Drawing ideological lines in concrete

When it comes to Israel, neither the American Jewish Left nor the Right wants to persuade anybody.

gaza settlers 88 (photo credit: )
gaza settlers 88
(photo credit: )
I once heard the leader of a large European Jewish community lament, "I can't talk to the people I pray with, and I can't pray with the people I can talk to." You can call that the dirge of the centrist, but that's not quite it. I think what he meant is that his own Jewish community had grown needlessly polarized, and that each side had staked out orthodoxies (with a small "o") that served to exclude the other side. The religious community had begun to discourage critical thinking; the secular community disparaged religious observance. A similar thing is happening among Jews who care about Israel. There is growing divide between the Right and Left that is notable not just in the terms of disagreement but in the mutual exclusivity of their arguments. The Right insists that peace with the Palestinians is a hopeless delusion, and the last 10 years has only confirmed their original belief that the two-state solution is no solution at all. The Left, meanwhile, insists that Israel's wounds are self-inflicted, and that if it were only to show a spirit of compromise and acknowledge the ways it abuses the Palestinians, then peace could be at hand. The American Jewish Right will criticize the Israelis only to the extent they have deviated from their agenda, whether by entering into Oslo-like negotiations or by evacuating settlers from Gaza. The US Jewish Left will rarely criticize the Palestinians, and if they do, they will regard terrorism and Islamo-fascism as somehow the inevitable result of Israel's intransigence. The Right insists that there is only one way to think about Israel and the Palestinians and that those who think differently are not only destroying Jewish unity but perhaps displaying their own antipathy to things Jewish. The Left insists that because so many legislators and decision-makers disagree with their analysis of the Mideast situation, they must be in thrall to an all-powerful "Israel Lobby." An example of polarization on the Right is a column last week by Zev Chafets in the New York Post. Chafets compares two Jewish constituencies on the war in Iraq. Delegates to the annual conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, echoing the words of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, seemed to Chafets to be strongly supportive of the Bush administration and the war. At the same time, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution demanding a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. This wasn't two sides disagreeing on American policy, according to Chafets. This wasn't merely a "split in the fabric of American-Jewish unity," as he calls it. On one side are "allies" and "friends" who support the war because Olmert does. On the other are critics of the war, who are thus "slipping away" from the pro-Israel camp. ONE OF those "slipping away" is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Never mind her flawless voting record on Israel. Never mind her words to AIPAC that "America and Israel share an unbreakable bond: in peace and war, and in prosperity and in hardship." Because she feels the war in Iraq has made Americans less safe, our military weaker, and the Mideast more unstable, Chafets suggests she is an unreliable friend of Israel. Or at least not a friend like Pastor John Hagee, the Pentecostal minister who heads Christians United for Israel and supports the Bush surge in Iraq. Chafets pays lips service to the idea that American Jews and Israel's supporters may not agree with an Israeli prime minister. "There have been disagreements before, but never in a time of war," he writes. If you're wondering exactly which war he is referring to, it is the "wider war against Islamic radicalism." So remember, American Jews: no disagreeing with Israel until the last al-Qaida terrorist lays down his arms, and zip it on Iraq: This is wartime. AN EXAMPLE of polarization on the Left is the article by financier George Soros in the current New York Review of Books. He begins the essay, "On Israel, America and AIPAC," by laying out a quite reasonable if unduly rosy endorsement of the Saudi peace plan. He writes that "no progress is possible as long as Bush and Olmert refuse to recognize a Palestinian unity government." But again, this is no simple disagreement between hawks and doves. On one side are what Soros calls "constructive critics of Israel." On the other is - well, AIPAC. The White House and Congress are refusing to deal with Hamas not because it is a terrorist group that has refused to denounce violence or recognize Israel. No - it's because America lacks an "open and vigorous" debate on the Middle East. And why is that? "One explanation is to be found in the pervasive influence of [AIPAC], which strongly affects both the Democratic and the Republican parties." The pro-Israel lobby, he continues, "has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism. Politicians challenge it at their peril because of the lobby's ability to influence contributions." There is a great deal of truth in each of these statements - AIPAC is not shy about boasting of its influence in Congress and in election campaigns. But what's both ominous and almost touching about Soros' essay is his faith in the idea that if only we can get money (which, let's face it, is what we are talking about) out of politics, the White House and Congress would come around to his analysis of the Middle East. It is only in a footnote - and quoting Jimmy Carter, yet - that Soros suggests another "pervasive influence" on America's Mideast policy: evangelical Christians. Like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer before him, and now Nicholas Kristof, Soros prefers to skip over a long list of other reasons for the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel. Affinity between democracies? Shared "Judeo-Christian" roots? Mutual fear of Islamist terrorism? All these pale next to the near-mythic might of the pro-Israel lobby. The result is an essay that assumes that only those on the Left can be "constructive" analysts of the Mideast situation, and that those who disagree must be tools of The Lobby. THE SHAME - or at least the shame for someone who resists choosing between the Right and the Left - is that Soros has a message that's worth hearing: Perhaps it is time for Israel to consider the possibilities of engaging Fatah and Hamas, and see where the process takes them. It certainly doesn't turn you into an enemy of Israel to say so. Similarly, only a fool would ignore Chafets' warnings about radical Islam and wade into Mideast punditry or decision-making without being fully aware of the real threats posed by al-Qaida and Iran. Accepting reality doesn't make you a war-monger. But neither the Left nor the Right wants to persuade anybody. They prefer to draw lines. For Chafets, opposition to the war in Iraq is proof that "American-Jewish liberals prefer to ignore" the threat of radical Islam. For Soros, to harbor and act on real fears about the intentions of Hamas and Hizbullah and their followers is to engage in a "dogmatic way of thinking." Most of us, I hope, try to navigate between these two poles. We think it possible to recognize Hamas for what they are, but at the same time support a process that tries to engage in a dialogue that may force them to be accountable to the average Palestinian. We may consider the war in Iraq a long list of failures, but would support a president - this or any other - who seems willing to learn from the mistakes of the past four years and open up a new, and this time winnable, front in the war on terror. But most of us do not have access to the rarified air in which these topics are weighed and debated. That territory seems to belong to those who prefer to divide the world between Us and Them, demanding loyalty to their orthodoxies and counting any deviation as an act of betrayal. With such people, I can neither pray nor talk. The writer is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.