Media Analysis

WNYC hosts Israeli rabbi who is optimistic about new nation-state law

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New York’s public radio station WNYC had a segment called “A Rabbi’s View of Nationality in Israel,” which whitewashed the new “nation state of the Jewish people” law.

It began with host Brian Lehrer saying that Israel and the U.S. are in the same pickle. “Even as the United States is convulsing this summer over deepening white nationalism in this country, Israel is convulsing again over deepening divisions about what it means to be a Jewish state… Sound familiar?”

Noting that “Israel has always been” the nation-state of the Jewish people, so it didn’t need a law saying so, Lehrer then introduced guest Rabbi Seth Farber, an Israeli-American who has fought for religious pluralism in the country.

Rabbi Seth Farber

Farber portrayed the nation-state law as an optimistic moment, because Israelis recognize that a religious minority is “having a disproportionate amount of influence on the way that Judaism is headed.”

Things are changing and it’s important to say that…  Israel is forward looking, not just looking forward, and is trying to make some sincere changes… The opposition we have is formidable… People are beginning to recognize… that something has to change, something has to move here…

This is a land of incredible, incredible opportunity. I don’t want Israel at 80 or 85 or 90 to be in a civil war like the United States was– the opposite. I think Israel brings an incredible ray of light to a region that really really needs it. And Israel is an incredibly rich and positive democracy, but there are issues particularly about working out what it means for Jews to be empowered and control their own destiny… So we need to work that out. So that’s beginning to happen. I believe the founders would be disappointed in what they see today but optimistic about what they see the future holds.

Farber said his five children will serve in the Israeli army and he praised it as a moral force, even if Americans don’t see it that way.

We’re very proud that they will serve their nation. Again, I understand for some of the listeners there are some moral issues with the IDF, and I would love people to come here and see just how moral our armed services are and just how committed they are to preserving life and not taking away life.

[Lehrer: That’s another show.]

For our Palestinian cousins as well.. we want to see things get better here.

The bath of positivity came to an end when caller Eric, who identified himself as an If Not Now Jew, slammed the discussion as a distraction from what “we should be talking about, the slaughter of unarmed Palestinians and the disregard for democracy when it comes to non-Jews.”

Farber lectured the caller:

Eric, I understand your feelings on the matter. The complexity of the situation here does not lend itself to generalizations. 7 balloons came over and started burning Israeli property. Israel is in a very very sensitive place, and there is a very very delicate balance that Israel has to achieve, and it doesn’t always achieve it perfectly…. I’m certainly not for closing down the state of Israel because unfortunately some soldiers might have made mistakes when trying to preserve human life.

But Lehrer echoed the caller. He asked whether Palestinians are not increasingly becoming second-class citizens and challenged Farber, “You’ve had a chance to object to this law and you didn’t.”

Farber conceded that it was a “mistake” to pass the law, and the pain it has caused cannot be denied. “The law needs to be changed. The law was passed under… poor circumstances. It was done as many laws are very very quickly without a lot of thought given to it.”

Lehrer then restated his theme: Israel is in the same pickle as the U.S.

Some people in my country, rabbi, the country of your birth, see the rise of Donald Trump as an expression of the same trend in the world toward antidemocratic ethnic majoritarian nationalism I’ll call it that is making the ultraorthodox more powerful in Israel, the Putin faction more powerful in Russia, the Orban factor more powerful in Hungary, and more.

Lehrer is not alone here. The far-right trends in Israel have presented a sharp challenge to liberal Zionists who still love the Jewish state; and their chief response lately has been to say that Israel under Netanyahu and the U.S. under Trump are in the same pickle.

The problem with Lehrer’s journalistic frame is that he never airs anti-Zionists, who believe that the ideology on which the state of Israel is based has always been problematic. An anti-Zionist would say that when you set up a country without separation of church and state, privileging Jews over other citizens, keeping 20 percent of the population out of governing coalitions even in Labor governments and sharply limiting their purchases of land, well then you are going to have an ethnically-defined majoritarian society ala Jim Crow. And it’s always been that way.

Interviewing Farber is like interviewing a prosperous white southerner about Jim Crow. A liberal NY talk show ought to discuss Israel’s new nationality law by hosting someone whose rights are circumscribed: a Palestinian.

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“Even as the United States is convulsing this summer over deepening white nationalism in this country, Israel is convulsing again over deepening divisions about what it means to be a Jewish state… Sound familiar?” David Duke or Richard Spencer have no chance at all to go beyond the fringe, let alone be part of the ruling elite in the USA. Separation of church and state and equal rights and US Constitution bar the way. The… Read more »

“because unfortunately some soldiers might have made mistakes when trying to preserve human life.”

I can only speak for myself, but that is without a doubt the most empathetic description of premeditated murder I have ever read. Rather impressive, actually.

“7 balloons came over and started burning Israeli property
The founding lie. Rockets, balloons and kites fall on Palestinian land.

Yeah, I heard the last bit of this show by chance. I was disappointed (but not surprised) by his stance on the issue and his deference to the nationalistic rabbi. Disappointed because he’s intelligent, good at what he does, and has sympathetic political impulses towards the oppressed generally, but clearly this topic is “different”. The balloons-and-kites-as-weapons-trope is ridiculous and absurd. Any outlet even pretending at impartiality (e.g. the BBC) – let alone a supposedly left-leaning… Read more »