Tony Kushner and the Polarization of US Jews

As the gap between conservative and liberal American Jews becomes larger, it becomes more unclear who will save Zionism and secure Israel's future as a democratic Jewish state

June 16, 2011 17:58
4 minute read.
Avi Katz

Avi Katz (do not publish again). (photo credit: Avi Katz)

The recent resignation of US President Barack Obama’s Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell, after more than two years of fruitless efforts, drove home what has long been clear: this Israeli government prefers an unsustainable status quo to credible moves towards peace.

Without an Obama-led international peace plan presented to both sides, accompanied by “knocking heads” diplomacy of the kind successfully used by presidents Eisenhower, Ford (with secretary of state Kissinger), Carter and George H.W. Bush, absent what former Mossad official Yossi Alpher called “serious even brutal pressure,” or what the eminent Zionist historian Howard Morley Sachar termed a “great power” initiative to outline and enforce diplomatic closure, a growing number of American Jews fear that the prospects for a two-state solution seem increasingly, and irretrievably, dim.

American Jews have responded to mounting signs of hopelessness– for peace and for Israel’s democratic soul under Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman – by starting to embrace a range of coercive steps against Israel. Support is gathering, including in the liberal pro-Israel community, for targeted boycotts of West Bank settlements.

“A mainstream consensus appears to have taken shape” about where to draw the line between those who are “outside the mainstream Jewish communal tent” and those who are in, reports New York’s “Jewish Week.” “One can support a targeted boycott of Israeli settlements and even a cultural ban against the West Bank settlement of Ariel – as long as one also supports Israel as a democratic Jewish state,” according to Martin Raffel (vice president of the US Jewish Council for Public Affairs), who is overseeing a multimillion-dollar Jewish communal effort (dubbed the Israel Action Network) to counter Israel delegitimization efforts.

Nevertheless, as more American Jews respond to a loss of hope over Israel by endorsing coercive diplomacy and targeted boycotts of Israeli settlements, the gap between liberal and conservative Jews is becoming an unbridgeable chasm.

Some conservative Jews, also sensing that the ground is shifting, are responding by seeking to enforce, even more desperately than before, an orthodoxy in public discourse on Israel. Debates on Israel quickly devolve into ugly assaults on the loyalty of progressive Jews and liberal Zionists as “self-loathing” traitors to Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people.

Enter Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a City University of New York trustee and political brawler on all things Israel, Arab and Muslim. Wiesenfeld opposed granting an honorary degree to Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright Tony Kushner because he crossed Wiesenfeld’s self-defined line for legitimate criticism of Israel. Kushner, charged Wiesenfeld, tied the founding of Israel to ethnic cleansing, criticized the Israel Defense Forces and supported a boycott of Israel.

While Kushner has called the creation of Israel a “mistake” because it involved “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians from the territory of the new state (as documented by Israeli historian Benny Morris), he has, at the same time, always “maintained a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel,” and rejects a one-state solution. Though he backs the artists’ boycott of Ariel and sits on the advisory board of the radical left-wing US Jewish Voice for Peace, Kushner disagrees with its advocacy of targeted boycotts, sanctions and divestiture from companies that support the occupation and settlements.

According to Martin Raffel’s “mainstream consensus,” if there is any one issue that “removes one from the Jewish communal tent,” it is the refusal to recognize Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Yet Likud leaders like MK Danny Danon and former defense minister Moshe Arens oppose a two-state solution, favoring a single state encompassing Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. In their Greater Israel, Arabs will be the majority but only Jews will have full citizenship rights. Their plans will make a Jewish state, and democracy in Israel, all but impossible. By Raffel’s own measure, aren’t they outside the Jewish mainstream?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, held that secular, atheist Zionists – who were, for him, outside the bounds of legitimate Jewish discourse – were unwittingly acting to hasten the messianic redemption.

Today, it is the Zionist and non-Zionist advocates of selective boycotts of Israeli settlements, the young disrupters of Netanyahu speeches who cry, “the settlements are delegitimizing Israel,” the post-Zionist and Zionist activists who together fight the demolition of Bedouin homes and villages in the Negev; it is the impassioned, fiercely loyal pro-Israel Jews, who are cheering on Palestinian pressure tactics at the UN and calling for coercive great power intervention to end the conflict; it is these unlikely men and women who are doing more to save Zionism and secure Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state than the politically correct Jewish leaders safely ensconced within their communal tent, speaking in language that never offends Jewish ears.

Gidon D. Remba, co-director of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel, served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Prime Minister’s Office during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process. The views expressed here are his own.

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