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Scratching the Surface

February 10, 2010

This past week The New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier accused The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan of anti-Semitism based on a handful of posts by Sullivan. It’s a long and interesting piece, and worth reading, as well as the many, many rebuttals floating around the blogosphere. Reading Weiseltier’s essay forced open a few of my own wounds when it comes to Israel, Judaism, and their intersection. I joked to a friend that there are more wings in American Jewry then at Hooters. It was a cheap joke, but I think illustrates a point that I will touch on later: with so many scholars, politicians, and members of the Israeli and American Jewish community being pro-Israel is black and white.

But it is not black and white. The shades of grey are countless. The old saying is that where you find one Jew you find two opinions. It could not be truer. There are so many nuances in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is difficult for me be all for one side. Much of my displeasure with the pro-Israel movement has been building up for some time, and has proved challenging to unpack. Before I dive in I will preface with a few important facts about me. I have been to Israel on a Jewish Federation mission. I was raised in a very Reform household. I no longer believe in God, and find temple to be a very uncomfortable experience.

My trip to Israel gave me a strong grasp of the scale of Israel – both literally and figuratively. I visited Israel July of 2000, right before the shit hit the fan and the second intifada began. I know that the timing of this visit was a critical part of my pro-Israel beliefs for many years. That trip turned me extreme. I became shomer shabbas (when it was convenient), was a tried and true Holy Roller, and the Palestinians were always, always wrong. No one deserved to be blown up at a café or disco, and anyone willing to support the terrorists did not deserve life, liberty or dignity. This was before my own enlightenment. I can’t help but wonder if my parting with religion has been a key part of my parting with the pro-Israel rightists.

I find the current policies and behaviors of the Israeli right, namely Likud and their minion minority parties ridiculous, and a departure from reality. After the Six Day War, the “dream” of an Israel from the sea to the Jordan suddenly became possible. In the past forty years it has become unmistakably clear that the land of the West Bank must be part of an eventual Palestinian state. I want to believe that the Likudniks know this, but often times their actions make me question their grasp of reality. Continuing construction in settlements, evicting Palestinians, these are not rational actions of a country withdrawing from occupied territory.

There is also the  fact that the international community will not accept perpetual Israeli occupation of the land. Within Israel this carries little weight, and I can’t blame them. The UN has passed more anti-Israel resolutions then resolutions against any other serious offender. Israel often will say “But what about Sudan? Burma?” but unfortunately trying to shift the spotlight has only strengthened its glare. But there are many rational actors in the international community, countries not guided by their irrational anti-Semitism, who want to see a two-state solution enacted.

Many of these rational nations have called for a complete settlement freeze; something which I believe is long overdue. The settlements are the last remnants of the one-Israel mentality and should be dismantled. Aside from creating territorial problems with the Palestinians, they bring with them much uglier problems, being home to religious extremists and racists. These racist extremists have no qualms attacking Palestinians or Muslim places of worship. They do it with a regular ferocity that I find disturbing beyond words. These singular acts of hate have a tremendous impact on the peace process. How do we battle Palestinian anti-Semitism when Israeli settlers are attacking them? How do we teach Israeli children that Palestinians are not evil people when they are being raised by such extremists? And yet the Israel government supports these extremists. This is one of a handful of reasons that I cannot support the current Israeli government.

I am also turned off by the unbearable arrogance that has been displayed by the Israelis in the past year. Their current M.O. is “holier than thou” and that needs to come to an abrupt end. After Operation Cast Lead there were allegations of war crimes committed by the Israelis. Instead of immediately launching an investigation and nipping the allegations in the bud Israel claimed it did no wrong, and to say otherwise was – get this – anti-Semitic. How allegations of war crimes equate to anti-Semitism is beyond me. But what I found just as troubling is that Israel chose to stick out its chest and flip the bird to all of those who were rightfully concerned. Introspection is not weakness but strength, and when Israel refused to self-examine I think it showed tremendous weakness.

At first I wrote these actions off as bad public relations, but I have now come to realize that they were a symptom of the country’s unbounded arrogance. My moment of enlightenment came a few weeks ago after a meeting with Daniel Ayalon, the Deputy Foreign Minister, and the Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Oguz. Ayalon seated his counterpart in a lower chair, and did not display a Turkish flag at the meeting; all which was meant to humiliate the Turks. I found this stunt unbelievably immature. This is the type of shit middle school students pull, not adults let alone diplomats. What little respect I had for the current government dissolved completely. The fact that a racist fascist like Avigdor Lieberman was given the post of Foreign Minister is reckless at best and derisive at its worst. A party that supports loyalty oaths should not be part of a free, democratic government and to me it speaks volumes about Netanyahu.

The extreme right in Israel is sadly not limited to politics. Hassidic Jews have a stranglehold over Israeli Judaism. Their over-zealous religious laws have become the codified law in Israel. Want to get married or divorced? You have to do it their way. Want to work on Saturday? Just ask the workers at the Jerusalem Intel plant how that turned out. Their extremism goes beyond the pale when it comes to their treatment of women. Recently a Jewish woman was arrested for wearing a tallis at the Western Wall. She was not being indecent, she was not being profane, she was praying at the wall wearing a prayer shawl. But the Hassids found her wearing of what they perceive to be a male garment so offensive they arrested her, and interrogated another reform woman in the aftermath. Israel takes tremendous pride in being one of the only true secular democracies in the Middle East, but I disagree. The ultra-Orthodox have taken Israel hostage through their archaic laws and settlement activities.

This brings me to what I would call the “Jewish Component” in all of this. The tie between the Jewish people and Israel is seen as obvious. If you are a Jew, then you support Israel. This tie has become a large part of modern anti-Semitic conspiracy theories because of how strong it is purported to be. We are taught in Hebrew school that as an American Jew we must support Israel and all of its policies. If you do not then you are branded a “self-hating Jew” and that you are in some way “less Jewish.” This has to stop. My disenchantment with the Israeli government and any of its policies on any given day does not make me any less of a Jew. It also does not make me self-hating. It makes me a nuanced thinker, which frankly is something to aspire to, not shun. But many people in the Jewish and Israeli communities see things in such black and white, that they refuse to make that distinction, alienating countless Jews who fit into the greater pro-Israel camp. This alienation goes deeper though and can have the effect of pushing someone so far away from the Jewish community that they leave Judaism all together. Who would want to be a part of a community that treats you like a traitor to your own people? I wouldn’t. This is why organizations like J Street and other Labor-Leftist groups are so important. They make it acceptable to be Jewish, pro-Israel, but also critical of Israel. In the coming years we will be able to see what kind of impact they have.

This behavior translates to the non-Jewish community as well. When an American politician disagrees with our policy towards Israel, they are branded anti-Semites; a stinging charge that comes with a heavy price. It is unproductive, unfair, and is equally as alienating as when they label fellow Jews “self-hating.” It is bullying and arrogant behavior that I find repulsive. When the Israelis and American Jewish community can become more inclusive, more introspective, and more accepting of differences of opinions it will become a stronger, healthier community. But until that happens they will continue to alienate people like me.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael Griffith permalink
    February 10, 2010 4:02 PM

    As someone who often gives you a hard time, let me be the first to pat you on the back for your thoughtful post. I hope more people think about the American-Israeli relationship in this light.

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