The neo-conning of Israel and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-24-10

A disturbing new trend risks making Israel and Zionism politically poisonous to liberals. Israel has been “neo-conned,” cast as a neo-conservative Sparta, caricatured as a militarized theocracy, defined by the ultra-Orthodox haredim’s black garb and the IDF’s olive green uniforms, epitomized by “Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas,” as Peter Beinart claimed in his recent, overwrought, New York Review of Books essay.

This narrative depicts American Jewish organizations as mindless and monolithic, enabling every right-wing, racist Israeli impulse, squelching dissent, making Zionism incompatible with liberalism, and cloddishly alienating the next, noble generation of American Jews. Treating Israel as more conservative than it actually is alienates many Jews and non-Jews from the Jewish state, especially in the Age of Obama.

Even for those writers who reject the perverse, inaccurate South African Apartheid analogy, seeing Israel through an American historical prism frequently distorts too. Barack Obama compares Palestinian suffering to African-Americans’ oppression. This comparison also sloppily and demagogically racializes a national conflict, making the multi-hued Israelis the “white guys,” meaning the bad guys.

Many critics are also shouting “McCarthyism,” hysterically defining even mild, non-governmental counterattacks against Israel’s relentless critics as hysterical. “McCarthyism” involved government repression of critics, ruining careers, even jailing dissidents; yet today McCarthyism is often alleged when right-wingers dare criticize the Left.

While rooted in the decades-long campaign to declare Zionism racism and Israel illegitimate, the latest surge stems from George W. Bush’s toxic embrace of Israel. His unpopularity proved contagious. Many Americans, including the current president, reflexively transferred their dislike of Bush to countries Bush liked, especially Israel.

Increasingly, championing Israel was deemed “conservative.” The timing was particularly ironic, amid Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, then Ehud Olmert’s centrist government offering the Palestinians generous concessions. Clearly, as a modern capitalist consumerist society Israel is not the socialist workers’ paradise David Ben-Gurion imagined. Israel remains vexed – and tarred – by the continuing Palestinian conflict. Israel’s current governing right-wing coalition includes some parties that have taken appalling anti-democratic positions. And Israel occasionally does stupid things, such as banning Noam Chomsky from the West Bank (then rescinding the ban).

Still, this wave of articles paints Israel not as leaning rightward but as abandoning democracy. These shrill attacks ignore the many counter-balancing forces – and Netanyahu’s own centrist shifts. Avigdor Lieberman is an unpopular, straitjacketed foreign minister, often bypassed. Still, he attracts more attention than moderates like the urbane, cosmopolitan Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

In neo-conning Israel critics overlook Arab illiberalism. Peter Beinart correctly notes that many young Jews resent hearing about Palestinian terrorism, incitement and intransigence. Casting the Arabs as the victims and Israel as the aggressor constitutes one of the greatest con jobs in modern politics.

Most significantly, Netanyahu embraced “two states for two peoples.” Seeking stability as a prerequisite to peace, his government has dismantled checkpoints, nurtured the Palestinian economy and cooperated on security matters with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu’s moves reflect Israel’s historic peace consensus, with most Israelis consistently willing to compromise for peace. These political steps and this profound yearning for peace are under-reported. They muddy the popular narrative of heavy-handed Israelis, long-suffering Palestinians, morally blind American Jewish leaders and justifiably rebellious American Jews.

A vital, creative and liberal Zionist center still thrives. True, if reporters continuously quote post-Zionist radicals such as Professor Ze’ev Sternhell or Avraham Burg, they will find backing for caricatures about a Holocaust-obsessed, racist country that ignores the noble elites trying to save it from itself. This one-sidedness would be like writing darkly about “George W. Bush’s America” in 2006 by quoting only Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

Reporters covering Israel should work harder, muddying the story further with truth. They could quote Professor Ruth Gavison, whose “Metzila” think tank harmonizes Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, with universal democratic values. They could interview Professor Moshe Halbertal, a political philosopher who wears a kippa, opposes settlements, and refuted the Goldstone Report. They could visit the Shalom Hartman Institute where Rabbi Donniel Hartman is leading a project I have joined reframing the vocabulary describing Israel and Zionism through Jewish texts as well as enduring Jewish and liberal values. They could consult Reut, the centrist think tank, which champions full equality for Israeli Arabs while defending Israel. Of course, now that Reut opposes delegitimizing Israel it has been branded “right wing.”

Within American Jewry, shoving established Jewish organizations into a box marked “Danger: Conservatives” makes the Jewish leadership and Israel unkosher no matter how bipartisan AIPAC is, no matter how committed to civil liberties the American Jewish Committee is, no matter how many Jewish leaders endorse two states.

Moreover, considering the many arguments about Israel at Sabbath tables and social events, it is absurd to claim that American Jews feel forced to march in lockstep regarding Israel. In most American Jewish circles, there is much more social pressure to be pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Considering Jews’ rich history of disputation, this culture of intensely criticizing Israel may be the modern Jew’s way of showing love. Professor Theodor Sasson argues that intense Jewish debates about Israel reflect a new paradigm of “direct engagement,” rejecting the traditional, more personally passive, organizational model of “mass mobilization.” The 250,000 young students, age 18 to 26, who visited Israel in the last 10 years with Birthright Israel, he notes, feel personal ties to Israel.

Birthright is a non-partisan program, an open-ended gift defined by the catchphrase “no strings attached.” As the new voluntary chairman of the Birthright Israel International Education Committee, I have been struck how researchers tracking the program report that few participants complain about being force-fed a line. The trip’s organizers know their credibility as educators rests on being open-minded not heavy-handed. Birthright is not an advocacy program but an identity-building program, launching thousands of individualized Jewish journeys.

The Zionist center is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic – even if ignored by reporters. It is a Zionism of balance, seeking to better Israel while opposing its enemies’ irrational, obsessive hatred. It is a Zionism sobered by reality, seeking peace while remembering how territorial concessions bred Yasser Arafat’s terrorism and Hamas’s Kassams. It is a Zionism characterized by idealism, viewing nationalism as a framework for finding collective meaning and harnessing group power to achieve universal values. And it is a Zionism still nurtured by its liberal roots, viewing individual liberty, true equality, a just democracy and a lasting peace as keys to fulfilling Judaism’s teachings, Zionism’s dreams and Israel’s promise.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. Among his books are Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.