Monday, June 29, 2020

What's the Right Way To Oppose Annexation?

After last year's Yom Kippur, I wrote about a question I posed to some foreign affairs mavens at my synagogue regarding what is the "right" way to pressure or induce Israel in furtherance of American policy objectives. We spend a lot of time talking about what's off the table (e.g., no BDS) -- okay, fine, but what is on the table?

This question, I think, needs to rise back to the forefront of our mind as Israel contemplates annexation. Annexation does not enjoy the avowed support of most American Jewish organizations, but there is deep ambivalence over what tangibly those organizations will do if annexation nonetheless proceeds. The AJC has already announced it will defend annexation if Israel chooses it (it complained that the headline "We'll defend annexation if needed" was misleading, but the article text literally says "If annexation ... comes to pass, we will make the strongest possible case" for it). The ADL apparently will not defend annexation but is cagey on what forms of opposition it will and won't support (more on them in a second).

But this is a conversation we need to have now. When a foreign nation does something we don't like, opposition can mean a wide variety of things, from "quiet grumbling" to "send in the troops". Hopefully, nobody is suggesting invading Israel to stop annexation; likewise, any serious opponent of annexation needs to agree to something more than just a murmured "it wouldn't be my choice but ...." Between those poles, though, there's a lot of space to maneuver.

Which brings us back to the ADL. A few days ago, Jewish Currents made a big splash when it wrote about a leaked ADL memo outlining proposed strategies for responding to annexation. One reason I often give JC a side-eye is that they let their political slant so nakedly seep into their reporting that I don't have confidence that they're reliable relays of the views of their interlocutors. I don't think they'd falsify quotes or anything like that, but the interpretations they make and they inferences they draw are self-serving and often quite dubious. And unfortunately, here they for some reason did not to my knowledge release a copy of the memo itself, meaning we're relying heavily on them for both content and analysis. Yet reading between the lines, there seems to be a disjuncture between what JC imputes to the ADL, and the words they actually quote from the ADL's memo.

The memo, for example, makes clear that the ADL will not be defending annexation or Netanyahu, and that there must be "space for local and national leaders to express their criticism of Israel’s [annexation] decision." Moreover, it is particularly attuned to the problem where criticism of the critics falls disproportionately on the heads on prominent minority figures, and cautions that this must be avoided as well. On the other hand, the memo also suggests that it will oppose certain legislative actions that would impose more tangible punishment on Israel. The primary focus of the memo appears to be on relationship managing with major Democratic figures (particular in the CBC and other minority caucuses) -- respecting the validity of criticizing annexation while wanting to avoid a brush war akin to l'affair Omar.

Yet you'd barely get any of this from the tone of the JC article (and it is accordingly not at all how the article has been largely received). The article rather presents the ADL as plotting to sabotage anti-annexation politics and undermining opposition to the policy; its concerns about relationship-preservation and avoiding flashpoints seen as a barely-disguised attempt to muzzle all but the most perfunctory and non-threatening murmurs of discontent. In the course of accusing the ADL of seeking to undermine opposition to annexation,  the JC barely even admits that the ADL explicitly indicates it will not be defending annexation (in sharp contrast to the AJC). The tone of the article is that, insofar as it is seeking to moderate language and concerned about preserving relationships, the ADL in effect is running interference for annexation even as it pretends to oppose it. All Jewish organizations have an obligation to support whatever proposals or  rhetoric end up emerging under the banner of anti-annexation politics -- and any organization which doesn't commit to doing that should be seen as disingenuous in opposing annexation to begin with. It is reminiscent to a complaint about "tone-policing" -- that given the major looming injustice of annexation, any attempt to contest particular anti-annexation rhetoric or proposals as too extreme or aggressive should be seen as a means of deflecting attention away from the bigger issue.

The problem is that the ADL is absolutely right and reasonable to be concerned that valid concern and opposition to annexation could spiral into something a lot uglier and less defensible, and that Jewish organizations should absolutely be on the lookout to tamp down on flashpoints. And more to the point, we're already seeing some of this ugliness explicitly defended on exactly the argument the JC proffers. Over in the UK, we're seeing a clear version of this at the intersection of two significant actions by the Labour Party leadership: first, sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Labour shadow cabinet after she praised an article falsely accusing Israel of being behind the chokehold tactics used against George Floyd, and second the announcement that if annexation proceeds Labour will back a settlement boycott. The line from the Corbyn diehards is, more or less, that the decision regarding the former means the latter doesn't count; that in the time of annexation if you're objecting to conspiracy theories about Israel being behind racism in American policing, you don't truly oppose annexation at all (read some of the replies!).

There are, in other words, two horns to the dilemma. On the one hand, it is absolutely reasonable to insist that annexation by Israel needs to be met with real, tangible consequences, and that the ADL and other Jewish groups must not obstruct that. And it's entirely plausible that the range of responses that the ADL deems "acceptable" will be too narrow and too weak, and if that turns out to be the case they should be criticized for it. Theoretical opposition to annexation cannot be paired with practical opposition to any and all tangible moves taken against it. That's why we need to start thinking now not just about our redlines of what goes "too far", but the alternatives of  "what's in bounds". If we can't give a realistic answer to that, then it will indeed be hard to take "opposition" to annexation seriously.

But on the other hand, recognizing the need for tangible action does not entail stepping aside and accepting any policy or rhetoric that styles itself as "action". Any time a foreign nation undertakes a provocation, one will see arguments for taking a hardline and arguments for defusing tensions, and it is a lie that only the hardest of hardliners are taking the provocation "seriously". If "opposition to annexation" spills over into "racism in America is the product of an Israeli plot and how dare you call that out as antisemitic with annexation on the table?", that's the sort of thing which doesn't help anyone -- not Jews, not Israelis, not Palestinians, not Black people. Trying to avoid that outcome -- preventing righteous tailored fury from bursting into an unbounded and uncontrollable conflagration -- is neither illegitimate, nor wishy-washy.

If -- God forbid -- Israel carries through with annexation, my hope is that the response of American progressives everything necessary to clearly communicate its unacceptability and to promise proportionate consequences, and nothing that pours unnecessary fuel on the fire or seeks to sabotage the relationship between Jews and our allies. It's a large ask. But if it is to happen, it will require both moral courage -- to call an injustice an injustice and respond accordingly, as well as empathic connections -- to maintain relationships of care and concern. Both prongs matter, and committing to one should not and must not be seen as sacrificing the other.

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