Secretary of State John Kerry’s address to the American Jewish Committee in Washington on June 3, 2013 was remarkable. It illustrates Barack Obama’s administration transitioning from its failed, first-term “Get Tough” on Israel campaign to its new “Tough Love” approach – an approach reflected by his dispatching Samantha Power to the UN. Power is not anti-Israel, but she has occasionally been morally obtuse on Israel, comparing Yasir Arafat to Ariel Sharon and calling PLO terrorist attacks in the 1970s “cross-border attacks … with the aim of forcing Israelis to end the occupation of Palestinian territories.” The speech also reflects the Power Hot-Potato as American Jews and Israeli Jews go back and forth over which Jewish community is more powerful, and who influences whom.
Kerry’s speech, like Obama’s Israel trip in March, showered Israel with the legitimating love the Jewish people crave in a hostile world. In an address that previous generations would have perceived as pandering, but that was just right for our more needy-huggy-weepy culture, Kerry played the Jewish card, emphasizing his brother Cam’s conversion, sprinkling in some Hebrew, and speaking, most movingly, about yelling out atop Masada during his first trip to Israel “Am Yisrael Chai!” “The people of Israel live!” The Secretary of State also acknowledged the threats of Syrian chaos, Hezbollah horrors, and Iranian nukes against Israel.
But all this love came at a price. Kerry put the onus on Israel to jumpstart the peace process. He deserves credit for at least acknowledging Israeli skepticism. In Jerusalem, President Obama argued that “peace was just” and “peace was necessary” but did not explain how “peace was possible.” Kerry said: “I understand the disappointments … from Madrid to Oslo to Wye River and Camp David and Annapolis.” And, having heard the complaint “We withdrew from Lebanon, we withdrew from Gaza,” and “we got rockets,” he asked, rhetorically: “Ma Nishtana?” Why is this time different? This is the question the Israeli Left has not answered effectively. With Shimon Peres still insisting he does not regret the Oslo peace process, and too many progressives blaming Israel as the central obstacle to peace despite Israel’s many sacrifices for peace, most Israelis are justifiably wary.
Alas, having asked the key question, Kerry punted, as my students say. Calling “these withdrawals … unilateral,” was only partially true. The Oslo peace process – the move that generated the greatest hopes and resulted in the worst trauma of nearly one thousand dead as the country was terrorized was not unilateral. Until Oslo’s failures are explained and the conditions causing those failures addressed, the Israeli public, despite over two-thirds accepting the two-state solution in theory, will remain suspicious.
Aware of that problem, Kerry played a different card. Lobbying American Jews to lobby Israel, Kerry said: “no one has a stronger voice in this [push to restart the peace process] than the American Jewish community. You can play a critical part” and “in the end, you can help Israel direct its destiny and be masters of its own fate, just as Prime Minister [Golda] Meir dreamed that it would be.”
With these words, Kerry tried squaring a Zionist circle, hoping to have the United States and American Jewry bully Israel to empower Israel. His vision raises interesting questions about a perennial Zionist concern, power. As the Jewish national liberation movement, Zionism was the movement to return Jews to power after the powerlessness of the exile. As Kerry himself said, “Central to Israel’s founding is the belief that this State and the Jewish people must be able to control their own destiny.” Zionism was about collective empowerment through exercising sovereignty and individual empowerment by becoming a “New Jew,” strong, proud, free, unlike the caricature of the beaten-down “Galut” or exiled Jew. After years of preaching about ethics the Jewish people were going to have an opportunity to fulfill them by implementing them through the nation state. As the great contemporary Zionist thinker Hillel Halkin teaches, “a people that lacks the responsibility of sovereignty remains ethically incomplete.”
Alas, the exercise of power proved doubly complicated. First, the protracted, tragic, conflict with Israel’s neighbors steeped Israel in decades of difficult, heartbreaking dilemmas. Like Icarus in the Greek tragedy, soaring so high his wings melted from proximity to the sun – or an adolescent yearning to break free from heavy-handed parents only to face life alone and exposed – once they received the power they sought, Zionists discovered it was a messy business. Moreover, for all of Israel’s power, dignity, and independence, it is far more dependent on the United States and American Jewry than Zionists ever imagined or most Israelis would like to admit. Zionist theory had Israel propping up the few Jewish communities for which it did not serve as a refuge. And there are many ways in which Israel has strengthened American Jews and American Jewry politically, culturally, spiritually. But the exchange has been more mutual than expected, with America and American Jews also strengthening Israel.
Just as the humility that comes from the complexity of wielding power can be constructive and ethically stretching, so, too the mutuality that comes from interdependence can be beneficial. Israel cannot renounce power, nor can it stop seeking an ethical way to wield power. Israel cannot rely only on itself, nor can it be too dependent on others. And Israel cannot stop searching for peace, nor can it, in the words of Yitzhak Rabin, permanently sheathe its sword. To the extent that the Obama Administration, the American people, and American Jews are partners in navigating these difficult paths, their input, inspiration, and involvement will be welcome. But know-it-alls, bullies, and the self-righteous need not apply – they will only make solving these complex puzzles even harder.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!