“Will Israel survive as a Jewish democracy?”
That was the central question posed at an event at the historic synagogue at 6th and I in Washington D.C. Tuesday night.
CNN’s Jake Tapper moderated the discussion that featured Atlantic heavyweight Jeffrey Goldberg — whom Tapper said the White House calls “the official therapist of the U.S.-Israel relationship” — and Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit. The audience was mostly older/retired, joined by a smattering who looked to be middle-aged activist types and another smattering of young professionals.
Tapper jumped right into the issue, recalling that two decades prior his college professor said that Israel thought it could simultaneously remain the same size, a democracy and Jewish. But, according to the professor, it couldn’t remain all three.
Referring (haltingly, initially) to the occupation of the West Bank, Tapper asked if Israel hadn’t “already lost the democratic part of that?”
He also mentioned a New York Times op-ed by a former speaker of the Knesset, which said that “something went wrong” with the Zionist dream, where instead of a flourishing democratic Israel, the nation instead found itself “brutally controlling” another people.
Neither Goldberg nor Shavit shied away from the term “occupation.” Goldberg acknowledged that, while Israel was more democratic than most countries in the region, and that its various ethnic strains were “reasonably integrated,” there was undeniably a portion of the population “under military occupation.”
Pointing to Hebron, Goldberg said it’s “impossible to argue it’s fully democratic,” as a Jewish family in that town can enjoy the fruits of participatory democracy, while a Palestinian family down the street remains under military rule. (In fact, though he didn’t mention it, Jews can walk down roads that Palestinians are barred from.)
“That’s unsustainable,” Goldberg said.
Shavit maintained that Israel “is in many ways a miracle,” but conceded that the democratic institutions were in trouble. Though by no means “a naïve peacenik,” Shavit said, he is “not ashamed of that word — it is an occupation. There’s no way around it.”
And when an audience member later contended that there is a “tension” between Israel’s professed liberal values and the occupation, Shavit said, “Not tension — clear contradiction!”
He said Israel’s political left has it half correct: the occupation is indeed “morally unsustainable,” but it was “totally wrong” to think that when and if it ended, peace would automatically follow.
Goldberg said that giving up West Bank territory so as to end the occupation, most of it anyway, was “a risk that has to be attempted” because Israel simply could not maintain face in the world while holding “2.5 million people without rights.”
Not that he was comfortable with the word “apartheid.” Saying that its use in this context was disrespectful to those who suffered under it in South Africa, Goldberg nevertheless said that if nothing changed, then Israel would be left with “something between Apartheid and Jim Crow South.”
However, echoing Shavit, he said “let’s stop making believe that if you give up the occupation” then all would be well in the region. Shavit suggested that at minimum the settlers must be disentangled so the world “can see we’re trying…. Israel actually has no choice.”
He called for replacing the two-state solution with a two-states-within-a-state version — each in its own space. “To impose 25-year-old ideas… would be disastrous.”
Shavit repeatedly spoke of the Middle East as a bad neighborhood.
“The most important city in the Middle East is Washington,” he said, maintaining that only Washington and the West could stabilize the “malignant area.” And he said the harsh political reality of the region was immune to idealistic approaches — it rather called for “bold and direct words.”
To wit, according to Shavit, “all peace is dead.” Every attempt to trade land for peace had blown up in Israel’s face, he said, and that is what “killed the Left” in Israel.
Washington was “very naïve” about the Arab awakening, he said, thinking that it is like 1776 in America or 1789 in France. In reality, in the wake of the Arab Spring, “there’s no partners for peace… no leader with enough legitimacy.”
“One must call a spade a spade,” Shavit added later in the discussion. In his view little more than “religious fascism” had emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring — “largely ugly and dangerous.” He asked, “Where are the women or gays or Christians under Hamas in Gaza, in Egypt?”
At times Shavit’s warnings against the Arab Spring came off as extreme, though he sought to allay any concerns about bias by saying that he was making these observations not as a Jewish Zionist Israeli, but as a human and a democrat.
Continuing in the same vein, he suggested there was a growing silent majority of Israeli Palestinians that believes that as bad as it may be for them in Israel, it remained better than what was on offer in surrounding countries.
Not that this was a good situation for Israel. Shavit said Israelis are “the new isolationists… victims of our own success.” His fellow countrymen are living under the “illusion” that they can go on with the status quo and ignore the world around them.
The question arose, with a coalition government made up of factions highly supportive of settlers, how can Israel change? “What is that miracle change?” Goldberg asked. “What can [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry or Obama say” or do that could actually bring about movement? He called the settlers “the actual Israeli lobby” — like the NRA in the United States, a decided minority that can “bollix” up every attempt at a solution.
But that’s trouble for Israel supporters. Goldberg said centrist Jewish Americans look at the current rulers of Israel and think, “you are not the Israelis we thought we knew 20-30 years ago.”
Shavit agreed that any progress would be difficult under the current government. However, he did divine slim signs of hope for his cause in the last elections. While the left and center remain confused and rudderless, the right has become less monolithic.
Shavit used America as an example. He spoke of visiting dejected American friends after the 2004 U.S. elections. With the re-election of George W. Bush they had given up on their country, saying it had been overrun with right-wing zealots — only to see Barack Obama elected four years later.
Jake Tapper echoed the theme, citing poll data showing that young American Jews don’t cotton to Netanyahu and are in general more critical of Israel.
Goldberg suggested that the various measurements were “derivative of how the person feels as a Jew generally,” and that those feelings shifted along generational lines.
Goldberg, 47, said his positive vision of Israel was formed by the “miracles” of the ’67 war and the raid on Entebbe; while Tapper, who is 44 and also Jewish, had a different outlook. His awareness of Israel came about during the first intifadah in 1987.
Young American Jews are not so much “disillusioned or angry at Israel… [they] just don’t care,” Goldberg said. Israel and the Holocaust would no longer be the rallying tools they have been for Jewish identity. And mostly liberal secular American Jews were always going to have a hard time relating to rightwing Israelis.
Tapper wondered if it was a function of assimilation. Goldberg acknowledged that two generations ago “it was taboo to marry outside” the faith, “now it’s taboo to disapprove of it….”
He also said young American Jews are “bombarded by anti-Israel propaganda, and some unfortunate truths,” which affect their outlook. (No mention, though, of the Israel lobby in the U.S. that has conducted its own full court press for decades, relatively unchallenged until only recently.)
Shavit was far less comfortable with this reality. He stressed “interdependency” between Jews in both countries. The last century led to “two miracles” in Jewish life — one being “the perfect diaspora” in the U.S. and the other the creation of Israel. Israel must make itself “attractive to young American Jews,” he said. It “can’t have this backward religious regime.”
He said that American Jews must feel like they have “a second home in Israel or both will be in trouble.”
“There is a larger ‘we,’” he said to the synagogue audience.
Tapper asked about Iran and its nuclear weapons program: who was more likely to act against it, the U.S. or Israel?
Goldberg, who has written that Israel would act on its own, said that Obama did a good job during his recent Israel trip to convince Netanyahu that “he’s very serious on the subject.” He joked that while Netanyahu’s and Obama’s “red lines” differed, they were nevertheless “on the same scroll” when it came to the seriousness of the issue.
Iran is not the “existential” threat to the U.S. that it is to Israel, Goldberg said. And while the United States could live with an Iran “perpetually three to six months away” from a bomb, Israel “can’t live on the lip of that volcano.”
He also suggested that Israel may “secretly realize that it’s too late” to act on its own, because the operations have gone too far underground and added, rather solemnly, that for the first time in its history Israel is “subcontracting out its existence to the United States.”
Shavit pointed to a number of U.S. failures that he said only served to empower Iran, such as George W. Bush’s “unnecessary” invasion of Iraq, and Obama’s lack of support for the Green uprising in Iran in 2009. “Iran, like any mafia, feels weakness,” Shavit said.
Still, he considered Netanyahu’s attempt to bully America into a military strike “a terrible mistake.”
Neither was enthusiastic about the U.S. entering Syria. Shavit drew an analogy with the Spanish Civil War, when “Europe’s conscience died.” He said the international community’s standing as a moral arbiter has suffered greatly as thousands are massacred in Syria. And so the international community had little moral authority to complain about deaths resulting from political violence in Israel or Nigeria.
Goldberg supported the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and though admitting to being “an interventionist by disposition,” he conceded that as the leader of an “exhausted, broke country,” Obama had “many reasons to run the other way” when it came to Syria. There was no domestic groundswell calling for action.
However, he also suggested that the leader of the free world might be keeping his powder dry for an eventual confrontation with Iran.
The only challenges to the journalists on the dais came during the Q & A. One woman was put off by Shavit’s wholesale denunciation of the Arab Spring, and asked if there weren’t good things about it. The speakers didn’t offer much to console her.
And Naomi Paiss of the New Israel Fund decried statements from the governing coalition chair in Israel who said it was more important for the nation to be Jewish than democratic. Similarly, she bemoaned efforts to disenfranchise human rights organizations as well as proposed legislation to replace democracy with Jewish law.
Shavit, who once chaired the Israeli ACLU (“like the American ACLU, but with fewer Jews,” Goldberg quipped), said that two years ago, he would have shared her concerns, but that the latest election showed the tide was turning, however slightly.
Goldberg said there are a lot “schmucks” and “fascists” in American politics too, and that he believed Israel’s democracy was resilient and self-correcting. He also chided American Jews who complain about Israel’s politics: “you’re just complaining vicariously — move there.”
In closing, despite an evening of much hand wringing and facing of uncomfortable realities, both men sounded a positive note.
“I mean the Jews are the ever-dying people — right? For 3,000 years … dispersion, death, exile,” Goldberg said. But, in actuality, he said, “The amazing thing about this moment in Jewish history is that it’s never been better.”
Jews have never enjoyed such “power — cultural, political, financial — every sort of power,” Goldberg said.
“You have most of the world’s Jews living in either a free, independent and powerful Jewish state or in … the United States,” Goldberg continued. “There’s never been a diaspora country like the United States, that wholly, wholly accepts Jews and allows Jews to be everything.”
So despite the myriad “existential threats to the Jewish people at any given time,” Goldberg concluded, “things are actually pretty good.”
Update: Original version of this post gave New Israel Fund official’s name as Naomi Chazan, due to editor’s error. It was Naomi Paiss. Apologies.