Can American Jews talk about Israel any longer? A lot of people don’t think so anymore. Left-wing writer Peter Beinart even proposed last week in a Haaretz column that they should stop trying to rebuild an imaginary position of unity and instead concentrate on building relationships with each other by talking about Torah, since religion is the one thing they have left that might bring them together. While more such study is, by definition, a good thing, that call is a more of a measure of his frustration about his failure to persuade more Americans to join his crusade to overturn the verdict of Israeli democracy since the left-wing positions he advocates on the peace process have been conclusively rejected again by the Jewish state’s voters than anything else. But it also is a reflection of a general conviction on the left that the so-called Jewish establishment has been trying to shut them up and stifle debate on Israel. While Israel has always and will continue to generate heated and sometimes intemperate discussions, the notion that the Jewish left is being silenced is a joke. More to the point, as Israel commemorates its annual Memorial and Independence Days this week, the effort by some to accelerate the process by which Americans are distancing themselves from Israel is not helping the Jewish state or American Jews.
At a time when Israel is increasingly under attack and a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe is making it harder for Jews to speak up in its defense, the notion that we should stop talking about it is an indefensible, if not risible notion. Jews are now being singled out on college campuses and pro-Israel students are finding it increasingly difficult and unpopular to speak out in opposition to a culture of intolerance for Zionism. Elsewhere, an Obama administration determined to downgrade the alliance and create distance between the two allies is seeking to appeal to the partisan instincts of many Jews to cause them to choose loyalty to President Obama and the Democrats over their pro-Israel instincts on issues like the nuclear threat from Iran and the Middle East peace process. Yet for many liberals, the real problem facing the Jewish community is the fact that some on the left are nursing hurt feelings from being told off by their opponents for their hubris in thinking they can save Israel from itself.
Debates about Israel should be conducted with respect and ad hominem attacks do nothing to persuade people or advance the cause of Israel. But let’s put these complaints in perspective. Leftist Jews can count on the sympathy of the Obama administration and the mainstream liberal press where attacks on Israel are always guaranteed a respectful hearing while defenses of it are seldom heard. And despite the myths about a monolithic Jewish establishment that is sympathetic to the right, liberals still dominate most Jewish organizations and their organs. At a moment in time when much of liberal popular culture libelously treats the defense of Israel as support for an apartheid state and an oppressor, it is the friends of Israel who require courage to speak up, not its detractors and its foes.
Equally risible is the notion increasingly voiced by mainstream Jewish thinkers that the problem with the discussion on Israel is that anti-Zionists and advocates of economic boycotts of Israel should be welcomed into community forums. Those who decry the use of Jewish institutions to promote anti-Israel agendas and economic warfare on the Jewish state are branded as censors and suppressors of the views of young Jews that must be heard.
While pro-BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement advocates have a right to be heard in a free country, they are not entitled to do so on the Jewish community’s dime. To claim that they should is to fetishize the concept of inclusion to the point of parody. A community that prioritizes inclusion even of those who seek to undermine its basic values such as support for Israel is one that stands for nothing. Indeed, such a community will render itself incapable of taking a pro-Israel stand on even the most anodyne terms.
Such debates do little to broaden the Jewish community since anti-Israel advocates (and by that I mean those opposed to a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn and Israel’s right of self-defense, not merely critics of the current government) are not interested in building a Jewish community or a pro-Israel consensus. They wish to destroy it.
The focus on inclusion of pro-BDS groups like Jewish Voice for Peace is a function of the obsession with the old left-right debates about Israel over territory and settlements that have been rendered obsolete by events on the ground. Repeated Palestinian rejections of peace offers have made it clear that such arguments are irrelevant to the current situation since Israel’s foes reject its existence under any circumstances.
So it’s little wonder that those who are most obsessed with the notion that peace can be obtained by more Israeli concessions despite the fact that all such attempts have led to a trade of land for terror, not peace, are asking us to talk about something else. But those who care about the fate of the Jewish people can’t afford to opt out of the conversation about Israel. Nor can they engage in fantasies about the real problem being the bruised feelings of those who have worked hard to undermine Israel’s political and diplomatic position.
As much as many of us prefer to avoid the subject, Israel still is living under the daily threat of terrorism from Hamas and Hezbollah and their ally Iran. And, as Prime Minister Netanyahu rightly said yesterday at the start of the country’s Memorial Day ceremonies, in such a dangerous and hostile world, the Jews have no future without Israel. We may have differing views about its politics and its policies, but the main argument today isn’t about settlements, it’s about whether the efforts of Israel’s foes and their anti-Semitic allies will succeed in destroying the one Jewish state.
At 67, Israel is not weak. Indeed, it is a great source of strength to an American Jewish community that, as the Pew Survey published in 2013 illustrated, is on the brink of a demographic catastrophe. But with a BDS movement that is dropping its veil and becoming more open about its anti-Semitism gaining traction, and defense of Israel’s security increasingly being abandoned by liberals, a vibrant conversation about Israel is more necessary than ever. But it must be one premised on the notion that singling out the one Jewish state for biased treatment and delegitimization not accorded any other country must be correctly labeled as hate speech even if it is being uttered by Jews. Efforts to divert us from this crucial question are part of the problem for the pro-Israel community, not the solution.