Saturday, November 26, 2011

An Israeli Dove in Jewish America

Why Are They So Angry?


Gershom Gorenberg

November 25, 2011


An Israeli Dove in Jewish America


"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 Geneva Conventions. You haven't read

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 Israel's democracy,

including those posed by ongoing expansion of West Bank

settlements. This was the first time, I'd been told,

that the congregation had hosted a speaker on Israel

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

Israel's Foreign Ministry had warned before the first

West Bank settlement was established that it would

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

around North America for three weeks, and the experience

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 Israel register as well

within the political mainstream. On previous trips to

America, I've faced similar outbursts in non-Orthodox

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 North America

can still feel that he's stumbled into a constricted,

out-of-joint alternate universe. The moderate Israeli

left's argument that West Bank settlements undermine

democracy and peace efforts is sometimes greeted in the

U.S. as treasonous, sometimes as daringly

unconventional. Ideas that have gone extinct in Israel

still wander the American landscape, as if it were a

Jurassic Park of the mind. What's going on?


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 Israel as

the prime minister who failed to see signs of oncoming

war in 1973-is still regarded as a hero in America.

(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 Israel and the

Palestinians. Some feel constrained in speaking as

clearly as they'd like about Israel for fear of being

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

criticism of Israel. It has to do with the place that

Israel often fills in Jewish identity in America. An

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,

endangered Israel is the sequel to the Holocaust. Like

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 Israel as the symbol of victimhood

is discordant: Zionism was a rebellion against Jewish

powerlessness, and present-day Israel testifies to the

rebellion's success.


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.



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