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Answering readers’ comments on “Israel’s Fair Weather Fans” (first round)

by Shmuel Rosner

August 11, 2014 | 3:56 am

Photo by Reuters/Edgard Garrido

First the basics: my latest New York Times article was published late last week. Its headline is Israel’s Fair Weather Fans. It deals with the growing volume of articles by non-Israeli liberal Jews – most but not all are relatively young, most but not all are American – that express frustration, anger, and disappointment with Israel. The recent events in Gaza ignited a wave of such articles, but there were a lot of them before, and I have no doubt that we will be subjected to many more in the future.

I made two main points in that article:

1. Israel isn’t going to alter its defense policies because of the sensitivities of liberal non-Israeli Jews.

2. The implied threat of “distancing” – namely, that if Israel doesn’t change its ways the liberal Jews might not be able to support it – is a hollow threat.

The article was widely read, and hit the 10-most-emailed NYT list. Following it, I was bombarded by hundreds of letters, on top of tweets, Facebook references, blog posts and other forms of communication. Many of the responses were comments on the article and many others included questions about the article. I soon realized that I will not have the time to answer all of these in detail and am hence writing this post, in which I will try to address some of the comments\questions that were most common and the ones that I find the most interesting. Another round of answers will be posted later this week or next week, as the questions keep coming in.

I thank all those who wrote to me about the article, and I’m happy to see this level of engagement as I believe this is an important conversation to have. It is, of course, better to first read the original article in full – you can find it here – before you read the following post.

Israel needs tough love

Rachel Canar gave voice to many other commentators when she wrote the following:

…for many American Jews that deeply love Israel and are very close family members, the analogy is of Israel as a Heroin addict. Israel's behavior is self destructive, hurtful of others who love her, without perspective, and deeply in need of help to change that she might not always want or accept… 

I’ll be blunt: there is no basis to the belief that Jewish Americans of any stripe have a better reading of the situation than Israelis do. Of course, Israelis make mistakes – like all people of all countries. Of course, we don’t always understand what’s good for us. But living under the assumption that a certain type of American Jew is the responsible adult and the vast majority of Israelis are the child in need of guidance (or a heroin addict in need of treatment) is both arrogant and misguided. Israel was built and defended by Israelis, and it is doing pretty well under very tough circumstances. So we might – just might – be at least as wise and as knowledgeable about our situation as our critics.

Rabbi Jeffrey Marker of Brooklyn published the following comment on the letters page of the Times:

No one disputes that Israelis will make the decisions about Israeli policy, but we feel obliged by our love for Israel to try to intervene and support those people and groups in Israel who advocate a healthier policy.

Here the issue of context and timing must be considered. It is crucial to consider it as it is central to my complaints: the articles to which I responded were written and published during and in response to recent events around Gaza. When it comes to these events, the claim of “people and groups who advocate for a healthier policy” is bogus – there are no such groups.

I can’t defend Israel

Jonathan Chait, one of the writers I referred to in my article, penned a response in which (among other things) he makes the following statement:

My disposition as a defender of Israel depends on the character of the Israeli state. A decade ago, I’d argue, it was a fair reading of the facts to view Israel as a state that mostly desired peace and whose use of force was mostly justifiable. I think that argument has weakened substantially in the intervening years.

As I say above: context, tone, and timing are sometimes everything (having a good grasp of the situation is also recommended).

As I said in my article: I wish you could still defend Israel, and think there are enough reasons to do that - but if you can’t, so be it.

Israel is also not so important

This came in the mail, and the author allowed me to use it but wouldn’t let me publish his name. He is an American from Los Angeles:

I understand that Israel is not going to follow the instruction of American Jews, but don’t accept your premise that American Jews have to like Israel or have a connection with it. Being Jewish doesn’t mean that you have to love Israel…

First, as I say in my article, I don’t think that living Jewishly without caring for Israel is much of an option today. Some radical Haredi stripes are able to do it, but their trick is to detach themselves not just from Israel but also from the modern world in general (also, some friends of mine who study the sociology of Haredis keep reminding me that even for these Haredi groups Israel is very much a presence to which they have to relate).

But let me add two points to what I say in the article:

In theory, it might be true that you can be Jewish without caring for Israel. True, but problematic, as there are many Jewish teachings commanding us to love our fellow Jews, and Israel is home to almost half of the Jewish people.

In practice, it rarely works: the data documenting the validity of the equation “stronger ties with Israel = stronger Jewish identity” is vast and quite conclusive. Of course, this or that Jew can still find a way to be strongly Jewish and detached from Israel, but as a recipe for the continuity of the Jewish people it doesn’t work.

The Gaza war is bad for Israel

Shaun Raviv tweeted the following comment:

Naïve of @rosnersdomain to take as given that current war makes Israelis safer. How?

I don’t make this assumption in my article. My article doesn’t deal with Israel’s strategy and its shortcomings. What I do say is the following: the government of Israel decided to go to war. Clearly, the government of Israel believes that this war is going to make Israelis safer. Jewish liberal critics believe the war is wrong. They also imply that if Israel keeps fighting such wars they will no longer believe in Zionism. But the government believes that the war is essential to Israel’s security. Will it compromise Israel’s security because some liberal Jews might lose their Zionist zeal? No – it will not, and should not.

What about the settlements?

Bob Hollander of Gainesville Florida sent me the following comment by mail (he kindly agreed that I use it here):

…I wished you had moved beyond simply alluding to the issue that leaves the Non-Israeli/Pro-Israeli crowd frustrated: continued expansion of settlements into the West Bank at the expense of the proto-nascent two-state solution… I see Israel's West Bank policies as nurturing an environment that enables Hamas while dis-empowering Palestinian moderates.

A 1000 word article is a limited format, and the topic was not settlement policy, so that is a technical reason for not addressing the issue. What I do say in the article, quite clearly, is that “not all Israeli policies are smart, and it’s not imperative that all Jews agree with them. Israelis are susceptible to persuasion”. In other words, I have no problem with the fact that people all around, in Israel and beyond, consider Israel’s settlement policy as detrimental to its future. I have great doubt if the settlements are the main obstacle to peace - settlements in Gaza were dismantled and peace hasn’t arrived. But there is a strong case to be made against current settlement policies, and I partially agree with those who say that Israel could pursue a smarter course regarding this issue.

The motivation of the critics

Ron Hibshoosh questioned (on Facebook) the motivations of Israel’s Jewish critics:

…The main motivation among diaspora Jews (especially young ones) for distancing themselves from Israeli policy is that they don't want to be associated with something unfashionable, regardless of whether they agree with it. It's not about the underlying politics, it's about wanting to be cool…

I actually allude to such a possibility in my article: “Sometimes it feels as if liberal Zionist critics are trying to ensure that Israel’s deeds do not rub off on them”. But I’d rather take the critics on their word and believe that their motivation is true love and care for Israel. If that’s the case – so I believe – their tactics are counter-productive and their ability to contribute to the bettering of Israel is compromised by their implied threat of withdrawal.

So you don’t care?

Matt Steinglass made the following comment on Twitter:

If @rosnersdomain doesn’t care what liberal Jews think, why is he talking to them on pages of NYT? Bit unconvincing.

But I do care. Read my article: “Let me be clear: I believe Israel’s relations with Jews around the world are crucially important. Indeed, I’ve devoted a great deal of my career to thinking and writing about this topic”. To say that Israel is not going to change its policies on matters of security because of the sensitivities of liberal Jews is not the same as saying that I don’t care if these Jews support Israel or not. I want them to support Israel, I want others to support Israel, and I want to prevent misunderstandings that lead to frustration and alienation. So my article is really an attempt to clarify things:  A. For Israelis, our security comes before the sensitivities of liberal Jews. B. That is no excuse for them to detach from Israel.

Ian Maitland of Seattle left this comments at the bottom of my article – one of hundreds of comments:

Non-Israeli Jews owe their Israeli kin unconditional love, but Israelis owe them nothing in return -- certainly no duty to heed their advice because, you see, people who live far away have no understanding of Israelis' security needs. 

His tone is sarcastic – and he should read my article again. It doesn’t say that Israelis “owe them nothing in return”. In fact, I believe that they owe them the same amount of unconditional love.

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