Jews do, is tantamount to declaring that only Jews have human rights.
Those of us, inside and outside Israel, who are committed to the memory of Jewish history and to the defense of the rights of Jews as human rights, must shout, like Luther, “Here I stand.”
Perhaps even Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest critics owe him a big thank you. Without his extreme Manichean ideological fanaticism and unique emotional and psychological makeup, it is likely that the fundamental questions that the Jewish world must ask and answer would continue to be kicked down the road. But now the question whether Jewish justice and Jewish morality dictate that Elor Azaria go to prison, or the very opposite, be pardoned, might be the beginning of the Jewish reformation.