September 27, 2007
Am I Blind?
Does the American Jewish community take a "myopic" view of Israel? A local Jewish leader, known for his progressive views, believes that it does.
In a recent article in this paper, Daniel Sokatch began by telling the story of a Jewish activist friend who came across a demonstration in Times Square, and saw -- to his shock -- friends from his movement burning an Israeli flag.
As Mr. Sokatch sees it, these kinds of experiences leave a lot of young American Jews "with a sense of confusion, torn allegiances and discomfort." He attributes much of this disillusionment to the Jewish community's inability, or unwillingness, to portray a more realistic view of Israel, "warts and all."
In the article, he cites one major "wart": the "occupation."
In his view, if we could only be more even-handed in the way we portray Israel's great virtues to our young Jews -- if we recognized, for instance, that Israel's "occupation" has subjected Palestinians to "a difficult and often miserable experience" -- then, perhaps, there would be less confusion and torn alliances, and our "disillusioned" Jews would even "go out and help save the dream all by themselves."
I'm not so sure.
Let's put ourselves in the shoes of this disillusioned Jew Mr. Sokatch is speaking about. He sees "progressive" friends of his burning the Israeli flag and vilifying Israel as an "apartheid" regime. In the news, he sees that the United Nations and much of the world community have deemed that this particular Israeli "occupation" -- not the ones in Tibet or Cyprus, for example -- is worthy of more condemnation and flag-burning than all the mass murders of millions of people in places like Cambodia, the Congo, Rwanda and Darfur.
Now what do you tell this disillusioned Jew? Huh, sorry, we as the Jewish community should have given you a "heads up" a long time ago regarding Israel's shameful "occupation?"
Or do you tell that person: Just like the best countries, Israel makes many mistakes, but one of them is not a lack of effort at making peace. When you see your buddy burning the Israeli flag and demonizing Israel, remind that person how much Israel has tried to trade land for peace, and the terror they got in return. Here's a book, here's a leaflet, here are some Web sites that will arm you with those facts.
Whatever you do, Mr. Disillusioned Jew, do not let them get away with calling Israel a Nazi-Apartheid state. That is a calumny of the highest order. If we as Jews don't defend Israel against these unfair and slanderous attacks, who will? The United Nations?
But let's keep going on the subject of warts.
Mr. Sokatch says that here in America, it's "very difficult to hear alternative opinions about Israel" and that "public criticism is frowned upon." Really?
Open up any major American Jewish newspaper, and you will see wide-open debates -- like the one we are having right here -- on a slew of Jewish and Israeli "warts." Has he ever read those letters to the editor that are read by tens of thousands of American Jews? Has he seen how brutally critical and cynical American Jews can get about the corruption and incompetence of the Israeli government, or the intolerance of its religious authorities?
Jews might be afraid of terrorists, but they're not afraid of their own warts.
In fact, if Mr. Sokatch believes that our Jewish "capacity for self-criticism" can help disillusioned Jews reconnect with Israel, I have an idea for him: Gather as many of these Jews as you can, and give them a two-hour "Wart Seminar." Get the last few editions of the five top Jewish papers in the country, and go through with the audience all the warts that we in the Jewish community proudly expose and explore every single week.
You probably know all those stories. There's one about a wealthy Persian American Jew who has been fighting for years to effect a change in the governmental system in Israel, to make it more representative. I worked on that wart.
There are many more -- like polluted Israeli rivers, the secular-religious divide, the public disgrace of Gush Katif refugees still looking for a home, corruption at the highest levels, even presidents accused of sexual improprieties.
The point is, no matter what the official positions are of major organizations, Jews don't like to hide warts, even about Israel. The "messages of pride" that are a natural staple of a people's self definition and preservation -- the kind we give over to young Jews in summer camps, for example -- have not been a substitute for the vigorous disagreements and debates among American Jews on their "alternative opinions of Israel."
When Mr. Sokatch gets "wart specific" in his article, he makes no mention of myriad governmental and other shameful "warts" that have made socio-economic victims of thousands of Jews in Israel. He cites only the "occupation."
As he well knows, Jews and Israel have plenty of warts to go around; his own organization (Progressive Jewish Alliance) works to alleviate many of them. We can spend a thousand hours debating the "occupation," and we do, but we usually end up going around in circles.
In the end, though, perhaps it is telling that we are all, to a certain extent, consumed with the conundrum of Judea and Samaria. We each obsess over it from our own Jewish viewpoint. I am outraged at how a hypocritical world has blown it all out of proportion, so I get all protective. Mr. Sokatch can't ignore the pain of Palestinians, no matter how guilty he finds their leaders. Religious settlers can't imagine giving up a land gifted by God, so they dig in. Others just want to be done with it -- but those bloody rockets won't stop falling.
We are all caught in this 40-year dance of death, defiance and destiny, and we have no clue how it will end.
In the meantime, I say we keep a watchful eye on those who wish to harm us, make the case for Israel without apology and leave the myopia to others.