06 November 2006

The Ugliness Behind The Curtain

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Sometimes the question is more revealing than the answer.

For more than a week now, New York’s Jewish paper The Jewish Week, has had a poll posted on its website asking readers to vote yes or no to the following question: “Do you think money raised by American Jews to rebuild Israel’s north after the war with Hezbollah should go to Israeli Arabs?” It has been more than a week since I sent a letter to two of the editors telling them why I won’t vote – and more importantly, why I find the question and its premise offensive and problematic. Despite writing a letter, I find this little issue nagging at me, and have therefore decided to take my objections public. What follows is a modified and expanded version of my letter to the editor.


If America is to be believed, the state of Israel is a paragon of democracy and equality in a sea of Middle Eastern dictatorial mediocrity, worthy of unending support. This is a perspective trumpeted loudly by the American government, by the two major American political parties (e.g., the Democrats: “When it comes to Israel— we are all staunch allies and friends.”; the Republicans: “The Republican Party shares President Bush’s commitment to the security of America’s democratic ally Israel...”) and, of course, by the American Jewish community. AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (for better and, mostly for worse the dominant force in American Jewish support for Israel), states in its document “The U.S. - Israel Partnership, An Unbreakable Bond” that “Israel and the United States both share the fundamental principles of freedom and equality. ... Both stand as symbols of liberty and pluralism in a world still marked by authoritarianism and intolerance.”

At the same time, American Jewish support for Israel is predicated on the idea that Israel is the Jewish state, a home for Jews. This, in turn, places an existential dilemma front and center where everyone can ignore it: how can one have a truly pluralistic, diverse, tolerant democracy that simultaneously proclaims itself to be identified with one specific religion? When certain quarters of American society proclaim this nation to be a “Christian” one, American Jews rightly balk. Christianity arguably had a significant impact on the founding of the United States, but the words that underline the establishment of the nation, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution do not refer to Christ or Christianity, or afford it a place in our governance.

Judaism offers a strong set of guidelines for how to treat the “stranger” amongst us, and to a degree addresses the importance of preserving the rights of non-Jews living under Jewish governance. But there is ultimately a distinct apartness that non-Jews will feel under a structure that explicitly identifies with Judaism and seeks to shelter and protect Jews as its first priority. (I should add that much the same is true of Islam, which famously declares its tolerance of non-Muslims, enumerating the importance of respecting their rights as, for all practical purposes, second-class citizens. In other words, this is not just a Jewish problem.) That the focus on providing a safe-harbor for Jews is the very crux of the Zionist movement does not make the reality of the challenge – how to handle non-Jewish minorities within a Jewish state; how to create a pluralistic environment that nonetheless has a single leading entity – any less real.

So, while I have little doubt that much of the Middle East is dominated by dictatorial mediocrity, proclamations of the strength of Israel’s pluralistic society are not so certain. The very act of an American Jewish newspaper asking a question like this – in effect, should a minority population within Israel receive the same support as the majority in recovering from the effects of war – makes this existential conundrum clear. The question also implies something ominous about American Jewish expectations for post-war reconstruction in the first place: that Jews here assumed that their money would only be used in support of Jews there. It is as if someone asked whether post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction funds provided by white people in America’s Midwest should only be spent on white people in New Orleans. Even though the United Jewish Communities (UJC) made explicit in its “Israel Emergency Campaign” this summer that donations would go to help “all vulnerable populations, including Israeli Arabs, Druze and Jews,” The Jewish Week’s poll is indicative of some discomfort with this approach, implying concern within the American Jewish community that speaks directly to its sense of the importance (or unimportance) of pluralism and tolerance within Israeli society.


The question about the use of reconstruction funds is also offensive because it is so entirely lacking in nuance. Responses to such polls become reductio ad absurdum statistics, used to polarize the debate instead of increase our understanding of the situation; they become little factoids that circulate, either to reinforce likemindedness, or alternatively, to antagonize. It is all too easy to imagine the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic e-mails circulating: Did you know that in a poll conducted by a major American Jewish newspaper, X% of people voted their preference that funds for reconstruction not be used for Israeli Arabs! And they say Jews are tolerant!

Asking this kind of question provides little real insight into people’s thinking, instead appealing to some of our worst instincts as humans: to be clannish, to defend our own (whether right or wrong), and to insulate ourselves from other people’s problems or perspectives. These are also many of the same instincts that Judaism’s system of values is designed to protect against: to remind us that our neighbor’s concerns should be ours too, and that healing the world does not come only from healing the world of and for Jews.


Moreover, The Jewish Week’s survey displays a stunning lack of awareness of the situation in Israel itself. There are, after all, “Israeli Arabs” with different religious identities – Shia, Sunni, and Christian – as well as varying political perspectives and parties, from United Arab List to Balad. As citizens of Israel, Israeli Arabs bring other perspectives to the issue of Israel’s summer war, and not all of them are necessarily anti-Israel or pro-Hezbollah. Nor is it within the purview of the American Jewish community to define what it means to be an Israeli citizen.

For decades, American Jews have fought to break through the stereotypes about our people, to resist the idea that Jews are some other race of human, and to fight the racism that is a destructive force in society. Which is why it is so disturbing to see The Jewish Week perpetuating such terrible stereotypes by talking about “Arabs” as if they are some alien monolith, of which Israeli Arabs are one small, dangerous offshoot. In framing their poll question this way – indeed in asking the question in the first place – The Jewish Week (which states that its “first loyalty is to the truth”) reveals the most uncomfortable truth of all: the anti-Arab bigotry that exists within the American Jewish community.

As an American Jew, for The Jewish Week to pose this question seems to me as offensive as people asking similar kinds of questions – with all sorts of unstated, implicit double-meanings and allegations – about “the Jews.” The answer to the question “Do you think money raised by American Jews to rebuild Israel’s north after the war with Hezbollah should go to Israeli Arabs?” should be obvious: Funds raised to rebuild Israel should be expended on, for, and in support of Israelis. Period. That anyone has to ask a question about whether that should include “Israeli Arabs,” as opposed to Jews, is pathetic. And if there is some sense that not all Israelis are deserving of support at such a time of need, then perhaps the American Jewish community should re-evaluate its rhetoric about the pluralistic nation it thinks it is helping to sustain.


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