Here are three more signs of the end of mainstream American consensus on Israel.
First sign. Rabbi Steve Gutow is a longtime Israel lobbyist at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. I’ve seen him talk at liberal Zionist events. He has a piece in the Forward relating that a group of Israeli journalists from left to right asked him how he can “hold off BDS.” He told them he can’t do it unless Israel can show that it cares “about the generations of Palestinians who have lived in a state of poverty and lack of freedom.”
And the journalists didn’t get it:
The Israeli journalists I addressed, even the most liberal ones, seemed to find it difficult to contemplate the very idea of real compassion and empathy for the Palestinians. But it is absolutely necessary for us as a moral and politically astute community, if we want to slow or stop the growth of BDS.
Gutow laments the outsize influence of Jewish donors inside the Jewish community, and beyond.
Another challenge is money. We cannot allow money to make the community’s decisions. Wealthy people often have the wisdom to make money but not necessarily to decide about war and peace, how much to spend on education, how best to deal with immigration or prisons. In our community, there is this strange hegemony of big donors demanding control of decisions. They should have a vote, but, as we say in my Reconstructionist movement, not a veto over what we do and do not do….
I think he’s talking about neoconservatives there. Then there’s this about Jewish “insularity”:
[O]ur community understands the need to balance the universal with the particular. We cannot be a whole community in America and worry only about Israel, anti-Semitism and Jewish issues.
Second sign. Ari Roth famously got canned as artistic director by the Jewish Community Center theater in Washington for wanting to do drama about the Palestinian experience. He has now started his own theater, Mosaic, that will be staging a production of “I Shall Not Hate,” based on the writings of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the kind Gaza doctor who has been censored at Theater J and by 92d Street Y (a one-man-wrecking crew for American Jewish consciousness, Abuelaish lost his daughters to Israeli aggression but isn’t allowed to tell that story).
Now Playbill reports that Adam Immerwahr is the new artistic director at Theater J in Washington, replacing Roth– and he plans to ask questions about Israel but ask them “excellently”:
In an interview with the Washington Post, Immerwahr said, “It’s very clear that the first season I program will be subject to a certain kind of scrutiny. My goal is to program a diverse variety of plays on a great many themes and topics, and Israel is absolutely one of those. There are difficult questions to ask about Israel for all American Jews, and we won’t be shy about asking them if we feel there is art that asks them excellently.”
McCarter artistic director Emily Mann said, “It’s all about de-escalating. If anyone can do it, I think he can.”
How can this issue be deescalated? It can’t, without American Jews having open discussions about why they married Zionism.
Third sign: a review by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker of Dennis Ross’s book on the U.S.-Israel relationship called “Doomed to Succeed.” The piece is nearly vitriolic when it comes to Dennis Ross. Filkins says that the former State Department aide is indifferent to the idea of “justice,” that his highest compliment is that an American president is a “friend of Israel,” and that he can’t bring himself to criticize Israel.
In four hundred-plus pages, there is almost no mention of the changes that have transformed the Israeli polity in the past six decades, and surprisingly little discussion of the steady growth in the settlement population, which now exceeds half a million. For Ross, who was the State Department’s director of policy planning under President George H. W. Bush, the special Middle East coördinator under President Bill Clinton, and an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the settlements are evidently problematic only insofar as they present an obstacle to a smoothly functioning bilateral relationship. The United Nations and most foreign governments consider them illegal, but for him they are a political difficulty to be finessed. There is no talk of justice. Pressure on Israel—by Palestinians, by Europeans, by President Obama—appears to Ross bewildering and unreasonable.
Ross describes a situation, in 2010, when Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, refused to negotiate with Netanyahu unless he agreed to extend a moratorium on settlement construction, and the Obama Administration tried and failed to broker a compromise. His conclusion: Abbas “showed little flexibility and squandered the moratorium.” And Ross criticizes President Obama for “putting the onus on Israel.” This sort of analysis makes sense only if you regard the expansion of Israeli settlements and the Palestinian objections to them as morally equivalent.
Ross is as impatient with Palestinian efforts to gain a more sympathetic hearing at the United Nations and elsewhere as he is sensitive to the political needs of Israeli Prime Ministers. Yet he says almost nothing about the political realities that have shaped the situation, or how those realities might be changed. He evinces almost no sympathy for similar pressures on Abbas and others at the Palestinian Authority. Only near the end of the book does he bring himself to criticize Israel. Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from John Boehner to address the House of Representatives, thereby defying the White House and inserting himself in a domestic political debate, was, Ross says, “a mistake.” He writes repeatedly that Israeli leaders will make concessions only when they feel secure. This may be true, but where does this leave American policy? And where does it leave Israel?
The highest compliment Ross seems able to pay an American President is to say that he is a “friend of Israel.” But how can an American President help an ally steer away from a potentially disastrous course when that ally, by the nature of its own domestic politics, isn’t able to do so by itself? Ross doesn’t say.
It’s about time Ross’s reputation gets adjusted in the liberal press. Compare Filkins’s straightforwardness to the Scott Anderson review of the Ross book in the New York Times. It also criticizes Ross, but not before it kisses Ross’s behind. Writes Donald Johnson:
Anderson keeps praising Ross for “fair-minded”-ness and repeats the claim that Arafat walked away from a great peace deal. And he repeats the American complaint that Palestinians see themselves as aggrieved and don’t propose what Americans perceive as sufficient compromises. In fact, this is because the Palestinians are in fact the aggrieved party, have international and human rights law on their side and have already lost most of their land. This is too hard for the government officials of powerful countries to understand. No wonder they lose their tempers as they have more important things to worry about. Anderson over praises Ross and agrees with his “fair mindedness” in order to stick the knife in at the end–the Israelis do nothing without pressure and see no reason to reach a peace agreement if they can just keep building settlements. Anderson conceded way too much to get there.