What does “pro-Israel” mean in 2013?

Last weekend I was lucky enough to take part in the J Street U Student Summit, speaking on a panel that addressed the above question. It was a real honor to be asked to participate, and I was so impressed with the level of discourse and engagement shown by everyone present. Following are my notes for what I said on the panel (I tried not to read directly from the page, so if you were there, it might have come out a little differently! But this is what I meant).

Thanks for having me, J Street U!


j-street-u-logoFirst of all, whenever I have to write or speak about the term “pro-Israel” I like to start by saying what the term means to me, and to do that, I kind of have to break it down to a granular level.

For me, the first question has to be: Do we accept the paradigm of nationalism? The international community has been organized along national lines for over a century now, and there’s very little reason to believe that will change in the near future. This is not without its problems and I can understand why some people have decided to reject nationalism all together. Having said that, I’m not among those people, and I further think it’s important to work with people and nations where they actually are, not where they might someday be. And nationalism is, in fact, the international community’s organizing principle.

Then my next question has to be: Do I accept the notion of a Jewish nation? When the idea of nationalism first emerged in the late 19th century, Jews had long shared a language, a culture, and a land – the very building blocks of modern nationalism. The fact that the Jewish people hadn’t lived on their land for centuries wasn’t a choice, it was the result of a rolling genocide that ultimately failed. So yes, to my mind, by any measure, ancient or modern: The Jewish people constitute a nation.

These questions are important to clarify for ourselves when we have today’s conversation because the State of Israel is the successful outcome of the Jewish national movement, aka: Zionism. When I say that I am “pro-Israel,” what I’m saying is that I am in full support of Jewish nationalism and thus in full support of the fact of a Jewish State.

What I am not saying is that I am, by definition, in full support of a particular Israeli government or governmental policy.

This goes to the very heart of the notion of democracy and pluralism: Can I support a political body with which I identify, and yet reject the decisions of the people elected to lead that body for a certain time?

And here’s where we run headlong into the American “pro-Israel” establishment, or what my boss Peter Beinart once referred to as “the carnivorous world of politicized Israel devotion” – people who have appointed themselves, and for a long time were largely accepted as, the gatekeepers of what it means to be pro-Israel.

Over the years, the acceptable working definition of pro-Israel – and with greater and greater frequency, the acceptable working definition of “real Judaism” – has become an ever-narrower version of toeing the line laid down by the government of Israel as expressed through its policies.

We can’t avoid the fact, though, that this thinking didn’t apply to Yitzhak Rabin or his efforts toward a two-state peace via the Oslo Accords – in the mid-1990s, AIPAC coordinated with Netanyahu against Rabin and against Oslo.

This is our sign that the self-appointed guardians of pro-Israel discourse, and the people with the money who fund them, are not (as they present themselves) disinterested parties worried solely for Israel’s best, but are a group of real people actually have strong opinions about what they think Israel needs. And they think (I believe genuinely, for whatever that’s worth) that what is best for Israel is a kind of management of the conflict, in which the Palestinians and various other parties are forever kept at a distrusting arm’s length.

Sadly, these folks are increasingly involved with, or in fact represent, the American far right, as well, and as a result, the politics of “what’s good for Israel” has gotten terribly entangled with the question of “what does the far right think America should do with its power in the world?”

I simply can’t accept that any of this is, in fact, good for Israel, in no small part because it presumes endless war. On the contrary, it is this Zionist’s opinion that continuing to conduct Israel’s affairs in a state of low-boil ethnic anxiety can only lead to national disaster, and I mean that quite literally: I’m fairly well convinced that if we don’t manage to achieve a two-state solution in the next decade or so, history will look back on the Jewish State as yet another in a long list of Jewish disasters.

So I would say that for people who call themselves pro-Israel but do not identify with the traditional standard bearers of that title, we need to do two things simultaneously:

We need refuse to let other people frame this conversation for us, and we need to continue to engage with and criticize Israeli policies that we feel to be a danger to Israel itself.

When we are accused of being self-hating, or pro-Hamas, or neo-Nazis, or even just naïve, we need to politely reject the characterization, restate our position as caring deeply for Israel’s future – and continue with the work of advocating for a future that will include peace and justice. As Americans, we need to tell our politicians and institutions in positions of power – again and again and again – that the old definition of “pro-Israel” simply does not apply, and those people do not speak for us.

For my money, one of the most powerful things we can do is simply to stand up and be counted – to refuse to be silenced by those who would accuse us of ill-intent, and furthermore to refuse to be cowed by their opposite numbers on the left who want to shame us for loving Israel in the first place. As someone who actively advocates for the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state, I cannot accept the idea that my people deserve anything less.

The State of Israel is a legitimate political entity, and within its internationally recognized borders, it is a democratic entity. We are told in nearly every Jewish setting in which we ever find ourselves that we belong to Israel, and Israel belongs to all the Jews.

If that’s the case, then we have a right to an opinion, and we have a right to disagree with the politicians currently in Israel’s government. Thus to my mind, the logical extension of being pro-Israel is working for what we know to be best for the Jewish State, in spite of what other Jews may tell us.


Israel and Gaza: On love and criticism.

A picture taken from the southern Israeli town of Sderot shows smoke billowing from a spot targeted by an Israeli air strike | AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ

The sudden roar of violence in Gaza and southern Israel divides the world in many ways, not least between those who are willing (sometimes quite eager) to criticize Israel, and those for whom love of Israel means a rejection of any and all criticism, ever. Death rains from the sky and the rhetorical fury resumes even as walls shatter and blood spills, and no one listens to anyone.

Or so it can seem. But is that really the only choice? Is it really impossible to both love a place deeply, and criticize it honestly?

I believe the answer is no, that the answer has to be no, because otherwise what we’re talking about isn’t love, but idolatry.

The Israel I love is a real place. It’s not the land of milk and honey, it’s not a place of exceptionally holy people, it’s not the “monumentally fictional” place (as HaAretz columnist Bradley Burston put it) described by Leon Uris and embroidered by decades of Diaspora dreams.

It’s a place where you can smell the guava ripening on the trees every fall, and labor strikes are a dime a dozen. A place where an expansive Hebrew culture combines Biblical cadences with space-age hip-hop, and fans of the Beitar Yerushalyim soccer club are as likely to chant “Death to Arabs!” as they are to chant “Yalla, Beitar!” It’s a place where, in a single year, I was invited to no fewer than eleven Seders, a place where I was not infrequently called an “Arab f**ker” for supporting the two-state solution.

It’s a place of erudition and ineptitude, a place of glory and folly. It’s a human place.

And even as all humans perform acts of kindness and beauty, so also do all humans do foolish things, self-destructive things. And no human or human enterprise is ever so perfect that it may not be criticized.

This most recent return of hostilities has, as they say, many fathers. We’re right to say that Israelis shouldn’t have to duck and run, hold their children in fear, shape their lives around the terrifying sounds of sirens and falling rockets. We’re right to say that any Israeli casualties, such as the three innocent civilians killed in Kiryat Malachi today, are too many, and that Israel has a duty to defend its citizens from violent actions. Those who fire rockets into Israel’s south, those who wink and nod and let it happen, those who fund it—they all share responsibility for the violence and the deaths.

But they’re not alone, and it’s not an act of betrayal to say it.

The cycle of violence between Israel and Gaza goes back, and back, and back, to 1967. There’s always a reason to seek revenge, always an event that can justify retaliation. The constant argument over who started “the latest round” is pointless and frankly cruel, because it presumes that one side’s suffering is more meaningful than the other’s: It’s okay that I fired deadly projectiles into your residential streets, because your guys killed some of mine, and I deserve the last word. The last kill. That’s the way war is everywhere—why would it be any different when the humans conducting it are Israelis and Palestinians?

And so yes, when Israel decides that now’s the time to assassinate the head of Hamas’s military wing (a man who, until this weekend, served as something of a “subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza,” according to Israeli journalist Aluf Benn)—Israel is also responsible. When the IDF’s “surgical strikes” kill not only their targets but also civilians, including a 19 year old pregnant woman, a 7 year old girl, and an 11 month old baby, it’s also responsible. If the husband or the brothers and sisters are filled with rage and want to strike a blow for their people and their grief—can we not understand? Can we not say that we would feel the same? That we do feel the same? And would we really care who had started “the latest round”?

The single biggest difference between the two sides of the current Israeli-Gazan hostilities comes down to one word: Power.

Gazan militants (not all of them Hamas—indeed, most of them not) launch rockets from within a tiny strip of land that is physically penned in on all sides by Israel (save for one small crossing with Egypt)—when Israel retaliates, 1.7 million Gazans literally cannot even run away. On the other hand, Israel is a military super power, with battleships off the coast of Gaza, jet fighters in her airspace, and the unstinting support of the world’s most powerful nation.

I love Israel. It’s my home in a way that no other place—including the suburban American idyll in which I write these words—can ever be. I miss it with an ache every day of my life, and I fear for the family I have in the Negev, where Palestinian rockets land.

But I refuse to let that love, that longing, or that fear blind me to Israel’s essential humanity.

Israel is a party to this madness. Israel is one of its authors. And the power that Israel wields is almost incalculably greater than that of the Palestinians it fights. We can say that, we can call Israel to account for its actions, even as we love it, even as we fear for our loved ones.

As Israeli columnist Larry Derfner wrote on Tuesday: “There is a proven road to security for the people of the Negev—a total end to Israeli rule over the people who are shooting at them.”

And saying so out loud is not an act of disloyalty. It’s an act of love.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast (under a different headline)

When being pro-Israel means pushing Jews away.

As an American-Israeli Jew engaged in raising her children to have a knowledgeable and loving relationship with their faith and heritage, as well as a healthy (and, indeed, faith-based) respect for the imperatives of democracy and human rights, there’s something genuinely heartbreaking in some of the responses bubbling up to Peter Beinart’s book Crisis of Zionism*.

I don’t mean the responses about which JJ Goldberg recently wrote

One positive thing you can say about Peter Beinart’s critics is that none of them has smacked him in the face with a rifle butt. Not yet, anyway.

I mean the responses in which liberal American Jews admit, in the wake of the Beinart’s writing, that they have chosen not to think very much about Israel, rather than face the venom (aka: almost-a-rifle-butt) that awaits any who dare stray from institutional Jewry’s conventional wisdom.

The first such response I saw was in late March. Dana Goldstein, at The Nation, opened her piece like this:

I write about Israel-Palestine issues only occasionally, because the onslaught of emails and comments calling me a self-hating Jew can be emotionally overwhelming. It’s also difficult to weather the respectful but strident disagreement from some friends and members of my family, who consider me insufficiently pro-Israel because I support the international community moving with deliberate speed to pressure the Netanyahu administration to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian state.

A few weeks later, another American Jewish writer, economist Paul Krugman, wrote at The New York Times:

The truth is that like many liberal American Jews — and most American Jews are still liberal — I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide — and that’s bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world. But I have other battles to fight, and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.

But it’s only right to say something on behalf of Beinart, who has predictably run into that buzzsaw.

Then this past Tuesday, political author and Rolling Stone columnist Rick Perlstein wrote

Peter Beinart’s recollections, in his powerful new book The Crisis of Zionism, seem[ed] very familiar – which felt uncanny, because I thought I had been alone.

Perlstein describes the ways in which the Jewish community of his youth used the Holocaust to build identity, ignored the realities of his generation as it came of age, and reduced God to little more than a cheerleader for Israel’s military.

This was the moral education that I found so dissatisfying in my youth… a disingenous muddle of a irrationalism, intellectual double standards, and whiny special pleading. I learned that because Israel was a “democracy,” with Arab citizens and political parties, discrimination against those Arabs was not a problem – but also that it was appropriate for the Israeli Defense Forces to harass Arabs at random because, I remember hearing, “they don’t wear signs around their neck saying ‘good Arab’ and ‘bad Arab.'” I was solemnly informed that groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were biased against Israel and that the State Department was full of anti-Semites…. I got the message, loud and clear, that those of us living lives of bland comfort far from enemy-circled Israel had no right, no standing to criticize the Jewish state; and to just shut up and send the check to Jewish organizations….

All of which led for Perlstein, as an adult, to this:

As for Israel, I don’t think of it much. Even in a career as a political writer given to disputation, the sheer viciousness… faced by those who criticize not merely Israel, but certain specific de rigeur formulations about Israel, turned me off the entire subject.

One response to all this was an open letter from J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami asking Krugman to “reconsider [his] opinion.”

I invite you to not let a vocal minority silence your voice. You are a Nobel prize-winning economist and leading American thinker whose contribution to the marketplace of ideas on so many issues is such an asset to this country’s democracy. I invite you not to let their smears cause you to sit this one out.

I agree with Ben-Ami — and not just because I’m a J Street supporter, but because asking folks to be open and honest about what Israel is doing and where it’s all leading has become my life’s organizing motif. I’ve spent more than a decade now calling for greater, deeper engagement (and not incidentally, dodging my fair share of the viciousness).

Yet for all that, I can understand why American Jews often don’t engage. It’s awful, and it’s painful, and life comes with troubles enough, unbidden. Why walk into a buzzsaw that not only cuts deep but serves to alienate you from your own?

But I do hope that those currently lined up to Beinart-bash, as if he were some sort of kosher piñata, might take a moment to read the responses of folks like Goldstein, Krugman, and Perlstein (all people who, it should be noted, don’t generally shy away from taking controversial stands as a rule). A not-insignificant section of the American Jewish community is beginning to inch aside the mehitza the gate keepers set up years ago, and what we’re seeing behind it throws into question all their old assumptions of how best to protect the Jewish people.

And it’s heartbreaking.


*Full disclosure, if you didn’t already know: I blog for Peter at Open Zion, on The Daily Beast.