Center Field: A negative, defensive Zionism

In Tablet, Liel Leibovitz exposed how public high school teachers in Newton, Massachusetts – and elsewhere – “demonize” Israel.

An Israeli soldier reacts to tear gas during the demolition of a Palestinian house at the order of the Israeli army as Palestinians try to stop the demolition in the West Bank village of Biet Ula, west of Hebron January 21, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli soldier reacts to tear gas during the demolition of a Palestinian house at the order of the Israeli army as Palestinians try to stop the demolition in the West Bank village of Biet Ula, west of Hebron January 21, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Another weekend, another jarring contrast between Israeli and American-Jewish life.
At my Jerusalem synagogue, a bar mitzvah boy’s mother marks the 75th yahrzeit (anniversary) of four relatives murdered in Auschwitz, including her great-grandparents. This boy – who wowed with his Torah teaching – is the oldest grandson of her father, the only surviving family member. The boy and three other relatives attending carry their slaughtered ancestors’ names. When the mom salutes the miracle of Israel, of life in Jerusalem, our congregation splits: some tear up, others get goose bumps.
Sunday morning, I awake to two depressing articles describing the Israel of perpetual controversy that American Jews – Left and Right – encounter most regularly. It’s a headline-driven “framed” Israel of “occupation,” “settlement,” “oppression.”
Whatever your politics, check your inputs. In a given month, what percentage of your Israel-related articles, postings, conversations, thoughts, concern “the conflict?” Beware: stewing in such negativity scars you. Shortages of the joy juices dopamine and serotonin interacting with overdoses of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol distort Diaspora Zionism.
Those seeing Israel only through the limited, black-and-white Palestinian-obsessed political lens succumb to the spreading American Jewish disease – the occupation preoccupation – pro or con. Israel is more than the Palestinians and more than the sum total of its problems.
The two articles reflect these warping educational inputs – and political outputs.
In Tablet, Liel Leibovitz exposed how public high school teachers in Newton, Massachusetts – and elsewhere – “demonize” Israel.
In the Jewish News Syndicate, Jackson Richman tracked how IfNotNow fanatics harass Democratic candidates about the “occupation,” often provoking dumb, sweeping comments, which should hurt the candidates with Jewish fund-raisers – but won’t! – yet will hurt the eventual nominee’s appeal to the sane American Center.
The Newton story is long, complex and set my political spider-senses tingling. I’m guessing the case is complicated by liberal Jews in that Boston suburb resenting that conservatives identified the curriculum’s systematic anti-Israel bias, only further complicated by these critics politicking impolitely.
Liberals and conservatives who care about Israel must avoid reducing Israel issues to Left-Right American fights, or pro-Trump versus anti-Trump dustups. Previous generations used their shared love of Israel to unite religious and nonreligious Jews, Republicans and Democrats. That one of America’s best public school systems used Saudi-funded textbooks maligning Israel, that it taught a Disneyfied version of the Hamas charter sanitized of its antisemitic and genocidal parts, and that Newton’s school board strong-armed parents who complained, should unite every American in outrage.
In these partisan times, parents must scrutinize what teachers teach, especially in politically fraught fields like social studies. Leibovitz’s exposé worried me as an American historian: What political nonsense about America are today’s teachers force-feeding students, Left and Right? I also wonder which of America’s many redundant Jewish organizations is bold and farseeing enough to undertake this systematic review.
This is a story of proud students, alert parents and tenacious activists like Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance. Alas, it also reflects that broader phenomenon haunting higher education: anti-Zionism is often the ideological virus spreading the educational malpractice epidemic, whereby illiberal liberals hijack campuses, turning them into reeducation camps for their Cultural Revolution. Like marijuana, anti-Zionism is the postmodernist gateway drug, the first, easy step into a broader, poisonous, highly addictive, anti-American, anti-Western, anti-democratic agenda masquerading as modern “progressivism.”
Those toxins are now (mis)shaping the Democratic primary debate about Israel. IfNotNow, a fringe group – punching way above its demographic weight – that won’t even endorse Israel’s existence, has sicced activists to hound every Democratic candidate about “the occupation.” Their characteristically loud manipulation misleads candidates and reporters into overestimating how many people – and young Jews – are fighting “the occupation.” It tries mainstreaming INN’s unrepresentative, biased framing and vocabulary. And, as Richman shows, it catches eager-to-please candidates improvising, echoing INN’s idiocies. They broadly attack “the occupation” and “settlements” – with no historical understanding, no nuance, and no realization that their rote responses have delegitimizing implications, emboldening Palestinian rejectionists who consider the entire land “occupied,” making Israel one big “settlement.”
The illiberal Left is jerking the candidates left – ignoring Democrats’ winning formula in 2018 and threatening to reelect Donald Trump. Here, too, anti-Israel sentiment has been so mainstreamed it serves as a lubricant, facilitating too many candidates’ slide leftward.
The trajectory from propagandizing in classrooms to Israel-bashing on the campaign trail confirms the computer programmer’s warning: GIGO – Garbage in, Garbage Out.
CLEARLY, AMERICAN Jewry’s Israel conversation needs an overhaul.
The joy juices, not the oy juices, are the secret sauce fueling Birthright and every other positive Israel experience. It’s like an emotional oil change from running your Jewish engine on built-up gunk – stress, anger, disappointment, trauma – to running on joy, inspiration, heroics, hope... “Hatikvah”!
We don’t need blue-and-whitewashing, just honest rebalancing. Those of us committed to ethical, substantive Israel education don’t fear difficult conversations about Palestinians or the rabbis or Bibi or anything else – especially on Israel trips. Presenting the whole picture requires tough, critical conversations about these complex issues – in context. Visiting Israel, experiencing Israel 3-D, 24-7, detoxes, recalibrates, easily, naturally, organically.
Israelis must address problems, too, but all Diaspora Jews, especially American Jews, must work doubly hard to break this addiction to a negative, defensive Zionism, developing a fuller, healthier and happier Israel connection. This overhaul is no longer so essential for Israel’s sake, but for their own. Israel can defend itself. But building a modern Jewish identity that isn’t Israel-positive is like raising a person without a heart, a soul or a home.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.