Why Are They So Angry?
November 25, 2011
An Israeli Dove in Jewish
"He's lying! He's lying!" the man at the back of the
hall shouted, in a tone as desperate as it was angry.
"He hasn't read the
them, so you don't know he's lying."
The primary object of his rage was me. The secondary
object, it seemed, was his fellow congregants, who'd
allowed me to lecture at his New York-area synagogue.
I'd spoken about threats to
including those posed by ongoing expansion of
settlements. This was the first time, I'd been told,
that the congregation had hosted a speaker on
from outside a spectrum running from right-wing to very
right-wing. During the question-and-answer period, I was
asked about my statement that the legal counsel of
violate the agreement of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
That's when the man in the back came unstuck. The
congregation's rabbi, who was moderating the Q&A session
with the trained calm of a psychologist running group
therapy for fractured families, slipped to the back of
the room and talked him down.
The incident stayed with me, demanding to be decoded.
True, the particular synagogue was Orthodox, and more
Orthodox Jews espouse hawkish views than do members of
other Jewish denominations. But I've been lecturing
fit a pattern. I've been told repeatedly that it's a
breakthrough for a congregation to invite someone with
my views, which back home in
within the political mainstream. On previous trips to
synagogues and on college campuses.
High-pitched as Israeli political disputes are-and as
eager as the Israeli parliamentary right is to restrict
dissent, an Israeli dove visiting Jewish
can still feel that he's stumbled into a constricted,
out-of-joint alternate universe. The moderate Israeli
left's argument that
democracy and peace efforts is sometimes greeted in the
unconventional. Ideas that have gone extinct in
still wander the American landscape, as if it were a
Part of the answer is that Jewish politics reflect
general American politics, where conservatives hurl
forged-in-Fox, counterfactual cannonballs rather than
discuss ideas. And the minority of American Jews who are
devoted to the single issue of defending Israeli policy,
and who can dominate discussion within the Jewish
community, inhabit an echo chamber that may be even
better sealed than the conservative separate universe in
domestic politics. Golda Meir-remembered in
the prime minister who failed to see signs of oncoming
war in 1973-is still regarded as a hero in
(Imagine visiting some distant "pro-American" island
where people put up busts of James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover.)
Inside the echo chamber, advocacy groups provide "facts"
on key issues. Press reports or historical accounts that
tell a different story are seen not only as mistaken,
but as deliberately false. So, for instance, the tiny
minority of scholars of international law who defend the
legality of Israeli settlements-especially Reagan
Democrat Eugene Rostow-are endlessly quoted on advocacy
websites. This half-explains the despairing anger of the
man in the back of the room when I quoted a top Israeli
official saying the opposite.
Of course, there are many American Jews whose liberal
views on domestic issues are matched by their support of
a two-state solution between
Palestinians. Some feel constrained in speaking as
clearly as they'd like about
identified with another rigidly ideological contingent:
Diaspora Palestinians with their own overdone
nationalism, and a small coterie of Jews whose express
their disappointment with Zionism through mirror-image
anti-Zionism-as if denying Jewish rights to national
self-determination were somehow more progressive than
denying Palestinian rights. But realistic, moderate
progressives always face the challenge of portraying a
more complex reality than extremists recognize.
And a third factor-besides the echo-chamber effect and
concern about extreme anti-Israel positions-is at work
in the sudden hostility of some American Jews at
incident my son recounted after a visit to the United
States as a teen alluded to the issue: He'd come to take
part in an international interfaith camp, and one day
the campers were brought to a nearby city to visit a
church, synagogue, and mosque. At the synagogue, he was
surprised to see an Israeli and an American flag in the
sanctuary. He couldn't recall seeing an Israeli flag in
an Israeli synagogue, and asked the executive director
of the congregation why it was there. "The Holocaust is
very present in our hearts," came the response.
At first glance, that's a non sequitur. Unpacked, the
comment means that victimhood is part of the story that
Jews tell about their past. In that story, a besieged,
most narratives, this one contains pieces of truth
alongside distortions and anachronisms. The victimhood
was very real. But for most Jews living today in
America, the trauma is a taught memory, passed on by
previous generations, out of sync with their current
condition. And seeing
is discordant: Zionism was a rebellion against Jewish
powerlessness, and present-day
One of the first rules of conflict resolution, though,
is that when you challenge a group's narrative, some
members will take that as a denial of their identity.
They'll get angry. They will repeat their story more
loudly. They may accuse you of telling falsehoods.
This is not a reason for a journalist, historian or
activist to be silent. It does make sense of the fury
with which people sometimes defend the old story. It
explains why changing the story takes time. I needed to
tell the facts as best I know them. I'm glad someone
else was there to calm the guy at the back of the room.