To Be Set Right

On the conflicted values of a Millenial Zionist.

I grew up in a Jewish family in Lexington, Kentucky.  As we were a small religious minority in the area, my parents took great pains to make sure I had a Jewish education.  This included Sunday School, Hebrew School, and a series of summer camps.  Throughout all of it, in addition to the history, religion, and cultural lessons, ran a strong thread of Zionism. 

Looking at Jewish history, it is easy to see why this was the case.  The Jewish story is one of repeated exile, pogrom, and holocaust.  Our history is rife with sad remembrances, and celebrations that boil down to “they tried to kill us, they failed, hallelujah.”  Israel, which came into existence around the time my parents did, was and remains the only Jewish-majority modern state.  Its brief history hit on familiar themes: they tried to kill us, again and again, but we persisted. 

I choose my pronouns carefully: I was raised thinking of Israel as my country, too, though I have only been there once, as a young tourist.  I have understood, as have many Jewish Americans, that if circumstances warrant, I can always move to Israel; living there is my birthright.

My intellectually formative years took place between the first and second intifada.  I mourned along with my family when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  I remember the adults wondering aloud whether this meant the end of the peace process.  I also remember them saying, in hushed tones, how glad they were that the assassin was not Palestinian.  

By the time I started college, I had developed a fascination with the history and politics of the Middle East, and wrote pro-Israel columns in the campus newspaper.  I decried the hypocrisy of Israel’s neighbor states, who kept Palestinian refugees in squalor as political pawns, never permitting them to develop or integrate, all while claiming to be their champions in the world community.  I advocated for returning Gaza to Egypt, and returning the West Bank to Jordan (or, a fortiori, Transjordan).  

The core of my support for Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians was a deeply-ingrained belief, fomented and nurtured over many years of Zionist education, that the Palestinians and their supporters did not appropriately value human life.  I was outraged when Hamas placed its bases and military assets next to hospitals and orphanages, or when suicide bombers sought to maximize loss of life.  I viewed those incidents as proof that in this asymmetrical conflict, Israel had the better weapons, but the Palestinians had the freedom to kill indiscriminately.  

My views began to change after Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount set off another wave of violence.  His administration, and later, that of Benjamin Netanyahu, undermined my belief in Israel’s virtue.  The aggressive settlement expansion, the serial objections to direct negotiation, and the policies that treated non-Jews as second class citizens disgusted me.  These were not our values; these did not represent who we want to be as a Jewish nation. 

It is possible to love your country and hate your government, as any liberal who lived through the Trump years can attest.  But it became harder and harder, under the Netanyahu government, to identify as a Zionist without implicitly ratifying the disgusting policies of the Likud party. Zionist became a political position more than a statement of national pride.  Do you support Palestinian independence, or are you a Zionist? 

I opt for both.  I am a Zionist, proud of the establishment of a Jewish state and committed to preserving and protecting this one small country that will always welcome members of its diaspora.  It may be hard to fathom, but the relative safety and acceptance of Jewish people in the United States is a historical anomaly.  Through most of history, Jewish people have been at best tolerated, and at worse, faced with systematic extermination. 

I am also an American, and one of our foundational tenets is a belief in the right to self-determination.  Israel has made plain that it will not welcome the Palestinians into their country as citizens, jeopardizing the Jewish majority.  That means the people of Palestine need to be given real self-government, sufficient land to form a viable state, and the economic assistance required of any new state to develop and join the world community.  

It has been hard to find truly neutral accounts of what is happening in Israel these days.  Most of my reading- my algorithms skew liberal- has been decidedly anti-Israel, portraying them as attacking Gaza for no reason, and killing indiscriminately.  The pro-Israel writing dates the start of the present violence to rocket attacks from Gaza, ignoring the eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.  

Israel conducts its egregious actions under color of law, “legally” evicting Palestinians and slowly, steadily transitioning key parts of East Jerusalem to Jewish occupation, foreclosing it as a future capital for a Palestinian state.  The Palestinians do not have the ability to act under color of law, so they resort to violence.  Lacking the technical prowess of the IDF, that violence is often indiscriminate.  Rocket launchers are placed atop schools, hospitals, and media buildings to deter counterstrikes; if they were kept away from civilian centers, as Israel demands, they would be quickly and cataclysmically destroyed by Israel’s superior military might. 

There are no “good guys” in this conflict.  For all its social services, Hamas is a terrorist organization, and its indiscriminate attacks coupled with its refusal to even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist disqualifies it as a player in the peace talks.  Israel has the power to improve the lives of the Palestinians living under its control, but refuses, and takes every opportunity to avenge rocket attacks with devastating reprisal strikes, often disproportionate to the provocation.  

Jewish Americans like me, who grew up idolizing Israel, must now reckon with a government of right-wing extremists seeking to consolidate power and crush the prospects of a two-state solution.  As Jewish identity and Zionism were so closely linked in my religious education, it can be hard to question fidelity to Israel without shaking the foundations of that identity.  

I identify as a Zionist because my belief in the necessity for a Jewish state, and my appreciation for the establishment and existence of that state, is valid.  I identify as pro-Palestinian because I believe that people have a right to self-determination, and to their own pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness.  I criticize Israel because I support Israel, and I believe that the best way I can show support is to advocate for less extreme policies and a greater acceptance of Palestinian rights.  I criticize the Palestinians because I support their goal of statehood, and believe the actions of Hamas and its supporters are contrary to that goal.  

As Senator Carl Schurz once said, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  For Jewish Americans like me, that is our challenge and obligation if we choose to identify as Zionists: to set things right, and to speak out against actions that undermine our values.  

It has been just under twenty four hours since the ceasefire took hold.  I pray it lasts.


Published in: on May 21, 2021 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Even a Broken Clock

The decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was long-overdue.  

I am not a fan of our current president.  I’m sure that does not come as much of a surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with my writing.  My political views place great value on open-mindedness, humility, civility, and the role of objective facts and analysis.  Consequently, I think the current occupant of the White House is unqualified and dangerous.

Due in large part to the self-selection of social media, geography, and real-life society, a vast majority of my friends share this view.  Unfortunately, many of us make the mistake of concluding that because the president is dangerous and unqualified, anything he says or does must be wrong.

Admittedly, that formula produces accurate results in the large majority of cases.  However, over the last month, the president did something that- while controversial- I believe was exactly the correct course of action to move the Middle East closer to peace.

He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Naturally, as soon as this decision was announced, it was decried as dangerous folly by my fellow Trump critics.  After all, failing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a bipartisan norm for our chief executives.  Official recognition of Jerusalem, coupled with moving our embassy there, has been one of the largest carrots we have dangled in front of the Israelis for decades, in hopes of persuading them into making a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

In a sense, this policy shift reminds me of President Obama’s steps to de-isolate Cuba.  In that case, as now, a long-held, bipartisan foreign policy position was being forfeited by a new chief executive with limited governing experience.  The president’s critics- then and now- immediately proclaimed it a mistake.  Then, as now, those critics accused the president of giving up leverage and compromising our long-term strategic goals.

One persistent error in American foreign policy has been our failure to recognize when our policies are not working.  The Cuban embargo lasted for decades, and did nothing to resolve our tensions with their government.  Our refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not compel Israel to make hard concessions for peace over the decades.

There is no final peace agreement that does not include an Israeli capital in Jerusalem.  Our stubborn refusal to acknowledge that reality does nothing to bend Israel to our will.  If you telegraph so persistently- as we have- that you are going to give the horse the carrot eventually, no matter what, it ceases to serve as an effective incentive.  It did, however, provide Palestinians with the hope- however remote- that Israel would be forced to cede Jerusalem to some international body, or that the city might be a shared capital of both countries.

Our president’s move effectively takes this issue off the table.  The predicted violent uproar in response largely failed to materialize.  The Palestinians have announced that they are unwilling to continue working with the United States, but they must recognize even now that will be an untenable position in the long term, as only the United States has sufficient influence on Israel to facilitate a comprehensive settlement.

The idea that this compromises our perceived neutrality in the conflict ignores reality; we have been compromised since at least the 1980s.  No international observer truly believes that we are impartial in this dispute.  The United States has been and remains Israel’s closest ally in the world.  That is not a surprising revelation to anyone following the abortive peace efforts over the years, least of all to the Palestinians.

There is a more subtle aspect to this policy shift.  It represents, for the first time, the United States intervening to settle a disputed issue unilaterally.  Israel was quite pleased at this particular outcome, but they must surely realize that the next issue could go the other way, particularly with our volatile and unpredictable president at the helm.

Perhaps the United States will decide that large swaths of Israeli settlements must be demolished in the West Bank, or that a certain number of Palestinian refugees must be readmitted to Israel.  We have the leverage to force compliance, should we so choose.  Consequently, this new precedent of unilateral decision-making should give Israel pause.

The message sent by this policy shift is that the status quo cannot be indefinitely sustained.  The current Israeli leadership seems satisfied to remain in stalemate, and the Palestinians still have not consolidated the necessary collective will to make a meaningful peace.  This unilateral move undermines that status quo, and signals that the United States is committed to moving towards peace, with or without the participation of the primary governments involved.

I do not believe- and this may be my anti-Trump bias, but it’s based on his other governing decisions- that the president considered all of the implications of his decision before making the announcement.  I am not convinced that he is a leader who understands nuance, foreign policy, or long-term strategy.  More likely, he was convinced to make this announcement at the behest of one of his pro-Israel supporters or family members; perhaps the recently-disclosed financial arrangements between Israel and his son-in-law played a role.

Regardless of his motives, however, I do believe that in this case, the president got it right.  Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and our refusal to recognize it as such was nothing more than a relic of a negotiating tactic that produced no results over the decades it had been our policy.  Just like the Cuba embargo, its time has passed, and we need to move on from ineffective foreign policy decisions.

To paraphrase an old saying, even a broken president is right twice a term.


Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 9:45 am  Comments (1)  
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