During what should be the season of Christmas cheer, Israel and the pro-Israel community are being mugged politically. In the media hall of mirrors that magnifies straw men into monsters, Israel’s critics are using a few personal attacks against Barack Obama’s possible nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, to damn the Zionist movement, it seems. And in another, even more perverse inversion, Israel’s frustrating, uninspiring, yet free and democratic elections are being used by many, including American Jews, to declare themselves “fed up” with Israel.
The Hagel Finagel reflects the political sleight of hand being used repeatedly – and effectively – to intimidate America’s pro-Israel community. Chuck Hagel is a former Republican Senator from Nebraska who nurtured his reputation as an independent free-lancer on foreign policy. He abandoned Republicans by condemning the Iraq war and he broke the Senate consensus by often expressing skepticism when AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations solicited legislative letters and resolutions. Those qualities, which Obama finds appealing, are controversial – and should be debated if Obama nominates Hagel. And in our Google-addled, zero-tolerance, polarized political world that scrutinizes every nominee’s public statements, Hagel’s comments about what he once called the “Jewish lobby” but more frequently considered the heavyhanded “Israel lobby,” demand scrutiny. Many of us therefore have questioned Hagel’s suitability for Obama’s Cabinet; a few have gone too far and called him anti-Semitic.
Neither the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations nor AIPAC commented on the Hagel trial balloon, let alone slurred him. But those pesky facts have not prevented a massive counter-reaction to the Hagel critics, with articles in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Open Zion, the New Yorker, hysterically accusing the entire pro-Israel community of libelling Hagel, while caricaturing pro-Israel activists as character assassins and “neo-McCarthyites.” Progressives have made this case so zealously that when I recently Googled Hagel and “Israel lobby,” the first nine articles defended Hagel while denouncing the pro-Israel community, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, for ideological hooliganism.
This trial by demagoguery and innuendo, exaggerating the attacks and defining everyone who takes a position by their most extreme ally, is meant to demonize and intimidate Israel’s American supporters. This bullying coincides with a desultory election campaign which is feeding a new “I give up on Israel,” “Bibi’s Israel is not my Israel,” line of attack.
Yes, this may be the “worst campaign.” And, yes, the leading candidates are the “seven dwarves” of Israeli politics: Bibi (Netanyahu) is “Empty” for not living up to his rhetoric and promises; Avi(gdor Lieberman) is “Sleazy” – enough said; Shelly (Yachimovich) is “Naieve-y” for dilly-dallying before articulating Labor’s foreign policy, as if Israel does not live in a tough neighborhood; Naftali (Bennett) is “Smoothy”, for luring young secular voters into his national religious camp; Eli (Yishai) is “Greedy” for defining Shas most as a grabby stipend-demanding machine; Tzippi (Livni) is “Flighty” for abruptly resigning from politics – and as abruptly returning; while Yair-i (Lapid) is “Happy” although possibly a tad dopey, both celebrity pol and son-of-even-greater-celebrity pol.
But with the US teetering on the “fiscal cliff,” having just endured its own depressing election– and with America’s electoral history filled with complaints about campaigns being the “worst campaign” and leaders being “dwarves,” Americans should be more humble before judging Israel too harshly.
Moreover, dismissing “Bibi’s Israel,” like the laments four years ago about “George Bush’s America,” ignores two facts. First, deep divisions characterized both “Bibi’s Israel” and “Bush’s America” – with both countries liberalizing socially, culturally and politically, despite their political leaders. Note, for example, the recent poll showing most Israelis, including right-wing voters, supporting a Palestinian state. And second, at noon on January 20, 2009, “George Bush’s America” instantly transformed into “Barack Obama’s America,” suggesting that one leader rarely defines a modern diverse democracy.
Many American Jews, especially on the left, are falling into a bad habit. When discussing America, say, during the 2012 campaign or after the Newtown school massacre, they acknowledge America’s divisions, chaos, confusion, and mess. It is, after all, a country of 300 million with 320 million guns, 1.6 million homeless children, 40 percent rate of babies born to unwed mothers, and voter turnout rates usually below 50 percent. Yet when discussing Israel, they suddenly present America as this model democracy, fully resolved, completely evolved, and superior to the Jewish mess we imported to the Middle East. This condescension feeds a growing ideological phenomenon. Whereas most Israelis have moved beyond shlilat hagalut --- negating the Diaspora, assuming all Jews should live in Israel – growing numbers of American Jews, especially some elite rabbis, professors and their students – are perpetratingshlilat tzion – negating Israel.
Friendships cannot be built on innuendo and demagoguery, or on condescension and negation, from either side. If Obama nominates Hagel, the American people deserve a full, intense debate about him. Hagel should not become Obama’s Etrog, too delicate to be manhandled. If he and the President cannot take the proverbial heat – they should follow Harry Truman’s shopworn advice and flee the kitchen.
Meanwhile, rather than dueling about whose democracy is more flawed, let’s get a reality check. America and Israel suffer from many similar ailments, with red-blue polarizations, shrill confrontations, increasingly disengaged populations. But democracy is about disputing values and resolving dilemmas. Citizens in both countries have to balance competing goods, including majority rule versus minority rights, passionate politics but enlightened governance, strong religious values amid strong secular values and commitments to openness, tolerance and freedom. Ultimately, both America and Israel remain miracles – success stories in a world more defined by Russia and China, Syria and Egypt, Mexico and Pakistan, than these two flourishing but imperfect, frustrating yet heroic, prosperous, stable, safe, free, democratic nations which crave great, qualified, leaders.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published.