On Wednesday night, Jan 23, I attended what seemed to be two more Washington DC area Jewish community programs spouting the standard pro-Israel messages. By the end of the evening I realized that we may in fact have heard the next iteration of the so called mainstream Jewish Community messaging on Israel and Palestine.
First some background. The leadership of the Washington DC Jewish Community skews heavily older, male and right wing, which is no surprise, and the local programs on Israel normally reflect their views. One exciting exception is Theater J, our local Jewish Community Theater Company based in the DC Jewish Community Center and funded partially by the local Federation. Theater J’s annual “Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival” features contemporary work from Israel about all current issues and is known for presenting diverse views and excellent discussion programs with speakers representing all segments.
Needless to say, the programs are controversial and significant elements on the far right in the community are lobbying heavily to cut off Federation funding for Theater J. Partially surrendering to this element Theater J downgraded their scheduled showing of “The Admission” An Israeli homage to All My Sons set in Haifa during the first Intifada from a full production to a workshop with a reduced schedule. In addition, to show balance they added a two week long production of “Golda’s Balcony” to the schedule.
The JCC also started a new series of programs, “Embracing Democracy” which it describes as, “…a community-wide conversation with leading experts exploring the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, its history and its politics.” The program is hardly diverse leaving out major segments of the Jewish community and totally ignoring the perspective of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Wednesday, due to bad weather, two of these programs were held back to back at a local synagogue instead of the DCJCC to accommodate high ticket sales.
The first program, “Examining the History of 1948” was a panel discussion followed by a conversation with Ari Shavit, author of “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” in conversation with Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of The New Republic. The room was almost full with about 1,000 people almost all of whom were well over 60. I won’t waste time reporting the standard pro-Israel messages that permeated the program, especially the meaningless love fest between Shavit and Wieseltier.
What I believe to be significant is that we heard a new narrative for the events of 1948. Donna Robinson Divine, Professor of Jewish Studies and Government at Smith College was the first speaker on the 1948 panel. She admitted that there are many conflicting narratives about the War of Independence and the Nakba. While she started by denigrating the concept of the Nakba she went on to admit that Israel did in fact forcibly evict Palestinians during the War of Independence.
Even more significant was Shay Hazkani, a doctoral candidate at NYU in Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History. Hazkani is studying the conflict through personal letters of Israeli and Arab soldiers intercepted and copied by Israeli intelligence. He has found documents in the Israeli government archives documenting David Ben Gurion’s deliberate effort to re-write the history of the Nakba in the early 1960s to reduce political pressure on Israel to make peace. Ben Gurion persuaded Israeli historians and propagandists to create the myth of voluntary relocation at the urging of Arab governments. The Israeli government denies this yet for the DC Jewish Community to give Hazkani a significant platform seems very significant, especially in light of the final panel presentation.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and widely known as a leading pro-Israel educator and historian. His presentation can be summed up simply as, sure, we did it but Israel was morally justified and besides who cares?
His remarks included comments like, “Does knowledge change our identity?” and “Selective memory is legitimate”. Maybe most telling of all, “Does a new variable change things? No, facts don’t create identity.”
During the very short Q&A after the panel and then in the Shavit discussion we heard much of the same thing. Lots of rationalization, discussion of the Holocaust, how Europe abandoned Israel in 1967 and 73 all boiling down to Israel is the paragon of virtue. Sure it did a few bad things in 1948 but we were justified and besides every nation was born in war.
Why you may ask is this significant? It is clear to many of us that Israel is losing the American public relations battle. Apparently some American Jewish “leaders” have realized that the truth is coming out about the Nakba so they have to modify their propaganda. Wednesday night the loyal audience of 60 + year old Israel supporters seemed to eat it up.
Shavit lamented that the audience was of the older generation and that the Israel message is not reaching American Jewish youth. He acknowledges that younger people are seeing through the fiction and demand the truth but seems to honestly believe that Americans will accept this modified and limited truth while continuing to place all the blame for the conflict on Palestinians and other Arab countries-.
Personally, I see this new messaging as an opportunity. As more American Jewish leaders admit that Israel did in fact deliberately evict Palestinians and that the Nakba is real it will be much easier to show that the issue is not one-sided. Hopefully this apparent legitimatization of the Palestinian narrative will open the hearts and minds of many Americans to the truth about Israel and result in significantly more pressure on American and Israeli leaders to end the occupation and negotiate fairly with Palestinians.