Monday, July 03, 2017

For the Left, the Kotel Controversy Shouldn't Be Nyah-Nyah Moment

When the Israeli government reneged on its promise to promote equal space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall -- and moved forward a bill that would further cement the Orthodox movement's stranglehold over conversion in Israel -- liberal Jews in America were very, very upset. They were not shy about denouncing the decision in the sharpest of terms.  The head of the Chicago Jewish Federation said lawmakers who voted for the conversion bill wouldn't be welcome in his city. An AIPAC board member threatened to cut off all philanthropic giving to Israel.  It's fair to say that we haven't seen this much unified fury directed at the Israeli government from mainstream American Jewish organizations in years.

Some anti-occupation activists are rolling their eyes at this -- oh, now you're protesting Israeli government policy. Now, when it's about you, you're suddenly threatening to cut off donations or shun unacceptable Israeli MKs? Where were you when Israel's right-ward tilt was affecting people-not-you -- that is, Palestinians? Where was your consternation and outrage when Israel lets settler violence proceed unchecked or demolishes Palestinian homes for "improper permits" while letting outposts proliferate like wildfire? But now, now you find your voice?

I get this reaction. Really, I do. It's an entirely understandable, visceral response. I even feel it myself, to a degree. I really, really empathize with the cathartic desire to lash out like this.

But being a good activist isn't about doing what feels good or righteous or cathartic. Being a good activist means taking the steps that move the ball forward, even if that means foregoing a good "gotcha" moment. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, and this is one of those moments.

For starters, the groups engaging in this nyah-nyah reaction generally purport to agree with their targets on the injustice of the Kotel backtrack and the conversion bill. So right from the get-go, there's the ill-advised look of being angry that people agree with you on an issue.

But there's a larger short-sightedness here, that goes more directly to the issue of the occupation and moving the needle on how American Jewish organizations treat that issue. Let me lay it out in simple terms:
From an anti-occupation perspective, anything that makes clear to mainstream American Jews that Bibi is not your buddy is a good thing.
Simple as that. An American Jewish organization that is annoyed at Netanyahu and his coalition partners is an American Jewish organization that will be less likely to reflexively defer to them the next occupation-related outrage that comes down the pike. An American Jewish organization which doesn't trust Bibi's views on matters of justice or fairness is an American Jewish organization more likely  to follow their own instincts going forward.

I've written before about the importance of social psychology in understanding how views about Israel develop and change. One of the most important considerations in how people form their own beliefs is their sense about how their friends, how the people on their "side", perceive the issue. The Kotel controversy is a moment where many American Jews have suddenly come to the realization that Bibi is not "on their side". They're casting about, looking for new allies in the Jewish community that will validate their feelings about how important this issue is and do understand how objectionable the Israeli government's decision was.

This offers a huge opportunity. American Jews are searching for something to do, a way to vent their anger, at the current Israeli government. Right now it's rather disorganized and inchoate, and as a means of protesting the Kotel decision pulling funding from an Ethiopian-Israeli soccer team seems rather far afield. But you know what could make Netanyahu stand up and take notice? If donors and givers and Jewish support started flowing to liberal organizations within Israel that -- by and large -- want religious pluralism in Israel and an end to the occupation.

But that only works if the door is held open. So, in this particular moment, the decision of the anti-occupation left to wag a finger in these Jews' faces and yell "hypocrites" could not be more profoundly idiotic. It is a sign of the immaturity of these groups and their preference for posturing over effective coalition-building within the Jewish community -- a shortcoming that has bedeviled the Jewish anti-occupation left from its earliest days.

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