Abe Foxman said something very smart the other day. There is a “continuous crisis” between American Jews and Israeli Jews over fundamental value differences, from occupation to freedom of worship, he said. Does that mean there is a “divorce” between the communities? No, said the former head of the Anti Defamation League said.
No I don’t think there’s a divorce. As long as Israel is under threat, as long as Israel is not secure, there’s not a divorce. Halevai [would that it were so] we come to the day when there is peace– and if there is peace– that’s when you are going to deal with the issue of divorce.
The idea that Israel needs conflict in order to bind American Jews to it ties in with something the Israeli centrist politician Yair Lapid said at the same security conference at which Foxman spoke: Israel is now in a permanent war. “In this new world, in which we live, there is no longer any separation between days of peace and days of war.”
Lapid said that war began in the last decade, with the Arab spring, the economic crisis of 2006, and the social media revolution.
It turns out once again that the Middle East believes in a different way, namely that violence can be an available, reasonable solution for any problem. We have enemies with mentalities of the 11th century holding weapons of the 21st century…. In this new world, in which we live, there is no longer any separation between days of peace and days of war. Faced with this reality, Israel will always need to be powerful and it would have to have a lot of power. And this power can not only be brutal power, it has to be smart power.
This is of course a restatement of the”We live in a dangerous neighborhood” argument, so at times we have to be brutal– which Tom Friedman first explained to American Jews was the state of the Middle East back in the 1980s. And we never stop hearing what a terrible neighborhood Israel lives in.
What Foxman’s statement suggests is that there is something highly functional to this argument: it binds American Jews to Israel. And of course their support is crucial in material ways: ensuring American governmental/political support for Israel by way of the lobby, and funding countless Israeli institutions, from Mike Bloomberg’s hospital clinics to Sheldon Adelson’s Holocaust memorials to Robert Kraft’s Jerusalem football stadium to Jared Kushner’s Israeli settlements. Were it not for that American Jewish support, the GDP of Israel would surely be in the basement, or on the first floor anyway. Not at the level of European countries.
Foxman’s security blackmail touches on an organizing principle of the Israel lobby: the dominance that neoconservatives have over liberals inside the Jewish community. I like to tell the story about how neoconservative Eric Breindel got me to shut up about Israel when I knew him at college 40 years ago. Stay away from this issue, you don’t know enough, he said bluntly; and I did for many years.
There was a sense on both our parts that Breindel as the son of Holocaust survivors had a right to address issues of Jewish security, and I did not.
That was a communal sense. In recent years I’ve heard neoconservatives Michael Makovsky and Bill Kristol issue that same security blackmail in speeches in New York. It is “cavalier,” Kristol said five years ago, for comfortable Americans on the Upper West Side who face no risks at all to “berate” Israel and “second-guess” the ”tough calls” that Israel has had to make.
“I’m not sure I’m capable of judging all these extremely complicated legal and political issues within the state of Israel. I believe that as Americans what we can do… is above all stand with Israel against existential threats, terror threats.”
A few weeks ago, Makovsky issued the same fiat, slamming other members of a panel who were criticizing Israel: “Look, it’s easy to sit here on West 86th street…”
The reason I seize on these two statements, out of hundreds of similar injunctions, is that they epitomize the neoconservative power because they were issued in the same progressive space: the famous B’nai Jeshurun, which is dedicated to openness and tolerance.
These two neocons gain a platform there for a simple reason: because they claim to address an issue of Jewish survival, in the shadow of the Holocaust. The community respects neoconservatives because they are quite literally in touch with the hard generals in uniform who have to do those “brutal” things in that medieval neighborhood. While pencil-necked Jewish liberals in the U.S. who would never let their children don a uniform other than a soccer kit get to work on their screenplays and kombucha cultures and lucrative internet startups– and they must have no standing on these questions. Which is why I’ve never heard an anti-Zionist speak at B’nai Jeshurun. Kristol and Makovsky were both opposed by liberal Zionist Jeremy Ben-Ami, whose father was in the Irgun. You bet he has standing!
It is for the same reason that the Union for Reform Judaism and countless Jewish politicians who came to prominence by opposing the Vietnam war supported the Iraq War: because the neoconservatives in our community said that this war would help Israel. The courageous Jerrold Nadler opposed that war, and he said he was pilloried by demagogues as anti-Israel for his vote.
What Foxman’s epiphany suggests is that the level of manipulation here is more profound and sinister than I could allow myself to imagine: That Israel chooses violence as an “available, reasonable” answer because it binds American Jews to its side, forever. That’s very dark, yes; and I am not given to cynicism, but progressives need to ask themselves: Why does Israel propagate myths of the dangerous neighborhood and the permanent war?
Thanks to Scott Roth and James North.