Roving thoughts and provocations

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Peter Beinart vs. the ADL

This exchange will appear in the June 24 issue of The New York Review. Peter Beinart’s essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” appeared in the Review‘s June 10 issue. Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti Defamation League in New York City.

Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs

Abraham H. Foxman:

Peter Beinart offers a conveniently impressionistic view of the American Jewish community to frame his critique of Israeli policy trends. He should know better than to fall into the trap of generalizing about the Jewish state without giving proper context for what is going on.

He sees an Israel that is clearly moving to the right, that has less regard for the “other,” no matter who that may be, and that is unwilling to take seriously efforts toward peace. Beinart seems to be suffering from the same problems we have seen in the Obama administration, ignoring what Israel has gone through over the last decade and thereby misreading what Israelis are thinking today.

Israelis, to a large extent, and this is shared by many in the American Jewish community (another of Beinart’s targets), feel frustrated that all their efforts toward changing the dynamic have been met with rejection and/or violence. Most Israelis understand that continuing to sit in the West Bank is not good for the country. So at Camp David in 2000 they tried a solution of ending the conflict, which included withdrawing from 90 percent of the territories and eliminating the majority of settlements. They got a big no and suicide bombs.

In 2005, they withdrew unilaterally from Gaza with the intent to do likewise in the West Bank because they saw no partner for peace. They got Hamas and rockets against their civilians. In 2008, with a different Palestinian interlocutor, they went back to a full and better offer for a Palestinian state and got nothing again. So after all that, is it surprising that the public in the last election said, nothing works, let’s hold on until there’s real change on the other side?

There’s no evidence, contrary to Beinart, that there’s a fundamental change in Israel away from peace and away from concessions. What there is is a justified cynicism about the willingness of the other side to end the conflict and a confusion about what real options Israel has regarding its dilemma of how to withdraw and still have security.

The lesson that Beinart and the administration should draw from all this is not what kinds of pressures should be put on Israel to change the situation. Israel has taken initiatives and will be ready to do so again when the time is ripe.

The issue is what can be done with a divided Palestinian leadership and with at best a passive if not destructive Arab world, to bring about that long-awaited change in which the Palestinians fully accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state. That should be the goal so that when Israel once again moves toward a new initiative, for the first time there will be a Palestinian side, supported by the Arab states, ready to say yes, a yes that will finally change the lives of Israelis and Palestinians for the better.

Peter Beinart:

Abraham Foxman’s letter illustrates the problem my essay tries to describe: an American Jewish leadership that publicly defends the Israeli government, any Israeli government, rather than defending Israeli democracy, even when the former menaces the latter.

Obviously, as Foxman suggests, the Palestinians are not blameless. Yasser Arafat deserves history’s scorn for not responding more courageously to the chances for peace at Camp David and the much better ones put forward by Clinton in December 2000. And the election of Hamas was a tragedy, for both Israel and the Palestinians. But to suggest that Palestinian and Arab behavior fully explains the growing authoritarian, even racist, tendencies in Israeli politics is to don a moral blindfold, a blindfold that most young American Jews, to their credit, will not wear.

Firstly, Palestinian rejectionism cannot explain Avigdor Lieberman’s crusade to humiliate, disenfranchise, and perhaps even eventually expel Arab Israelis, the vast majority of whom want nothing more than to be accepted as equal citizens in the country of their birth. Lieberman is not a marginal figure. He was Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff; he heads Israel’s third-largest party; he serves as foreign minister; and when Israel held mock elections in ten high schools last year, he won.

Nor are his views marginal. In 2008, in a poll cited by Yediot Ahronot, 40 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Arab Israelis should be allowed to vote. Among Jewish Israeli high school students surveyed this March, the figure was 56 percent. We cannot wish this away, and we cannot blame it all on Israel’s foes. When do American Jewish organizations plan to start forcefully opposing Lieberman and the forces he represents? When he becomes prime minister?

Secondly, Palestinian rejectionism does not explain Netanyahu’s deep-seated hostility to a Palestinian state. Foxman praises Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert for their willingness to concede such a state in East Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank. (Olmert’s was never a formal offer, and came when he was already a lame duck, but he deserves credit for it nonetheless.) But if Foxman genuinely supports those offers, why does he not criticize Netanyahu’s opposition to them? Netanyahu, after all, spent the Barak and Olmert years opposing a Palestinian state. And even last year, when under intense American pressure he verbally endorsed the concept, he simultaneously added two conditions that make a peace deal virtually impossible: that Jerusalem remain united under Israeli sovereignty and that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In the real Israel, as opposed to the imaginary one that American Jewish leaders conjure, there is no consensus on a Palestinian state. There are Israelis who believe that such a state is a demographic and moral necessity. And there are Israelis—like Lieberman, Effi Eitam, and the leaders of Shas—who are doing their best to make a Palestinian state impossible, for instance by ringing East Jerusalem with settlements. American Jewish leaders cannot profess solidarity with the first group while serving as intellectual bodyguards for the second.

There is a strange lack of Israeli agency in Foxman’s story. It is true that Palestinian leaders in the West Bank are weak, and that this makes a peace settlement harder. But their weakness flows in part from their inability to stop settlement growth. (Even this year, despite Netanyahu’s “freeze,” his own transportation minister boasts that “the construction momentum in Judea and Samaria is the same as when it was at its peak.”) It is true that the Palestinians are divided. But when the Saudis brokered a national unity government in February 2007, Israel and the US did everything they could to torpedo it, including reportedly urging elements in Fatah to try (unsuccessfully) to seize power militarily in Gaza, thus overturning the election that Hamas won.

The ADL was founded “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” What I have always admired about that statement is its suggestion that to truly defend Jewish dignity, one must also defend the dignity of other vulnerable groups. At home, the ADL still honors that mission, working valiantly, for instance, against racial profiling in Arizona. But how can an organization that is so vigilant in opposing bigotry in the US be so complacent about a government shaped by men like Lieberman, Effi Eitam, and Ovadia Yosef? How can it not take its rightful place in the struggle on behalf of Palestinians evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah?

When it comes to Israel, the ADL too often ignores the interconnectedness of Jewish and non-Jewish dignity. After all, the same sort of settler fanatics who burn Palestinian olive groves also assassinated an Israeli prime minister. The same ultra-Orthodox hooligans who burn Christian holy books also attack Jewish women trying to pray at the Western Wall. And the same Israeli government that demonizes Israeli Arabs also demonizes Israeli human rights groups. To be for ourselves, we must also be for others. I hope the ADL will live that ethic again.

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