Ben White’s hopeful vision may include some false positives

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Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel
by Ben White
144 pp. Pluto Press $15

In his 2016 book, “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel,” Dov Waxman concluded that, “The pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding, and Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry.” Extending the discussion to the American political landscape as a whole, Ben White’s useful and consistently engrossing, Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel” (published in May 2018) argues that,

“The end of Israel as a bipartisan issue of concern in US politics, along with the wider left’s alienation from and the far right’s embrace of Israel, are developments of profound long-term concern for the State of Israel, and its ability to maintain the apartheid status quo.”

There’s no shortage of evidence for the “erosion” of the bi-partisan American consensus about Israel and White provides a helpful serving of chapter-and-verse. For example, during “Operation Protective Edge,” the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014, CNN calculated that 51 percent of Democrats, as opposed to 24 percent of Republicans, believed that Israel was using “too much” force, and that 42 percent of Democrats, compared with 19 percent of Republicans, thought the Israeli action entirely unjustified. Three years later a Gallup survey found that 61 percent of Democrats were in favor of “establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” as compared with only 25 percent of Republicans. In the same year, a poll conducted by the conservative, pro-Israel Frank Luntz, discovered when “asked whether Israel is a racist country, 47 percent of Democrats agreed it is, as opposed to 13 percent of Republicans,” reported the Times of Israel. 

“Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel,” by Ben White, Pluto Press.

At the level of policy, too, “cracks” in the iron wall of bipartisan support for Israel have emerged in recent years.  During the original debate on the Iran nuclear treaty, 50 Democrats physically boycotted Netanyahu’s Republican-brokered performance in Congress. A half year later Senate Democrats ignored the apocalyptic warnings unleashed by Israel and the Israel lobby and blocked legislation which would have killed the finally-concluded Iran deal; their action prompted Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev to marvel that “an overwhelming majority of Democrats voted against Israel on a matter that it described as existential.”

In the waning days of the Obama presidency, when the House of Representatives voted to oppose the administration’s decision to abstain on Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements, 76 Democrats (including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) voted against the House resolution. And when, shortly thereafter, Trump nominated as his ambassador to Israel the settler-supporting vulgarian David Friedman, who had accused  Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” and referred to supporters of J Street as “worse than kapos,” only two Democratic Senators (New Jersey’s Robert Menendez and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin) voted with the Republican majority to confirm the appointment.

The advent of Trump, the simpatico relationship he has established with Netanyahu, and the affinity they’ve both displayed for the likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (and his thinly veiled anti-Semitic targeting of George Soros) have all served, White notes, “to accelerate growing divisions in the American Jewish community and amongst progressives over Israel.” Or as New York Times correspondent David Halbfinger more recently put it,

“Politically liberal American Jews have been repelled by Mr. Trump’s solid support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and by Mr. Netanyahu’s effusive embrace of Mr. Trump and his granting of a wish-list’s worth of political gifts. They range from scrapping the Iran nuclear agreement to repeatedly punishing the Palestinians and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

Coinciding with the  apparent changes in the American political landscape, and to some degree accounting for them, is the growing gulf between American and Israeli Jews. A June survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found that 77 percent of Israelis, as opposed to 34 percent of American Jews, “approved of the president’s handling of US-Israel relations,” according to a report by the AP. “Eighty-five percent of Israelis supported the embassy move, while only 46 percent of American Jews did.”

Chemi Shalev writes that a poll conducted for Haaretz on the eve of the High Holidays this year revealed that, “Slightly more than half of Jewish Israelis believe that their rights to the Land of Israel derive from God’s divine covenant in the Bible and 56 percent believe that the Jewish people are chosen people.” Moreover, “In Israel 2018, the younger the Jew, the more likely he or she is to be more religious, observant, conservative and willing to impose his or her beliefs on others.”

Findings like this are unlikely to make liberal American Jews feel warm and fuzzy about the Israeli branch of their increasingly dysfunctional mishpachah.

There are, of course, many explanations for the apparent daylight that has opened between Democrats and Republicans on the subject of Israel and for the disaffection with Israel evinced by large numbers of liberal American Jews. But it’s hard to disagree with Norman Finkelstein that, at the moment,

“The touchstone is Trump. […] Netanyahu could be swallowed or made less bitter by the self-serving American Jewish illusions and delusions about Israel (admittedly fragile at this point). Trump, however, cannot be made more palatable. He’s become a genuine menace […] and Netanyahu is clearly aligned with him in a big way.”

Author Ben White

In the meanwhile, the Israeli government continues to view (or, at least, pretend to view) the erosion of U.S. support for its policies as an “existential threat,” especially the erosion of support among youthful left-leaning students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike (but especially the former). In an informative chapter on “BDS and the backlash,” White describes Israel’s well-funded “action plan” to combat BDS, “delegitimization” and, indeed, all criticism of its policies. No longer content with merely “rebranding” itself as a must-visit paradise of surf, sin, sacred relics and cutting-edge IT, Israel has moved aggressively in recent years to promote the passage of U.S. legislation whose purpose, as succinctly described by Danny Danon (Israeli representative to the UN), is to make it “simply illegal to boycott Israel.” In tandem with its American fellow-travelers in the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Wiesenthal Center and a host of other money-rich organizations, Israel has simultaneously pushed for the legal adoption of a “new” definition of anti-Semitism which, for all intents and purposes, equates anti-Zionism and support for the human rights of Palestinians with a desire to drive Israel’s Jews into the Mediterranean Sea.

Had publication of “Cracks in the Wall” been delayed by a couple of months, White would also doubtless have described recent revelations concerning the American Zionist and Israeli underwriting of the nefarious Canary Mission, whose primary object has been to vilify, frighten and ruin the employment prospects of American college students engaged in human rights activity on behalf of Palestine.

But …how does all of this really matter? What, if any, meaningful socio-political ramifications are foreshadowed by the growing Democratic-Republican divide; or the schism within the ranks of American Jews; or the growing rift between Israeli and American Jews; or the Israeli government’s maniacal (and oft-times counter-productive) effort to shut down criticism?  What do these developments betoken, at any rate in the foreseeable future, for the ultimate issue of concern, namely, Israel’s willingness and ability “to maintain the apartheid status quo,”  the repressive and undemocratic political-geographic reality that Ben White ably describes in the first two chapters of Cracks in the Wall?

How, in other words, are these developments likely to have a salutary impact on the Palestinians themselves?

When the subject is framed this way it’s hard to feel especially encouraged. For one thing, the evolution of the Democratic Party’s attitude towards Israel is, to put it mildly, more apparent than real. Though many American Jews may have agonized about the “disproportionate” Israeli violence in Operation Protective Edge, the Obama administration, as White acknowledges, “resolutely defended” Israel’s brutal actions as a legitimate form of “self-defense”  and cheerfully boasted that the new Memorandum of Understanding awarding Israel $38 billion in military assistance over the next ten years was “the single largest pledge of military assistance in U.S. history.”

Moreover, though the U.S. government’s abstention on Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016 kicked-up a ruckus in Jerusalem, in Congress and in the more fanatically Zionist precincts of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the decision to stay out of the vote occurred after the Jewish settler population had grown in the West Bank by around 100,000, a 30 percent increase during Obama’s two terms in office. The move was made after Obama had vetoed a similar U.N. condemnation of Israeli settlements in 2011, and only when the president was already a very lame duck. And while Pelosi and 75 other Democrats were supporting the American abstention, no fewer than 109 of their Democratic House colleagues were voting to condemn it, despite it being the policy of their own party’s president!  (More than half the Democratic members of the Senate listed themselves as co-sponsors of a comparable Obama-defying resolution.)

As for the just completed elections, well, if you’re of a glass-half-full kind of person you’ll fasten on the exciting victories of Israel-critics like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich). But as this site has pointed out, the election also ushered into office staunch Democratic “friends of Israel” like J.B. Pritzker (the Democrat governor elect of Illinois), and more additions to the House with Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Max Rose (D-NY), and it, more ominously, ensured that the new Democratic chairs of key House committees “will now include Israel-aficionados” Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Nita Lowey (D-NY).

While the Democratic party elite looks as if it’s a very long way from wanting to lean on Israel or champion the cause of the Palestinians, there’s not a whole lot of reason to be hopeful about the Democratic rank-and-file either, though it is probably more disposed than heretofore to criticize Israel for its “excesses” and more worried about the “damage Israel is doing to itself” by its policies in the West Bank and Gaza. When it comes to rank-and-file Democratic Jews, in any event, the conclusion drawn by Jay Michaelson (weekly columnist for The Forward) in his 2016 review of Waxman’s “Trouble in the Tribe” seems, to me at least, difficult to dispute:    

“[T]he ‘silent majority’ of basically centrist American Jews […] support a two-state solution and real negotiations to get there – but they don’t really trust the Palestinians, either. They support President Obama’s occasional pressure on the Netanyahu government – but not too much pressure. They oppose settlements – but don’t think they’re a primary cause of the impasse […] they tend not to care enough, in sufficient numbers, to move the needle of American Jewish opinion.”

“Not too much pressure” and “support for the two-state solution”– these phrases well sum up the Jewish liberal (and probably also the non-Jewish liberal) mindset. Yet there’s quite a disconnect, indeed there’s a yawning chasm, between attitudes like these and Ben White’s view (which I share) that the two-state solution has been more-or-less definitively replaced by the one-state reality and that the so-called “peace process” (which, in any case, is now pretty much defunct) has long-functioned, in the words of Chemi Shalev, as “a cover for a de-facto annexation of the West Bank” and has made it far easier for Israelis “to look in the mirror and rebuff the claims of apartheid.”

In short, it’s extremely difficult to feel much confidence that American “liberal” opinion, Jewish or otherwise, is primed to “move the needle” any time soon in the direction of transforming the dismal current-day reality of the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the refugee camps.

Indeed, if, as the ZOA’s Morton Klein has put it, “American Jewry… drifts further from its pro-Israel moorings,” one might legitimately wonder whether Israel will abandon its efforts to bring disaffected liberal Jews back into the fold, write-off a hefty chunk of the American Jewish community, and go all-out in its embrace of American reactionaries. In the David Halbinger New York Times article (cited above), Michael Oren, the American-born former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and current member of the Knesset for the “centrist” Kulanu party, identifies “one school of [current Israeli] thought” as maintaining that, “‘It’s too late, [the bulk of American Jews are] gone. After Iran, after Jerusalem, if we have limited resources we should invest in our base – evangelicals and the Orthodox.” While the adoption of such a policy would certainly represent a dramatic departure from Israel’s traditional solicitude for mainstream diaspora opinion, it is by no means far-fetched to imagine it gaining widespread support in an increasingly illiberal Israel enamored with Trumpism.

Most important, however, are the subjects that well-intentioned writers like Ben White tend to avoid or sweep under the carpet in their (understandable) eagerness to identify “cracks in the apartheid status quo” which will keep hope alive amongst Western supporters of the Palestinians. I’m thinking, for example, of the fact that the current balance of forces in the Middle East (especially the de facto Israeli alliance with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the U.A.E.) is depressingly inauspicious for the cause of Palestinian human rights and national liberation. And I’m also thinking of the too-frequently unacknowledged elephant in the room, which Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, has delicately referred to as “the absence of authentic Palestinian national leadership.”

Without a dramatic change in Middle East power politics more generally; and without the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership willing and able to implement creative, mass-based Palestinian strategies on the ground, it is difficult to convince oneself that meaningful “cracks” in the apartheid reality will grow larger at any time soon, whatever incremental changes might take place inside the Democratic Party or within American Jewry. Norman Finkelstein may well be right that,

“Except for orthodox Jews and the Stephen Miller types. I cannot see any future for the American Jewish love affair with the Holy State. It will revert to pre-1967, when Israel will only be supported in the event of an existential crisis. Otherwise, like the meshugge aunt in the attic, it won’t be a subject in polite company.”

Looking at matters in the long-run, the auguries concerning the erosion of effusive American support for Israel may indeed be encouraging. But as John Maynard Keynes aptly put it: “In the long run we are all dead.”

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JOEL DOERFLER- “… it is difficult to convince oneself that meaningful “cracks” in the apartheid reality will grow larger at any time soon, whatever incremental changes might take place inside the Democratic Party or within American Jewry.” Indeed, if one were to take an opinion poll of American Jews asking them to choose between two options – a Jewish Israel versus Israel as a state of all of its citizens with equal rights for all… Read more »

JOEL DOERFLER- “…(and his thinly veiled anti-Semitic targeting of George Soros)….” George Soros has engaged in a lot of reprehensible activity, particularly in Eastern Europe, working with the CIA to destabilize countries and bring about color revolutions. I fail to see why “liberal” Jews are defending this financial pirate by accusing his critics of being anti-Semites. Is it his recent financial support for Democrats and opposition to Trump? I don’t see how any progressive can… Read more »

@Keith – George Soros is obviously a capitalist, but also a partisan of liberal democracy and certain limits on the unfettered capitalism that Reagan/Thatcher promoted. On the other hand, Orban in Hungary, the right-wing Polish government, Trump and white-supremacists attack Soros not because he is a capitalist, but because he is Jewish (they are totally fine with the neo-liberal economic policies that Soros has actually opposed in the past), which makes their attacks perfect examples… Read more »

Ben White may be too optimistic but this is a little too pessimistic. Our task is to change things and we have a lot to work with here. If centrist Jews want a two-state solution that really just extends the occupation, young Jews who are the future don’t necessarily agree. Yes, Nadler has been elevated and is very pro-Israel, but he shows some nuance – for example he has avoided co-sponsoring the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.… Read more »