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What if the left abandoned Israel?

By Shaul Magid

This article first appeared in The Times of Israel and appears with permission of the author.

After the publication of my previous essay in The Times of Israel, “Peace partners? A question for the ‘pragmatic’ right,” my sister asked me the following question: “Next time you write something, why not write about Greece?” This is a common response, received by many of us who write essays critical of Israel and its polices. My sister is part of a Modern Orthodox community in a Chicago suburb, is not particularly ideological, but is politically aware, is generally a liberal and staunch supporter of President Obama. Even when it comes to Israel she is not oblivious to the failings of the Israeli government in regards to the Palestinians and will openly voice her dissatisfaction around a Shabbat table. But, like many American Jews, when people like her brother publish essays critical of Israel, her visceral reaction is “go take your criticism elsewhere and leave Israel alone.”

Instead of supplying all the tired answers as to why my critical approach is an expression of engagement and even love for the country that makes me so angry, I decided to take another tack. I thought about the question: What if the left took her advice and just gave up on Israel? This is surely a fantasy of some on the ideological right. But what about the larger majority of Jews who are not messianists or revisionists, in whose identity Israel plays a central part and is a source of pride, but who are also basically liberal-minded and believers in civil rights and the rights of the oppressed — at least in the abstract? What would many of these people who are exasperated with Israel’s critics think if Israel’s critics, like me, just gave up and turned their attention to other matters? What kind of country would Israel become without the Gideon Levys, Akiva Eldars, Leonard Fines, Jacob Arnold Wolfs, Dror Etkeses, David Shulmans, Shaul Arielis, and Peter Beinarts? If organizations such as J-Street said, “We’re done. It’s just not worth it anymore. AIPAC, she’s all yours.”

The deafening indifference

While some may think this is a far-fetched hypothetical, we may be closer to that scenario than we think. In a recent post on his blog “Jewish philosophy place,” Zachary Braiterman responded to reactions to Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism” with a fascinating post entitled “Independence and ‘Divestment’ (Peter Beinart and American Liberal Zionism).” As a lifelong liberal Zionist, Braiterman vents his frustration and reaches the precipice of committing perhaps the greatest Zionist sin: no longer caring about Israel one way or the other. Commenting on the back and forth of the Beinart debate, he writes:

Really, though. Most people don’t care. There will always be the usual suspects, people of a certain age or political-religious disposition who care a lot about Israel. Leftwing or rightwing, we carry a lot of personal baggage and ideological investments without which we would probably be better off. All I can say is that it now no longer shocks me how little my colleagues at Syracuse University and students (graduate and undergraduate) are even interested in the news from Israel anymore. And when they do pay attention for the briefest of moments, it’s more like watching a train wreck than anything else. It’s this deafening indifference and distant remove that should make anyone who genuinely cares about Israel to tremble truly.

I don’t think any amount of hasbarah or hectoring on the part of rightwing Jews is either going to change this fact or not make it worse. Anything that gets said digs the hole deeper.

I used to think that American Jews had the right and obligation to stake ideological claims in Israeli politics. I was wrong. I don’t have anything to say. Legalize outposts? Go ahead. Beat the hell out of Hamas or Hezbullah? I won’t object. Hit the Iranians? I hope you all know what you’re doing, because the mess is yours if you make it, and there is not a lot that the American Jewish community will be (able) to do if things go south. Desecrate mosques, uproot olive trees, beat up a Danish demonstrator, pass racist legislation, muzzle criticism, harass people at the airport? I guess that’s what it has come to. This is the “silver platter” of the Palestinian people.

Beinart’s 2010 essay in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” raises a similar, albeit not identical, issue. For Beinart it was about young American Jews becoming increasingly apathetic about Israel. This is also reflected in a 2007 sociological study by Ari Kellman and Steven Cohen, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel” (PDF). But Braiterman’s point is a different one: Increasingly, informed people on the Jewish left are simply giving up. Perhaps they are tired of being called “anti-Israel” or “self-hating Jews,” or of being accused of aiding and abetting anti-Semitism. Perhaps they see the continued erosion of the Zionism of their youth and the rise of a jingoistic, ethnocentric, and intolerant country they no longer recognize or can identify with. What would happen if Braiterman’s anguish became a more common phenomenon? What if it already is?

Historically, the Zionism of Braiterman was the norm. Even given the less-than-charitable things Ben-Gurion had to say about the Arabs and the ways in which Israel treated its Arab population during times of conflict, the Zionist mainstream was committed to a humanistic and liberal ethos, even as it failed in significant ways. The Revisionists were a marginal group throughout much of Zionist history; the left ruled Israel from its inception until the victory of Likud in the 1970s. Even then, Meir Kahane’s Kach party was banned from the Knesset as “racist.” And the Zionist messianism of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook did not gain real mainstream prominence until the late 1970s.

The anti-statist Zionist left in the pre-state era, like Brit Shalom, and later, anti-occupation movements such as Peace Now in Israel, or even the short-lived Breira in the US, were not unequivocally outside legitimate discourse until recently. As Gershom Goremberg discusses in his “The Accidental Empire,” in the 1970s there was a robust debate about the ethics of the occupation that engaged even by those who supported it. One does not hear much of that kind of reflection from the right (Rabbi Yehuda Amital of Gush Etzion and some of his students are notable exceptions). Even the sincere soul-searching of “have we gone too far?” in the immediate aftermath of Rabin’s assassination seems to have dissipated. Someone with the political inclinations of Teddy Kollek could never be elected mayor of Jerusalem today. Present legislation that borders on racism would not have so easily passed initial readings in past Parliaments. In the past, the left would not have given up on Israel, because the critique of the left was an integral part of Israel’s social and political culture.

Is hasbara the new Zionism?

Things have changed. Globalization has seduced part of those who used to be on the Israeli left into global capitalism, drawing their attention away from the fabric of the country in which they reside (increasingly, many have second homes in Europe or the US). They haven’t given up on Israel per se but have given up on caring that much about the things that drive the critique of the left. They know they can always leave. Many already have. The unspoken merger of the messianic and neo-revisionist right, coupled with the politicization of the haredi community — Shas being the most obvious exemplar — has given rise to an increasingly uncompromising ethnocentrism and, arguably, a redefined Zionism. Many American Jews who support Israel largely as a source of their own identity, but are not very knowledgeable about the history of Zionism, have been convinced that this new amalgam is Zionism. For example, my nephew had a course in his senior year of high school in a Modern Orthodox Day School in a major American city called “Israel Advocacy.” Not “Zionism,” or “A History of Zionism,” but “Israel advocacy.” In discussing the course with him I asked him some very basic questions about Zionism and Zionist history. He knew very little. In some very real way, it did not matter.

If the left had abandoned Israel 30 years ago, the Zionist mainstream might have been able to correct itself and attain a balance necessary for its rightful place as a society among the nations of the free world. The liberal infrastructure of the Zionist project was still very much in place, both in the Knesset and in the larger culture. Arguably, this is no longer the case. The cultural, religious, and political changes in the country have yielded a war against the left that has brought Braiterman, and many others like him, to the brink of saying “we no longer care.” It is not that these individuals are ignorant or do not “understand.” They understand quite well and are deeply informed — not only about the political realities but about the underlying history of the conflict. Many have spent considerable time in Israel and speak and read Hebrew. Many were members of Zionist youth movements when they were young. They cannot be cajoled by the hasbara project that focuses on the uninformed American Jew. Perhaps after being accused of abandoning your people for so long, well, you just might abandon your people.

What would be the consequences of this collective abandonment? First, young Jews who instinctively feel critical of Israel yet invested in its existence will have no venue to develop and express their activism. If the pragmatic right believes these young people will see the light (as the rightist narrative tells it) if only they will not be contaminated by “leftist” rhetoric, they are being naïve. Many will likely either abandon the project entirely or, perhaps, drift to organizations that are truly “anti-Israel.” If this abandonment occurred in Israel, the political and even legal barriers preventing right-wing legislation, policies, continued discrimination, and territorial maximalism — both secular and religious — would dissolve, leaving the county in the hands of those who now use more congenial and “liberal” rhetoric to veil an underlying neo-Kahanist ideology of the kind that was once outlawed in the Knesset as “racist.” Terms such as “transfer,” which were once anathema outside radical rightist circles, are now mentioned in certain pragmatic rightist cocktail parties — even in Tel Aviv! No hasbara would be necessary because anyone unconvinced would no longer care. If we took the advice of many of those Jews who ask us on the left to leave Israel alone and write about Greece, or China, Israel might become a county even they could not defend. But it would be too late. To those pragmatic defenders of Israel I can only say, “Be careful what you wish for.”

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