Gerald Steinberg spoke at a Midtown synagogue last night. He is the head of NGO Monitor, which has waged a war against human-rights organizations, many of them Israeli, whose work was drawn upon by the Goldstone Report. I wanted to lay eyes on him because he has led such a savage and in some ways effective campaign, scaring the funders of human rights groups by saying they are trying to demonize and delegitimize Israel. He says that some NGOs are more powerful than governments.
Steinberg is tall and professorial, gray with rounded shoulders. He has an American accent and has spent many years at a lectern at Bar Ilan University, maybe too many years. His talk was about Jerusalem and it went on longer than I had time for. He made the helpful point that Jerusalem and the right of return are the hardest issues, “identity issues.” The Jewish people’s right to a sovereign existence in Jerusalem is an issue that identifies us as Jews, he claimed.
The best news about the event was that it was all old people. Some of them had on old unidentifiable baseball caps and carried weird old handbags. Some had come for the free oldfashioned food. An unpleasant woman tried to interrogate me for taking notes, what newspaper am I with. Do you have a card? It was very old school Israel lobby. The old people reminded me of the old people you see in West Jerusalem, walking around with American accents. They only come to their apartments in Jerusalem twice a year. That’s one reason the city feels dead, it’s not being lived in, it’s more of an idea than a place, an "identity" idea; and there are all these Palestinian ghosts, people who actually want to live there and can’t.
I took a cab downtown with two officials of the New Israel Fund, whom Steinberg had been smearing in his talk. The New Israel Fund doesn’t demonize Israel– it is trying to save Israel for a younger Jewish generation. That’s one reason it funds Breaking the Silence and B’tselem (human rights organizations on whom Goldstone depended) despite pushback from some donors. It wants young Jews to feel proud of Israel as a democracy. They can’t feel proud of an Israel that is evicting Palestinians from East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
The three of us were going to a New Israel Fund event at a bar off the Bowery called Sweet and Vicious. The event was a kind of performance. Martin Kace, a businessman, was going to talk about rebranding Israel for ten minutes or so and then the music would start again, there wasn’t going to be a panel, young people don’t like panels. The scene was the opposite of the synagogue, a lot of young attractive Jews. Some had Israeli accents. It is like the difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it speaks to the cultural chasm between J Street and the old Israel lobby. Tel Aviv is modern and wants to feel hip, but Tel Aviv is also inside the “bubble.” It doesn’t ever want to think about the occupation.
Kace calls himself a "reZionist." The restaurant culture of Tel Aviv is Israel for him. The former ceo of Phat Farm and Joe Boxer, he has done a lot of branding. He told us that Nike went through long brainstorm sessions to come up with one word that captured the brand, performance, and Israel has to undertake the same process and come up with the right brand. The Foreign Ministry came out with the brand "creative energy," but this didn’t capture the dark side of Israel, Israel was both sweet and vicious, like the name of the bar. He said that when you put 5000 free-associated words in a “branding funnel” they narrow down to one word. Kace suggested that that word was “strength.” It captured the Nobel Prizes and the vitality of the culture and also the aggressiveness of Israel, which makes it do bad things some times.
I kept wondering whether you could rebrand Toyota to include the fact that its accelerators sometimes killed people. I don’t think that would work. Wouldn’t you want to just fix the accelerators before you worried about branding? But you weren’t allowed to ask questions.
I felt uncomfortable at the bar. I was very mean to someone I know who’s a Zionist, my Oedipal rage came out to my own embarrassment. I found that I avoided sincere conversations with the New Israel Fund people; they are trying to feel good about Israel, they have a close connection to Israel, and are dealing with the post-Gaza terrain without directly addressing the Palestinian condition, which feels to me like talking about the Old South without talking about segregation. Kace is as concerned about Israel being "delegitimized" as Gerald Steinberg is.
A bunch of my friends and I went out for dinner, half Jews, half non-Jews. The Jews at my dinner talked about Maimonides and Ashkenazim and other stuff. A Palestinian next to me listened intently. I said we are struggling about how to claim a Jewishness outside of the dark shadow of oppression in Palestine. I kept thinking about Steinberg’s formulation of identity issues: Jews are for swallowing Jerusalem, and Palestinians are for the right of return. When you think about it, both these calls with respect to Jewish identity are in violation of international law: Not letting the refugees return is against international law and swallowing Jerusalem is against international law. I don’t see how anyone is going to save Israel until they struggle to bring it into conformance with international norms. Spiritually, that’s what this whole issue is about for me, getting Israel to accept the judgment of the world community, getting Jews to open themselves up to the judgment of outsiders.
Update: Here is Jared Malsin on the Kace event. Excellent.