Sunday, May 08, 2011

One Camp, Two Camps, Three Camps, Four Camps

Two events, nearly back to back, have recently gotten me to thinking about the fissures, real and imagined, within the Jewish community regarding Israel. The first is CUNY's nixing of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner, based on his views regarding Israel (that decision may be reversed). The instigating trustee accused the Palestinians of being "not human", and his accusations regarding Kushner were of dubious accuracy (and defended by the bizarre logic that Norman Finkelstein affirmed them -- apparently Finkelstein is the epitome of a credible source now?). Needless to say, Kushner and I do not see eye-to-eye on Israel -- not even close (it's also needless to say that Kushner was being honored for accomplishments utterly unrelated to his views on Israel) -- but the actions of CUNY were cowardly, misrepresentative, and not in keeping with the spirit of academic freedom.

The second is a benefit concert headlined by Gilad Atzmon to support another Gaza flotilla. Atzmon is someone who has described himself as a "self-hating Jew", among various other outrageously racist comments (the list is literally too long to recount and manages to run past virtually every anti-Semitic theme of the past century, from blaming Jews for the Holocaust to accusing them of schemes of world domination to asserting that Judaism is an inherently "supremacist" ideology). It isn't clear whether the flotilla organizers have officially sanctioned the concert (being hosted by a Methodist Church, incidentally); needless to say, accepting a check from Gilad Atzmon should be seen as accepting one from David Duke (who has praised Atzmon in the past).

What connects these two events in my mind is not that they represent the battlelines of the "debate" in the Jewish community over Israel, but rather the fact that they don't. Most Jews, regardless of political predilection, recognize Atzmon for the despicable thug that he is. And with the CUNY controversy, it has been noteworthy to watch Jews of all different political orientations lambaste the decision. It ain't just, or even primarily, folks known as particularly left-wing -- Ed Koch was way out in front on this, and Jeffrey Goldberg was quick to offer his condemnation as well.

Until very recently, there have been three major "camps" of American Jewish thought with respect to Israel. There is a hard left that never really liked Israel much to begin with, finds Jewish particularism embarrassing (if not immoral), is perpetually playing footsie with various anti-Semitic ideologies and social movements to prove that they're "Good Jews", and would rather see Israel go away or absorbed into its neighbors. There is a hard right that is suffused in anti-Arab racism, never saw the Palestinians as truly human, doesn't really care about liberal or democratic values, and is content to live out a biblical/nationalist (take your pick) fantasy whereby a Jewish state permanently occupies all the land "from the river to the sea", with its Palestinian inhabitants either driven out or permanently disenfranchised (it also seems to be in a constant state of furious disbelief that Jews don't vote Republican). Both of these two perspectives have been relatively marginal compared to the third camp -- the one in which most American Jews reside, and most American Jewish institutions reside. These Jews think Israel was and is a good idea, think it is perfectly appropriate that Jews have a national homeland to call their own, and also think that a two-state solution with an Israel and a Palestine living side-by-side is a critical part of that dream. Like Jews themselves, this camp is left-of-center.

The much discussed crack-up within the Jewish community should, by all rights, be described as being internal to this third camp. All the major participants -- from Peter Beinart and J Street, to the AJC and AIPAC, do agree on the broad sweeps I've laid out as crucial to it. All support Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. All support a two-state solution. AIPAC does not prefer an endless occupation, and J Street does not desire an Israel demolished at the feet of Hezbollah. What they do have is a difference in emphasis. And arguably, what we are seeing is a shift from from three camps into four, with the original "third camp" dividing with respect to how aggressively the US and the Jewish community should force Israel's hand with respect to things like settlement policy.

But the first two camps -- the hard right and the hard left -- have smelled an opportunity. They both have a vested interest in portraying the playing field as consisting, not of four camps, but of two. Either you're a member of ZOA, or you support BDS. Obviously, amongst the broad middle band of Jews, there are those who lean left and those who lean right, and each side calculates that -- by playing on the revulsion many feel towards National Union or JVP, they can win new converts. After all, if the only way to support Israel is to be a far-right nationalist, then people who find that doctrine appalling may see no other choice but to join hands with the far left. And vice versa -- if the whole space of (sometimes) critics of Israel is owned wholesale by IJAN, then people who find those activists to be supremely deluded may think themselves homeless except for their hard right peers.

This is a problem. Ameinu and the AJC might have their differences, but there is no reason -- none -- why an Ameinu supporter should think of themselves as closer to the JVP than to the AJC, and no reason why an AJCer should think of themselves as closer to the ZOA than to Ameinu. The difference within the (former) third camp are ones of strategy and of focus, the differences between us and the first and second are ones of ideology and principle.

I am a progressive who supports Israel. I will not cede the "supporting Israel" to Mort Klein, and I will not cede the "progressive" to Naomi Klein. From my vantage point, this is not a particularly difficult ground to hold, but for the loathsome groups on the far-right and far-left who are doing their best to convince everyone it doesn't exist.

It does exist. It exists in TULIP and Engage, Ameinu, and OneVoice. It exists in people like Hussein Ibish, and Peter Beinart, and Jon Chait, and Jeffrey Goldberg, and Harry's Place. These people and groups don't agree on everything, and I don't agree with them on everything. They've been wrong (and I'm sure I've been wrong). But they are part of a center that is still holding, and still has to hold. Because, as painful as the recent divides have been -- and they have been -- a world in which there is conflict amongst persons committed to a just, peaceful solution to the conflict placing a secure, Jewish, democratic Israel, next to a secure, independent, nation of Palestinians, is infinitely preferable to one in which our only choices are between warring camps of racists who differ only in who they wish to see dominating.


Ivan Ludmer said...

This whole post, but mostly the last three paragraphs, remind me far too strongly of:

David Schraub said...

Hey -- I'm anti-splitting! I'm trying to tell folks that AIPAC and J Street should be considered part of one happy front!

Damn petit bourgeois pig....

Matt said...

Just to show how much the extremists need each other, the Finkelstein posts were simple reprints of ZOA press releases with hardly any commentary added.

But there is one thing, I think missing from this here post. The same dynamic, with extremists and centrists, happens all the time with the centrists relatively happy to ignore the extremists. I think it's probably the situation of these camps within a larger, non-Jewish society that makes this case more charged.

Perhaps because the larger society that keeps insisting, "make up your mind, are you with the Palestinians or the Israelis. We don't have the patience for nuance."

dkk said...