Israeli Elections, American Distractions
By A. D. Freudenheim

4 February 2001

The American Jewish community is the world's largest; it is the wealthiest Jewish community, and its members have greater political and economic freedoms than Jews have ever had; and it is the most politically and religiously diverse of Jewish communities. American Jewry also has a presumptive relationship with the State of Israel, but one which goes deeper than mere religious commonalities. Thus one might expect to see and hear a range of opinions on how American Jews, as individuals and in their local communities, should view, discuss, relate to, and take action about the current situation in Israel.

Yet with only a few exceptions, there has been very little overt or public criticism of Israel's actions by the American Jewish community - in large part because groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American branch of the Jewish National Fund, and others, have worked hard to present a united front, to solidify the public voice of the communities they purport to represent. These groups have also attempted to give credibility to the idea that if they do not openly condemn the actions of the Israeli government, they are not condoning it either. Instead, what this shows is how insular American Jews really are, reverting to the clichéd position of trying not to air their dirty laundry in public, and showing their political naiveté, in the face of an economic and political situation which they choose to view through one particularly limited lens.

The net effect is that American Jews have cornered themselves into engaging in the same propaganda war that the Israelis and the Palestinians are stuck with. They cannot easily and publicly admit that Israel might have chosen any path other than the one it has taken, and while they may acknowledge the mistakes of the past - failure to return the occupied territories after the June 1967 war being the holy grail among those errors - they seem unable to acknowledge the mistakes of the present. The view is that Israel, as both lion and lamb, has bent over backwards to achieve peace, and American Jewry has used its political and economic strength to support this position within the United States, Israel's most important ally.

Perhaps even more galling are the propagandistic techniques of groups like the Anti-Defamation League, who stake out the points of Israel's weakness, in order to achieve the security of their own position here: the newscasts, newspapers, and perhaps even the State Department are all biased towards the Palestinians, they say; people have forgotten the historical injustices done to the Jewish people and the long-standing theological claim to the land which validates every position taken thus far. The representatives of American Jewry have cried wolf, when there has been no wolf; they have chosen to ignore the clear balance of power in the Middle East, which is militarily in Israel's favor, and instead encouraged the view of Israel as martyr, in need of salvation from its enemies without and within.

Many of the individuals behind these same American Jewish organizations have (by and large), supported conservative American foreign policy decisions over the last fifty years, and key among them is the view of international trade as one of the best tools in a diplomatic arsenal. Take the official American policy towards the People's Republic of China, which says that by increasing that country's wealth, they will come to see the value of freedom of expression, the importance of human rights, and the need to evolve from an authoritarian, one-party state to a more open society; greater wealth is the carrot, and America is holding the stick to which it is attached. Yet by all accounts, the American Jewish community does not appear to see a similar solution available in the Middle East. Shimon Peres, a former Israeli Prime Minister (and would-be candidate in the current election), has long espoused the need for better economic policies as a means to solve the conflict; bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together working for the same goals - their economic welfare - and then begin to address some of the political and religious problems caused by the imbalance in power between the two sides. Perhaps Peres' suggestions are idealistic, but they are also in line with American policies elsewhere in the world. Instead, the American Jewish community is repulsed by the idea of cutting aid to Israel (or of increasing aid to the Palestinians), and of using the same carrot-on-a-stick approach in the Middle East. Any discussion of slowing aid to Israel is the equivalent of treason in the eyes of the American Jewish leadership.

It appears that these Jewish leaders continue to view the world from a post-Holocaust perspective, itself a destructive and psychologically enabling lens that encourages grand allusions to the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and which sees all of world Jewry (and not just the Israelis) as a block of potential martyrs. But Jews are no longer a community on the brink of destruction. American Jews have chosen to ignore many of the values that unite us with the Jews of Israel - the moral strengths of Judaism, values that say that we should not murder, that we must be mindful of our strengths as much as our weaknesses, that we must treat the strangers among as we ourselves would wish to be treated, and that we should not discriminate against others - in favor of objects of value, transient historical connections to things like the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. American Jews have exchanged the intellectually, historically, and religiously sound position that Judaism can exist in the Diaspora - because our religion is a compass, providing us with the values we should use to guide our actions in life - for the weaker belief in the importance of locations and icons, and in the mysterious connections to history that they provide.

The next Israeli election is only a few days away, and the question of who will win - the "left" candidate, Ehud Barak, or the "right" candidate, Ariel Sharon - appears all-important to many communities in Israel and abroad. Of Arafat, and the Palestinian people, Ariel Sharon says: they know me. This is his election campaign, in three simple words that are filled with meaning and which refer to some of the most troublesome episodes in Israeli history. Ehud Barak, in his campaign, says in effect: Only I can achieve what I have so far failed to achieve. This manages to represent quite accurately both the hopefulness and the sense of failure that have come to characterize his term of office. But what is important here is that the Israeli Jewish political establishment represents a broad and deep spectrum of views, with differing positions on almost every current topic of interest; there are parties of the left, right, and center, and parties that seek to build platforms with planks from many different ideologies and perspectives.

If the Israeli Jewish community can have such a diversity of opinion, can be so politically divided and engaged, and accepting of different viewpoints, why then does the American Jewish leadership feel that it needs to unite its communities behind one single public voice, and stifle out similar kinds of disagreements? Jews in America must grow comfortable with the idea that criticizing Israel's official, governmental actions is not equivalent to questioning its right to exist. So as the Israelis prepare to speak out, one by one, exercising their democratic vote in these elections, wouldn't it be nice if Jews could do the same here, and have a vote on those who purport to be the representatives of the American Jewish community? If only it were so easy. In an ironic twist of fate, the Israelis - embattled and surrounded, like it or not - have a communal voice chosen through strongly democratic means, despite the severity of their situation. This is a lot more than the American Jewish community can claim - and in the end this is to the detriment of both the American and the Israeli Jewish communities.

An afterthought: I dislike blandly and blindly accusatory politics. "They" and "we," "us" and "them"; names, dates, and times removed; and abstracted quotations delivered without attribution. These are the tools of propaganda; they offer the comfort of a loose network of facts and allegations but sidestep the troublesome truths that may appear with specifics. Nonetheless, I stand by the above accusation, while acknowledging it may fit this general pattern. As someone who is from the American Jewish community, I have gone in search of opinions published by American Jews that contradict the predominant view of the situation since the beginnings of the new Intifada in September 2000. I have found little that has been openly critical of Israeli policies or actions in the last five months. I acknowledge the weakness of this position - and also that people such as Rabbi Michael Lerner have been clear and loud in criticizing Israel and in pushing for new views. But the overall impression has been one of a monolithic American Jewish community, making "unity" trips to Israel to show its support and encouraging the United States government to maintain its position as an ally even as it tries to be an "honest broker" for peace.

Copyright 2001, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.