Israel: Filling in the Blanks

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Jewish Journal    21.12.2022


Israel: Filling in the Blanks


Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory on November 1, most American Jews have been feeding the latest Blue-and-White-Scare. Since 1948, these periodic panics keep spiraling from genuine concerns about events occurring in Israel into hysterical laments about the death of Israel’s soul and the inevitable rupture it will cause with American Jewry. But hysteria — accelerated by its sidekick, blind partisanship — is not only contagious and addictive, but also reductive. One can rarely indulge in such full-fledged emotional frenzies without skipping over subtleties, complexities and inconvenient facts.


So many American Jews keep throwing these fits because their relationship with Israel is so overwrought. No country is as deified from within American Jewry as Israel. But likewise, no country is as demonized from without — and increasingly within as well. The result is a whiplash-inducing manic-depressive relationship. Like surly teenagers struggling with their parents, American Jews keep ping-ponging between viewing Israel through a technicolor, Disneyfied, blue-and-white prism where everything is perfect, and through a catastrophized, blinkered, black-and-white lens where Israel is doomed.


This dynamic is as old as the state. In 1952, a Commentary article defined “the essence of what has upset so many Jews and a good many of the best Zionists about Israel today.” The conclusion: It was a “moral crisis exemplified by a government of Israel charged by the people with unreliability, indecision, inefficiency, nepotism, and bureaucratic arthritis.” In 1988, Woody Allen accused Israel in the American Jewish Bible-cum-bulletin-board, The New York Times, of “state-sanctioned brutality and even torture.” Allen exclaimed: “My goodness! Are these the people whose money I used to steal from those little blue-and-white cans after collecting funds for a Jewish homeland?”


By 2009, amid another avalanche of pending-divorce articles discovering American Jews who “loved Israel blindly” but were “learning to ask hard questions,” Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary yawned. He called such pending divorce articles the “journalistic cliché of our time.” 


Thirteen years later, it’s worse.


I write as a critic of the incoming coalition. In 2017, I was the first Israeli columnist to propose that Benjamin Netanyahu resign with a presidential pardon — to spare Israel assaults on its national institutions from its supposedly nationalist party. I reject Itamar Ben-Gvir’s bigotry, Noam Maoz’s homophobia and Aryeh Deri’s sticky-fingered public service career. 


As a Jewish peoplehood person, I empathize with Reform and Conservative Jewish pain. They keep hearing that “we are one,” but in Israel “you are second-class Jews.” 


I see the Israeli right’s blind spots too. I criticize a professedly liberal Zionist party like the Likud for caving to anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox parties. Likudniks forget that Zionism is a national movement most committed to saving Jewish bodies, and Jewish souls if possible. I challenge Religious Zionists who read the Torah’s commandments about loving strangers and acting ethically to resist the extremist faction that christened itself the Religious Zionist Party. And I don’t understand how anyone who knows the Law of Return’s history would question the grandchildren clause: Hitler murdered people with Jewish grandparents.


Nevertheless, these Israeli hiccups do not justify the arrogance, contempt and despair dominating today’s American Jewish conversation about Israel. Valid concerns rocket rapidly into sweeping condemnations fueled by half-truths, partial-truths and un-truths. Stoked by hostile reporters, venomous professors and too many non-Zionist liberal rabbis, the discourse often lacks texture and refinement — occasionally among overly-defensive defenders, and among Bash Israel Firsters, always.


Defying the trend, let’s fill in the blanks. Let’s seek a fuller, grittier, more dimensional Israel update. No article can capture any country’s texture. But some Zionist group therapy could help — particularly Israel-oriented cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapists identify cognitive distortions, thinking patterns hooked on negative biases. Similarly, noting what we and our media sources have overlooked or misread can help us see Israel more accurately and more sympathetically. Confronting Israel in its complexities can calm the kosher Chicken Littles. The sky may not be falling. It’s an important lesson: You can dislike an incoming democratically-elected government without always claiming it’s endangering democracy. 


That lament is the primary distortion. The firestorm triggered by Israel’s fifth election parallels 1977’s gloom-and-doom-fest, when Menachem Begin’s Likud displaced the Labor Party after it had ruled for 29 years. Who that May would have predicted that by November, Begin would welcome Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, and that by September, 1978 Begin would have negotiated an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty?


Instead, November 1 unleashed waves of hysteria blasting a government that has not yet formed. The mounting condemnations of what Israel is “doing” and “thinking” ignore three essential facts. First, the Prime Minister of Israel remains the centrist Yair Lapid. Second, Lapid headed a diverse coalition that included Arabs and limited ultra-Orthodox power. For years, many detractors blamed Bibi for their alienation from Israel. The left-to-center-right-seeking coalition led by Naftali Bennett and then Lapid showed that for most, their big problem with Israel was Israel. The anti-Zionists proved they were anti-Zionist, not just anti-Bibi, while the Israel-beater-uppers revealed they can always find something to bemoan as ruining their false nostalgia for an ideal Israel that never existed.


Finally, the sweeping assertions about where Israel is “going” overlooked the country’s deep divisions manifested in five elections. Despite the right’s triumphalism and the left’s despondency, four thousand more Tel Aviv votes could have changed the outcome. Coalition politics may propel Israel in some dismaying directions, but it will be lurching not evolving, easily corrected if the people insist, and unable to undo much cultural and social progress. 


The falsifications keep accumulating — faster than anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N. Israel-mourners forget that patriotism involves loving one’s country sometimes because of its politicians and always despite its politics. Outsiders judge a country by its leaders, like superficial readers judging books by their covers. Insiders understand that a country is far more than its worst lawmakers. Avi Maoz may gay-bash reprehensibly, but Tel Aviv will remain the Middle East’s most LGBTQ-friendly city. Critics must decide: Do they attack Israel for “pinkwashing” — supposedly advancing LGBTQ rights to fool liberals — or do they brand Israel homophobic. You can’t do both.


Ultimately, one should judge a democracy by its under-the-radar trends rather than its over-the-top extremists. Trust the leap in Israeli-Arab students from 2% of the university population to 20% and the rise of an Israeli-Arab middle class to trump the haters from either sector.


Similarly, when a Reform lay leader I met claimed Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties were like Iran’s modesty police, my answer was simple. “I sentence you,” I said lovingly, “to walk along the Tel Aviv beach.” 


Until Iran goes nuclear, the single most powerful force in the Middle East may be Netanyahu’s ego. Assuming that Cabinet members will run the government, upstage Bibi and ruin Israel’s soul underestimates Netanyahu and overestimates Israeli ministers’ power. Most ministers are handcuffed in office and few have any lasting impact. And Netanyahu has a decades-long track record of neutering subordinates.


There’s lots of “them” talk these days in American Jewry about “those people.” Liberals who bristle when Trumpians talk about “them” (immigrants) “taking over” America, rant about Hareidim “taking over” Israel. Anti-ultra-Orthodox bigotry is the last legitimate prejudice for liberals—including liberal Jews. 


Again, facts intrude. A stack of “the ultra-Orthodox are coming” articles dates back to the 1950s. Sidestepping the mean-spirited clumping together and maligning of fellow Jews, Israel remains only 8% Hareidi and only 10% National Religious. No one counts how many kids born into ultra-Orthodox family leave; there’s no graduation ceremony, no exit interview, no court martial. But the phenomenon of the lapsed Hareidi has become a familiar trope in Israeli popular culture. 


More important, Israel today is less nosy and bossy than yesterday’s Israel. Israel is more open, easy-going, and user-friendly left to right, religious to nonreligious. If buying coffee, watching movies, or going to restaurants in Jerusalem on Shabbat is “progress,” all those activities, once rare, are easy to do now. There are multiple creative, Reform, Conservative, Renewal and independent congregations in my Jerusalem neighborhood alone. The admittedly painful fight is over the very un-American notion of state support and recognition for these denominations, not the freedom to pray however one wishes.


Like it or not, Hareidim are leveraging their legitimately-acquired democratic power to extract concessions. When Israel was smaller, David Ben-Gurion supposedly quipped that if Reform Jews wanted recognition, then 300,000 of them should make aliyah and then flex their muscles. I prefer an Israel that doesn’t need political muscle to impose religious equity. But Ben-Gurion’s point makes sense.


Liberals are equally inconsistent regarding the judiciary. In America, liberals shout that the too-powerful court threatens democracy. In Israel, liberals shout that a too-weakened court will ruin democracy. However, conservatives currently dominate the U.S. Supreme Court while Israel’s clubby judicial culture is overwhelmingly liberal. It seems that people’s faith in checks and balances depends on who is actually doing the checking and balancing. Masquerading policy differences behind structural arguments sacrifices the priceless for the cheap; undermining people’s enduring faith in their democracy is simply not worth the momentary political points. 


Underlying these tensions is the Palestinian issue. The systematic global campaign against Israel’s legitimacy has inflicted a simplistic black-and-white narrative onto a most complicated conflict. Palestinians’ Great Replacement Theory substitutes the truth of Jews’ unique national-religious identity and deep ties to Israel with falsehoods transforming Jews, often victims of the West, into victimizers perpetuating the worst Western crimes including racism, colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. Fueled by this Dis-Orientalism, Palestinians’ tale-of-woe has become a paranormal narrative. Its mystical powers resist the facts, inoculating the most evil terrorists from condemnation.


The Palestinians’ haze of lies and half-truths shrouds the Middle East like a desert dust storm. Particularly toxic is the broadly-believed lie that the territories hastily defined in the 1949 armistice talks are an organic entity exclusively belonging to Palestinians. By contrast, just reference Genesis, which traditional Jews were reading during this prolonged post-election shiva-for-Israel’s-soul. 


Negating Jewish rights to the biblical heartland negates Jewish history, Jewish identity and the truth — regardless of any ideal solution today. If Jewish peace activists truly love peace, they should assert Jewish rights to Judaea and Samaria by saying, “I love peace so much, I am willing to give up some or even all of it.” 


The Oslo-era joke bears reviving. Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat negotiate with Bill Clinton at Camp David. Barak proclaims: “President Clinton. In our Bible this week we read how Palestinians ambushed the Israelites just as we were entering the Land of Israel, slaughtering our innocents.” Arafat exclaims: “That’s a lie. We weren’t there. We weren’t even a people then.” 


Barak smiles. “Exactly. Now we can begin….”


I don’t challenge Palestinian claims. I know how painful it is when others deny our Jewish ties to the Promised Land, and Jews’ rights to live there. But no one should dismiss Jews’ pre-existing, 3500-year-old connections either.


Another popular tic has supposed peacemakers asserting the Violence Veto. Warning that some Israeli action or politician will provoke terrorism rationalizes evil. It projects pundits’ dismay onto murderers. Predicting terrorist waves to disagree politically undermines every knee-jerk condemnation of terrorism as “useless.” It legitimizes Palestinian terrorism as a crude popular referendum on what Israel does, rather than a despicable lashing out against what Israel is.


Beyond being obscene, such propagandizing prophecies are less reliable than weather forecasts. Five years ago, an Atlantic article claimed that by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Donald Trump “didn’t just invent Muslim violence, he provoked it.” The predicted violence never occurred; nor were the equally-confident predictions of terrorism after the Abraham Accords fulfilled.


The Abraham Accords, negotiated under Benjamin Netanyahu, also muddy the anti-Israel narrative. With one signature, Israel proved that it seeks peace, that it is neither an apartheid state nor an anti-Arab society. We should now speak of the Arab-Israeli conflicts (adding an “s”) being solved one-by-one, rather than a never-changing, never-ending, unsolvable monolith.


Day-by-day, Israelis confront realities that also muddy the one-sided indictment. No one can understand Itamar Ben-Gvir’s popularity without acknowledging the 31 innocents (and counting) terrorists murdered in 2022. It’s a terrorism of car rammings, stabbings, shootings and bombings. Two bombs recently targeted Jerusalem commuters, killing a 16-year-old and a 50-year-old father of six. 


Similarly, there is the under-reported story of Tiran Ferro, the eighteen-year-old Druze car-crash-victim. When his body was snatched from a Palestinian hospital, many Israelis reevaluated their government’s approach to terrorism. Consider the sheer brutality of Palestinian goons invading a hospital, disconnecting a critically-injured patient from life support, then kidnapping the body. Beyond that, the Druze threats produced immediate results. The Israeli press misleadingly credited the body’s quick return to negotiations between the IDF and Palestinian authorities. But the Israeli street told a different tale and drew different conclusions.


Finally, Americans must stop seeing Israel through their polarized red-white-and-blue lens. Israelis are not experiencing America’s Big Sort or Great Untangling. Countering partisan polarization, many other dynamics pull Israelis together rather than ripping them apart. This small family-oriented, still deeply-traditional country, surrounded by enemies, pulsates with a strong sense of community. Israelis remain in each other’s faces — for better and worse, interacting with those who dare disagree with them — on streets, at grocery stores, on busses, at family events, during national holidays. That social solidarity reduces political tensions and generates hope. Admittedly, this government-in-formation has triggered much pre-fury in Israel too. But in Israel one doesn’t feel the same American-sized despair.


Israeli critics should reserve some ammunition for actual policies, when implemented. Over-the-top pre-steria — premature hysteria in Israel and abroad — risks inuring Israelis to serious violations. Overstating what might be often normalizes what still shouldn’t be.


On a recent trip, chatting with Reform Jews, I heard a round of complaints about Israel. “I hear many of us judging Israelis,” one lay leader then said, “I wonder how Israelis judge us.”


Relationships involve judgments back-and-forth. In loving, constructive relationships, these insights can help others become their best selves. In crumbling, destructive relationships they become verdicts defining others by their worst moments. Jews and all democracy-lovers should be judgmental enough to keep the mutual exchange healthy but not so disapproving as to turn it toxic. Seeing one another more fully, accurately and sympathetically is essential for helping us tackle problems together rather than weaponizing differences of opinion to pull us apart.


Zionism never promised the Jewish people a rose garden — only a home of their own. The Jews as a people “had no self-confidence up to now,” Theodor Herzl wrote. “Our moral misery will be at an end on the day when we believe in ourselves. Naturally there will always be fights and difficulties, internal and external ones. But what country, what state does not have them?” 


One-hundred-twenty-five years later, seventy-five years into this adventure in Jewish-democratic living in our old-new land, we have a state. We have “fights and difficulties.” But we Jews have a new “self-confidence” too. As we face the challenges ahead, let’s not let anyone rob us of that newfound buoyance. And let’s not psych ourselves out either whether we win or lose one partisan fight or the other —this round.

A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org )  . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of  The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. 



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