Last Sunday five mostly-liberal American Jewish groups held an all-day conference in New York on “Israel at a crossroads on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War,” and it was chaotic.
Every few minutes the speakers contradicted one another. The head of the Reform Jews said that BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting Israel) was poison, and then the Forward columnist said that we have to invite in Jews who support BDS.
The rightwing Israeli ambassador Dani Dayan made an argument for annexing the West Bank by saying that in 1967, “the Palestinians, the Arabs set the rules of the game: the winner takes all by force. And we won, thank god.”
Then the one Palestinian invited to the conference said that Palestinians don’t think in terms of winner-take-all, they don’t play poker, and this too:
“I am not your goy. I’m not willing to play the role of the foreigner in your country. It is also my country.”
Then a liberal Israeli rabbi pleaded with the American Jews not to listen to the rightwing ambassador, and she said she wasn’t sure if we really need a Jewish state.
Then the head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said he didn’t agree with the Israeli rabbi about a Jewish state. “We have every right to be here, and we’re going to fight for it,” he said, just like the Israeli “pioneers” fought to build the state 50 years ago.
He lives in Gaithersburg Maryland, by the way.
There was chaos in messaging from start to finish of the conference, and if I can extract any lesson from it, it is that older establishment liberal Jews aren’t ready for the new discourse of Israel and they are freaked out about what young Jews are saying. Peter Beinart’s crisis of Zionism of 2013 is now four years old, and we are starting in on the chaos of American Zionism. (It couldn’t come a minute too soon, but I will try not to editorialize.)
The establishment speakers all basically acknowledged that they had played the Israel hand too hard, and it was driving the young away. Four speakers on that theme:
David Bernstein of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs explains why no dissent has been allowed:
For a long time, I think for many good reasons by the way, the mainstream Jewish community would not take an adversarial stance toward an Israeli government policy. We would toe the line and we did so because we felt, and this is an argument that I’ve heard over the years and that I’ve made myself as well, that there was so much anti-Israelism out there that somebody had to be an advocate for Israel. Somebody had to help make sure that America remained a buffer between Israel and against the scourge of hostility that it faced literally everywhere else in the world. It forced us to have to stifle our own doubts and our own disagreements with Israeli policy.
But is that still serving us, and can we connect with younger Jews if that remains? Do we need to diversify?… Can we start to have this conversation around Israel in ways that don’t destroy us, in ways that don’t pull us apart?
Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, says the no-dissent policy has been “catastrophic” for American Jews:
I think a lot of young Jews in particular are told not to bring all their core Jewish values to the [Israel] issue. That the existential physical issues are so grave that we have to actually be willing to fudge on Jewish democracy issues. I think that this is catastrophic not only for Jewish identity but for the health and well being of North American Jewish community and frankly for the U.S. Israel relationship…
When [millennials] hear a Jewish community that won’t even use the word occupation, it raises a question. For me– 50 years– I also have the joy of Jerusalem’s reunification. I am part of organizations that are celebrating that and simultaneously addressing the pain of the occupation. If we fail to articulate that as Jewish communal leaders we are I think very actively pushing millennials farther and farther from Jewish life.
If we say as some have said, that settlements have nothing to do with any peace process, have nothing to do with the infrastructure for a future peace process, we are simply deluding ourselves, and I think young people have great antenna. They hear that, they turn off.
Rabbi Ayala Samuels, an Israeli liberal, somewhat desperately urged US liberal Jews to take control of the relationship, away from the likes of rightwing Israeli ambassador Dani Dayan. She began by explaining that the old model was that Jews in Israel were on the forefront of Jewish existence, so: “We do and you pay.”
And the model that “we do and you pay” made perfect sense. That model has collapsed. It collapsed for me as much as I hope it collapsed for you…. We have to develop a much more egalitarian model– equal, why? Because when Israel does something it influences Jews in the Diaspora as well…. The state of Israel today– Mr. Dayan has spoken very nicely, very self assuredly about how we’re doing fine. “I feel moral. I feel I do the right thing.” Well OK, it is good that someone has confidence like I had when I was 9 years old on Kibbutz Shamir that I was doing the best thing for the Jewish people. He feels the same now. But ask people what the influences are of what’s happening in the [settlements in] Judea and Samaria? What ways does it influence the existence, the life of Jews around the world? Because if you are part of the Jewish people, and you think Israel is the state of the Jewish people… it has to include the conversation of our responsibility to Jews around the world. And so it has to be a dialogue. And therefore I’m inviting you to voice your opinion, not only vis a vis the occupation… but also regarding life in Israel. You’re liberal Jews. Are you? So do you care about liberal Judaism? So let us know, the minority of liberal Jews in Israel, that you are behind us, your support us. When you meet our leaders, you will tell them, you care about liberal Jews in Israel.
J.J. Goldberg of the Forward described how Israel became the new religion of American Jews in ’67:
In 1967 the organizations that had acquired all of that clout [from leading the civil rights movement] began applying it to defending Israel. The galvanization was of a leadership and an involved core. For much of the community, they were no longer in the business of representing American Jews, they were in the business of defending Israel… [Israel] has become the new torah, the new Judaism. It used to be if you kept kosher you kept shabbos, you were Jewish. Now it doesn’t matter what you do on Saturday as long as you support Israel….
The transformations that turned the Jewish community from a liberal, optimistic outward-looking community into an inward-looking suspicious nationalistic community all happened in 67…
Then he said that young Jews aren’t learning “any real facts” about Israel from their teachers:
Research now shows that the Palestinians who left Israel in ’47 and ’48– some were fleeing because they were urged, a far larger number were fleeing because a war was going on and they wanted to get out of the way, and a considerable number were kicked out. I remember growing up and being taught the kicked-out thing was a lie. It took me a lot of years to find out it actually was true. When kids think Israel only does good and that the other side is at fault entirely for what goes wrong, then they come up against the arguments on campus and they don’t have an answer. They discover that they didn’t learn any real facts.
I hope it is clear from all these statements how retrograde the U.S. Jewish establishment is, and what an impoverished conversation exists about Palestine inside the U.S. Jewish community. Goldberg noted that the Jewish establishment is trying to blacklist J Street for being mildly critical of Israel, and meantime Jewish Voice for Peace, which is “anathema” to the Jewish establishment, is growing by engaging young people on Israel– critically.
Then a young woman got up from the audience and said she was with J Street and she had heard in an earlier panel that 65 percent of young Israeli Jews and Palestinians have racist views of one another, and is that true? “Do we believe those statistics? It’s frightening to think that racism is really that common!”
She’s stumbling toward enlightenment. Her teachers didn’t give her any real facts. As we say here often, the Jewish community is going to be recovering from the Israel relationship for a long time.
P.S. The comment about I’m not your goy came from Mohammad Darawshe, the director of a co-existence center in Israel. He is about as conservative a Palestinian as you are going to meet, he even accepts Israel as having a Jewish character. But he said that he bridles when well-meaning rabbis come up to him and say the Torah teaches Jews to be kind to the goy among them.
I am not your goy. I’m not willing to play the role of the foreigner in your country. It is also my country. It’s not the Torah that’s the reference point for our relationship. It is not the Jewish nature of the state that is supposed to manage our relationship, it’s the Declaration of Independence, and the 5 basic laws that guarantee individual rights and collective rights for Arab citizens, for any minority in any normal state. You need to outgrow your Judaism when you deal with Israel– to focus on the Israeli nature of the state of Israel. You cant think of Israel on archaeological or archaic terms or just through your personal ethnic religious identity.
As for the rabbi who said that she wasn’t sure if Israel needs to be a Jewish state, that was Ayala Samuels. While saying she is a Zionist because Israel represents “the first time in more than 2000 years that Jews have a chance to have their own public space and run their own life as a community,” including creating laws about the sabbath, she said she was no longer sure that she had the only right answers and that she was “the forefront of something.”
This plainly irritated David Bernstein of the JCPA (and Gaithersburg), who said, “I don’t think that there’s any value of questioning the very right of the state of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Thank goodness, the pioneers didn’t either…. We have every right to be here, and we’re going to fight for it.”
Bernstein had himself introduced the topic. He said:
I remember talking to a Jewish studies professor, whose kid went through Jewish day school through twelfth grade as mine did and she was saying that she was a little disturbed. Her daughter called her from Israel during her senior year trip to Israel and she said, “Mom I really love it here, but I don’t understand why a religion needs a state.” … She had not yet seen and understood herself as a Jew, as a part of a people, as being part of a nation. Her understanding of Jewishness was confined by the vocabulary of being a religion.
Sure sounds like the American Jewish leaders who have done such a solid job of supporting whatever Israel does for the last 50 years should start listening to the kids.