Guest Columnist: The opposition we really need

Today, an ‘occupation-mantra opposition’ is irrelevant. More than ever, we need people who can partner with those or us worried about our society.

January 14, 2011 16:15
West Bank settlement of Kiryat Netafim

Kiryat Netafim settlement in West Bank 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)

Few of us, left to our own devices, would choose to have an opposition. “Get out of my way,” we’re inclined to say, “and just let me do what I know is right.”

Oppositions, it seems to us, are an unfortunate but unavoidable part of political life.

It’s the common view, but it’s wrong. Oppositions matter, because no political party, no ideology and no nation has a monopoly on wisdom.

But as much as we need to welcome opposition, oppositions also need to know what to oppose, and how. The growing American Jewish opposition to Israel’s foreign policy (or lack thereof) is a case in point.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a friend in the States a link to an article by Prof. Benny Morris entitled “Bleak House,” which argues that the prospects for peace have rarely been grimmer. It’s really a distillation of Morris’ book, One State, Two States, in which he claims that the Palestinians are no closer to accepting a division of the land than they were in 1948. Therefore, Morris claims, the two-state solution is essentially dead. I sent her the link because she’s a respected leader of American Jewish life, associated with the “get out of the territories and make peace” camp. I wanted to see if Morris’ article might enable her to at least understand those who espouse very different positions from hers.

“This is the most dismal and depressing analysis I have seen in a while,” she replied. “I’m not convinced that Morris is right... but assuming for the moment that he is, what are we left with? What are we to do? I know you think a lowlevel conflict can simmer for the next 100 years, but I don’t think Israel’s soul can sustain that... [I]f he’s right, how can we not despair?"

Despite her gentle dig at me, I was thrilled by her response. Because I do think that Benny Morris is right, when I find myself listening to the standard “end the occupation” mantra of the American Jewish opposition, I feel like I’m watching kids squeezing their eyes tightly shut, hoping against hope that this night, the tooth fairy really will come after all.

Our presence on the West Bank may be necessary, or it may be foolhardy; about that, reasonable minds can and do differ. But the notion that our presence on the West Bank is the prime impediment to peace is sheer myopia.

That is why it is so important that the peace camp, despairing of a country that it believes no longer cares about peace, reads Morris carefully. Because once it does, as my friend’s reply demonstrates, it can start asking the questions that truly matter, and it can become the kind of opposition that Israel desperately needs.

HOW DO we not despair? We avoid despair by recalibrating what it means to be a success. If the primary – or only – aspiration that we can articulate is that Israel be at peace, then a country in conflict is a failure. And because too many American Jews cannot articulate a hope for Israel beyond peace, the more it appears that peace is not attainable, the more this segment of American Jewry distances itself from the country. A thoughtful opposition could change that.

If Benny Morris is right that peace is simply unattainable now, a thoughtful and realistic opposition becomes ever more important. But the opposition’s discourse then has to change. We need American Jewish push back that understands that Israel is not fundamentally about peace (as desirable as peace obviously is), but rather, about the flourishing of Jewish culture and the creation of a new Jewish sense of self in which Jews are those who determine their own destiny.

We need Zionist critics who understand that Israel is about Jews making terribly difficult decisions as Jews, in dialogue with the Jewish and Western traditions.

How shall we live with Jews who believe that the state is fundamentally illegitimate? What should we do about illegal immigrants who are victims of Sudanese genocide, but who pose serious social and economic challenges for us? How do we make Jewish decisions about health care allocations?

The ubiquitous and incessant repetition of the “occupation mantra” isn’t helpful, because if peace is fundamentally unachievable, the questions that matter are not how to make peace, but how to protect both Israel’s body and soul while peace remains elusive.

Today, an “occupation-mantra opposition” is simply irrelevant. Now more than ever, we need a useful opposition, one that can get us to listen carefully to views with which we disagree, that can partner with those of us (both here and in the Diaspora) worried about the fabric of our society.

How do we educate a generation of young people to know that they have enemies, without having them become racists? How do we acknowledge the very serious threats to Zionism even among Israeli Jews, without abandoning the freedom of expression that is at the core of Western liberal democracies? Can we remain both Jewish and democratic, without abandoning the moral principles that the free world considers sacred?

What must we do – and not do – so that subsequent generations of Jews will not be ashamed of us?

EACH MORNING, the daily newspaper makes it clear that Israel is now careening ever closer to a serious endangering of its democracy and its decency. But American Jews who are despairing ought not abandon us when the world is turning on us as never before. What we need, now more than ever, is a Zionist and loving opposition, one that acknowledges the limitations of what we can do for peace and that sees itself as our partners for the long haul.

Much about this country needs to change. Yet that change depends not only on our leaders, but on whether those who worry about our future can begin to formulate the questions and the critiques that actually matter.

The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and the author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), which won a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at

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