Thursday, July 23, 2009

Listen Up

I think this article by Evelyn Gordon, critiquing how liberal American Jews have responded to President Obama's pressure campaign challenging Israel over the settlements, is very important. Why? Well, primarily because it avoids falling into the trap that until now bedeviled every single one of its cousins:
Too many articles lambasting the continued Jewish support for US President Barack Obama have overlooked a crucial point: Many American Jews agree with his positions on Israel. Like him, they think Israel should completely freeze the settlements, withdraw to the 1967 lines and divide Jerusalem, and that peace would break out if only it did so. None of these views are shared by a majority of Israelis. But as long as American Jews hold them, expecting them to echo mainstream Israeli concerns over these policies is delusional.

Right-o. Particularly when the articles are written by Christians, there is a persistent emergence of J.D. Hayworth syndrome wherein non-Jewish actors seem to think they know more about how to be authentically Jewish than Jews do. Even the Jewish speakers, though, seem to have trouble fathoming that their position is not mainstream.

In any event, though, Ms. Gordon rightly disavows that stance. Her argument is that American Jews aren't paying any attention to the Israeli left, and what it needs to become a vibrant and salient force in Israeli society. I've already written about how the isolation of the Israeli left in the international community has caused its near collapse as a viable force, and we can group that into the same position. Gordon argues that likewise, Obama hasn't been in communication with progressive elements of Israeli society, which has greatly weakened their ability to mobilize on his behalf and raised concerns even among these progressives about whether Obama truly is an ally.
This impression was bolstered by "the administration's pathetic attempt to deny the existence of understandings on settlement construction" between Obama's predecessor and Israel: "It was possible to accuse Israel of violating its promises, or to say that the policy had changed and explain why, but not to lie." [said Israeli columnist Aluf Benn]

Meanwhile, the way the debate played out has effectively painted Israeli progressive elements into a corner, as their opponents can now cast them as kow-towing to foreign diktats rather than standing up for their own country -- a position which is always fraught with peril for a left-winger. The right has long made its rallying cry that Israel is "not the 51st state";* the current state of the debate makes the claim all the more resonant.

Again, this is a problem stemming from a failure to communicate effectively. I fully support America taking a more critical stance and not, as Obama put it so memorably, defining "pro-Israel" as "pro-Likud". But disengaging from Likud ought to have come paired with a corresponding attachment to more progressive elements in Israeli society, and that never happened. Consequently, Obama was left floating, issuing generic pronouncements that did not link up with what the activists on the ground needed to do their jobs effectively. Remember why we all supported Obama not shooting from the hip regarding the Iran protests? Same principle applies here. Subtlety is required; subtlety and coordination that takes as its first principle enabling change agents from below, not command and control from the top.

Do I think that Gordon is entirely right? No -- for starters, I think that the "foreign agent" problem is an inevitable one whenever an outside force puts any pressure to do anything. And the weakness of the Israeli left predates Obama considerably -- it is unclear that even with greater coordination it would be in any position to challenge Netanyahu right now. Finally, I don't actually believe that we should always defer to local actors, even local allies -- sometimes an external push is needed, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a prime example.

But the point wasn't to say that Gordon was right or wrong. The point was to say that her article was important. And that it was. There isn't enough being done by pretty much anyone trying to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to build ties with or hear the voice of the mainstream Israeli left. And that's a serious, serious mistake.

* This is always something that amused me. In American, "51st state" is a pejorative for Israel -- implying that Israel has so much power and influence, and gains so much American succor, that it might as well be a state. It is generally deployed by the anti-Israel far left and right. In Israel, "51st state" is also a pejorative, attacking those who would create Israeli policy based on American demands. The implication is that these people would have Israel in such a close and subservient relationship to Washington that the nation might as well just be another state. It's almost exclusively the province of the Israeli right.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

That's a really good point - about disengaging from Likud but still needing to throw American support behind the Israeli left.