Life Lessons: Israel and America

Getting beyond the mess, Part I.

Prime minister Golda Meir with US president John F. Kennedy in December 1962 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Prime minister Golda Meir with US president John F. Kennedy in December 1962
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
"Why won’t America show Israel some sympathy?” “Because we’ve used it all up.”
A chance conversation on a bus to Haifa. My seat-mate didn’t much care for my answer, nor for my reminding him of Golda Meir’s quip: You can’t be a victor and a victim.
He got mad. Raised his voice. Spewed out a disconnected array of factoids. Started to get abusive, then changed his seat.
I don’t know what that man expected to accomplish by his tirade and behavior. I do know what he did accomplish, and it wasn’t winning friends and influencing people.
For the past few months, in this forum and others, I’ve been writing about how the Israeli culture of dominance impedes and damages Israel’s relationship with the people of the United States – specifically, with the good people who have honest doubts about Israeli actions, policies and intentions.
The responses I’ve drawn have provided perfect examples of this culture of dominance in action. “How dare you question us? Your place is to give us everything we want, approve everything we do, or else we’ll call you anti-Semitic or worse. And don’t forget the Holocaust. You owe us.”
Don’t work that way no more. This is why.
By academic background, I hold a PhD in American cultural history, a field in which I’ve worked as a professor, journalist and think-tank denizen. My special interest has always been how ideas, behaviors and their consequences change over time.
Envision a central core with two concentric outer rings. Call the central core “The Zone of Agreement” – the ideas and actions people agree upon, or say they agree on, or are expected to say they agree on, or are compelled to agree. Outside of that, “The Zone of Legitimate Dissent” – the things it’s OK to argue about and/or do. And beyond that, “The Zone of Illegitimate Dissent,” where the radicals, heretics and crazies hang out.
Human institutions, from families to nations, work this way. But the arrangement isn’t static. Today’s impossible notion becomes tomorrow’s conventional wisdom, then one more outmoded cliché. Also, the reverse.
It’s a complex process and may take a long time to get going, even if results seem to appear very quickly.
Once, uncritical support for Israel and sympathetic moral awareness of Jewish history were nestled in the American Zone of Agreement. Now Israel has become a matter of legitimate controversy. And anti-Semitism, for decades confined to the outer darkness, is becoming acceptable again.
Three factors pertain.
The first is the simple passage of time. In America, 9/11 is ancient history, Vietnam something that happened long ago, in a galaxy far away. Who under age 50 remembers the Yom Kippur War? The Holocaust? Some other universe. As a historian and educator, I find this forgetfulness abhorrent and do what I can. As a citizen, I work with what is.
The second factor is that, politically and culturally, support for Israel, once a bipartisan and ecumenical consensus, has become the property of the political and religious Right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy has been to encourage and abet this shift.
OK, a vote is a vote; a buck is a buck. But the surprising strength of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid indicates that lots of Americans are fed up with the religious and political Right.
Nations, like individuals, are judged by the company they keep.
The final force might be called image, but it’s far more complex. Few Americans really care about the Palestinian people. But you can’t be barraged by the imagery, decade after decade, and not be affected. This is especially true because, for most Americans, Israel is a low-involvement issue. Few hold any personal stake or have any reason to acquire extensive knowledge.
What they do know is that, for nearly half a century, Israel has occupied territories whose inhabitants resist them; has taken land sufficient for hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers, plus whatever the IDF wants; and has no intention of giving it up.
It’s hard to feel sympathy for conquest.
Next column: What Israel might do, beyond the current, unavailing mix of anger, self-righteousness and endless demand. Now, just for the record: I am a citizen of Israel who believes in the necessity and legitimacy of a secular Jewish state, with undivided Jerusalem as its capital, that values and empowers all its citizens. I believe that the Green Line has as much relevance to the current situation as the Maginot Line.
And I believe that Israel has a vital role to play in the global crises of Islamist horror and ecological/medical change. It would be tragic if Israel failed or was refused the opportunity to play that vital role.
Now... how do you get there from here?