For many days now, I’ve been reconsidering the position of Diaspora Jewish left viz a viz the powerlessness we think we suffer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The word “occupation” was unforgiveable just a decade ago and the two-state solution is now the accepted solution to the conflict. In the past 28 years, the Jewish community has blossomed with mainstream peace voices: Americans for Peace Now (1981), the Israel Policy Forum (1993), Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (2002), and J Street (2008), not to mention many blogs. And now Obama invited all four to the big kids’ table.
We have come a long way. There is reason to celebrate.
But there is even more to celebrate if one listened to Abraham Foxman, Bret Stephens and Oren Rudavsky at last night’s 92nd St Y panel “Why Zionism Has Become a Dirty Word.” There sat three giant voices of Israel defense and Zionism apologetics, lamenting endlessly the deterioration of the Zionist movement and how few American Jews support Israel. There is a dearth of “proud Zionists” and it’s “a failure of PR” that Israel isn’t better received, they said. Had I not attended tonight’s sorrowfest (hat tip to EV and his friend) I would have drank a beer at home while morosely blogging anti-occupation screeds. Instead, I see now that my side — nuance, compromise, moral consistency — is winning.
First, Abe Foxman gave me permission to be an anti-Zionist. So long as I was against all nationalisms, I wasn’t an anti-Semite, he said. Whew! Since my Z-word feelings are ambivalent at best, that was *such* a weight off.
And Bret Stephens stopped Abe Foxman from painting all Arab societies with the same brush to correct him that Arab mothers actually *do* love their children more than they hate Jews. The terrorists are brilliant, evil men who prey on social outcasts and the manipulateable, not a whole society whose mothers thwart biology by sending their babies to die. Oh my, what a concession! My heart was aflutter. Stephens, why, I never knew!
Oren Rudavsky was the relative dove on the panel. When Foxman and Stephens finished saying the global community is more hostile to Israel than ever before, Rudavsky stepped in to correct them that Israel has treaties with Egypt and Jordan Lebanon, the Saudis have put forward peace proposals that don’t call for the destruction of Israel, and if one recalls the world and Arab presence at Yitzak Rabin’s funeral, then Israel has come a huge way since 1967 where diplomatic ties were zilch. Oh, baby. Say it again, Oren, say it again.
But here I was about to say the right-wing are really just disappointed peaceniks. But then I realized that shouldn’t be led astray by seductive words. (I would never be forgiven for making out with Abe. Never.)
Theirs was the worldview that is so easily charicatured for the community at large. Certainly not what every individual thinks, but the view put forward by official papers, communal statements, and in Hebrew schools. So let’s review the highlights of this worldview:

  • It is “corosive” to Zionism for a group of high profile Jews (Amira Haas, Gidon Levy, Tony Kushner were named specifically) to tear down Israel on a regular basis.
  • “Haaretz has a problem with what Zionism is all about.”
  • “Most anti-Zionists exist because Jews have given them the permission to exist” such as Walt and Meirsheimer, by fine hashing nuances between anti-Zionism, -Semitism and -Israelism.
  • “Why is racism a dirty word? Because the black community stood up against coded racist messages” and yet Jews are too weak to let anti-Zionism become the same. ” ‘You’re an Uncle Tom’ is a very useful phrase!”
  • Messianic Zionists (like Baruch Goldstein or the IDF rabbis recently) are not responsible for the discomfort in the Jewish community around the Z-word. “The objection is really with Zionism itself.”
  • Nationalisms are exclusive, they’re selective in how they define their citizens, and “you could call them racist.” If you are against all nationalisms, then being an anti-Zionist is not anti-Semitic. In all other cases, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.

So followed their “Israel isn’t at fault” and “it’s the liberal conspiracy to undermine Jews” line, to finally crescendo with this very well crafted question by the moderator, paraphrased:

To most of the world, Israel wasn’t born in 1948 or in 1967. Israel was born in 1982 after the Lebanon War as a superpower. They’ve ignored the history because the plucky Israel of ’67 or Antebe is now a superpower that subjugates the Arab world and occupies another country.

Was it too much to hope they would just agree that’s part of the problem? I held my breath. But Stephens claimed it was the failure of the Left and Foxman claimed it was a tidal wave of anti-Semitism. The panelists avoided the obvious answer, the one closer to reality: the occupation is wrong, it breeds death and hatred, it prevents badly needed regional stability, and it gives Zionism, Israel and Jews a detestible name.
Most other young Jewish communal employees like me (who you’d think would have the utmost patriotism) cannot stomach using the Z-word for fear of inheriting it’s uglier meanings. In particular, I cannot excitedly endorse Zionism when spokespeople like Foxman fail moral leadership by resisting calling the Armenian genocide for what it is, or using the Darfurian genocide cynically as rhetorical tool to take focus away from the Israel. No, Abe, I am glad that your brand of Zionism is fading. It’s a shame you took the whole label down with you. But that’s not my problem; it’s yours, Abe.
The panelists dismiss how much their views already dominate the community, despite meaningful change in the past 28 years. The composition of the conflict conversation is changing for the better — but we’re not there yet. So as we recognize the growth we’re enjoying, it’s still necessary to slap people awake from the drowsy platitudes of Foxman, Stephens and to a lesser extent Rudavsky to say: It’s the occupation, stupids.
X-posted to Judaism Without Borders.