Center Field: The US and Israel- Shared interests, shared values and shared challenges

First and foremost, the post-Hillary Clinton humbling American liberal elites are currently enduring may have (finally!) silenced their condescending lectures about Israeli democracy.

December 13, 2016 21:08
4 minute read.
PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry. (photo credit: REUTERS)

We seem to be approaching Purim, not Hanukka, with ad lo yada drunken reversals propping up fools and masquerades left and right. America’s right-wing president- elect, Donald Trump, has a man-crush on America’s adversary Russian President Vladimir Putin – with Trump forming part of a select, and dwindling, group of Americans who refuse to believe that Russian hackers tried to subvert the 2016 US presidential election.

Meanwhile, Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Iran himself, green-lighted a big-money submarine- and-ships deal with a German company partially owned by the Iran Foreign Investment Company, precisely when Netanyahu was lobbying America for tough enforcement of “existing sanctions – and even stronger sanctions” on Iran. Even if no corruption is proved – despite the shady involvement of Netanyahu’s personal lawyer – fury at Netanyahu’s hypocrisy, doubts about his judgment and worries about damage to Israel’s security are spreading.

MK Erel Margalit’s on-target video-gone-viral “bbwanted” is justifiably shaking Israelis’ already shaken confidence in their prime minister. A simple Google search at any time since 2004 of the words “ThyssenKrupp” and “Iran” would have uncovered Iran’s investment, which has pumped millions of euros into the dictatorship’s coffers and who knows how many defense secrets into Iran’s intelligence network.

As thoughtful people in both countries swarm the cry-my-beloved-country brigade, Israelis and Americans can help each other master the great challenge of patriotic dissent. Mark Twain defined patriotism as “Loyalty to country ALWAYS; loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” I would modify Twain, offering “Loyalty to my country ALWAYS; cheers for its leaders, when they deserve it.” Honorable citizens must remain loyal to democratic governments automatically, except in the most extreme circumstances, while devotion to leaders depends on good leadership.

Israelis fed up with Netanyahu, who won only 23 percent of the vote in 2015, can teach liberal Americans how to remain loyal to a government they detest. The wise Harvard professor Ruth Wiesse calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites.” Hypocrites never live up to their lofty words; reverse hypocrites are never as rotten as they claim to be. Israelis’ actions are more patriotic than their rhetoric. Israelis love mocking their government – but respond immediately when duty calls: be it wartime mobilizations of the reserves, street interventions when terrorism strikes, or mourning sirens on Remembrance Day.

At the same time, while many American liberals are still trying to figure out how to respect the office of the president but not the incumbent come January 20, they know how to denigrate their democratically elected leader without delegitimizing their country. While liberals have attacked the president-elect reasonably – and often unreasonably – since Election Day, few have rejected America along with Trump. Unlike the anti-Israel forces, they know how to stop their criticism of a particular politician or policy from crossing that red line into rejecting the nation or its right to exist. I wish more American liberals – and even many far-left American Jews – understood how to apply those instinctive, internal American brakes to their rhetoric about Israel too, bashing policies without trashing the country.

I fear a toxic embrace between Trump and Netanyahu – that a post-Obama America-Israel lovefest will sour many liberals, including Jewish liberals, on the Jewish state, treating Israel – incorrectly – as another Trump property rather than a shared bipartisan asset. A creative conversation about the overlapping tests patriotic dissenters in both countries are undergoing suggests a way out of this mess.

First and foremost, the post-Hillary Clinton humbling American liberal elites are currently enduring may have (finally!) silenced their condescending lectures about Israeli democracy.

For years now, we have watched American Jews – especially certain rabbis and academics – treat Israel’s democracy as fundamentally flawed, acting as if only Israel – not America – has trouble with church-state relations, illegal immigration, coarse rhetoric, inadequate leadership, disgruntled minorities, social inequalities and governmental gridlock. Right now, they are too busy mourning Trump’s rise to preach democracy.

In truth, such haughtiness has no place in the kind of mutual, respectful, reciprocal American- Israel relationship and American Jewish-Israeli relationship we need. In recalibrating during this rocky reset, let’s not escape into right-wing triumphalism either: liberals are certainly not in the mood for America and Israel love-‘em-orleave-‘ em us-against-the-world rhetoric.

Instead, we need a more subtle teasing out, texturing, of one popular model for understanding the American-Israeli bond. AIPAC often says this special relationship rests on “shared interests” and “shared values.” Last week, when testifying before the Knesset Caucus for US-Israel relations, Shira Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation discussed the “shared challenges” the two democracies face today – the phrase resonated.

Adding “shared challenges” to the “shared interest” and “shared values” formula makes the relationship more real, more two-way, more three-dimensional. “Shared challenges” includes the two countries’ common enemies such as Islamic State and international terrorism, as well as their common headaches – the rampant selfishness, materialism, hyper-individualism, coarseness, vulgarity, of many personal lives in the modern West that feeds so much public dysfunction and helps produce inadequate leaders.

Tackling these problems together, comparing notes, experimenting, improvising, can strengthen our bond – and might help surmount these growing obstacles to good governance – and quality of civilian life. Deeper conversations can move the friendship from the collective equivalent of air-kissing to the more enduring state of brainstorming, information-exchanging and problem-solving, finding ever more facets to a countries-wide democratic camaraderie that is practical and sentimental, strategically wise and patriotically affirming, mutually beneficial and existentially rewarding.

The author, professor of history at McGill University and a Visiting Professor at the Ruderman Program at Haifa University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @ GilTroy.

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