Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Movement of Lone Wolves

Tom Friedman has written to the Washington Jewish Week to express regret over saying that congressional applause for Bibi Netanyahu was "bought and paid for by the Israel Lobby". He acknowledged that the rhetoric he used suggested a "grand conspiracy theory" that he does not endorse, and said in retrospect he should have used alternative language like "engineered".

I was alerted to the apology column by Israeli peace activist Didi Remez, who called it an "unconditional surrender". Upon reading the column though, I thought that was a pretty odd characterization. Friedman specifically said he stood "by 100 percent" the argument in the column, which is that Israel's growing right-ward tilt is alienating American Jews and endangering the safety and longevity of the Jewish state and its democracy. For an "unconditional surrender", that's pretty, well, conditional.

The point is not to knock on Remez, who quickly and to his credit conceded that he was off the mark in characterizing the column the way he did. But his instinct is reflective of a broader trend I see a lot in people who occupy the niche held by Remez and others like him. It is a tendency to view themselves as isolated, perpetually on the defensive -- solo Jeremiahs who against overwhelming odds are trying, perhaps futilely, to get Israel to change its path.

I can see the appeal of this outlook. Obviously, there is something uniquely exhilirating about being the lone wolf -- fighting the good fight against a numerically superior foe with all the resources and all the advantages. It's like being part of the Rebel Alliance or the Polish Underground. Moreover, it comes fit with its own excuse for failure: if you're up against overwhelming odds, then any victory (no matter how small) is an extraordinary accomplishment and, if defeat comes, it is only what is already expected.

But this description is of only limited accuracy. There are, in fact, a great many people who, in their own way and to varying degrees, have concerns about Israel's directions and policies, and wish to push it towards what they see as a more salutary direction. Friedman and his column exemplify that. Why, then, the instinct to presume defeat -- not to embrace the fact that Friedman remained steadfast in his broader critique of the Netanyahu government, but to reflexively engage in lamentation at another warrior's fall?

One gets the sense, sometimes, that these activists are almost afraid to make progress. Progress brings pressure -- a larger movement requires more negotiation internal to the group, and if one has a serious cadre of support, suddenly defeat is not expected but represents an actual failure. Once you're off the fringe, there are no more participation badges. And that's a scary thing.

I had this same thought while reading this post about the stagnation of the OWS movement. It seems like the movement can't bring itself to exert actual influence, because taking a step like that would imply the possibility of failure. So they come up with elaborate justifications to remain vague and amorphous and disengaged from the nitty-gritty of politics, and then when change doesn't happen they can freely blame the system's stacked odds.

OWS is fading out, but not because it didn't tap into something real. It's starting to disintegrate because it couldn't bring itself to actually flex its muscle in any meaningful sense. They say it's because doing so would betray the principles of the movement, or sacrifice moral purity, or reinforce the system they're trying to undo, but you'll have to forgive me if I don't buy it. Maybe they believe it, but I think the real thing here is fear that if they really go balls-to-the-wall, they might fail anyway, and will have to reckon with that. So they bask in the dignity of having not really tried in the first place. It's the fantasy of "I coulda been a contender".

I don't want the movement to redress growing economic inequality in America to suffer that fate. And nor do I want it to happen to the movement that is trying to save Israel's status as a Jewish, democratic state. But one of the first things we have to do is break the reflex that says we're outsiders, that we have no friends in power, that we're all lone wolves. We're not. It's not the case that we dominate the power structure either, to be sure. But we have our friends in high places. We have sympathizers with influence. We have a solid base of support in Israel, and a solid base of support amongst American Jews. They might not always bear the recognizable marks of the hardest of the hardcore, but they're there, and they can be mobilized. But it can't happen so long as we interpret every event as if it demonstrates our own marginal status.

UPDATE: If you're looking for an example from the flip side, check out this tweet by Electronic Intifada's Ali Abunimah: "Hey @RJCHQ d'ya hear about the Israeli family in NH who made 10,000 phone calls for Ron Paul? They must hate Israel lol." I find this very perplexing. Abunimah's politics would suggest he'd be happy both at the prospect of an American President who took a less friendly line towards Israel (as Paul would), as well as a slackening of Jewish support towards Israel (as Jewish Paul supporters probably already have). But the tenor of this tweet suggests the exact opposite instinct: Obviously Paul can't really be hostile to Israel, because he has some committed Jewish supporters (fun fact: Pat Buchanan had Jewish supporters too!), and there's no way that any American Jews could possibly have views on Israel remotely in accord with Abunimah's. If Jews are acting politically, the only logical explanation is that they're doing it to make Abunimah miserable.

Now, most of the time it is true that Jews hold views on Israel which are well out of sync with Abunimah's (which is a very good thing). But the instinct to assume it's just impossible that somewhere, politics might be playing out in your favor for once, is of a kind with the phenomenon I identified in this post.

1 comment:

David said...

This is brilliant analysis. Most of what I read attributes lone-wolf phenomena re I-P to internalized anti-semitism. But your explanation is much more general, contextual, and sensitive to circumstances. When psychological explanations are necessary, you resort to concrete incentives and anxieties instead of a subconscious construct. Thank you. This is useful stuff.