Let me make it clear from the outset: I think some of these people and groups I am about to list are completely wrongheaded, some of the cases make me very angry, and I am no defender of those who try to delegitmate Israel. I have fought battles with those calling for divestment against companies doing business in Israel and have written articles saying that responsibility for the Iraq war and for American policy toward Arabs or Palestinians belongs to Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush, not the pro-Israel lobby. There are some Israel bashers who, if they scratched themselves a bit, would recognize that they are not free from anti-Semitic stereotypes. We are not paranoid when people attack Israel — there is a lot of vicious hostiltiy out there.
But … yes, the but is there. How do we best serve Israel’s longterm vitality and security and the integrity of our own community here in the U.S.? That is a pragmatic not a truth based question.
I am thinking about the big headlines over the last few years. There was the Columbia case against the Middle East Studies Department, then AJC and ADL were accused of silencing Tony Judt. Jimmy Carter and Walt-Mearsheimer published books that were the talk-of-the-town after we attacked them. Next was the outcry over an Arabic cultural school that led to the principal’s resignation and then a new tenure battle (following the one at De Paul University) withÂ Barnard College professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. The David Project, out there in our name, is being sued by the Islamic Society of Boston in an ugly battle. These are the big ones. There are many more.
Jews made it in this country, broke through the quota barriers, the discrimination, the tacit “Gentleman’s Agreement” by fighting for freedom of speech, the right to be public in our Jewishness and even demonsrate for Jewish interests, from Israel to Soviet Jewry. I am proud of our power and our willingness to be out there.
Here’s the rub. The more we threaten and assault and use our power to silence, to challenge tenure committees and public speeches, attack authors and publishers, the more we begin to look and sound like the them who didn’t want us to be part of this country, or at least, not part of this country in our unique Jewish voice and character. For the vocal and militant Jewish crowd, swinging out at every critic of Israel or of Jewish power must feel heroic. But I wonder whether the rest of us feel proud or, rather, a bit edgy that we are acting like the power elites of prior generations who tried to hold us down and silence us.
I feel much more confident that mature, intelligent and nuanced responses to the Israel and Jewish power bashing serve Israel’s interests much better than bashing back, that is, if we really believe that, in spite of her imperfections, Israel deserves our support. Often, the volume of our protests against those who disagree seems to correlate with our doubts and fears about Israel. Less attack and more reason would do us, Israel and dialogue in this country good.
I spent part of the summer in South Africa spending time in the black townships outside Cape Town with an amazing organization called Ikamva Labantu that has spent decades building an infrastructure for the formerly disenfranchised and still impoverished Africans. There is much to do in a country still divided by race and privilege, but my wife Shira and I were blown away by the progress we saw there.
Then I flew to Israel to work with colleagues on figuring out ways to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is 4,600 miles from Cape Town to Jerusalem, but the two felt like a million miles apart. The sad fact for me, a committed Jewish Zionist: During the 1990s, both South Africa and Jerusalem had the chance to resolve their conflicts. South Africa succeeded and Jerusalem failed.
What the two conflicts shared: Warring populations, terrorism, dual claims of land and history, divisive ethnic identities, huge anger, a sense of utter futility and hopelessness, a belief that violence is the only path.
There are crucial differences: South Africa had an overwhelming black African population forced by European colonialists into an apartheid world. Africans sought democratic rule and definitely wanted the white population to remain. The Holy Land holds two ancient populations almost equally divided in size, each with the power to do terrible damage to the other.
Apartheid effectively describes the former world of South Africa, not Israel. The situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is one of two nations in conflict. Palestinians do not want Jews in their territory while Israel is home to a substantial Arab minority even though the polls show that half of Israelâ€™s Jews want their Palestinian neighbors out.